Notes: How Did NYC Get Initial Traction, Compared to Philadelphia and Boston?

Some notes from: Urban Colossus: Why is New York Ameria’s Largest City?

The Early City: 1624–1790

  • In 1626, The Dutch bought the Island of Manhattan from Native Americans for cheap. The Dutch called it “New Amsterdam.” Manhattan became the center of trade because it was easier to defend from natives because it was surrounded by water.
  • The town was conquered by the English, and they named it “New York” after the king. They continued the trade with the Dutch West India Company. At this point, NY’s trade rivals were Boston and Philadelphia.
  • Compared to Boston, NY’s land was better. Also, NY’s Hudson River was longer and wider than Boston’s Charles River.
  • Compared to Philadelphia, NY had more Dutch heritage, so trading with the Dutch was easier.
  • Compared to both Boston and Philadelphia, NY was irreligious from the start. Boston had (and was started by) tons of Puritans, and Philadelphia had tons (and was started by) of Quakers. So NY had less barrier for trade and attracted more heterogeneous immigrants.
  • However, up until 1790, Boston, NY, and Philadelphia were roughly the same scale.

The Rise to Dominance: 1790-1860

  • Technological Advance: In 19th century, trans-Atlantic ships became larger, carrying more weight. Average cargo weight 2x~5x’ed.
  • Heavier ships require more water depth (see: Draft on Wikipedia). Big problem: The harbors of Boston and Philadelphia were not deep enough for huge ships.
  • Furthermore, NY was centrally located, geographically. Erie canal also opened up in 1825, fostering access to the Midwest.
  • So the logical conclusion was this: make NY the transport hub. Goods were gathered in NY, then deploy huge ships to carry them across the Atlantic.
  • In conclusion: small advantages (water depth and geographical location), amplified by technological advancement, made NY beat Boston and Philadelphia. In 1820, NY’s exports and Boston’s exports were about the same. In 1860, NY’s exports were almost 10x Boston’s.