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Shoal area once relegated New York to lesser status

Jan 1, 2003

A little more than 100 years ago, there was a vast bank of sand and mud extending across the entrance to New York Harbor. It ran from within a half mile of Sandy Hook in the south to the shores of Coney Island in the north -- a six-mile by three-mile rectangle, a substantial part of which lay so close to the surface that it was exposed at low tide. The bank was known as the Sandy Hook Bar, and it remained virtually unchanged until the 1880s and the advent of open- water dredging.

If one were to sail across those waters today, one would probably encounter little difficulty even on the spring ebb -- unless one's vessel happened to draw eight feet or better.

The first European vessel to probe its way over the bar was Henry Hudson's Half Moon which, in September 1609, found the entrance after a day of diligent sounding. The channel he discovered resembled a broad "v". Its right arm extended 2.5 miles to the west (261°) and skirted the tip of Sandy Hook. The bottom of the "v" was actually a short leg to the northwest (299°). Finally the channel turned north-northeast (018°) and ended five miles later at The Narrows, roughly equidistant between Staten Island and Coney Island. On chart no. 12327 this route is called the Sandy Hook Channel and the Chapel Hill Channel, and it is clearly subordinate to the Ambrose Channel. But for more than 200 years, it was New York's main ship channel.

With a depth of 21 feet MLW, the main ship channel was adequate for all but the largest men of war -- Half Moon, for example, drew just eight feet. Navigating within the channel was not without its difficulties, however, as demonstrated by a 1694 decree of the Provisional Council of New York requiring certified pilots on board vessels entering the port. And nothing in the age of sail could overcome the effect of adverse wind or tide. But until the Revolutionary War, these factors had few larger implications. Then, within a three-year period, they paradoxically both prolonged and shortened the course of the war. In July 1778, at the height of the conflict, a French fleet under the command of Admiral Comte Jean Baptiste D'Estaing stood off Sandy Hook. It was the first direct aid France had given the rebellious colonies, and D'Estaing was poised to descend on Lord Howe who waited nervously in New York Harbor with an English fleet half the Frenchman's strength. To the north, in White Plains, Washington prepared to launch an overland attack against the city. Only one obstacle stood in D'Estaing's way: the bar at Sandy Hook. Between the 11th and the 22nd, the French remained at anchor taking soundings. Finally an easterly wind and a spring tide combined to raise the water in the channel to 30-feet. But D'Estaing, afraid of having his 110-gun flagship, Ville de Paris, stranded on the ebb and possibly at the mercy of shallower-draft English ships, gave up the attack.

This came as no surprise to Captain Frederick Mackenzie of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Mackenzie, who was stationed variously in Boston, New York, and Newport between 1775 and 1781, kept a diary that is regarded as one of the best records of the war from the British point of view. Writing from Newport when the appearance of the French fleet off New York was still no more than a rumor, Mackenzie thought that they ". . . will probably find it impracticable to force an entrance over the bar of Sandy Hook."

As Alfred Thayer Mahan put it in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, "D'Estaing's heart failed him." Mahan concluded that had the attack succeeded, and he thought it probable, "The fall of New York. . . might have led to peace between America and England."

The war continued. Three years later, Lord Cornwallis, in need of reinforcements and supplies after a lengthy campaign in the south, arrived at Yorktown, a peninsula at the mouth of the Chesapeake. By 1781 the only North American naval bases remaining in the hands of the English were Halifax, N.S. and New York. Halifax was too distant to be of practical use. New York, in Cornwallis' view, was undesirable because of the bar at Sandy Hook. He was determined to establish a new base on the York River which would give him a deepwater port.

Closely pursued by combined American and French forces, Cornwallis' immediate survival depended upon being resupplied by sea. The allies were aware of this and the French West Indian fleet sailed north to prevent it. The result was a battle off the Chesapeake in which the English fleet sustained sufficient damage to require a return to New York for repairs. In addition to a slow voyage necessitated by several jury-rigged ships, the fleet had to cross the bar at Sandy Hook.

While a single ship might be able to cross the bar on one cycle of tide, for a fleet of square-riggers with a narrow, twisting eight-mile channel to negotiate, it was all but impossible to get all the ships through at once. By way of illustrating the difficulties involved in getting into or out of New York, Mackenzie, serving as a major and deputy adjutant-general in New York, records one such north-south crossing by a fleet of approximately 20 warships.

