“The 294-foot, mustard-colored ferryboat carried 3,015 passengers on her initial five-mile crossing between the boroughs of Manhattan and Richmond, or just 165 passengers short of her top capacity,” reported the New York Times the next day in a story headlined “New Ferryboat Is Greeted Here: The John F. Kennedy Begins Staten Island Service.”
On Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, the JFK -- the oldest boat in the fleet -- quietly made her final journey out of the Whitehall Ferry Terminal at 6 p.m. with 399 passengers aboard, said Erica DeCrescenzo, Chief of Staff for the Ferry Division at the City Department of Transportation. The ferry will be relinquished to the City Department of Administrative Services to be sold at auction.
“The Kennedy was the last class of ferryboats that did not include an all-passenger configuration, with capacity for 40 vehicles,” DeCrescenzo said. “It was also the first class using diesel electric power, not steam.”
And, the vessel certainly had an illustrious career on the water.
Just a year before arriving on Staten Island, the JFK was launched at the Levingston Shipbuilding Co. in Orange, Texas, which was located on the Sabine River, 30 miles inward of the Gulf of Mexico.
There were no members of the Kennedy family present at the launching. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy designated Leo Brown, the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Marine and Aviation, to represent his fallen brother’s family.
Before the JFK splashed into the water, she was christened with the traditional cracking of a champagne bottle over her bow by Mrs. Walter B. Coleman, the wife of the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Marine and Aviation.
“The main deck will have three vehicle lanes with total capacity of about 50 automobiles and passenger smoking cabins on each side of the vehicle areas,” the Times wrote in describing the features of the JFK. “The upper passenger decks will be provided with [a] snack bar and restrooms. The total passenger capacity will be approximately 3,500 persons.”
She was built alongside the American Legion and the Gov. Herbert H. Lehman in the Texas shipyard -- all three were diesel-electric ferries. At a cost of $11.6 million in total, they were known as the Kennedy-class boats. The JFK cost $3.85 million.
The JFK made a spectacular journey to New York. A photo of the ferry, accompanied by a tugboat, was featured in the Fort Lauderdale News on May 10, 1965, with this caption: “KENNEDY BOAT HERE – The trim new John F. Kennedy boat, en route to New York, stopped by Fort Everglades for food and fuel. The boat was built in Orange, Texas, and is owned by the City of New York.”
Her arrival in New York marked two busy days in the harbor: “For the second day in a row, Upper New York Bay was alive with sound yesterday to greet a vessel on a maiden voyage,” noted the Times. A day before there was a reception for the 46,000-ton Italian liner, the Michelangelo.
Capt. Harry E. Parker, the acting Director of Ferry Operations, served “in the unofficial capacity of commodore” on the maiden voyage.
He welcomed the first Manhattan-bound commuters aboard over the ship’s public address system. The JFK was piloted by Capt. Kingsley Catelmole and a 13-man crew.
“The John F. Kennedy has the largest passenger capacity of any Staten Island Ferry now in use -- the Verrazano class of boats, the next largest in service, have a top capacity of 2,900,” the Times reported. “With the new craft in service, the ferry line carried 16,688 passengers during the morning commuter rush.”
In a story that will undoubtedly resonate with today’s commuters, there was a plan to cut ferry service in 1964 at the same time the JFK was under construction in Texas.
The Department of Marine and Aviation, like all city agencies, was ordered to make a 6% budget cut, according to the Times. The City was operating six ferryboats on a regular schedule while a seventh boat was kept on standby.
“News that leaked out from the department over the last week that the reduction of $1,120,000 would be applied to the ferry service rather than to waterfront terminals,” the Times reported. “The proposed reduction may cause the withdrawal of two of the current fleet of six ferries and the dropping of 90 men.”
Leading the protest against any reduction in service was then-Borough President Albert V. Maniscalco who argued during a City Council hearing that the ferry “carried 27 million passengers a year and is a vital segment of the port’s transportation.”
“At the hearing, Borough President Maniscalco described as ‘unthinkable’ any plan to reduce service to Staten Island at a time when the borough’s population is rapidly expanding.”
In another familiar story, the JFK arrived on Staten Island amid a union strike with both daytime and overnight ferry service interrupted. Around 150 captains, pilots and engineers of the Marine Engineers Beneficial staged a wildcat walkout at 2:30 p.m. on May 4, 1965, in protest of a City Labor Department ruling certifying another union as the collective bargaining agent, the Times reported. On the first day of the walkout, the six ferries in operation were halted and 22,000 commuters were stranded. As the strike continued, it incited violence: Firebombs and bricks were thrown into the homes of those who crossed the picket lines.
