All Aboard the Staten Island Ferry!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everything is better when it’s free. A classic example of this is the Staten Island Ferry. Thousands of people (this is a made up statistic by the way, I can’t be bothered to look up real figures) get the ferry from Battery Park to Staten Island and back every single day, taking in the incredible views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island across New York Harbour along the way. Many people take the ferry just for the views, but there are also plenty of Staten Islanders who rely on the ferry to get them to and from Manhattan on their daily commute. What is rarer are people who are not from Staten Island going over to Staten Island for the day. Most tourists who board the Staten Island Ferry get off at St George’s Dock at Staten Island and walk straight around to the departing ferry dock and head right on back to Manhattan. They are missing out! Staten Island has a wonderful history, some fantastic old homes, lovely museums and parks, and feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of the other boroughs of New York City. So, a couple of weekends ago, Jenny and my friend Claire and I boarded the Staten Island Ferry and we got off at the other end, ready for a day of adventure.

The original plan was to have a two centre trip, stopping off first at the Alice Austen House, a Victorian photography museum, which I visited many years ago when I was travelling during one of my summers at university, and then going on to Historic Richmond Town, which is in the middle of the Island and contains a variety of historic buildings that go back to the 17th century, telling the history of the settlement of the Island. I sent Jenny a smug email on the Friday before we were due to go, saying that I had planned our entire trip and was going to be super organised and print off all the maps and bus schedules. Obviously because I am not super organised I then totally forgot and only realised when I was on the train home that I had done nothing I had promised, so an emergency text to Jenny deferred the navigation responsibilities onto her. Thank goodness they did, for Jenny is far cleverer than me and informed me that, due to my complete inability to understand the scale on a map, the two places on Staten Island I had planned for us to visit were approximately two hours apart, and not the half an hour stroll I had thought. Oops. So, instead, we just went to Historic Richmond Town. And what fun we had!

As soon as we stepped off the bus I felt like we’d stepped back in time. Grand Victorian homes sat alongside single level colonial cottages, 18th century official buildings, an old schoolhouse, a vicarage, general stores, and a church. Though it is surrounded by busy roads, the village itself is an oasis of calm, and I could just imagine how bustling it must have been one hundred years ago, the little streets swarming with ladies in bonnets and men in britches and horses and carts and little children in kid leather boots playing with wooden hoops. Many of the structures currently in the village have been brought from other parts of Staten Island, so the village centre itself would not have looked exactly as it does today, but they have done a brilliant job of forming a coherent village feel with buildings that cover three centuries of Staten Island life. There is also a museum on site that brings the history of the island to life and contextualises the buildings and the industries you will learn about when you take a tour of the village.

On our tour of the village we sat inside the oldest one room schoolhouse in the United States – which was actually rather cozy, though apparently not for children; the benches at the back were original and were very high off the ground. Those children who couldn’t afford to pay for school had to sit on the high benches away from the fire rather than the stools at the front, near the fire, and their little legs couldn’t touch the ground, so by the end of the school day they were in awful pain from having to keep their legs up all day long. Poor little things. We went inside the cottage of a revolutionary spy, whose house was used as a hide out for soldiers because from the outside it looks like it only has one story, when really it has two. Inside another similar cottage we got to see the construction methods of these old houses, with the skeletons of the walls laid bare for us to see what materials the original Staten Islanders used to create their wood and stone cottages. We went to an 18th century tavern, where we learned the reason why a bar is called a bar – there used to be bars you could drop down over the counter to protect the money and alcohol when things got rowdy, making a cage out of the serving area that no one could get into. Can you believe that?! I never knew! Next door to the tavern, we got to experience the lifestyle and cooking methods of a wealthy 18th century farming family in a reportedly haunted cottage, where there was a HUGE old bread oven that could have fitted 200 loaves of bread in at a time! We also learned about the life of a Voorlezer, a kind of teacher/preacher, who would have been the centre of the Dutch community that founded Staten Island in the 17th century. I felt so knowledgable by the end of the tour, but the best part was yet to come.

I have mentioned frequently that I love cemeteries; my beady eyes had spotted one on the map when I was planning the trip, and I couldn’t wait for a chance to escape the tour guide and run off to explore the old graves in the church yard across the street. When Jenny, Claire and I had finally had enough of the often rather patronising tour guide, we escaped through the back door of one of the houses while she was talking in another room and ran across the road to the pretty church and graveyard. Gorgeous old graves and mausoleums with some fantastic old Dutch names awaited us, and I had a lovely time exploring. Best of all was the little pet cemetery at the bottom; I’ve never seen one of those before and I thought it was so touching.

The final stop before leaving the village and heading back to Manhattan was the museum, where they had a fascinating exhibition about the changing fashions in children’s furniture, toys and clothing from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and several wonderful rooms of exhibits telling the story of the history of Staten Island, its farms, industries, population, architecture and connections with New York City. We loved it, and as a former museum employee, I am always very critical of other museums and how they choose to present information and displays, so that is high praise from me. For a small local museum with little external funding, they have done a truly excellent job.

