In the 18th century, ferry service between Staten Island and the city of New York was conducted by private individuals with "periaugers", shallow-draft, twin-mast sailboats used for local traffic in New York harbor. In the early 19th century, Vice President (and former New York governor) Daniel D. Tompkins secured a charter for the Richmond Turnpike Company, as part of his efforts to develop the village of Tompkinsville. All though this was intended to build a highway across Staten Island, the company also received the right to run a ferry to New York. The Richmond Turnpike Company is the direct ancestor of the current municipal ferry, the Staten Island Ferry.
In 1817 the Richmond Turnpike Company began to run the first mechanically powered ferry between New York and Staten Island, the steam-powered Nautilus. It was commanded by Captain John De Forest, the brother-in-law of a young man named Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1838 Vanderbilt, who had grown wealthy in the steamboat business in New York waters, bought control of the company. Except for a brief period in the 1850s, he would remain the dominant figure in the ferry service until the Civil War, when he sold it to the Staten Island Railway, led by his brother Jacob Vanderbilt.
During the 1850s, Staten Island developed rapidly, and the ferry accordingly grew in importance. But the poor condition of the boats became a source of chronic complaint, as did the limited schedule. The opening of the Staten Island Railway in 1860 increased traffic further and newer boats were acquired, named after the towns of Richmond County which covered the whole of Staten Island. One of these ferries, the Westfield, came to grief when its boiler exploded while sitting in its slip at South Ferry (Manhattan)at about 1:30 in the afternoon of July 30, 1871 The New York Times described the disaster. Within days of the disaster, some 85 were identified as dead and hundreds injured, and several more were added to the death toll in the weeks following. Jacob Vanderbilt, president of the Staten Island Railway, was arrested for murder, though he escaped conviction. The engineer of Westfield was a black man, which aroused openly racist commentary in New York's newspapers, though Vanderbilt stoutly defended his employee. Victims were never compensated for damages.
The competing ferry services that were all finally controlled by Vanderbilt were sold to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and operated by the Staten Island Rapid Transit Railroad (SIRT, predecessor to Staten Island Railway) in 1884. On June 14, 1901 the SIRT ferry Northfield was leaving the ferry port at Whitehall when it was struck by a Jersey Central Ferry and sank immediately. There were two full deck crews aboard Northfield and their swift actions ensured that out of 995 passengers aboard, only five ended up missing, presumed drowned. This accident, though minor in comparison to the Westfield Disaster, was seized upon by the City of New York as a justification to seize control of the SIRT ferries, Staten Island now being officially part of New York City, as the Borough of Richmond. Ferry service was assumed by the city's Department of Docks and Ferries in 1905. Five new ferries, one named for each of the new boroughs, were commissioned. The First ferry to make the now famous trip across New York harbor as a Staten Island Ferry was named the Manhattan.