Port Richmond is a small hamlet on the northern coast of Staten Island. Bordering the Kill Van Kull, it was once a vibrant harbor town, making its money from shipbuilding and ferrying people to and from the transportation hub. For two hundred years prior to the Staten Island Expressway (and more importantly the Verrazano Bridge), it connected routes leading to and from what are today Bayonne, Perth Amboy, inland Staten Island and its North Shore, and other points south and west of New York City.
Much of Port Richmond sits on a narrow stretch of what is known geologically as the ‘Palisades Sill,’ surrounded by the Brunswick and Stockton Geologic Formations, which are from a similar time and history. The 200-million-year-old Palisades Sill, an underground upheaval, extends down from Newburgh to New Jersey; it is most visible at the Palisades, a cliff-face extending north from the George Washington Bridge for about twenty miles. Its route can be roughly traced on the Palisades Interstate Parkway. Sections of the Palisades Sill can also be seen near the Bayonne Bridge, albeit less impressively. Much of Newark Bay and the Lower Hudson River Valley follow the formation’s undersea counterparts to the ocean – or rather, a lake just inland from the ocean, bottled in by the isthmus crossing the Narrows. When glacial moraine broke through the Narrows about 10,000 years ago, the draining of the ‘dammed’ lake left the waterways we know today.
Despite the fact that the town sits on top of a major geological formation, there are few changes in terrain to indicate such. The town is at or near sea level, with the inland areas slightly higher in elevation; elevation ranges between 20 and 60 feet, topping out at 150 feet nearing Clove Lakes. Aside from the geology, barely noticeable at the surface, Port Richmond’s topography is consistent with what would be found on the Atlantic Coastal Plain – near sea level, with little to no topographical change. We would assume that if left in its natural state, Port Richmond’s landscape would begin to mimic that of undeveloped sections across the river, with moderate-to-dense woodland.
Port Richmond is named for the natural harbor that it forms along the Kill Van Kull, an inlet connecting Lower New York Bay in the east to Newark Bay in the west. One of the only two routes leading to New Jersey’s extensive dockyards, it is unquestionably one of the most heavily-traveled waterways in New York Harbor. [The other route is along Arthur Kill on the west coast of Staten Island.] New Jersey is on the mainland, and therefore a better transit hub logistically than Staten Island would have made; New Jersey is therefore home to the impressive slips of Port Elizabeth and Bayonne, among others. Due to this heavy maritime traffic, the Kill Van Kull needs to be consistently dredged, and a plan to raise the Bayonne Bridge to accommodate larger ships is already being undertaken. Yet, Port Richmond was a port before this infrastructure was in place; it forms a crescent shape along the water, providing a cove for small craft seeking shelter from the tidal strait.
Geographically and geologically, Port Richmond was always a natural harbor. As a transportation hub, it could provide ferries to Bergen Point daily, and quickly prospered economically; its advantages were touted for almost three hundred years. It is a pity that Port Richmond has sunken under the pressure of large dockyards on the mainland and the lack of demand for ferry service, shipping, or shopping; this has occurred continuously for fifty years, when the opening of the Staten Island Expressway and the Verrazano Bridge took the traffic away from the area. Port Richmond became impoverished and forgotten; today, with the exception of Faber Park, the once-proud waterfront has turned into an industrial zone. It is disconcerting, as the little town had great promise since its inception. However, unless people remember what the little harbor was good for, the town will forever remain a desolate slice of civilization.
Bayles, Richard M. Chapter 2 – “Natural History of the Island.” History of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York, from its Discovery to the Present Time. New York: L.E. Preston, 1887.
Papas, Phillip and Lori R. Weintrob. Images of America: Port Richmond. Chicago: Arcadia, 2009.