"9th May. Very fine day till 5 in the afternoon. Wind N.N.W. At 5 the wind shifted to the N. and blew fresh. . . . The fleet weighed at 9 this morning from Staten Island, and went thro' the Narrows. It is expected they will get over the bar with the afternoon's tide.

"10th - Thick weather, and small rain great part of the day. Wind N.E. . . . The fleet got no further than Gravesend bay yesterday. The highest tides being toMorrow, tis supposed they will endeavor to go over the Bar, if the wind is favorable.

"11th May. Very fine weather. Clear and pleasant. Wind N.N.E. . . . The fleet went down to Sandy Hook, but the London [a 90-gun ship of the line] in going down by some mismanagement got on the West bank, where she stuck. . . . It is feared this accident may detain the fleet until the next spring tides.

"12th May. Mild weather, but some rain: Wind N.E. in the morning, and S.E. after 12 o'Clock. The London was got off last night without any damage, and the fleet will not be delayed on her account. 'Tis hoped they will all get out toMorrow if the wind is fair.

"13th May. Very fine day. Wind N.W. All the fleet got over the bar this day except the Robuste.

"14th May. Fine day, and the warmest we have had this year. Wind S.W. . . . The Robuste got over the bar this Morning and the fleet went to Sea."

Mackenzie seems not at all surprised by these events. Even when a fleet had to warp out from Sandy Hook the maneuver rated only one sentence. On the contrary, it was the fastest crossings that he felt most noteworthy.

"20th March. Clear fine weather. Strong gale of wind at W. from 10 'till 4 this day. The wind fell towards night....The Expedition fleet (eight men of war and a fire ship). . . sailed this afternoon at 5 o'Clock. The whole were safe over the bar at 6, and having got together to the amount of 36 sail, at 7 o'Clock made sail with a fine wind for The Chesapeak. If this wind continues for two days the fleet will have reached the Capes of Virginia."

Meanwhile, the fleet, upon which Cornwallis' survival depended, had no such luck. It took the anticipated three days (between September 19th and September 21st) for the large ships to cross the bar. The smaller vessels followed, as was the custom.

"23rd Sept. Very fine weather. Wind W. The fleet came up from Sandy hook this Morning. . . . 'Tis the general opinion that the fleet will not be ready for Sea in less than ten days. I think if great exertions were made, they might be ready in six days. . . . Every ship Carpenter, Caulker, & Rigger in town, and all those belonging to the ships in this port, should be obliged to work on the ships in this emergency, that no time might be lost in refitting them for action. The Officers of the Navy say that after all, the large ships (London, Barfleur & Princessa) cannot get over the bar till the next spring tides. The full Moon is not till the 2ed Oct. The highest water the 3rd or 4th."

The work proceeded slowly, however, and repairs were far from completed when the siege of Yorktown began on September 30. Finally, after many delays, the English were ready to sail to Cornwallis' aid. A relief fleet of 38 ships with 7,000 reinforcements got underway on October 17. The wind, according to Mackenzie, was northwest. Two days later, on October 19, as the last of the fleet were still crossing the bar at Sandy Hook, Cornwallis was surrendering at Yorktown. The bar had cost the English a total of eight critical days, not to mention thirteen colonies.

The Sandy Hook bar remained primarily a military concern for many years. During the War of 1812 the U.S. frigate President, sister ship to the Constitution, grounded in the main ship channel while trying to run an English blockade squadron stationed off Sandy Hook. President suffered severe damage and was captured as a consequence. The Navy had little use for New York and, in 1817, rated Boston the better port for its purposes.

But New York was not alone in having restricted access to the sea. There were bars at Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile and New Orleans. And there was no means to remove them. It was one thing to dig the Erie Canal across New York State in 1825. It was quite another to deal with the variables of tide and wave action encountered in ocean dredging off Sandy Hook. The answer, which involved the use of steam power, was still 60 years in the future. Ironically, it was the evolution of the steamship that forced the issue.

Steamboats had been in use in this country since the late 1780s when John Fitch ran a ferry service on the Delaware River in the Philadelphia area. Fulton's Clermont made her inaugural trip up the Hudson in 1807. Within 10 years, steamboats were a common sight not only on the Hudson but along the length of Long Island Sound. In 1819, the 380-ton Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic -- although she used steam for only 80 hours of the 27-day voyage. The most reliable means of transatlantic transportation remained sailing vessels, specifically the sailing packets that not only began to advertise themselves as "lines" but actually maintained regular schedules when the forces of nature allowed. The best of the packets were American. The most famous of these were the ships of the "Black Ball Line."

