John Wolfe Ambrose, Battery Park

John Wolfe Ambrose, Battery Park

John Wolfe Ambrose monument, 1936. Bust: Andrew O’Connor, Jr. Relief: Frederick G.R. Roth. Architect: Aymar Embury II.
  • Original bust by Andrew O’Connor, Jr, created ca. 1900; recreated ca. 2017. Monument dedicated 1936, with map of New York Harbor by Frederick G.R. Roth, architect Aymar Embury II.
  • Medium: Bronze bust in Stony Creek granite setting, with gilt.
  • Location: Battery Park, south side of State Street between Pearl and Water Streets.

New York grew into a great commercial center in large part because it had a well-protected, deep-water harbor that was never closed off by ice.
Even after the railroad boom of the nineteenth century, shipping by water remained the cheapest method of transportation. But the giant clipper ships that circled the globe in the late nineteenth century needed a deeper harbor than New York’s.

Ambrose, born in Ireland in 1838, is largely responsible for fixing that problem. A Princeton- and New York University-educated engineer, he lobbied Congress for funds to dredge channels to Red Hook and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, where the water was only eight feet deep at high tide. (The Wavertree, now docked at South Street Seaport, draws 22 feet when loaded.) That done, Ambrose promoted the dredging of a channel from the Atlantic to the Narrows. In 1899, after eighteen years of effort by Ambrose, Congress appropriated money for a channel that would be 2000 feet wide and forty feet deep at low tide. Starting at Sandy Hook, the new channel cut six miles off the previous shallow, dangerously circuitous route to the Narrows. The completed channel was named after Ambrose: his monument includes a map of it. (The Verrazzano Bridge now links Fort Wadsworth and Fort Hamilton.)

John Wolfe Ambrose monument, dedicated 1936. Relief: Frederick G.R. Roth. Architect: Aymar Embury II.

At a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1899, Theodore Roosevelt, who had led the Rough Riders in Cuba a year earlier, introduced Ambrose as the man whose efforts had made New York’s the harbor the finest in the world. The sentiment is paraphrased on the monument: “Dedicated by the City of New York to John Wolfe Ambrose for whom the Deep Sea Channel is Named. His vision, scientific knowledge and indefatigable courage aided in making New York the greatest Sea Port of the World.”

Ambrose died before work on the channel began. Congress named the channel after him two years later.

More

  • The far end of the Ambrose Channel was originally marked not by a lighthouse but by a lightship, also named after Ambrose. It has been replaced by a floating Texas Tower lighthouse. The Lightship Ambrose, docked at South Street Seaport, is now a museum.
  • The bust of Ambrose was given to his children by his friends soon after Ambrose’s death. He has the most remarkable set of mutton-chop whiskers I’ve ever seen! In the 1930s the family donated the bust to the city. Aymar Embury II, favored architect of Robert Moses and the NYC Parks Department, designed at setting. Frederick G.R. Roth (creator of Balto and chief sculptor for the NYC Parks Department) created a map of the harbor for the base. The monument was dedicated in 1936 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In the 1950s it was relocated from the New York Aquarium at Castle Clinton to the wall of the concession building in Battery Park. The bust was stolen in 1990. Its niche remained empty for the next 27 years, until the bust was recreated in 2017 – part of the Battery Park renovation after massive work on the subway system under the park. See the New York City Parks Department’s site for more details.
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John Wolfe Ambrose monument with the bust missing, ca. 2014. Photo copyright © 2014 Dianne L. Durante
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