By Gregory Quinn, Special to the Port Authority
Part One: Governor Alfred Smith
In this new series, we’ll take an occasional and deeper look at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Difference Makers, the men and women who were instrumental to the formation and continual success of our agency. In our first installment, we are focusing on former New York Governor Alfred Emmanuel Smith, a critical figure in the earliest days of the Port Authority’s existence.
The matter of Port development is critical. It affects the housing problems; it affects the cost of living; it affects the cost of doing business within the Port of New York; business is leaving New York because of inadequate facilities, and rival ports are taking advantage of delays in the development of New York’s plans in order to strengthen their own position. — Alfred Smith, 1920
When Governor Al Smith delivered these words to the legislature in March of 1920, the need for an organized port agency with jurisdiction over the Port of New York had reached a critical mass. While the city of New York had already established itself as the premier urban area in the United States, its port was losing business and stature to rival, more vibrant ports in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Recognizing this, Governor Smith looked to reinvigorate stalled talks between New York and New Jersey to form a port authority, and an ambitious New York, New Jersey Port and Harbor Development Commission was developed.
Things moved rapidly from there. In April of 1921, leaders from New York and New Jersey signed the Port Compact, stating that [the states] agree to and pledge, each to the other, faithful co-operation in the future planning and development of the port of New York, holding in high trust for the benefit of the nation the special blessings and natural advantages thereof.
The Port Authority was born.
While it’s fair to say that eventually a port authority would have been developed regardless, Governor Alfred Smith’s impassioned plea on behalf of such an agency in 1920 no doubt spurred PANYNJ’s development. And it was just in time too; for less than a decade later, the U.S. was mired in the worst global depression in history, and shortly after that, World War II.
Had Governor Smith not championed the port’s cause when he did, it is not hard to imagine that the development of a port authority could have been delayed much longer. The consequences of that happening could have been dire. Governor Smith was one of the most influential New York politicians of the early 20th century. A major figure in the Democratic party, he was elected Governor of New York four times and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928, making him the first Catholic nominee for president, but he was defeated by Republican Herbert Hoover (Who would of course go on to be soundly defeated himself by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932).
Governor Smith was a known progressive, a fundamental leader in the Progressive Movement. He was also one of the most visible “wet” politicians—elected officials who strongly opposed the policy of Prohibition. After leaving office for good in 1928, Alfred Smith entered into private business in New York City, and he passed away there in 1944.
Today, the Alfred E. Smith Building in Albany, the second tallest in the capitol city, is named in his honor. In a lifetime full of achievements and recognitions, one of his most lasting legacies will always be the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. For it was his passionate stewardship that helped the agency take shape, and the millions of people who rely on Port Authority functions every day owe him a debt of gratitude.