Then – back to the city! A windy ride on the ferry, our cheeks stinging in the freezing air, wonderful views across to the Financial District, and heads filled with new knowledge. What more could you want from a day out? Staten Island is such a lovely place to visit, and I’ll be back again soon, to visit Snug Harbor and the Staten Island Botanical Gardens.

35 comments

  1. I love this post and was thrilled to read as someone other than myself extolled some wonderful aspects of Staten Island instead of making fun of parts of it as well as the accents of its lifelong residents.

    I love the Botanical Garden. The Children’s Museum is fun to see, too!

    1. Thanks Amy! I don’t know why people are so snobby about Staten Island – they’re the same about New Jersey which I think is perfectly nice!

      I can’t wait to see more of the Island – I’ll try and fit in the Children’s Museum on your recommendation!

  2. Another super day out! I have never heard that story about bars either, must pass that one on to R. My favourite would have been learning about the cooking methods, I love historic kitchens. Wonder how many poor children could have huddled around an oven for 200 loaves of bread to warm themselves?! And a pet cemetery….oh, I would have needed a tissue *sniff*.

    1. Well Darlene on special days they actually cook in there and produce authentic food! You’d love it! Unfortunately that day wasn’t special but on July 4th they do a huge cookout apparently. Oh you would have loved that pet cemetery! There are the loveliest inscriptions on the graves.

  3. oo, great post. i have always snobbishly dismissed staten island (snobbishly how i don’t know, since i’m from philly) but your photos are convincing me i should visit one day. weird story, but the town where i serve for peace corps, diber, has a lot of people living in the states and especially in staten island…so many that they call staten island “little diber.”

    also, love the bar story.

    1. Thanks Ellen!! You definitely should visit when you’re back! That’s so funny about it being called ‘Little Diber’ – I always find it interesting how communities of people from the same background come together in foreign countries.

  4. Fascinating! (as usual) I recently read in a biography of author Gene Stratton-Porter that some of her ancestors had founded “Stratton” Island, whose name had been later corrupted to the current “Staten” Island. I have no idea if there’s any truth in that, but your post came at a very serendipitous time for me in my reading.๐Ÿ™‚ It does look like a wonderful place to visit. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  5. How thrilling to hear all about Staten Island with its history, so old for a rather young country, and that little tidbit about bars. Who knew? I love your day, Rachel, and would have gone running to the cemetery as well. I just love cemeteries and looking at the headstones – the older the better. I drag Tom all over to cemeteries when we are away until he finally is forced to stamp his foot and say “Enough! No more cemeteries, Penny!”. You really must get to Concord, MA and up to literary row.

    I love the pastoral feel of your photo with the stone wall. So New England.

    1. I’m so pleased it gave you such pleasure, Penny! Oh cemeteries are my guilty pleasure – it’s a shame Tom doesn’t share your love for them!! I am desperate to get to Concord and I will definitely go – don’t you worry! If not this year then I will be sure to make a special trip another time.

  6. I have been on the Staten Island Ferry once and was one of those people who immediately turned around to go back to Manhattan. After reading this post, I am looking forward to another trip.

    60,000 people ride the ferry daily – that’s 20 million annually. Wow.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful article about our Island. We were very impressed at the comments too. Hope you don’t mind us covering it on our website as well. We included your links.

  8. I was personally charmed by this post in more ways than I can count. Autobiographically: We moved from our native NYC to California in the early 1970s, but not quite certain about the move, moved back for the year 1975 – and lived on Staten Island! We had an apartment looking over Clove Lake Park, which was lovely, and made us feel that we were living almost in the country though in the city. I did freelance story analysis then, used to take the ferry into the city to pick up manuscripts several times a week, and would start reading them on the way back. (That must sound quaint today, when manuscript submissions are done by email!) We also lived close to the Staten Island Zoo, which focused on reptiles. We used to go and see the gigantic snakes being fed mice…I don’t quite remember why we did that, but they were there, little tails hanging out of the reptilian mouhs. At the end of the year we moved back to California, but I’ve often thought we should have remained and settled on Staten Island; it was a wonderful place to live. But my point is that even though we were there for a year, we never knew that there was an historic site in Richmond (we had a vague idea that the area was slummy, to be avoided – obviously wrong), or the Alice Austen house! How enterprising you are – I can only say that in those days I was busily concerned with how to organize the complicated getting of work, and getting to work, not to mention putting my son in school, so didn’t look at it as a place to explore. But I love exploring now, and shall visit again next time I’m in New York. Your pictures are lovely and inspiring! I should also add that I first remember visiting Staten Island when my grandmother took me to visit relatives there in the 1950s. They had a farm, and it was utterly bucolic. I vividly remember the giant sunflowers, the first I’d ever seen.

    1. Diana, you have had such an interesting life! I think you’re certainly not alone in not getting to places of interest in your own neighbourhood – the more I do and see in New York the less I realise I did and saw in London all those years I lived there! I hope you get to Historic Richmond Town next time you’re down this way – it’s a lovely spot. I can imagine Staten Island being utterly lovely and rural fifty years ago – I wish I’d have seen it!