Around mid-century, clipper ships, which were appreciably faster than the packets but carried less cargo per registered ton, were setting records on long-distance runs. But for all the romance attached to them, clipper ships enjoyed less than a decade of commercial success. It was the American packets' continuing dominance of the Atlantic that, in the 1830s, caused England to start subsidizing the construction of steamships.

Exclusive contracts to carry the royal mail constituted a significant portion of the subsidy. When Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were in transatlantic service they were designated "Royal Mail Ships," a classification that survived into the 1960s. The U.S. also subsidized its merchant fleet in this fashion until the ship had given way to the airliner in the transport of mail.

When Mies van der Rohe said, "Less is more" he was certainly not referring to shipbuilding. "The bigger, the better" would have been more appropriate. Packet vessels, for example, were quite small initially, averaging 300 to 400 tons around 1820. By 1854, however, a 1,771-tonner was in service.

A similar pattern was followed by the transatlantic steamships which, with the advent of iron hulls and screw propulsion, soon eclipsed the largest of the sailing ships in size and would all but drive them off the seas by the turn of the century.

As steamships evolved, there was an almost geometric growth in vessel size. In 1838 the 1,340-ton side-wheeler Great Western was one of the first ships to cross the Atlantic under steam power alone. Within seven years, the 3,270-ton Great Britain, iron-hulled and screw-propelled, was put into transatlantic service. By 1860, Great Eastern, at 18,900 gross tons and having a draft of 30 feet, was almost six times the size of the Savannah.

Performance seemed to improve with every crossing. Great Western averaged 8.75 knots on its 14 and one-half day voyage. Twenty-two years later, Great Eastern chugged across in 11 days. By the turn of the century the fastest liners were averaging 20 knots or better and made the crossing in less than six days.

New York had already won the battle for supremacy among American ports, the issue being decided when Cunard moved its transatlantic operations from Boston in 1848. But there was growing commercial pressure to do something about the 21-foot depth in the main ship channel at Sandy Hook. Unfortunately, the technology to accomplish this did not exist at mid-century and attention was focused on alternative solutions. It was during this period that the first attempts were made to clear Hell Gate. They were not successful, and there was talk of digging a canal across the northwestern tip of Long Island that would by-pass that hazardous stretch of water. Another school of thought envisioned City Island as a major port. Ocean traffic would use Long Island Sound and avoid both Hell Gate and Sandy Hook.

In the mood of national expansion that followed the Civil War, Congress addressed the problem of New York's main ship channel by voting an initial appropriation of $200,000 in December 1884 towards improving navigation. Gedney Channel was to be made 28-feet deep, 1,000 feet wide and 4,000 feet long. (This channel was named for Navy Lieutenant R.T. Gedney. In 1837, while conducting Coast Survey soundings, he discovered that the outermost leg of the main ship channel extended for some distance to the east beyond Sandy Hook.) Although hydraulic suction pumps had been used for dredging in sheltered waters as early as 1871 and some successful open-water dredging operations had been conducted by English and Scottish engineers, ocean dredging was essentially uncharted territory. The Army Corps of Engineers was directed to come up with a project plan. The channel, according to the plan, was to be deepened to 28-feet for a width of 200 feet. Estimated cost: $5 to $6 million.

In the spirit of laissez faire capitalism that flourished during the 19th century, bids began to come in with the understanding that payment would be due only upon successful completion the project. The Corps expected the removal of 3,000 cubic yards of material per day, a standard which, for a time, seemed unachievable. But even the earliest failed attempts foreshadowed techniques used successfully by modern hydraulic dredges. Water jets, for example, were employed by one contractor to stir up the bottom, putting the particles of sand in suspension where they awaited the outgoing tide to whisk them away. Unfortunately the water jets were not sufficiently powerful. (Nor would the tide have been.) He then decided to try a hydraulic suction system to get the same effect, failed again, and quit unpaid.

Elijah Brainard was the next contractor to take on the Sandy Hook bar. He faired better than his predecessor, although not without considerable trial and error. Despite Corps misgivings, he first put three clamshell dredges to work on the bar but had to withdraw them almost immediately because the conditions were too rough. He then waited for the construction of a "hydraulic excavator."

A critical element in hydraulic dredging is the percentage of solids being pumped. In order to remove the expected 2,000 to 3,000 cubic yards of sand a day, Brainard's hydraulic excavator had to lift a 10% to 20% mixture of solids to water. The mix, in fact, turned out to be less than 5%. Over one five-month period, the total amount of material removed from the bar totaled only 6,411 cubic yards. This led to the following letter from the Corps officer in charge of the project.

