A Sailor’s Walk on the West Side: Chelsea Piers to Ear Inn

The shoreline of the Hudson River on the lower west side of Manhattan was once farther inland than today, a gently curving line rather than the straight line marked by the Westside Highway. Along the shore, captains, sailors, shipbuilders, and dockworkers worked the piers to move along passengers and goods to their destination. This thriving mercantile industry built New York City. 

The Rusty Knot, 425 West Street 

This two-mile walk near the old shoreline (see map below) avoids the High Line and stays on the streets, a few of them with cobblestones. Beginning in Chelsea at the piers, the stroll continues through the Meatpacking District, the West Village, and Soho. Many places of interest line the streets and shore in the area, allowing for several detours. Two watering holes with nautical themes, The Rusty Knot and the legendary Ear Inn, enhance the experience.

Chelsea Piers

1. While Chelsea Piers is now known as a sports complex for many New Yorkers, the building of the original piers - Pier 54 to Pier 62 - was a momentous undertaking at the turn of the twentieth century. The increasing size of the new transatlantic liners such as the Mauritania and Lusitania necessitated a bigger facility. A fancy (very fussy) outdoor plaque commemorates the opening of the piers under the administration of Mayor George B. McClellan. A wall within the current complex illustrates the story of the piers over several decades.

History Wall, Chelsea Piers. The boat second to the left is the Lusitania.

Several companies still use the piers for popular tours. Among these are Spirit Cruises, Classic Harbor Line, and Bateaux New York. South of the covered piers, Pier 54, part of Hudson River Park, may be identified by a metal archway. It was here that the Carpathia arrived on the evening of April 18, 1912 with survivors of the Titanic disaster. (See more on Walking Off the Big Apple.)

Gansevoort Street, deconstructed

2. Gansevoort Street, near the Whitney Museum of Art and the southern start of the High Line, was once the center of a thriving market. Before the rise of the Meatpacking District, the old market named for American Revolutionary War officer Peter Gansevoort (1749-1812) was connected to the maritime trades. Near here, writer Herman Melville, a grandson of Gansevoort, worked as a customs inspector for 19 years beginning in 1866. The street and surrounding Meatpacking District is undergoing major infrastructure renovations to improve drainage, replace water mains, and repair cobblestones.

Westbeth Artist housing, 55 Bethune St

3. Westbeth Artist housing, 55 Bethune St. The Westbeth building on West and Bethune Streets, the former home of Bell Labs, was converted into an artist colony in the late 1960s. Diane Arbus moved here in January 1970. Merce Cunningham had his studio here for 40 years. The nonprofit housing complex is committed to affordable housing for artists.

The Rusty Knot, at 4 p.m just before patrons arrived.

4. The Rusty Knot, 425 West Street, is a friendly bar with a nautical theme. A stylish dive may seem like a contradiction in terms, but the bar is decked out with some fine furnishings and pleasing wall art. Real deals on the drinks.

Weehawken Street. One of the last vestiges of the old waterfront.

5. Weehawken Street. One of the last vestiges of the old waterfront, this block-long street between W. 10th and Christopher Street, is worth a visit. The street is home to a rare wood-framed shed, once part of a market located here.

Structure on West Street, part of the Weehawken Street Historic District.   

A plaque for the historic district, an obviously low-profile one, reads ”The Weehawken Street Historic District is a picturesque enclave of 14 buildings dating from 1830 to 1938 that illustrate the area’s long history as a place of dwelling, industry, and commerce, much of it maritime-related."

Ear Inn, 326 Spring St.

6. Ear Inn, 326 Spring St. Established in 1817, Ear Inn is surely the greatest sailor bar in the history of New York City. Amazingly and thankfully, it’s still here, having celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. Open everyday from 11:30am to 4am, the Ear Inn is the sort of bar you could imagine visiting in broad daylight or in the middle of the night.

The walls and ceiling are covered with fascinating objects, some nautical, some not. There are lots of depictions of ears, a moody print of a street near a wharf at dusk, several old oars, the great poster of The Public Theater's 1976 production of The Three Penny Opera that I taped to my wall in grad school, a large faded historical lithograph of the many piers surrounding Lower Manhattan, and a light fixture in the shape of Betty Boop. The bar is located in the historic James Brown House, built around 1770 for an African aide to George Washington.

At the time of its construction, the house was just a few feet away from the shoreline. Ear Inn is the best place in the world to imagine what that was like.

Link to map.

Images by Sailing Off the Big Apple from July 2018.

Chelsea Piers website https://www.chelseapiers.com/
Westbeth http://westbeth.org/
The Rusty Knot https://cargocollective.com/therustyknot
Ear Inn http://www.earinn.com/