The Military & Maritime Heritage of New York City in Downtown Manhattan
By Susmita Sengupta
Think of Manhattan and images of yellow taxis, the rumbling subway, lumbering buses, and the incessant hustle and bustle of the city spring to mind. Tourists and locals alike rush to visit the many world-class museums, famous streets, stores, and parks.
My family and I instead decided to explore a lesser-visited facet of this swirling city – its two primary attractions pertaining to military and maritime history and heritage and we had a lot of fun in this deliciously different environment.
Visiting the USS Intrepid
Our sojourn began at USS Intrepid, a retired Second World War-era warship turned into a museum with spectacular exhibits.
Located on the west side of Manhattan at Pier 86 on West 46th Street along the Hudson River, the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum is an exciting destination for history, science, and aviation enthusiasts.
The USS Intrepid had an illustrious history as the survivor of five kamikaze attacks and a torpedo strike during the Second World War.
It served in the Vietnam War and functioned as a recovery vehicle for NASA space flights in the 1960s before being decommissioned in 1974, after which it got a renewed life as a maritime history and heritage museum.
Arriving at the ship
After the Intrepid was saved from scrapping in 1978, the Museum was founded in 1982. It underwent many restorations and what we saw on our visit was the result of its final massive restoration in 2008.
We arrived at the museum’s Welcome Center, a spiffy pavilion situated next to the bow of the Intrepid, ready for our day of adventure. The Hudson River gleamed under the bright blue New York City sky.
The Must-sees on The Intrepid
We began on the flight deck, where a static display of military aircraft and helicopters against the backdrop of the NYC skyline, made for a truly spectacular experience. The flying machines from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard span years of military aircraft development and brought forth visual delight for novices like us.
There was the Blue Angels plane, famous for its aerobatic display of formation flying. A crowd had gathered around another famous plane, the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet with which most, including me, were familiar from the Top Gun movies.
The Lockheed A-12 surveillance plane would stop even the most uninterested in their tracks. The largest jet on the flight deck, painted in matte black, lives up to one’s imagination of a spy plane.
Heading into Space
From the flight deck, we proceeded to the “Space” area of the Intrepid, to see an exhibit that one may never fathom seeing in New York.
The Space Shuttle Pavilion houses the Enterprise, the first space shuttle orbiter from NASA. It is a prototype shuttle not meant for flying into space but it paved the way for future shuttle design.
We were awed by the gigantic spacecraft as it came into view when we walked into its domed abode..A climb onto the viewing platform provided us with an up, close, and personal look of this engineering marvel. After seeing the shuttle, have fun going through the displays of Star Trek photos where the cast poses with the Enterprise and other historic space-related artifacts.
A Look at the Concorde
As we walked up the pier to the Intrepid, we noticed the Concorde, a plane that captured the imagination of the public in years past. The plane on resplendent display is the G-BOAD, crowned the fastest amongst all the Concordes.
It belonged to British Airways and in February 1996 flew from New York’s JFK Airport to London Heathrow in 2 hours 52 minutes 59 seconds.
Tours inside the Concorde are available at an extra price and are considered to be fun, educational and impressive though unfortunately for us the last tour of the day had already been sold out. But we had an equally awesome time admiring the aircraft from the outside, looking at the gigantic landing gear, engines and the prominent Concorde nose that allowed it to fly at supersonic speed.
The Growler Submarine
Also located at the pier, and placed in the water is the submarine USS Growler, visible the moment you enter the entry zone of the Intrepid. The Growler, a guided nuclear missile submarine, came to the Intrepid Museum in 1989 and is the only one of its kind offering public tours. When you visit you may want to tour the Growler as soon as you arrive if you want to avoid long lines later in the day, as we encountered.
Be sure to check out the instructions before buying your tickets. Once inside, you will enjoy getting an experience of life on board a submarine.
Inside the Warship
Do save time for seeing the various permanent, special and temporary exhibits that are placed inside the battleship. Remember to wear comfortable shoes as there will be a good amount of walking involved and you will be climbing up and down narrow stairs and ladders and in and out of tight spaces.
It was thrilling to tour the inside, getting a view of the crews’ and captain’s quarters, the control deck and the many machines that make up a warship.
The variety of historical exhibits gave us an insight into the wars that this ship was a part of. The Exploreum Interactive Hall with its many hands on displays and even planes and helicopters that one could enter into, we discovered were not just fun for kids but for us adults too.