Marine and Aviation Commissioner Brown announced the resumption of normal daytime ferry service on May 26, 1965, according to the Daily News, though the strike continued through June with replacements filling in for those on strike. He noted that service “returned to full capacity with the inaugural crossing of the Kennedy.”
On the water, the JFK was the “largest and the finest” of the fleet, the Times wrote.
She also brought power to the fleet during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, which began at the height of the evening rush-hour on Nov. 9, 1965, plunging 30 million people into darkness throughout New York, Boston, Connecticut, Vermont, and Canada.
While the city operated under the cover of darkness, the JFK was an “oasis of light,” keeping the ferries running on their regular rush-hour schedules, even though they typically relied on the city’s electrical system to lower and raise the ramps and bridges that allowed passengers and cars onto the boat.
“The blackout challenge was met by docking one of the big new ferryboats -- the John F. Kennedy -- and joining her tremendous power with the ferry terminals own conduits,” reported the Times in a story headlined “Ingenuity Brings Power To Staten Island Ferries.”
Fun fact: The JFK took a break from ferrying commuters between St. George and Whitehall on July 4, 1972. Instead, she transported 6,000 passengers around the Hudson River as part of the Newport Jazz Festival, which was held in venues around NYC over 12 days.
There were three trips aboard the JFK: 10 a.m., 1:10 p.m. and 3:40 p.m. Cruise admission was $5 per ticket -- the ferry commuter fare was 5-cents at the time.
“The music spread a kind of rhythmic contagion among the passengers,” the Times reported the next day in a story headlined “Jazz Fans Pack Ferry For Trip to Dixieland Via Hudson.”
“At times, they broke out in singing, dancing, clapping, swaying or bobbing up and down. At its strongest, the music could quite literally be felt. It passed the frame of the vessel and came up through the floor into the bones of the standees in shivering vibrations.”
A young woman said “let’s go again” to her escort at the end of the second cruise, according to the Times. He answered, “Don’t you think twice is enough?”
Jazz become a hit on the JFK: Based on the success of the festival trips, there were 15 weekly jazz cruises that left from Manhattan and sailed up the Hudson in the summer of 1973.
“The band was set up in two rows of long, wooden ferry seats in the center of the upper deck with amplification systems carrying the music to the bow and stern areas,” the Times reported after the first cruise.
Playing “with their customary enthusiasm” was the Jones Lewis Band -- they entertained the passengers with a two-hour set.
“By the time their music had gone through the amplifying systems, it had lost some of its more vital qualities. But just a boat ride up the Hudson on a summer night has a lot to recommend.”
That wasn’t the last of the music on the Kennedy: On Aug. 24 and Aug. 25, 1984, six professional dance companies transformed the ride into a “theatrical event” for six hours as part of Dance On The Water, which was billed as “New York’s floating dance festival.”
The Dance Festival was sponsored by the Staten Island Council on the Arts. Dianne DeAngelis, Coordinator of Cultural Affairs for the City’s Bureau of Ferries, said this to a Times reporter: “We’d like to see commuting more than a way of getting from Point A to Point B.”
And, it wasn’t just the passengers who enjoyed the music.
“Even the boat’s crew members, who skipped their dinner break to work an extra run for the festival, seemed to be having fun,” the Times reported.
The JFK was the last of her class to retire: The American Legion was decommissioned in 2006 and the Lehman a year later.
But, commuters will still find some of the same amenities that set her apart on the newest boats joining the fleet.
“Distinguishing features included the spacious outdoor deck, great for sightseeing and the bench seating design,” said DeCrescenzo. “This was found to be particularly favored by riders, who overwhelmingly voted for this seating style when surveys for the Ollis-class boat designs were being conducted.”
The SSG Michael H. Ollis arrived in St. George in August and will take the JFK’s place when she is put into service. When the Sandy Ground and the Dorothy Day join the fleet, the Samuel I. Newhouse and the Andrew J. Barberi will be retired.
All three names are fitting tributes to the JFK, the stalwart of the Staten Island Ferry fleet for 56 years.
(Photos courtesy of the Staten Island Advance/SILive.com)