the development of the gowanus canal within the context of the brooklyn sewer system
The Gowanus Canal, located in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the most infamous water bodies in the country. It is known for its retched odor, grotesque aesthetic, and the tales of mutant species that have been found living within its confines. The canal owes its infamy to the continuous discharge of raw sewage that has been occurring for over a century and a half, as well as its use as a depository of refuse from industrial gas factories that once burned coal in the 1800s. One can attribute the unsustainable use of the canal to more than two centuries worth of piecemeal planning processes that yielded the canal as we know it today. Although the canal was first conceptualized in the late 1600s, it was not fully dredged and completed until the late 1860s. The land that predated the canal, known as Gowanus Creek, suffered from abuse by the settlers who exploited it for its fertile land, natural commodities, and ultimate convenience as a trade corridor and open sewer.
In 1848, a man named Daniel Richards took it upon himself to hire surveyors and draft a formal plan and design for the canal. However, the plan was halted for over a decade. During this time, Brooklyn’s first modern sewer system was implemented, and when the canal finally took its final form in in 1869, the state of the canal was already inundated with a tremendous and increasing amount of pollution due to sewage and industrial waste. And unfortunately, the formal plan had made no effort to assess the state of the canal nor clean it. In turn, the canal still exists today in a dilapidated state. The multiple centuries worth of pollution is a side effect of the intermittent nature of planning throughout the canal’s history.
A Promising New Land
In the 1630s, some of the first settlers landed in present-day Brooklyn and began to purchase land from the residing Native Americans for very cheap. In 1636, two Englishmen, William Adrianse Bennet and Jacques Bentin, purchased a large 930-acre swath of land in Gowanus. This exchange of land from the Algonquin Chief Gouwane to the Englishmen is the first recorded purchase of a settlement in Brooklyn. The tale has it that the area was named after this Chief’s name. However, the origin of the word “Gowanus” may actually be lost to history: several sources cite that the Chief’s name was Sachem Ka, while other sources do cite the existence of Chief Gouwane as a corn plantation owner in the area. If the latter were the case, historian Joseph Alexiou explains, many have gathered that Gowanus may have received its name from a number of different Native American words, such as “Dyo-go-wand-deh,” meaning “almost surrounded by hills and cliffs,” or “Ka-hwe-nes-ka,” or Cowanisque, meaning “on the long island.” Although the origin of the term “Gowanus” is muddled, it is clear that it was derived from a Native American word or name.
Bennet and Bentin’s new fertile oasis was, from then on, referred to as Gowanus Creek. The creek was a marshy saltwater wetland with a plethora of offerings. It was what we know today as a tidal estuary, or a body of saltwater with relatively no current and no outlet except to the sea. Many appendages of streams led to plentiful freshwater springs throughout the creek area. The land was home to a variety of flora, fauna, exceptional trees, and a huge bay full of fresh water. Natives had planted corn and tobacco, and relied heavily on fish and shellfish for nutrition. The bay was home to whales, tunnies, porpoises, as well as many birds of prey like Eagles. Most notably, oysters were plentiful and the earliest Dutch settlers had made it obvious that they intended on capitalizing on them.
As the Dutch began to settle, the area gained the name “New Nederland,” as part of the new colony of “New Amsterdam.” New Nederland was a place that perfectly encapsulated the rumors of the New World. The exquisite features of the ecosystem and land invited the prospects of new opportunity.
The news of the promising New World spread quickly, and other land purchases began to occur quickly after Bentin and Bennet’s purchase. Nine years later, however, Bentin sold his share of Gowanus Creek to Bennet, while a new settler, Thomas Bescher, bought an already-existing tobacco plantation “by Gouwanes.” By this time, land was starting to be sold between colonialists in addition to being sold from natives to new European settlers. However, land opportunities changed in 1638 when William Kieft, the first appointed Director-General, purchased nearly four thousand acres of land in North Brooklyn. Kieft quickly tweaked New Nederland’s settlement policy to make it easier for Europeans to settle. The new policy allowed for free trade between anyone who so desired, for every man to buy as much land as he could afford and work on, and for settlement from any “respectable” farmers who arrived on the land. This news of this policy spread quickly across Europe, attracting an influx of settlers embarking to New Nederland.
Gowanus, the earliest of the three original settlements in New Nederland, was located in Breucklen, one of the original towns in New Nederland, as coined by the Dutch settlers. Because of its convenient location near the bay, Gowanus soon became a high-traffic area. New transportation methods were quickly developed in order to export goods to the Island of Manhattan across the river. Some men had personal boats, but this method required hiking through wooded areas to reach the creek. At this point, boats could either be hired or self-rowed through the bay and down the river. But by 1642, the Dutch West India Company formed a public ferry between Breucklen and Manhattan. A simple conch call would alert a nearby farm worker to retrieve a hidden boat and row the passenger across the river for a small price.
In 1660, Jacques Cortelyou was hired by the town’s Council Committee to survey the land of Bruecklen. The intention was to find the optimal site for the town’s first tide mill. With its ideal geography and natural commodities, Cortelyou urged Peter Stuyvesant, who had recently overtaken Kieft’s position as Director-General, to build the tide mill on the Gowanus Creek. Freeke’s Mill, owned by John C. Freeke, was dug out and constructed over the next year by African slaves. The mill operated by use of a pond that filled to its capacity during high tide and flowed through an open gate during low tide, ultimately turning the mill. During this time, Adam Brouwer, the original owner of the land that housed the mill (it was originally called Brouwer’s Mill), first suggested the idea to build a canal. The canal would act as a corridor to help to resolve the dangers of personal boats capsizing on long, shallow, and dangerous trips through the bay. It was was approved at no hassle or questioning by the governor, the Council Committee, and Creek landowners. The proposal called for a slight dredging of the creek and can be credited as the earliest form of the Gowanus Canal. Although the initial dredging occurred in 1664, it would take two centuries later until the canal that we know today was completed.
