It costs usurious and confiscatory amounts of money to get to Staten Island from Brooklyn or New Jersey by auto on any one of four bridges, but getting there by boat from Manhattan is free of charge.

I ride the Staten Island Ferry on weekends for the most part, which is when I go to Staten Island, especially in fall and winter when the leaves are down, for neighborhood shoots. On the weekend I often find myself one of the few New Yorkers on the boat and one of the few nontourists (though I consider myself a tourist in my own city), and mostly everyone exits the boat at the terminal and gets the next boat back to Manhattan; simply riding back and forth between Staten Island and Manhattan on the same boat is not permitted. Needless to say, I find Staten Island as interesting, if not more interesting, than the other four boroughs — New York is truly blessed to be a “water city” that was built along estuaries, rivers and on islands, and has multiple bridges built over the course of two centuries, with more on the way (the new Kosciuszko Bridge between Greenpoint and Maspeth is due to open by the end of the 2010s).

There is one ferryboat I’m always glad to board.  Just as I’m happy to get a Long Island Rail Road M3 trainset, which was instituted in 1972 (see Comments), or R-46 subway cars, which started rolling the same year (see Comments), I like to be on the John F. Kennedy ferryboat, because it’s the oldest boat in the fleet and retains most of its original design.


The JFK was first launched in 1965, when Robert F. Wagner was serving out his final year (of twelve) as mayor, and was of course named for the 35th US President elected in 1960 and murdered in Dallas, Texas in 1963. Thus, with little fanfare, the JFK celebrated its golden anniversary in 2015.

The John F. Kennedy can safely transport 3500 passengers, is 297 feet (91 m) long, 69 feet, 10 inches (21.3 m) wide, weighs approximately 2110 gross tons, runs on 7000 horsepower engines and runs at an average speed of 16 knots, or 30 MPH. After 50 years of service it is still considered the safest boat in the fleet.

The JFK is due to be retired before the end of the decade, however. New ferryboat designs are being discussed, and since the JFK is considered a crowd pleaser with plenty of outdoor deck space for sightseeing and more than adequate seating (though I have not rode the ferryboat during rush hour), new designs are said to be hewing more closely to the JFK’s design that the more recent class, which has been deficient as far as outdoor seating is concerned; i’m also not a fan of the multicolored plastic seats on the newer boats.


The windows have rounded edges and heating vents are right along the windows. In spots, windows can open if you are seated inside but still desire a cool breeze in the warm months.

The seating is bench-style (as opposed to individual plastic seating) and the seats are wood with a lacquer finish that is carefully maintained. Decades-old etchings still remain in the seats — I will not go so far as to endorse vandalism, so don’t go scratching the seats — but I’ll present photos of them here to show the boat’s venerable state.


As the boat passes treasures of the harbor such as the Statue of Liberty, the rounded windows serve as a picture frame. You do have to wait to center the object just so — I shot this just a second too early and hence, it isn’t quite centered. Remember, the boat moves at about 30 MPH.


All Staten Island ferryboats have a snack bar and all of them still have anachronistic signs for “films and cameras”; film has returned once again to the realm of professional photographers, with most laypeople reduced to snapping with their portable telephones. I use a Panasonic Lumix digital camera.


Think of the revenue the Metropolitan Transit Authority would earn if the ferry cost $2.75, to match the bus and subway fares. SI ferryboats are almost always packed with commuters in the mornings and evenings, and tourists in the hours between and after. Is it time to begin thinking about a ferry fare in  a time when the MTA is always strapped for money, no matter how high the fare is raised? Some Staten Island politicians think so, and have floated plans to charge tourists a fare, but not commuters. I have no idea how the difference would be ascertained without an elaborate screening process at either terminal. At this point a fare is unlikely.


The JFK has plenty of standing room on the fore and aft decks and people take advantage, no matter how cold the weather. Life jackets are stored in a bin on the roof. Note the traditional ferry lighting, an incandescent bulb in glass surrounded by a metal frame.


While outdoor side seating is available on the JFK, most passengers prefer to stand and move about to maximize the available scenery on both sides of the boat.


The John F. Kennedy has just a few years left. Ride it now to experience old-style NYC ferryboating at its best. Plenty of other ferries are running — especially the East River Ferry connecting points in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens — but there’s no substitute for the Staten Island.







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18 Responses to JOHN F. KENNEDY FERRY

  1. Joe Korman says:

    Because the subway/bus Metrocards get you free transfers between the SI Railway, the SI buses and any bus/subway in Manhattan, what’s the point of charging for the ferry? Most of the commuters and tourists probably use the subway or bus to get to the ferry. It’s not worth the expense to maintain fare collections for the ferry. About the only commuters who get a fully free ride are those who live near St. George and work near Whitehall St and can walk at both ends of their trip.

    And point of information, the SI Ferry is run by the City Department of Transportation.

  2. Andy says:

    I would like to correct the initial years of the Long Island Rail Road and subway cars mentioned in this posting. LIRR M3 cars first entered service in 1985; 150 of the original 174 are still in use. The M3s are outwardly similar to the 770 M1 cars, all retired since 2006, which were placed in service between 1968 and 1972. The R-46 subway cars ran initially in 1975, and the majority of the 745 in the initial fleet still run. These cars are similar in appearance to the 352 R-44 cars, which went into service in 1972 and are now retired from the NYC subway fleet but still provide all service on the Staten Island Railway.

