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A Glimpse into Pier 40’s Transatlantic Past

December 22

Before your Park transformed Manhattan’s West Side waterfront into the active, landscaped oasis we enjoy today, our piers hosted much of New York City’s rich maritime history. In the months to come, we’ll take a closer look at the past lives of our Park’s piers, and we kick off this series with a peek into Pier 40’s early years!

It’s hard to imagine the waterfront at West Houston without Pier 40’s enormous presence or its bustle of activity. But long before the pier’s sprawling structure provided surrounding neighborhoods with much-loved turf fields and much-needed parking, Pier 40 made history as the largest — and most modern — passenger and freight terminal in the Port of New York.

Shortly after its debut in 1963, the New York Times proclaimed Pier 40, “a 15-acre beachhead of modernity in the overwhelmingly old fashioned West Side dock area.” The pier’s size was unprecedented — Piers 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 all had to be demolished in order to make room for the impressive new structure — and it was large enough to accommodate four ocean-going ships at once! But beyond its scale, Pier 40 made news for its innovative solutions for steamship travelers. 

Pier 40 shortly before its dedication in 1962. Courtesy of Corbis - Mircrofilm.

Built in collaboration between New York’s Department of Marine and Aviation and the Holland-America Line, the pier’s design bridged the various transit needs of its era, accommodating the passenger and freight volume of massive ships as well as dense vehicular traffic. Holding 350 trucks and over 700 parked cars, Pier 40’s auto-friendly layout provided “door-to-gangway ease” for passengers and reduced traffic for motorists. Even with multiple ships in port, traffic on the surrounding streets flowed smoothly — previously unheard of on busy days along the West Side docks.

Pier 40 also offered unparalleled convenience and comfort for travelers — its drive-in accessibility and square structure ensured passengers no longer needed to haul baggage down endless, narrow piers. Inventive baggage checks and Customs arrangements made boarding and disembarking even easier. And for those lingering on the pier, the second-floor passenger deck offered style and luxury: a lounge equipped with comfortable chairs and couches, snack bar and elegant décor.

The Holland-America Line's flagship Rotterdam arrives at Pier 40 for the first time. Courtesy of The New York Times.

In its first year of operation, Pier 40 served more than 2,000 passengers each day! However, as transatlantic passenger service declined through the 1960s due to the increased popularity of commercial jetliners, and as new shipping methods replaced those Pier 40 was built to accommodate, the pier’s innovations became obsolete. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took over Pier 40 in 1971, and was largely used primarily for car, bus and truck parking operations in the years that followed. As early as 1987, engineers were reporting concerns about the pier’s structural condition.

When the Hudson River Park Act passed in 1998 and the pier became part of our Park, a new chapter began for the long-underutilized structure. New York City’s recent approval of an air rights transfer that provides $100 million to repair the pier’s piles is a first, necessary step in developing a long-term solution for this important recreational oasis and revenue generator for the overall Park.

The Holland America Line Mural by Frank Nix.

Want an artful glimpse of Pier 40’s transatlantic past? Next time you visit, take a stroll through the lobby. There you’ll find the Holland-American Line mural, which shows the many ports for which passenger ships used to embark from our largest pier -- just one beautiful reminder of Pier 40’s fascinating legacy.

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