10 places with ties to New York City’s maritime history

Posted On Wed, May 18, 2022 By

Posted On Wed, May 18, 2022 By In Features, History

Next week is Fleet Week, and soon New York will be awash in sailors. If you’re moved by all the festivities and want to get in on the maritime merriment, there are sites exploring New York’s links to the sea throughout all five boroughs. From barges to schooners to yachts to dry docks, here are 10 sites where you can celebrate New York’s seafaring spirit.

Sailors’ Snug Harbor, Photo by Dmadeo on Wikimedia Commons

1. Sailors’ Snug Harbor
On the north shore of Staten Island, you can visit Sailors’ Snug Harbor, the nation’s first home for retired merchant seamen. The spectacular 83-acre site sports some of the most ambitious classical revival architecture in the United States, as well as cottages, botanical gardens, and sculpture by August Saint Gaudens.

Formed at the bequest of Revolutionary War Ship Captain Robert Richard Randall, the complex opened in 1833 and provided homes for aging sailors into the 1950s. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The Snug Harbor Cultural center opened in 1976, and today includes an art lab, children’s museum, and music hall.

USS Aloha at the Brooklyn Navy Yard 1917 via Wikimedia Commons

2. The Brooklyn Navy Yard
The Brooklyn Navy Yard might be best known for its inestimable contributions to the Second World War when 70,000 men and women worked round the clock to build such storied vessels as the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri, but the Navy Yard has an illustrious history that dates back to 1801 when it was founded by John Adams.

The Navy Yard can claim an incredible number of “firsts”: The Yard’s Naval Lyceum published Naval Magazine, the first professional Navy publication; The Yard launched the first US seam warship; the Yard-built USS Niagara helps lay the first transatlantic cable; the first song ever broadcast over the radio was sung from aboard the USS Dolphin, docked at the Yard. After a history of building the nation’s most renowned ships, including the USS Maine and the USS Connecticut (the flagship of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet), the Yard was decommissioned in 1966. Since 1969, the Yard has been an industrial park. Today, with business thriving, the Navy Yard is undergoing its largest expansion since World War II.

City Island via Wiki Commons 

3. City Island Nautical Museum
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, you can visit the City Island Nautical Museum on City Island in the Bronx. The small island community was once New York’s yacht building and sailmaking center. Today, in addition to the nautical museum, City Island sports yacht clubs, sailing schools, marinas, and fishing boats speak to the community’s nautical heritage.

Maritime Industry Museum via Wikimedia Commons

4. Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler
Also in the Bronx, you’ll find the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler. The stone fort, named for General Philip Schuyler, dates to 1856 and is considered one of the country’s finest early-19th-century fortifications. During the civil war, the fort held up to 500 prisoners. Today, it is part of SUNY Maritime College. The Maritime Industry Museum inside the fort honors the history of shipping and seafaring.

The Waterfront Museum via Wikimedia Commons

5. The Waterfront Museum
On Thursdays and Saturdays, you can climb aboard the Leigh Valley No. 79, the only all-wooden Hudson River Railroad Barge built between 1860 and 1960 that remains afloat and accessible to the general public. The Barge, which dates to 1914 and has been docked in Red Hook since 1994, holds the Waterfront Museum, which provides exhibits, education, and performances that celebrate New York’s maritime heritage, and explores the significance of its “water highways”

The New York Yacht Club, via Wikimedia Commons

6. The New York Yacht Club
The New York Naval History Society was founded at the New York Yacht Club on West 44th Street in 1909. At the founding meeting, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected the group’s secretary (he was also Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920, so it seems to have been a position that he was well suited to). The organization dissolved in 1936, but its collection of naval artifacts and its library of manuscripts, documents, and writings related to American naval history are housed at the New-York Historical Society.

Photo courtesy of South Street Seaport Museum Archives

7. The South Street Seaport
The South Street Seaport has been at the vanguard of the city’s maritime history since 1625 when the Dutch established a trading post there and the area became New York City’s original port. By the 18th century, goods from around the world docked at the South Street Seaport, and in 1784, the first ship to sail between the United States and China left from the Seaport. The South Street Seaport Museum opened in 1967 to explore the growth of New York City as a world port. The museum offers an extensive collection of works of art and artifacts, a maritime reference library, galleries, a working 19th-century print shop, and a fleet of historic vessels.

The USS Monitor via Wikimedia Commons

8. Greenpoint
Speaking of setting sail, Greenpoint, Brooklyn was once one of the world’s premier shipbuilding enclaves, particularly between 1850 and 1865. The shoreline was lined with shipyards and the pride of Greenpoint was the USS Monitor, the United States’ first ironclad battleship, built at Continental Ironworks at Bushwick Inlet. Most of the homes now in the Greenpoint Historic District were built by workers in the shipbuilding trade as their own living quarters.

Castle Clinton via Wikimedia Commons

9. Castle Clinton
Castle Clinton was built as a fortification to protect New York City during the War of 1812 and keep the British Navy at Bay. Between 1855 and 1890, the structure, then called Castle Garden, was an immigration depot. During that time, more than eight million people entered the United States through Castle Garden. Then, in 1896, Castle Clinton really embraced the life aquatic as the home of the New York Aquarium. Today, Castle Clinton operates a museum.

The USS Intrepid via Wikimedia Commons

10. The Intrepid
The USS Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier is a national historic landmark. In addition to some of the nation’s most innovative aircraft, the Intrepid also holds the Exploreum, an interactive hall focused on themes of water, space, air, and life at sea, and holds a Friday night summer movie series.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story was published on May 24, 2019, and has seen been updated.


Lucie Levine is the founder of Archive on Parade, a local tour and event company that aims to take New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She’s a Native New Yorker, and licensed New York City tour guide, with a passion for the city’s social, political and cultural history. She has collaborated with local partners including the New York Public Library, The 92nd Street Y, The Brooklyn Brainery, The Society for the Advancement of Social Studies and Nerd Nite to offer exciting tours, lectures and community events all over town. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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