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New York Harbor and the
Challenge of Philadelphia
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     New york’s emergence as the nation’s largest and most important city was based on its emergence as the main shipping hub of the United States. After it became the country’s preeminent port for international trade in 1797, reaching subsequent milestones seemed effortless: the largest population among American cities in 1803; the center of financial markets beginning around 1819; the center of immigration in 1820; the most active center for technological innovation in the 1820s; the undisputed center of American banking in the 1830s; and the nation’s most important manufacturing center by 1850.1 Both domestic and international shipping converged there, bringing commerce, news, fashion, and the immigrants that kept the city’s population growing. It was obvious to every visitor that New York’s economy was based on its harbor; Frances Trollope, writing in 1832, stated that New York “rises, like Venice, from the sea, and . . . receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”2
     The importance of shipping led both nineteenth-century contemporaries and more recent historians to argue that New York harbor itself was the reason New York became the nation’s metropolis. If its harbor was