For the past 25 years, Chelsea Piers has been known as a huge sports complex and events venue, where one can do anything from hit golf balls to throw gutter balls. But when the original Chelsea Piers opened in 1910, they were actual, functional shipping piers where luxury ocean liners were welcomed and waved off.
The city conceived of the piers as far back as the 1880s, to accommodate the ever-larger trans-Atlantic freight and passenger ships. It planned for the new piers to be situated on the Hudson River between 12th and 23rd Streets. This, however, required razing 13th Avenue, which had been created from landfill in 1837 only to become the site of garbage dumps, cockfighting rings, and other unsavory establishments. (A block of the avenue remained, as it was the locale of the West Washington Street Market, at Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. Later dubbed Gansevoort Peninsula, it is now part of Hudson River Park.)
Warren and Whitmore, the architectural firm responsible for Grand Central Terminal, was hired to design the new piers in a grand manner befitting the grand vessels that would be docking there. When the Chelsea Piers—Piers 54 through 63—officially opened in 1910, they were a regal colonnade of pink-granite structures.
Cruise ships from the Cunard and White Star lines (which merged in 1934) accounted for most of the piers’ traffic in the early years. The most famous of the ships scheduled to dock at the piers never actually arrived: The “Titanic” was on its way to Pier 59 when it struck the deadly iceberg in April 1912. Three years later another British ocean liner, the “Lusitania,” departed from Pier 54 in May 1915 for what would be its final voyage, during which it was torpedoed by a German submarine as the naval blockades of World War I intensified. When the U.S. joined the war two years later, it cited the sinking of the “Lusitania” as a reason.
By the 1930s, as ocean liners grew bigger still, larger docks were being built uptown, between 46th and 54th Streets. Once the New York Cruise Terminal opened in 1935, the Chelsea Piers were used primarily for freighters. However, the 1936 U.S. team departed from Pier 60 for the Summer Olympics in Berlin. At the games, African American runner Jesse Owens won four gold medals, dramatically disproving Nazi Germany’s propaganda about Aryan superiority. When the team returned from Berlin to the Chelsea Piers, they were greeted by massive crowds. Crowds were also a common sight during World War II, as numerous ships deploying troops departed from the piers.
The last passenger ships sailed from the Chelsea Piers in 1958 and the last cargo ships in 1967. For a time some of the piers were used as warehouses. Pier 59 became a repair shop for sanitation department vehicles, Pier 60 was used as a city tow pound, and Pier 62 became an impound station for U.S. Customs. Piers 54 and 55 were incorporated into Hudson River Park. (Pier 55 is now being converted into Little Island, a floating public park funded by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg that is scheduled to open in spring 2021.)
In the early 1990s a private venture bought the rights to convert Piers 59 through 62 into a recreation center, and in 1995 the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex opened. Today the piers encompass a golf club, ice rinks, a bowling alley, a pool, soccer fields, basketball courts, batting cages, a rock wall, and a spa. The center is also home to a daycare and preschool facility, day camps, sports leagues, classes, and event spaces for hosting everything from weddings to media events. And in keeping with its heritage, Chelsea Piers does still serve as a pier. Yacht charters, day sails, and dinner cruises still come and go, though instead of traveling across the Atlantic they content themselves with navigating the Hudson River.
The History of Chelsea Piers