  3. Larry says:

    The kosher style hot dogs were delicious to eat on a ferry ride in my youth, especially at just 15 cents ea…along with a piping hot chocolate, on a cold winter’s day in the cabin….

  4. Visitor says:

    As a former Staten Islander who remembers when the Ferry cost a nickel and the JFK was new (my favorite ferryboat was “Gold Star Mother”, because of the name) I have to say that the idea of charging for Ferry again is unfair. Staten Islanders often have to pay a fare to get to the Ferry and an additional fare once they reach Manhattan. Many of them can’t afford cars, which is a very expensive proposition on Staten Island.

    Perhaps tourists could be charged, but that would require Staten Islanders to have an ID card and people to check.

  5. chris says:

    I think the JFK is still an oil-fired steam turbine engined vessel,which is kind of like
    the LIRR still running steam locomotives unless of course its engine has been already
    been converted to a more fuel efficient diesel engine

    • Bill Liedy says:

      JFK has a single shaft, diesel electric drive. No more steam 🙁

    • Bill says:

      The Kennedy was and always has been diesel electric drive. It and its sister ships The Herbert H. Lehman and the American Legion were the first in the Si Ferry fleet to feature that type of propulsion. It has separate shafts and propulsion motors for each propeller on each end. The propeller on the front end freewheels to minimize resistance when it’s not propelling the boat.

  6. RM says:

    I miss being able to take a car on the ferry – in the 70s my father and I would make the trip when we had no money and nothing to do.

    Today riding the ferry is still fun, the views are terrific and it’s good to get some fresh air.

  7. NY2AZ says:

    As I recall, the JFK was featured in a vintage TV ad for Frosted Mini Wheats cereal. I searched but could not locate it, however. If more resourceful followers of this site can locate it, please post.

  8. John says:

    Another new bridge worth mentioning is the new Goethals Bridge between S.I. and Elizabeth, NJ. It is to be a cable stayed type. Opening is planned in the late 2010s by the P.A. 3 12 foot lanes in each direction, a pedestrian walkway, with room for a car pool and mass transit option. Once the new one opens, the old 1928 cantilever truss bridge will be removed.

  9. Jimmy C says:

    Wow, this really brought me back! I grew up on SI, and while I still visit my family there fairly often, I rarely take the ferry anymore. And I haven’t had the luck to catch the JFK in probably 7 years! The newer ones feel synthetic and kind of soulless, and the Alice Austen, sadly, is tiny, has no outdoor seating, and is just plain homely. I believe there’s another one called the Frank Barbaro that is a bit better – but it’s no JFK!
    I’m so glad to see the JFK getting its due – and that it’s still being used! I sadly assumed it had been retired in the last five years or so. What a pleasure to hear it’s well-regarded for both its safety and aesthetics, and a source of inspiration for future designs. Warms the soul, it does. I’ll make sure I get the ride this old treasure at least one more time.

    • John says:

      The Andrew Barberi is named after the Curtis’ H.S. football coach. It is one of 2 of the large 6,000 passenger ferries. The Noble, named after S.I. waterfront artist, is the other small ferry (Austen class) used for late night runs. New ferries are in the design stage. It is hoped that they will be modeled after the Kennedy class.(Kennedy, Gov. Lehman, American Legion II, 1965).

  10. Renée Neumann says:

    Kevin, it’s a very different experience when one must commute to work daily on the SI Ferry during rush hour! During the 1960’s-’70s we used to call it “the cattle boat” because of the thousands of commuters packed onto every boat, including the JFK, with no empty seats except on the lower level which used to be the smoking section. I wonder if the snack bars still sell pretzels, and whether riders still throw them or other snack foods to the seagulls? I remember many entertaining times as a child, teenager and working adult, watching those amazingly acrobatic birds who more often than not catch the bits of food in mid-flight and would follow the boat five miles in both directions for free meals!

  11. jt bklyn says:

    Excellent article! Small detail – 16 knots is about 18.5 mph, not 30; it’s about 1.15miles per knot. (see table at

    It’s just as well that no fare is charged, it’s enough of an effort to get to & from SI. The cost to collect fares from a subset of passengers would probably not justify the effort. .

  12. Kiwiwriter says:

    You can’t see that ferryboat without hearing Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” from “Working Girl.”

  13. Tom says:

    One of the benefits touted with the introduction of metrorocards was that it eliminated two fare zones. Commuters could get anywhere in the city, all five boroughs, on one fare. If there was a cost to ride the ferry this would not be the case. If I remember correctly, this is the reason the fare was discontinued.

  14. T. says:

    Hi Everyone, my dad worked for the Marine and Aviation back in the day. He retired in the late 80’s. What fond memories as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. I would watch the ferries sail back and forth everyday from my grammer school window and even when I reached high school. My dad’s favorite ferries boats to work on were the American Legion, the Lehman, and of course the John F. Kennedy. So very proud of him. So lucky to have a dad who loved the sea and to love the Greatest city in the world – New York City.

  15. Clarence R Stephenson says:

    My father Norman D Stephenson Sr. was a US Navy WWII veteran and union boilermaker(Shipfitter) in the Levingston shipyard. He was a layout man on the construction of the JFK ferry hull and the Glomar Challenger drillship. I watched as a teenager of 14 from the banks of the marine ways, as the hull side-launched into the Sabine river in Orange, Texas. It was big news for our small town. Many of the employees were veterans of WWII, Korea, or Vietnam and considered some of the best tradesman in the US. I hope one day to ride the ferry before it or myself is laid to rest.

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