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On This Day in History, March 19: No More Ice Bridges, Thank You



Ah, springtime. Hello to sunshine and green things growing. Goodbye to darkness and cold and shoveling snow, although we didn’t get too much of that this year.

We’ve just about made it through another winter, and this year made it all the more apparent that our winters are not nearly as harsh as those of our forbears’.

During the 19th century, the East River was regularly rife with enormous chunks of ice that jammed up ferry traffic, leaving freezing passengers stuck out in the middle of the harbor for hours on end. Until 1883, there was no Brooklyn Bridge to carry people over to Manhattan. In fact, the ice floes in the river were a chief reason that people called for the construction of a bridge, so that commerce would not freeze along with the water.

“No better evidence of the inadequacy of ferryboat transportation between Brooklyn and New York is required than that furnished yesterday,” sniped a Brooklyn Eagle article after a particularly rough day in the harbor on Jan. 18, 1875.

Brave New Yorkers cross the ice on the East River in January 1867

“The ferryboats all along the river from South Ferry to Hunter’s Point gave up the attempt to run on scheduled time,” the article continued. “Even when it was possible for the boats to make passage, not only tedious delay but absolute peril was to be apprehended. The constant collisions with heavy, thick cakes of ice detached from the floe threatened the rudder, paddle wheels and hull itself. More than once the fearful crash and shock, causing a sudden stoppage, conveyed the impression to terrified passengers that a hole had been knocked in the bottom of the boat.”

Sometimes, the river was so packed with ice that an ice bridge would form and people could walk between Manhattan and Brooklyn over it. But this didn’t always work out so well. The following is an excerpt from an Eagle article of March 13, 1888, reporting on the first ice bridge to have formed on the river since 1875.

A boat cuts across an icy New York Harbor in January, 1893

“Hundreds, too impatient to wait, deserted the ferryhouse and repaired to the dock adjoining the ferry, and then proceeded to Jewell’s Wharf and Martin’s Stores, a short distance from the ferry on Furman Street, where they were aided in their descent to the ice by means of ropes and ladders. The ice had become so effectually jammed that it was immovable and the passage across the river had every appearance of safety. Hundreds who were less courageous stood upon the shore and cheered most lustily those who had the temerity to attempt the passage. For over an hour this mode of crossing the river continued.”

Then, “the tide assumed greater velocity under its icy covering … the ice began to crack and groan. It swayed from side to side, it heaved restlessly up and down upon the bosom of the river. Suddenly the unmistakable sound of cracking ice was heard and it was seen to separate. A blood chilling cry went up, ‘The ice is cracking!’ Everyone stood aghast.

“Those upon the ice made a mad dash for the shore, and those upon the shore hurried to and fro for such accessible means as would assist in landing them safely. A large number of people were carried quite a little distance on a large detachment of the ice floe, but managed to make good their escape, by getting on the main body of the ice when they were subsequently taken aboard the tugboats or clambered up the docks. Fortunately no casualties are reported, but there were many blanched faces. Numerous resolutions were expressed never to again attempt a like passage…It is asserted that fully 3,000 people crossed on the ice, among whom were many women.”

As you may have noticed, the East River no longer ices over. Most likely, it was doing so around 150 years ago because of a phenomenon that climatologists call the “Little Ice Age,” a modest cooling of the Northern Hemisphere that brought colder winters to parts of Europe and North America for a period roughly extending from the 16th century to the 19th century.

— Phoebe Neidl         

March 19, 2012 - 10:00am


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