But a new book called On The Waterfront: The Great Ships of Hoboken by William H. Miller, a teacher and maritime author with over 60 title credits to his name, shows that the city's shipping history was made up of a rich and complex tapestry.
The book, which is published by the Hoboken Historical Museum, has over 170 photographs and illustrations that explore the range of shipping and commerce prevalent in the city, especially in the first half of the 20th century.
From the height of the great German shipping lines, to the use as the port of embarkation for the First World War, to the city's era as a booming commercial shipping hub, Miller paints a vivid picture of what Hoboken used to be like. A lifelong pursuit
Miller says that as a boy, the working waterfront enraptured him.
"It was my very own maritime playground - watching the ships, seeing them repaired and offloading cargo and carrying travelers off to distant shores," he writes in the book's preface.
Miller's book begins at the turn of the century, with the rise of two of the biggest and busiest ship owners of their day, the North German Lloyd and the Hamburg America lines. The German lines transported wealthy passengers to America, but the poor immigrants were also aboard in lower-class steerage.
"With four ships, the North German Lloyd could offer their customers a prized service: a sailing between Hoboken and Northern Europe every week aboard one of the largest and finest liners," he writes. "In particular, the first class-ensconced millionaire set loved this."
According to Miller, between 1900 and 1914, the start of the First World War, 12.5 million immigrants crossed the Atlantic to the America: 500,000 from Germany, 2.5 million from Russia and the Baltic countries, and 3 million from Italy.
Coming of war
James Crosson, who wrote the forward to the book, talks about the fundamental shift that occurred during the First World War.
"By 1917, Hoboken became notable in global history as the principal port of embarkation for the 'immortal' doughboys bound for the sinister trenches of war-torn Europe," he writes. "The rabid cry of that First World War soon became "Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken by Christmas. As they steamed off, often on confiscated German Ships, there were their three choices once on the cruel battlefield of far-off France."
After the war, Crosson noted, "Hoboken regained its rightful place for decades to come as one of the hearts of trans-ocean shipping."
Working on the piers
Much of Miller's book delves into not only the ships that populated Hoboken's shore, but also the people who worked on those ships.
On of the more fascinating accounts is from longshoreman Donald "Red" Barrett, who was interviewed about his experiences working the American Export piers in the 1950sand '60s.
"We handled all kinds of cargo on the American Export piers," Barrett says. "Almost every day we were busy. We would have six, seven, even eight ships to handle, turn them around and get them back to sea."
He added that working in Hoboken was better than some other places, but still the corruption was evident. "The Hoboken piers were better than, say, the Brooklyn docks," he said. "The Hoboken piers were easier, more lenient, when in Brooklyn it was said the bosses 'used a whip.' The hiring hall was located above the Hoboken City Hall. It was selective. You needed connections. We did not have guaranteed work until the 1960s."
On the Waterfront
The mob-run piers were exposed in the 1954 film On the Waterfront. The film, which was shot on location in Hoboken in 36 days, won eight Academy Awards, most notably Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando.
Miller's book gives several keen insights about the filming of On the Waterfront and about the time period. Miller quotes Stephen Fox, an author and maritime historian, about the working conditions at the pier around the filming of On the Waterfront.
Fox says the corruption was actually declining by the 1950s.
"Changes on the docks, including Hoboken, actually began 10 years before, in World War II, and well ahead of the 1950s era of On the Waterfront," Fox is quoted as saying. "Some longshoremen were actually decorated for bravery and special effort. During the war, there was more than enough work. The war also produced a new generation of workers. They were rebellious, strong, and quite simply would not take any crap. Then there were the 'Quickies,' spontaneous strikes and work stoppages, plus exposés in the newspapers such as Malcolm Johnson's reports in the New York Sun in the late '40s. The lid was simply blown off."
One of the gems of the book is the photography of Ben Fernandez, who worked at and photographed the longshoreman at Bethlehem Steel on the city's northern waterfront.
Miller said that many people do not realize how large and important Bethlehem Steel was to Hoboken's working waterfront.
"Nowadays, it is all remade as shops, parkland, and, of course, mostly expensive apartments," says Miller in the book. "But on that same site in the northwestern part of Hoboken was once the busy, bustling, teeming home of Bethlehem Steel Shipyard."
He adds, "It was a large New York Harbor repair facility with no less than six floating dry docks, two floating cranes and two tugboats of their own, along with workshops, offices and even its own mini-hospital." Fernandez's father, Benedict Fernandez II, worked at Bethlehem Steel in Hoboken from 1936 to 1983. Bethlehem Steel was located on the exact site of the Hoboken Historical Museum, which recently displayed Fernandez's photographs.