Views from Long Island Sound Part 1: From Steamboats to Bridges and Tunnels

In January Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to spend $5 million on what he called a “really thorough feasibility study” to analyze whether a tunnel across Long Island Sound would be financially and practically feasible.


By Paul Hicks


In January Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to spend $5 million on what he called a “really thorough feasibility study” to analyze whether a tunnel across Long Island Sound would be financially and practically feasible. The study, Cuomo said, will look at three potential destination points from Long Island: the Bronx, Westchester or Connecticut.


A bridge over or a tunnel under Long Island Sound is not a new idea. By some counts, there have been as many as fifteen proposals for a bridge or tunnel across the Sound. The most recent proposal, made by developer in 2008, would have created the longest highway tunnel in the world (from Oyster Bay to Rye) and cost an estimated $10 billion.


Various landing points have been considered over the years, including New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford in Connecticut, as well as several in the Rye area. In the 1960s, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and master builder Robert Moses pushed hard for a bridge between Oyster Bay and Rye, but they failed, largely because of local and environmental opposition on both sides of the Sound.


There have long been compelling reasons to shorten the distance and traveling time between the north shore of Long Island and the western shore of Long Island Sound. The first service, dating to the Colonial period, was provided by skippers of sailing sloops. Most such early journeys, however, were along the coasts rather than across the Sound, because of unpredictable tides and weather, especially in winter. The ships brought Quakers and many other residents of Long Island who settled in this area.


According to Rye’s noted historian, Charles Baird, the Town of Rye had a wharf as early as 1679, located on “Fishing Rock” at the mouth of the Byram River. Sixty years later, twenty-six local residents invested in a company that obtained a patent and established a ferry service between Rye and Oyster Bay, which continued to operate until well after the end of the Revolutionary War. A ferry house, built in what is now the Greyrock section of Port Chester, contained a general store that catered both to local residents and travelers from Long Island.


Horse-powered ferries ran regularly scheduled services in Long Island Sound throughout the 1700s, with the unfortunate horses mounted on treadmills to power the paddlewheels. This improved reliability somewhat over sailing vessels until the arrival of steam-powered ships, beginning with a voyage of the steamship <Fulton> from New York to New Haven in 1815.


The <Fulton,> named for inventor Robert Fulton, was sloop-rigged with one mast and used her sails to accelerate her speed. It took a number of years, however, for steam vessels to fully replace packet boats for passenger, freight, and mail conveyance. Marilyn Weigold, an authority on Long Island Sound, notes that, “Many people were hesitant to travel on them because of the danger of explosions. Thus, it was not uncommon to tie a sailboat to a steamboat, which pulled the craft carrying the passengers.”


Prior to 1820, a steamboat began running from New Haven to Byram Cove (the southern part of Greenwich). From there, stages ran to New York, passing through the villages of Port Chester and Rye. This necessary transfer was due to a New York State law that granted to Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton exclusive right to operate steam vessels in New York waters. In 1824, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the New York law was unconstitutional, ruling that the Commerce Clause reserved to the federal government the right to regulate navigation.


Before completion of the railroad between New York and Boston in the late 1840s, steamboats were the preferred mode of travel. Baird writes that, “a steamboat touches every week-day at Rye Port, to and from New York” and that the “steamboat landing at Rye Port, between Saw Pit [Port Chester] and Rye, became the principal place of embarkation.” One of the more memorable vessels was the Rye Cliff Ferry, which was built in 1898, but burned and sank in 1918, while docked in Sea Cliff.


An 1893 book, “The Past and Present of Steam Navigation on Long Island Sound,” describes the growing number of steamboats that competed in the late 1800s and early 1900s for passengers as well as animals (such as polo ponies) and, later, automobiles. Marylyn Wiegold described the steamer Martha, which travelled between Rye and Bayville (part of Oyster Bay), beginning in 1920. It left Rye not from the mouth of the Byram River where the sailing ferry had landed but from the foot of Dearborn Avenue near Oakland Beach.


There is a rich history of Long Island Sound and the methods devised for crossing it over almost four hundred years. Governor Cuomo may want to explore a tunnel, but our State Senator George Latimer and Assemblyman Steve Otis are on record as strong opponents of that idea. 

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