Today, when one ventures down the west side of lower Manhattan, at the foot of 14th Street and near all the commotion of the West Side Highway, there may not seem to be any immediate connection to the great Atlantic Liners of yesterday. However, upon closer inspection, there are many reminders of a bygone era. Perhaps more significant than any other such reminder is an abandoned pier given the simple number "54".
This pier was operated by the Cunard Line. In 1912, this pier was where the Carpathia landed all 705 of the Titanic's survivors. Three years later, this was the pier from which the great Lusitania departed on her last and ill-fated voyage.
Pier 54 was just one of a series of piers built along the lower west side of Manhattan. At the time of the Lusitania's maiden voyage in 1907, only a slab stretching into the North River existed; however, the inadequacies of working without a proper docking facility became manifest quickly. In response to the growing size of the Atlantic liners, the city of New York began to construct the piers that would become famous.
Above: The waterfront in late 1907, as the Lusitania finished her second west-bound voyage. The inadequacies of the docking facilities are obvious. Right: The Lusitania tied up at the piers while construction is underway. ~ Both, Library of Congress, Author's Collection.
Above: A photograph showing the end of one of the New York piers like No. 54. Given the stern of the ship on the south side of the pier apparently belonging to White Star, this is most likely Pier 59. ~ Author's Collection
Above: A period photograph taken from a Cunard ship as it departed Pier 54. ~ Author's Collection
What many do not know is that on May 6, 1932, Pier 54 caught fire and was virtually destroyed. Cunard had to sink a million dollars into rebuilding the structure, and the work took some time. During this period, crack Cunard ships docked at Hoboken.
Pier 54 ~ The Fire
Three views of the May 6, 1932 fire which destroyed the original Pier 54. The photographs were taken from a ship docked at White Star's Pier 59, (probably the Olympic, judging from a number of different lines of reference) and look south toward the blaze. Piers 58 and 57 (French Line) are visible. In the photo at left, a ship is departing the proximity of the fire. in the photos below, a crowd is gathering on the Poop Deck of the White Star liner. The smoke is thick as it drifts toward Hoboken. ~ Rickwood Collection. Not for re-use without written permission.
The re-built pier remained in use until Cunard's main terminus was moved upriver. As the years went by, Pier 54 fell into disrepair. The pier just to the north has been demolished, leaving only wooden piles as a reminder of where it once jutted into the Hudson (North) River. Finally, the Pier 54 building itself was removed, leaving behind a blank concrete pier with only the building's front frame left behind.
It is this remnant that is so clearly visible as one moves down the West Side Highway. Initially, there is no clue as to why this piece and this piece alone was left behind. When one moves in on foot, however, the pier number and the words "Cunard Line", as well as the words "Cunard-White Star Line" are clearly scarred into the steel where their letters fell off or have been removed.
Walking under the doorway and out onto the pier - due to become a public recreation area - is like stepping back in time. To the north, one can still see an identical building to that which formerly stood on Pier 54.
February 27, 2006: Last night, a Titanic documentary aired on The History Channel. At the very end of the show, they mentioned that Pier 54 was the New York pier where the Titanic was due to dock. This is not accurate. After reading this page, it should be abundantly clear that Pier 54 was a Cunard pier in 1912, and it would not have been logical for a White Star giant to tie up at a Cunard pier. The White Star pier was just north, No. 59. It does not exist today, having been torn down. Pier 54 does still remain, in part. It is true that Pier 54 plays a part in the Titanic story, however, since this was where the Cunard liner Carpathia tied up and landed the Titanic's survivors, after she had deposited the remaining lifeboats of the Titanic at White Star's Pier 59.
2. Another overall view, looking west toward pier.
3. Then and now... A historic photograph held up against today's reality - taken from almost the identical spot as the original.
4. Looking northwest.
5. Sign draped on front of building.
6. Left, lettering reads "CUNARD" and "CUN"
7. Middle, lettering reads "D LINE" and "HITE ST"
8. Right side, lettering reads "STAR".
9. Extreme closeup of lettering on pier building's front. Easily legible is the "D" from Cunard and the "H" from White-Star.
10. Standing under the remains, looking skyward - all of this was enclosed within the immense structure.
11. Pilings for Pier 55 in foreground. Building of Pier 56 - identical to Pier 54's old building, is plainly visible.
12. Details of Pier 56 building.
13. The west end of Pier 56.
14. More details of Pier 56.
15. Standing at northwest corner of Pier 54, looking east along north side, gives a great idea of how big this pier was - and how big the ships that docked here were.
16. Similar view to No. 15.
17. Looking east from west extremity of Pier 54 at the backside of the pier's building-front.
18. Standing on the end of Pier 54, looking south and west, in the distance stands the Statue of Liberty - the symbol to so many immigrants that their new life was beginning.
19. A remarkable comparison: This photograph was taken as the Lusitania was warped into Pier 54 just after the structure was completed. The angle of the photograph is very similar to that shown in photograph number 11 above. ~ Author's Collection.