"Five months have now elapsed and your plant has scarcely gotten beyond the experimental stage; the trials have indicated pretty conclusively that it has not a maximum capacity beyond 1,000 cubic yards per diem. I hereby give you notice that if you do not have. . ., by April 1, an increased plant capable of removing daily the quantity required by the contract, this office will feel authorized to go into open market and supply the deficiency, charging you all the expenses of such charges over and above the contract price of removal embodied in your contract."

Brainard responded by adding two new hydraulic excavators to the project. He now had three unitsnone of which performed up to expectations. Together, however, they gradually won the battle against the Sandy Hook bar. By the time Brainard's contract ended in the fall of 1886 the Gedney Channel had been dredged to a depth of 26-feet MLW. It was the earliest successful attempt at open water dredging, and it demonstrated the worth of hydraulic suction.

Even with this increased channel depth, however, steamships kept getting larger. No sooner had Brainard completed work on the Gedney Channel than Congress voted to increase the depth of Gedney and the main ship channel to 30-feet. The project was open for bids and, when none were received (Brainard apparently had enough of Sandy Hook after his earlier efforts), the contract was awarded to Joseph Edwards. No one was better qualified. Edwards had been building hydraulic pumps for more than 15 years. He also had the benefit of Brainard's experience.

Edwards built three self-propelled hydraulic dredges with a combined daily capacity of 10,000 cubic yards and, by 1893, had completed the project. He had removed 700,000 cubic yards of material from Gedney Channel, twice that amount from the main ship channel and the 30-foot target depth had been successfully acheived.

But almost immediately the target shifted. In a letter to the Corps' New York office the Cunard Steamship Company wrote: "It is a great hardship and causes serious loss of time to be compelled to appoint sailings to suit the tides. It is very desirable, particularly to a passenger ship, to sail at a fixed hour, which would be thoroughly practicable with a mean depth of 35 feet at low water from The Narrows to the sea.

"In this connection, I would state that the steamer Lucania, drawing 28 feet, is appointed to sail on the 19th of December. It will be high water at the bar at 6:36 A.M. or 7:08 P.M. The sun rises at 7:20 A.M. and sets at 4:35 P.M. In order to enable this ship to cross the bar at high water, she must leave her dock at least two hours before daylight or cross the bar about two hours after sunset. . . thereby incurring the danger of navigating down the bay as well as crossing the bar without daylight." (Lighted buoys had not yet come into existence.)

The North German Lloyd Steamship Company took a slightly different tack while drawing the same conclusion.

"In former years, steamers of 3,000 to 4,000 tons were considered large, but the size of steamers, as you are aware, has gradually increased, and with the increase, the channels of this harbor have been deepened and this work carried out under your wise supervision until the present depth of 30 feet at mean low water has been reached. By the extraordinary reduction in freight charges in the last 10 or 15 years, the steamship companies have been forced to enlarge their carriers. The result has been that steamships of 10,000 tons or more are very frequent. As a number of the steamers of our line now draw more than 29 feet of water, and as we are now building six large ocean steamers of 10,000 or 12,000 tons; four of which will probably draw nearly 30 feet of water, we believe that the depth of 35 feet is necessary. In view of the fact that a depth of two feet below the keel is needed to insure safety, we believe that a proper consideration for the growth of commerce in this port requires a deepening of the channel to 35 feet."

But would 35 feet be sufficient? And was further dredging of the old main ship channel and Gedney Channel the answer? By 1899 Congress voted to create a new passage through the bar. It would be 40 feet deep, have a width of 2,000 feet and would become the most direct route from The Narrows to the ocean. On old harbor charts it appears as East Channel. Still called Ambrose Channel, it was named in honor of John Wolfe Ambrose, an engineer who spent 40 years fighting for Congressional support of the new channel.

Compared to earlier undertakings, the project specifications seemed extraordinary. The contractor was expected to maintain an excavation rate of 400,000 cubic yards per month for each of the eight working months of the first year. Thereafter, the rate increased to 1.2 million cubic yards per working month. If the dredging standard was not met, no payment would be made for the period in question.

No longer could delays be tolerated. The Oceanic had been launched earlier that year, and she would soon be followed by such familiar names as Mauretania, Leviathan, Lusitania, Olympic, and Titanic. By the standards of their time, they were enormous vessels; even by modern measure they would have been formidable. The Titanic, for example, was rated at 45,000 tons.

