New York's Maritime History Explored

By Raphael Pallais of The Plaza
April 13, 2012 | New York, United States
New York's Maritime History Explored
The Normandie capsized in New York.

Although the Titanic never made it to New York, there’s plenty of history to be found here on the ship and its passengers — especially now, on the centennial of its sinking.

One of the best places to start is the South Street Seaport Museum, which reopened just a few months ago with a makeover and more exhibition space. Now there are 16 galleries spread over six buildings dating back to 1811. You’ll learn how the sea has shaped the city into the metropolis it is today. But there are special exhibits, too, including “Titanic at 100: Myth and Memory,” running through May 15.

The Titanic exhibit is housed in a gallery just behind the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse (built to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the sinking, it originally stood atop the Seamen’s Church Institute near the East River). Within the exhibit you can explore artifacts salvaged from the Titanic, play with an interactive model of the ship, and even see photographs of the survivors as they arrived on the Carpathia at Pier 54 on the west side.

If you head next to Hudson River Park you can see that very pier (now empty and used for summer events) as well as Pier 59, where the Titanic was supposed to arrive (now part of the Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex).

I have a personal connection to Pier 88, where the Normandie famously burned. Much as the Titanic was lauded in its time, the lavishly appointed Normandie was the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat when she entered service in 1935. My step-grandfather, the artist Cassandre, designed the iconic Art Deco poster of the ship — and he was on its maiden voyage with my grandmother.

During World War II, the Normandie was docked at Pier 88 to be retrofitted into troop transport. That’s when she caught fire and dramatically capsized (see picture above) — it was a sad ending for so majestic a ship.

Today, Pier 88 remains an active ship terminal where the pleasure cruisers of our day still come to dock. It’s always a thrilling sight to see some of the world’s largest cruise ships waiting to take their passengers to sea.