A Foray into South Street Seaport
For a step back into the maritime history of New York City, a visit to South Street Seaport is a must. Located near the Financial District, along the East River, this is a historical neighborhood with ties to the development of New York as an economic hub.
The Historical Background of South St. Seaport
After the discovery of New York by Henry Hudson in the 17th century, the area that is now the South Street Seaport became the toehold of the Dutch West India Company. Ships plied in and out from around the world which led to New York’s economy being one of the most successful in the world. For a very long time, the seaport was the gateway to international shipping, thriving wholesale fish trade and even printing press businesses.
After 9/11 and the devastation from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, South Street Seaport once again rose like a phoenix from the ashes due to rebuilding and restoration by the city. Today this idyllic neighborhood thrums with energy and hums with the footfalls of local and foreign visitors who come here to enjoy its many attractions, shops, and food.
Begin at The South Street Seaport Museum
We started at the South Street Seaport Museum, established in 1867 and located amidst a row of converted brick warehouses from 1811. It is dedicated to preserving and showcasing the rise of New York as a port city that in turn played a significant role in changing the economic fortune of the United States.
The museum is a treasure trove of New York City history and possesses “over 28,000 works of art and artifacts, and over 55,000 historic records” as mentioned on the museum’s website.
A Noteworthy Exhibition
But the Museum is tiny and so unfortunately you will only see a fraction of this collection on display. That should absolutely not discourage you from visiting. During our trip, the exhibition, “Millions: Migrants and Millionaires Aboard the Great Liners 1900-1914″ beautifully encapsulated through artifacts and memorabilia the contrariety of First Class and Third Class passenger life aboard an ocean liner of the early 20th century.
I was intrigued by paintings that showed in detail the upstairs and downstairs living quarters in the ship; the stark differences in the eating utensils and the contrast in the kinds of luggage used by the passengers of different economic backgrounds.
Stepping into Wavertree
Included with the ticket price was a visit to the historic ship Wavertree, which turned out to be a trip highlight. We crossed the traffic-busy South Street and looked at the massive ships in the East River moored at Pier 16. The largest of these, regal in bearing, is the Wavertree, an iron-hulled cargo tall ship from 1885 that has been lovingly restored and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Visitors have to first check in at the red tent on Pier 16 before boarding the ship. Entry into Wavertree will require you to climb a few stairs followed by a walk up a ramp.
The tours on Wavertree are self-guided and you can go on to the main deck and the quarter-deck. On a bright and sunny day, like the day we went, the city views from the main deck were exhilarating. And I was looking forward to seeing a ship that traversed originally from Scotland to Calcutta as part of the Indian jute trade.
Our interests also lay in seeing how life was led by the crew aboard the ship in the 19th century. We made our way to the Captain’s quarters, a cozy wood-paneled space, with a museum-like display of old photos, curios, and other tchotchkes.
If you check the website you will also find the interesting names of all ship-related terms such as Anchor cranes which were heavy chain-like ropes coiled on either side of the ship that we could touch and admire. I found out that the exhaust pipe or the ship’s smokestack was called a Charlie Noble.
Pier 16 is also home to other vintage vessels, which include the 1885 Schooner Pioneer, the 1908 Lightship Ambrose and the 1930 Tugboat W. O. Decker, each of which required separate tickets.
Glorious Views from Pier 17
Once you finish the tour of Wavertree, cap it off with a stroll in the immediate area of the redeveloped Pier 17 along Fulton Street filled with stores, restaurants, pop-up sculptures and breathtaking views of the city and the waters.
You can head to the rooftop of the gigantic building that covers most of the pier; it is free to visit and you can take in the gorgeous views or you can stay on the pier itself and head to its northern end, park yourself at one of the many benches on the river deck to enjoy sweeping views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges over the East River waters on one side and the Lower Manhattan skyscrapers on the other.
At the intersection of Pearl and Fulton Street, take a moment to notice the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse in the Titanic Memorial Park. After restorations, the little lighthouse which now belongs to the South Street Seaport Museum was placed here in 1976. Resting atop a concrete base, it welcomes visitors to the Seaport neighborhood while also paying tribute to lost lives.
Spend a few minutes in this quietly beautiful park and then segue into the hubbub of historic South Street Seaport and immerse yourself into the joys offered in this revitalized neighborhood.
Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, from New York City, loves to travel with her family. Her articles have been published on GoNOMAD, Travel Thru History, Go World Travel, Travel Signposts and In The Know Traveler.