John Wolfe Ambrose, an Irish immigrant who arrived in New York in 1851, rose to prominence as an engineer, ultimately spearheading the deepening and widening of the channels leading into New York Harbor.
John Wolfe Ambrose was born January 10, 1838, in Newcastle West, Ireland, and as a child immigrated with his family to the United States. A classic example of rags-to-riches immigrant success, he saved enough from his youthful hard work to attend the schools now known as New York University and Princeton. Following his studies, he advocated for reform of city government and reorganized its Street Cleaning Department. He turned his attention to construction, establishing companies that built entirely the Second Avenue Elevated Railroad and much of the Avenue El.
In the 1880s, Ambrose founded the 39th Street Ferry to connect Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building with the South Brooklyn Railroad & Terminal Company, which he also founded. These were early steps in achieving his grand vision of making The Battery into New York’s great entrance and concentrating all of Long Island’s railroad traffic to this area through his terminal railroad and ferry companies.
Ambrose recognized the need for extensive dredging of New York Harbor and deepening of nearby Sandy Hook Bay to attract ships large enough to realize his plan for world-leading commercial and passenger traffic. He successfully lobbied the United States Congress for funding to improve various channels in New York’s Upper Bay and ultimately the great channel from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to New York Harbor.
In 1900, the year following his death, the New York State Legislature named that channel after Ambrose. More than a century after it opened in 1914, Ambrose Channel remains the main entrance into New York Harbor from the Atlantic Ocean. The Lightship Ambrose, which guided ships safely through the channel from 1908 to 1932 is now a registered National Historic Landmark open to the public at Lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport Museum.
A monument to Ambrose was originally installed in the New York Aquarium at Castle Clinton in the 1930s. It was relocated elsewhere in the park in the 1950s. The monument contains a bust of Ambrose set within a map of Lower New York Bay that highlights Ambrose Channel, and a statement that reads “his vision, scientific knowledge, and indefatigable courage aided in making New York the greatest seaport of the world.” Ambrose’s bust was stolen from his monument in 1990. The monument was restored and the bust recreated as part of The Battery’s parkwide revitalization.
On May 15, 2018, the 119th anniversary of Ambrose’s death, the monument was unveiled with a rededication ceremony.
The program began with bagpipes played by piper Robert Patrick Lynch and remarks by Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Warrie Price, president of The Battery Conservancy, Jonathan Boulware, executive director of the South Street Seaport Museum, Kerry O’Sullivan, Vice Consul General of Ireland, and journalist and author Marian Betancourt. Ambrose’s great-niece spoke on the lasting legacy of the Ambrose family and many descendants were in attendance to unveil the refurbished memorial to their innovative ancestor.