Even with its flaws, New Yorkers already know that New York City is the greatest city in the world, but did you know that the East River isn’t a river at all or the highest natural point on the East Coast from Florida to Cape Cod can be found on Staten Island?
John Keatts, who has been a Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise guide for the past 30 years, is chockablock of tidbits like these, and he shared a few of his favorites with Metro. How many did you know?
The East … Ocean!?
Despite its name, the East River is not a river at all, but a saltwater tidal estuary.
“The lower part of Manhattan is 11 miles from open ocean, and the East River is part of the ocean system,” Keatts said. “It never freezes over, and there’s never chunks of ice floating like on the Hudson.”
The maritime disaster connection
The Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex has a tragic maritime past, starting in 1912 with the sinking of the RMS Titanic, whose maiden voyage was bound for Pier 59 when she sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg. More than 1,500 passengers were killed.
“If you come down the West Side Highway, along the waterfront near Chelsea Piers, there is an old, rusty sign that says Cunard White Star where she was due, and that’s all that remains of the docking that Titanic never got to,” Keatts said.
In 1918, the RMS Lusitania left Pier 54 next door and was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1,200 people. The sinking was among the factors that led to America’s involvement in World War I.
Only one president’s remains
While just two of the nation’s 45 presidents — Theodore Roosevelt and Donald Trump — were born in New York City, the remains of just one, well, remain: Ulysses S. Grant, whose tomb can be found on Riverside Drive in Harlem.
Grant was pretty penniless in his later years, so he and his wife moved to the city so he could pen his memoirs at the behest of close friend Mark Twain.
“The only reason they didn’t leave is because he died before the book was published,” Keatts said. To raise money for his widow, Julia, Twain’s book tour for “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” instead promoted Grant’s memoir, which became such a huge success it started the trend of memoirs by former presidents.
Between Brooklyn and Governors Island is a small tidal strait known as Buttermilk Channel that dairy farmers used to cross to sell their milk in Manhattan or bring their cattle to graze on what was known then as Nutten Island.
“On stormy days, with boats bouncing in the water, Dutch farmers said they would get buttermilk from the cows that night,” Keatts said.
Ice Age developer
Thanks to the Ice Age, Staten Island is home to the highest point of land on the East Coast from Florida to Cape Cod.
“Any lightweight rock was ground up by the power of one mile of ice above Manhattan Island — all debris ground up by the power of the ice, which would be primarily lightweight rock, was pushed ahead and forms what is now Todt Hill of Staten Island,” Keatts said.
Ever wonder why so many Manhattan streets and avenues form rectangles?
“In order to get light down to the streets at midday, too many tall buildings would create shadow, so Manhattan has height and weight restrictions for buildings. The number of skyscrapers on any block is limited and set far enough apart on a rectangle that light can reach the street,” Keats explained.
With so much development in New York City, you may have heard the term “air rights,” and yes, that means you can literally sell the air above your building to someone else. Trump famously bought neighboring Tiffany’s air rights for $5 million to build Trump Tower.
“Let us assume that a big building on your block has been authorized to build to 100 floors and you are authorized to build 30 floors, but only plan 20,” Keatts said. “You can then sell the 10 floors you are not building to someone else, such as to that 100-floor building, who can now go to 110 floors.”