Transatlantic commerce, including every piece of mail sent between Europe and the U.S., was dependent upon the liner and the speed at which crossings could be made. Congress was only too aware of this and included in its appropriation an authorization for the Secretary of War to "build or purchase dredges, steamboats and other plant, machinery and appliances as may be necessary to prosecute said project." No contractor was going to stand in the way of progress. But that is what happened, at least for a time.

Only one bid was received for the project, and, from the first, the contractor could not get his operation -- which included two new hydraulic dredges -- up to speed. Three years into the project, after the contract had been modified several times with each modification easing performance standards, the Corps ordered two dredges built for its own use. They were on site by early 1905, and, for some months, the work progressed at an increased rate. Then the contractor reverted to form and asked for additional contract revisions. In 1906, in the midst of negotiations, he died and, in a sense, took his dredges with him when they disappeared into the legal morass of a seriously tangled estate.

The Corps had run out of alternatives; there would be no other outside contractors. While their two original dredges continued to work without letup, Congress voted another appropriation. In June 1908, just 15 months after construction was authorized, two more dredges were added to the fleet at Sandy Hook which eventually numbered five vessels.

There was good reason for urgency. The Lusitania was scheduled to arrive on her maiden voyage in Septemberwhether or not the new channel was ready. Earlier that year -- at considerable cost in both time and money -- the entire area had to be cleared of piles of rock and building debris illegally dumped there since the beginning of the project. The Corps was taking no chances. The channel was placed off-limits to tugs and scows.

By the end of August the new channel's depth ranged between 35 and 38 feet. Channel markers were placed. And, on September 13th, only 10 days after the last buoy was in position, the Lusitania entered the seven-mile-long channel and grandly steamed into New York Harbor. Ambrose Channel was an unqualified success.

Work continued until 1914 when, having achieved a length of 38,000 feet, a width of 2,000 feet, and a depth of 40 feet MLW, the Ambrose Channel project was officially concluded. More than 66 million cubic yards of material had been removed. And it was felt that the 40-foot depth would accommodate anything shipbuilders were likely to put in the water. It didfor about 30 years. But, by 1944, the depth at mid-channel had to be increased to 45 feet. It was later extended to full channel width.

Is 45 feet enough? It is a matter of perspective. Ships continue to get bigger and certainly require deeper water. According to Captain Gene Reil, a Sandy Hook pilot for 20 years, it is increasingly common for vessels drawing 45 feet and more to call on New York Harbor when conditions permit. And today, just as in the years prior to the first dredging of the old main ship channel and Gedney Channel, it is often necessary to play the tides. Once inside the harbor, particularly for tankers headed for Port Newark or Port Elizabeth, where 35 feet MLW is the norm, off-loading onto lighters or barges in the Lower Harbor has become standard procedure. (Work nearing completion in the Kill Van Kull, a waterway between Staten Island and Bayonne, N.J., which leads to Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, will increase the depth to 40 feet MLW. Consideration is now being given to lowering the channel an additional five feet to 45 feet MLW.)

Although further dredging would make New York Harbor more accessible as well as more efficient, there is no sense of urgency about it at the federal level. Because transatlantic communications rely on the airplane and, increasingly, on electronics, ships, the mail, and speed no longer have the symbiotic relationship they once enjoyed. Other East Coast ports have been improved in recent years (i.e., Norfolk and Baltimore, which have already dredged 50-foot channels); and New York no longer holds the exclusive key to transatlantic commerce. The need for some of the larger ships to wait for the tide to turn at Sandy Hook has thus become a regional, rather than a national, cause for concern.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, unwilling to accept New York's fall from its long-standing status as the nation's leading port, continues to press for improvements to maintain if not enhance its competitive position. Dredging, therefore, will continue.

Not much has changed in 100 years. Steam-powered dredges have given way to diesel; diesel power has been replaced by diesel-electric. Dredging technology has evolved but has not traveled far from its origins. The rigs function much as they did in 1886.

The greatest change has been in piloting the dredges -- making certain that they are where they are supposed to be. A little over a century ago Elijah Brainard had to make do with a series of intersecting LOPs taken by horizontal sextant angles on shoreline features.

Dredging continues in the Ambrose Channel under the supervision of the Corps of Engineers. There has been a change here, as well. Now it is the dredger who pays for the priviledge of dredging. Sand, after all, is a valuable commodity.

A.M. Neyer is a freelance writer and sailor living in Roslyn, N.Y.