A Brief History of the Gowanus Canal

April 10, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Phoebe Neidl

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“Hail the Gowanus Creek…Hold back the hordes of the ruthless invader, let not the minions of tyranny cross…”

No, this unknown 19th century poet does not salute the industrial sludge and infamous stank of Gowanus, but rather he writes of its auspicious role in abetting the escape of American troops in the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn. The hodge-podge rebel army was able to evade a British siege after a conflict at Nicholas Vechte’s Old Stone House by decamping across one of two watery crossings along the Gowanus. From there, Washington was able to escape to Manhattan from the ferry landing and finally on to New Jersey across the Delaware.  

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The providential creek was named for Native American Canarsee tribe leader, ‘Gowanee.’ (Some accounts read that ‘Gowanee’ was the Canarsee word for leader, and others claim it was a specific leader.) When the Dutch began settling the area in the 1630s they quickly began transforming the marshy area into land suitable for growing produce, and utilized the creek as a method of transporting their goods as well as for creating energy.

The creek was dammed around present day Union Street and First Street in order to power two water mills. Early Dutch accounts make note of the enormous oysters found in Gowanus, often chronicled as “the size of dinner plates.” Pickled in brine and sent down the creek to New York Bay and lower Manhattan, Gowanus Oysters may have been Brooklyn’s first export.

Around the time of the Continental Army’s close brush with defeat, the area was still predominantly farmland and barge traffic along the canal was steadily increasing. Many farmers widened parts of the creek to allow for the passage of their boats. Nicholas Vechte of the Old Stone House actually dredged the creek all the way to his door.

But with the completion of one revolution, dawned the light of another. Brooklyn would be one of the fastest growing cities, in one of the fastest developing economies, in an unprecedented era of global transformation, and Gowanus had its part to play in the industrial transportation complex of the New York Harbor and the Erie Canal.

No one man recognized the industrial potential of the Gowanus more than Edwin Litchfield. Having made a fortune in railroad speculation, Litchfield began buying land off of the farmers on the creek in the 1840s. As his property values increased with the wealth of the city and the investment in its urban environment, Litchfield began to sell his property off into lots at much higher prices than he had paid for it. Neighborhoods developed upland from the creek on both sides, into present day Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Many of the building materials for the constant construction were shipped throughout Brooklyn on barges on the Gowanus, including much of Brooklyn’s iconic brownstone.

As founder of the Brooklyn Improvement Company, Litchfield began widening and dredging the creek into a canal around 1847, but it was in 1867 that an act of legislature allowed for a full dredging of the canal to commence. Stretching from Gowanus Bay a mile and a half inland to Butler Street, the canal was designed by Major David Douglas of the Army Corp of Engineers. The Gowanus acted as an extended conduit for grain traveling east on the Erie Canal as well as an export highway for various manufacturing sites along the waterway, which included tanneries, stone yards, flour mills, soap-makers and cement works.

Due to poor sanitation planning and just plain ignorance, waste – both human and industrial, began accumulating in the canal. It was most likely the gashouses that were the biggest culprit in degrading air and water quality in the area. Before oil and gas pipelines, coal was shipped on barges and then cooked slowly in gashouses, which released sulfuric waste. Brooklyn Union Gas Co. was the largest in the borough (city) and operated on the west side of the canal near Fifth Street.

For years the community and city leadership sought a way to deal with the stench. Serious thought was given to draining and filling the canal in the early 1890s due to constant outcry and agitation on the part of residents in south Brooklyn. At an 1893 town hall meeting at Grand Union Hall on Court and Harrison Streets, one official declared “we are in the fight to have the canal filled…as long as there is a legislature in Albany and a stench in Gowanus.”

In 1911 a flushing tunnel was built to flush the stagnant waters of the inland portion of the canal out into the greater New York Bay.

By World War I, Gowanus Canal was actually the busiest industrial and commercial canal in the United States. Over six million tons of cargo was being transported on the canal annually. But only a few decades later with the building of the Gowanus expressway under the tenure of Robert Moses, trucking took over as the primary means of commercial transport and the canal fell into steady disuse.

In 1961 the flushing propeller broke when it was jammed with a manhole cover and for more than 30 years the waters of Gowanus were utterly foul. Light was unable to penetrate even two feet into the water; a depth of six feet is needed in order to sustain life.

Finally repaired in 1999, recent years have seen local politicians allocating money for the site, which has helped bring about some helpful improvements and momentum for its redevelopment. Several species have returned to the canal waters, including oyster plant seedlings, which were introduced by the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, a volunteer organization that seeks to enhance and increase waterfront activity in New York City.

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