That was the headline on the front page of the New York Times on Wednesday, June 26, 1946, a day after a nine-alarm blaze gutted the St. George Ferry Terminal, the four big slips used for Manhattan service and the contiguous terminus of the Staten Island Rapid Transit. Also, left in a twisted heap of metal were a smaller building and a smaller slip, which were owned by the City and used by the Army and Navy to transport their troops from Staten Island to the United States Naval Depot in Bayonne.
“The loss of life might have been much higher, for only a few minutes before the fire started between 400 and 500 men, women and children who had come in by train from Tottenville and other towns, boarded the ferry boat Miss New York,” the Times reported. “The passengers were barely out of the pier bound for South Ferry, Manhattan, when flames began shooting skyward from the terminal.”
There were 22 fire companies from Staten Island and Manhattan, along with six fireboats, called in to battle the blaze which started in the adjoining Staten Island railroad station and not in the 41-year-old terminal, which was built of wood and corrugated iron. The fire smoldered for three days and may have been caused by a cigarette.
More than 200 firefighters suffered smoke inhalation, smoke poisoning, burns and eye irritation with most heading right back to work “after a brief rest” in Staten Island’s hospitals.
“Their work was difficult because the fire, which extended itself in wiping out the terminal building Tuesday in a matter of minutes has been eating its way under the surface of the concrete-covered quay,” the Times reported. “As a result, neither the fire itself or the fire-fighting has been spectacular. It has been a matter of long hard work with special crews, employing jackhammers and acetylene torches, cutting through the quay surface to permit contact fighting against the fire.”
Crowds of Staten Islanders were drawn to the St. George waterfront by nightfall.
“A sheet of flame fifteen to twenty feet high lit up the sky to thousands of night watchers lining Richmond Terrace on St. George Hill after the new outbreak of fire,” the Times reported. “It came from Slip 4, where hours earlier firemen thought they had the fire under control. All the time the fire had been attacking the piling and wooden supports.”
With ferry service suspended, the 35,000 daily passengers found other daunting and harrowing journeys to work the next morning.
“Deprived of the ferry ride that they are proud to call ‘the world’s greatest ride for a nickel,’ the commuters turned to buses, automobiles and even trucks, to ride across one or another of the bridges, or on the one functioning northbound ferry line, to New Jersey, and thence by bridge, ferry, tube or tunnel to New York,” the Times reported. “Employers, having read of the fire that destroyed the terminal at St. George, were not unduly surprised to see workers arriving an hour and a half or more late. Some even allowed their employees to leave work early to get ahead of the expected rush back to the Island.”
Most traveled to their offices by way of the Bayonne Bridge.
“Commuters rode on the Staten Island Coach Company buses to the Bayonne Bridge Plaza to get the interstate buses up through New Jersey to Jersey City, then across the North River by way of the Holland or Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan,” the Times reported. “Many drove their own cars to work, picking up hitch-hikers on the way, and swelling the number of cars using the Bayonne Bridge by an estimated 5,000. The Outerbridge Crossing and the Goethals Bridge, leading to more southerly points in New Jersey, were affected only slightly by the travel crisis.”
A day after the fire, word began to spread that limited ferry service had resumed.
“Bus drivers and the police on Staten Island confirmed the report, and soon commuters were riding to Pier 6 in Tompkinsville, where they found they could get a free ferry ride to Manhattan,” the Times reported. “The ferry operators were planning to have turnstiles ready to collect fares this morning, but yesterday the Staten Islander rode free to Manhattan. The return trip cost a nickel.”
Commuters had to board the boats by climbing up makeshift gangplanks. The trip remained slow, which “proved far from satisfactory to thousands of commuters,” according to the Times.
“At the height of the morning rush hour, there were as many as 5,000 passengers in line waiting. Loading was slow because of the narrow, emergency, hand-operated gang planks in use. Loads were limited to 2,000 passengers, the full legal number that may be carried. Landings at the Staten Island Ferry were necessarily slow because there was no slip and the ferries had to be eased up to the bulkhead and then lashed before the passengers could be let off or taken aboard. Even the fact that the city was still not collecting the nickel fare for the Staten Island to Manhattan run failed to prevent widespread grumbling on the part of commuters, many of whom found the trip, including the wait, taking as much as an hour and a half. The city attempted to maintain a twenty-minute headway, but fell about ten minutes behind during the peak rush.”
The cause of the fire remained a mystery, according to a report submitted by Fire Marshal Thomas P. Brophy to Fire Commissioner Frank J. Quayle, but he noted the fire “may possibly have resulted from a discarded cigarette coming in contact with combustible material under the platform (of the adjacent Staten Island Rapid Transit Company Terminal) at which point smoke and flames were first discovered,” the Times reported.
Coincidentally, plans for a new ferry terminal in St. George had been completed a few days before the fire with an expected opening in 1948, “but it is hoped that the speedy work on its initial stages will enable the city to supply fairly normal ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan and Brooklyn by next year,” the Times reported.
Features of the new “modern terminal building” were to include 10 slips with five of those operating between St. George and South Ferry and 39th Street in Brooklyn. Two slips were to be dedicated to the privately-run ferry between St. George and 69th Street, along with two repair slips and a lay-up slip.
“The plans also contemplate new viaducts and highway connections for the use of private motor traffic and buses,” the Times reported. “They also contemplate the covering of the yards of the Staten Island Rapid Transit Company and the establishment of a new single rail terminal for north and south shore rail lines. A feature of the project will be a spacious waiting area for cars bound for the ferry.”
On Friday, June 8, 1951, the $21,000,000 St. George Ferry Terminal opened -- “glittering and spotless to the last brick.”
“Inside and out of the massive red terminal, bunting and flags were hung by a bustling crew of workmen who scurried about with mops and brooms like a battalion of fastidious housewives expecting critical guests,” the Times reported. “Midmorning commuters will have to squeeze through four turnstiles and skirt an estimated 5,000 spectators to the ceremonies that will begin at 10:30 A.M. in the public waiting room.”
Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri marked the occasion by selling the “first” ticket to open the vehicle approaches to the terminal. Borough President Cornelius A. Hall, City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses and Department of Marine and Aviation Commissioner Edward F. Cavanaugh Jr. also joined Mayor Impellitteri at the dedication.
“The main waiting room alone would hold more than 5,000 commuters, or two modern ferryboat loads,” the Times reported. “Complete with lunch-counters, a post office, telephones, shops and a barber shop, the terminal was built of structural steel, red brick and concrete radiant heat.”
(Photo courtesy of the Staten Island Museum)