      1. Two more things. It seems to me that one reason we didn’t know about Historic Richmond or the photography museum when we lived in Staten Island, was because it was 1975 and there was no internet, no google! You either heard about things, or you didn’t. And having just moved there, we had no friends on Staten Island to tell us.
        This discussion has also made me think about snobbery. We always think that the class system in England is very snobbish – I remember on my first few visits there, being surprised that my friends took seriously that their kids might “get the wrong accent” if they went to the wrong school. (That was long ago, too…now I have professor friends whose kids do not speak with Received pronounciation at all!) It was clear that, though they weren’t “snobs,” my educated friends did look down on the working class, and when I made some friends who came from that class and had made money, I wasn’t really surprised by their bitter resentment toward their more middle class neighbors. However, this is all to say that we had just as much snobbery in New York City when I was growing up! In the 1950s, when I lived as a child with my grandparents on the Upper East Side, everyone looked down on people who lived on the Upper West Side as being not quite “nice.” Then, when as a teenager I lived with an aunt and uncle on the Upper West Side, everyone considered that East Side people were rich, boring, conservative, dull, snobs – and the West Side was where the good people, the intelligentsia, lived! I went to Hunter College Elementary School for gifted kids, and we looked down on public school kids. We also looked down on the outer boroughs! Yep, Bronx, Brooklyn – hoi polloi wastelands! But not, interestingly enough, Staten Island; it didn’t seem to penetrate our radar. Later, when I was at the High School of Music and Art (which became LaGuardia School for the Arts), bopping around the Village as a newly hip chick, we considered kids from New Jersey who came into the city on Saturday nights, to be the most callow tourist out of towners!
        Needless to say, it has taken quite a long time to overcome these early attitudes, and I believe they are actually going strong, independently of me. There was an article about exactly this in the NY Times less than a decade ago. I guess what sums it all up best is the famous, iconic New Yorker cover. If you haven’t seen it, it’s high time you did! http://bigthink.com/ideas/21121
        Guess I could make a blog post about this myself, but have little time to blog. ๐Ÿ™‚
        Diana
        lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com

  9. What a lovely day you had. Isn’t there something enchanting about a ferry? I have only ridden on a few, but always had a feeling of traveling back in time as I rode. It looks like there is much to see on Staten Island that many of us never hear about. Thank you for sharing your day.

    1. Thanks Janet! A ferry is an enchanting way to travel, I quite agree – I adore ferries and getting fresh air and views!

      SO much to see indeed! I hope you get to visit one day!

  10. That sounds like great fun (your planning did make me giggle though!); I did once go on the Staten Island ferry but merely for the purpose of viewing the statue of liberty – how I wish my parents had taken me to explore beyond! I agree with Janet that there issomething rather nice about a ferry – I love getting the one into Cornwall from Plymouth!

    1. It was Verity! Hehe I know – me and planning really don’t mix!! One day perhaps you’ll be able to come back and see more. Ooooh a ferry from Plymouth to Cornwall sounds delightful!๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I do love these posts where you can follow someone on a journey, they are ideal for those of us recuperating in our beds who cant get anywhere๐Ÿ™‚ I am so pleased you are so obvioulsy loving your time away, I think its fantastic and I do feel slightly like I have been along with you and will continue to be – which is lovely too.

    1. Oh Simon you poor thing๐Ÿ˜ฆ I’m glad you can travel along with me! I am loving it – it’s such fantastic fun getting to explore a new city and I so appreciate this opportunity!

  12. Rachel: You write so eloquently about the places you visit, if you ever need a second career*, I suggest you follow in the steps of Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, you wouldn’t be far behind!
    *since apparently, everyone can anticipate at least seven careers in one lifetime, suggest you start sharpening the compass!

  13. Another great post with so many interesting details! As a short-legged person myself, whose feet never reach the floor (I cut down all the chair legs at home!) I can empathise with those poor children in the schools. That was bound to keep your mind off learning much!

    I’m so enjoying my vicarious tour of New York and its surroundings! Thank you again!๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanky you Penny!๐Ÿ™‚ I bet those poor children were in terrible pain – it seems so unnecessarily cruel!

      You are welcome Penny, I am so glad to share my travels with you all!๐Ÿ™‚

  14. I had no idea Staten island had so much to offer when I did a quick turnaround on the ferry. (More than one turnaround, I hate to admit). Your New York journal is fascinating and continually highlights what I’ve been missing.

  15. That’s a beautiful photo of the house in its field. It could be absolutely anywhere and yet it’s part of New York – amazing!

    I’d love to know whether you are allowed to photograph these old interiors. I can’t bear going into a museum or preserved house and having to keep my camera closed.

    You are really doing us proud with these outings, Rachel!

    1. Oh thank you – isn’t it adorable? I felt like I had truly stepped back in time!

      Yes you could – it was just that there was a huge group of us and any pictures would have just been of people’s heads I’m afraid!!

      Thank you Chrissy! I’m so glad you’re enjoying them!๐Ÿ™‚

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