Although the great transatlantic liners were almost always associated with the west side of Manhattan in New York, it was really in the 1930’s that what is now known as ‘Luxury Liner Row’ truly came into its own.
In the early 1930’s, as the size of the average ocean liner grew from around 50,000 tons to a new generation of 80,000 tonners, it became obvious that the old piers in Manhattan would no longer be long, wide or deep enough to accommodate this new generation of ocean monsters.
The harbour authority envisaged the creation of a trio of massive new, two story piers, along the west side of Manhattan, near 48th Street. These new complexes would allow passenger traffic access directly from the west side highway.
Known as ‘finger piers’, each of these enormous creations jutted out a full 1200 feet into the Hudson River. They were able to accommodate the largest ships of the day. And, inevitably, the biggest and most prestigious liners on the transatlantic run gravitated to them like moths to a flame.
Aptly, the first of these terminals to open-Pier 88- made it’s debut on June 3rd, 1935, just in time to accommodate the legendary Normandie at the end of her record breaking maiden voyage. It was her moment of greatest triumph, and in due course, the scene of her great tragedy. The burning and capsizing of the Normandie at this same spot in February, 1942 remains one of New York’s saddest spectacles to this day.
Across the slip, Pier 90 became synonymous with the rival Cunard Line. Until their last days in 1967 and 1968 respectively, both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth used Pier 90 for each New York turnaround, a tradition carried on by the Queen Elizabeth 2 in her turn.
Even the German liners left their traditional berths at Hoboken, on the New Jersey side of the river, to gravitate to Manhattan. By the late thirties, it was nothing unusual for six or seven of the world’s largest liners to be seen sitting, side by side by side, along the waterfront. From a passing car, their looming prows seemed almost close enough to touch.
This was the era when those astonishing aerial photos of those epic convocations- the famous ‘stack ups’- began to hit the newspapers and newsreels around the world. On any given day, one might see the likes of the Rex, Europa, Normandie, Berengaria and Ile De France in brief repose. Some of those photographs have gone down as among the most celebrated in the entire history of travel.
Even in the sixties and seventies, when air travel had long since supplanted the ocean liner as the obvious main means of travel, the great ships would still converge at those same, west side piers, almost as if huddling together for mutual support from the chill winds of economic reality. At any given time- especially in the summer- you might see the France, the United States, the Queen Mary and one of the great Italian sister ships, Michelangelo and Raffaello.
In due course, this doomed, gilded rump would be joined by the Queen Elizabeth 2. Eventually, that last great liner would have the piers to herself. She would often sit in solitary splendour at the foot of West 48th street, the waters all around her rippled by the memories of her long gone fleet mates. As she sailed, her siren would boom out across the concrete canyons of Manhattan. In her wake, an entire fleet of ghosts could almost be heard replying in kind.
Of course, the arrival of the large, purpose built cruise ship proved to be the salvation of the piers. It was no accident that the Norway, the reborn SS. France, tied up at her old French Line Pier 88 at the conclusion of her ‘second’ maiden voyage. Her arrival was epic enough in itself, but few savvy souls missed the exquisite symmetry of her Manhattan homecoming.
Now branded as the Manhattan Passenger Terminal, the trio of great, historic piers have been sympathetically upgraded and updated to accommodate a new generation of cruise ship, many of them far bigger than their old Atlantic forebears.
Of course, new, purpose built cruise terminals have sprung up, too. Cape Liberty in New Jersey; Red Hook in Brooklyn. Slick, spick and span and state of the art, they make the whole embarkation process a breeze.
But they are not the real deal….
Even now, nothing beats the thrill of departure from those great old Manhattan piers of yore, where the benign shades of the Liberte, the Conte Di Savoia and the Ile De France still bask in the summer sunshine, just across the slip from where thousands of excited passengers embark on the ships of Norwegian Cruise Line to Bermuda and the Caribbean. The piers still have what they always had; location, location, location….
Here, the great monolithic bulks of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are almost close enough to touch; and the pace and buzz of the Manhattan traffic is an exhilarating, endlessly addictive thrill. And the sudden sight of the giant bows of a cruise ship, gradually rising above you, quite literally, at the bottom of the street- is as much of an adrenaline surge now as ever it was.
Boarding the QE2 at Pier 90 verged almost on a religious experience for true travel lovers. And the procession down the west side of Manhattan, even to this day, is so magnificent and compelling that it draws almost every passenger out on deck. Try a glass of champagne on deck, as the siren booms out and you glide past that vast forest of glass, steel and concrete called Manhattan, and you’ll feel the same, age old magic as those voyagers from the past, setting out on business, or on their summer vacations to Europe.
While everything seems to move forward, some things in travel remain as subtle and understated as ever. Boarding the Norwegian Breakaway for Bermuda at Pier 88 feels every bit as epic and monumental as embarking on the Normandie for Europe did from the same pier, a full eighty years ago.
Those celebrated mass gatherings of the great liners remain like so many touchstones, emotional lightning rods if you will, that connect us to what seems to be a more evocative past. But the good news is; sailing from those same piers now will still thrill and inspire generations of ocean voyagers for decades to come.