Ward Line Pier and other related sites

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Spring-like weather plagued New York earlier this week, and as the saying goes "in spring a middle aged man's fancy turns toward thoughts of notorious incidents in NYC History" so my friend Tim and I opted to take a late afternoon walk down Wall Street to the site of the former Ward Line pier. We wanted to see what, if anything, remained of the site from which the Morro Castle departed for the final time on September 1, 1934, and to which the Oriente returned on the Wednesday following the fire. She carried with her at least six Morro Castle passengers who 'missed the boat' in Havana - which was probably the luckiest mistake any of them ever made- and, belowdecks, the body of a Morro Castle crewman who had fallen ill in Havana and died in the hospital after Morro Castle departed for New York and disaster.
It was late afternoon and the canyons of Wall and Broad Street were rapidly darkening as we set out.
Many paused to admire the American Flag composed of holiday lights which decorated the Stock Exchange's main facade on Broad Street, which was JUST becoming noticeable as the light faded....

However, what drew our attention was not the pretty display at the "heart of the financial district," but a reminder of the bad old days located across the street and around the corner from NYSE on Wall Street.

What we found of interest was the still-visible reminders on the facade of the Morgan Guarantee building of that dark day in September when terrorism laid waste to lower Manhattan. Not, of course, September 11 2001, but September 16, 1920....
On that noon, a wagon paused in front of the Assay Office across Wall Street from J.P. Morgan's building at #23. Shortly thereafter, wagon, horse, and -possibly- occupants 'vaporised' as the cargo of TNT laced with sash weights and metal fragments detonated. At least 30 died at the scene, with ten or more later dying of injuries. Windows throughout lower Manhattan shattered, and hundreds on Wall and Broad Street were injured. Few clues remained as to the 'who' and 'why' of the event. Some fragments of the wagon, and the hooves of the unfortunate horse were the best that the authorities had to work with and the case is still unsolved. Two most popular theories are that it was the work of anarchists, or a bunbled robbery attempt- $900 million worth of gold was being moved into the Assay Office that day. The chunks dug out of the Morgan Guarantee Trust Building by the flying shrapnel were deliberately left unrepaired, and are still very much in evidence.

This crater is about the size of a regulation softball.
Just around the corner from this spot, and unphotographable in the murk, was the site of NY's first armed bank robbery (1831) at 52 Wall Street, at William. Two blocks further down William Street (known then as Jew's Alley) was the spot where the egregious Negro Revolt Plot of 1741 was born. A grocery on that site was robbed, followed a while later by a series of suspicious fires in the neighborhood. One can start a good argument among historians by posing for debate whether what happened next was mass hysteria or an abortive slave uprising, but it culminated with 13 blacks being executed by burning at the stake and 17 blacks and 4 whites being executed by hanging for conspiring to bring down the government. The narrowness of the street exacerbated the gloom, and photos were not taken. After pausing to scope out the general area where Doctor Crippen once had his office, we headed down to the former Ward Line Pier site, which from a distance looked invitingly sunny.....
Pier 13, at the foot of Wall St. served as "NYC's Gateway To Cuba and Mexico" prior to 1941. Each weekend the Morro Castle would arrive and depart for Havana; each midweek her sister ship Oriente would do the same; and the serviceable but lightyears less elaborate Siboney, Orizaba and Havana would leave and return at intervals through the week for Havana and Vera Cruz, Mexico. In the off season Morro and Oriente would add Mexico, and longer cruises, to their schedules.

Here is a view of Oriente departing from Pier 13 after the Morro Castle fire- note that the white bands on her funnels have been painted over, allegedly to lessen the resemblance between her and her ill fated sister.
In 2006 nothing remains of the former Ward Line (actually, New York and Cuba Mail Line, to use the formal name) terminal structure, but a pier is there, unused, between the Seaport's busy Pier 17, and Pier 11 where, at the time of our visit, a long line of Financial District employees waited to board various ferries to New Jersey.

At the quiet pier it is easy to imagine the various events which took place here 1933-'34. One can place where the angry anti-Machado protesters would meet the Morro Castle after several of his underlings escaped to the US aboard her in 1933; on at least one occasion the bomb squad was waiting as well. One can imagine Clifford Odets and 17 other "New York Radicals" disembarking here from the Oriente after being deported from Cuba aboard her. It was at this slip that police and a motorboat offloading illegal liquor from the Orizaba got into a gun battle. And it was here that people like Sydney and Dolly Davidson, and Louise Taubert, gathered on the afternoon of September 1 1934 anticipating a pleasant week long vacation.....

Dolly Davidson (on left) NYC showgirl, model and film player was embarking on her honeymoon. Louise was taking a late summer trip with two friends from Providence, Rhode Island. On the morning of the fire, Sydney and Dolly Davidson were awakened- as were most of the survivors- by the commotion in their hallway. And, like most passengers, they stood no chance of making it to the lifeboats. They jumped from the stern wearing lifebelts and beat the odds by not breaking their necks upon entering the water. Eventually, they became part of a large group who supported one another in the storm until lifeboats from the Monarch of Bermuda found and rescued them. Louise Taubert, and her friends Flora LaRoche and Ann Conroy, found themselves trapped by the fire forward on C Deck. A crew member directed them to an enclosed crew staircase by which they were easily able to reach the boat deck. However, when they reached the deck, fire was pouring out of the windows of the suites and officers' quarters, and was blowing up from the Promenade Deck as well. Miss LaRoche and Miss Conroy 'steeled themselves' and ran into the flames, becoming two of fewer than a dozen Morro Castle women to escape by her boats. Louise Taubert hesitated and lost her opportunity to survive. When her body was recovered, however, she had drowned, which leads me to believe that after her 'fatal' hesitation she somehow made her way to the stern and evacuated from one of the lower decks with the majority of the passengers...

(1934 Dolly Davidson portrait from the collection of Anthony Cunningham, courtesy of the late Dolly McTigue. 1934 Louise Taubert portrait, private collection)
It was also here that friends and family members gathered on the morning of the fire. Most were anticipating meeting passengers at the 9AM disembarkation, although some already knew of the fire from early radio bulletins and went to pier 13 as the logical place to receive up to the minute news. That afternoon, as people waited at Pier 13 for news of Morro Castle survivors and known victims, the Iroquois departed from here as the substitute vessel. A number of papers reported that a honeymoon couple was given the traditional 'rice salute' as they boarded while mourners on the pier gasped.


The view here is from the ferry terminal at Pier 11, across Pier 13 to the Wavertree at South Street Seaport.
An attractive August 1934 passenger list and directory from Clyde-Mallory Line's Iroquois, which AGWI, parent company to both lines, transfered to the Ward Line as a substitute for the Morro Castle. Iroquois was soon returned the Clyde-Mallory service, and survived until the 1980s. Oriente, arguably the most elaborate American built liner of its day, remained in service through 1941, was requisitioned for war service and never returned to the passenger trade, being scrapped in 1957.
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