Over the next several decades years, Gowanus Creek’s fertile land and robust supply of fresh water supported a thriving economy and trade. The area’s main exports were oysters, watermelon, and grains. These products were exported to locations throughout the Carribean Islands and to Manhattan, which was now in the same English colony of New York along with Bruecklen. The steady increase in production prompted a need for new transportation routes. Although the city began to construct public roads throughout Bruecklen, it was clear that waterways were more important for exporting goods. New innovative methods of transportation through water evolved. For example, Claes Arents Vecht, who had recently moved from Manhattan to build a two-and-a-half-story mansion on his newly purchased plantation, was able to dig a small canal to service his personal boat. The canal branched off of the main canal and lead to the doorstep of Vecht’s Mansion. During high tide, when he opened the sluice gate, water would flow through his canal, lifting his small boat afloat into the canal where he could then row through the bay and eventually to the shores of Manhattan.
By 1744, residents of Gowanus sought a wider canal than the present one that existed. The size of production had substantially increased, as did the size of cargo ships. Local landowners funded the widening and deepening of the canal in addition to the construction of a wooden bridge to cross over the creek by the mill. The canal, now at six feet deep, was accompanied by a two-and-a-half-foot-wide path. However, residents continued to request further widening throughout the late 1700s.
The Battle of Brooklyn
The concerns of the canal were halted as the Revolutionary War quickly crept up on the settlers of Brooklyn. On August 27, 1776, the Gowanus Creek played an important role in the Battle of Brooklyn. The British, almost 14,000 deep, had chosen a strategic path over the Prospect Range to attack the Americans. In retrospect, they had probably known the terrain better than the American settlers who resided there. Many of the British Lieutenants and Colonels had visited and done business in the area before, returning back to their homeland with information crucial to the invasion. Additionally, the British had “agents” strategically placed throughout the area. These agents were merchants, artisans, and other men who lived in Brooklyn but remained loyal to the Brits throughout the war. They were able to provide valuable information to the Colonels to support their choice in path to reach the American Patriots.
As the British crossed over the Prospect Range and towards the Gowanus Creek to its west, American Colonel Artemas Ward burned the sole bridge that passed over the creek. There lay a mess of burnt wood at the head of the creek that once crossed Freeke’s millpond. Colonel Ward’s burning endeavor was an attempt to save his own troops by restricting British ability to pass over the creek while his men were safe on the west shore. However, it was an unfortunate attempt and miscalculation, ultimately restricting the Patriots tailing behind from crossing, trapping them on the east side of the creek with the enemy. As more Patriots approached the creek and discovered the bridge’s charred fate, they were forced to jump into the water and swim across. Many, at this point, fearing the high waters, strayed into the woods to hide, but were captured by the British. However, many of those that attempted to swim across the creek did not make it either. Some drowned in the creek’s high tide and rain-swollen canal, while others were shot by the British mid-swim.
It is worth noting that this battle involved the most soldiers than any other during the Revolutionary War and in turn, also yielded the most casualties. The incident at the Gowanus Creek alone yielded between 150 and 250 Patriot deaths. Although the Battle of Brooklyn was a loss for Americans in terms of casualties, it can also be considered through the lens of the Gowanus Creek. The creek, albeit the cause of death for many Patriots, did allow many to successfully escape. The British did not attempt to cross the creek and the surviving Patriots fled towards the East River free of the enemy trailing behind. Had the creek not created a barrier for the British, perhaps the casualties of the Battle of Brooklyn would have been multiplied.
Modernization of Brooklyn
After several years of post-war revitalization, Brooklyn found itself booming at the turn of the century. By 1830, 15,000 people resided in Brooklyn. Gowanus was flourishing: commerce and industry were thriving with factories, markets, distilleries, and taverns. The growing population in Brooklyn was inviting to businessmen of all kinds. Colonel Daniel Richards moved to Brooklyn in 1832 after living in Upstate New York and witnessing the positive commercial effects of the Erie Canal, which was built between Albany and Buffalo in 1825. His wife had passed away during childbirth in 1826, ultimately serving as a catalyst for his big move to Brooklyn. Upon his arrival, Richards immediately saw a business opportunity and bought a piece of land known as the Van Dyke property. Already a successful businessman with projects thriving up north, Richards founded the Atlantic Dock Company in 1839 with the intention of exploiting the shore of Brooklyn. The shores of Manhattan were overwhelmingly crowded with ships and he saw profit and opportunity in the underutilized shores of Brooklyn. In line with Richards’ vision for developing Brooklyn’s commerce and trade, the Atlantic Docks had a huge impact on the city, perhaps one of the main reasons that Brooklyn’s population reached 100,000 by 1850.
Richards also saw opportunity in his newly purchased land. An active member of local government and the Common Council Street Committees, Richards hired two separate men, Major David Bates Douglass and Willard Day, to survey the Gowanus Creek in 1847. Both surveys sought to improve Gowanus by draining the creek in areas for future development. Douglass’ survey presented several options to the Committee, but Richards was underwhelmed with the plans and overwhelmed by the prices. However, Willard Day presented a plan for a 100-foot-wide canal than ran 5,400 feet and had 4-foot-high walls. The plan featured a canal with several offshoots, following the natural contour of the streams and existing creek. Richards clung to Day’s plan and presented it to the Common Council, explaining that it would not only “introduce a lively business along the line of the canal,” but also, the tides from the bay would create a current to clean the current dirty stagnant water that existed. Additionally, the plan called for a drainage system that would empty the marshland water into the canal. The plan was thought to be a way to remove the miasmas, or airborne diseases that incubated in the marshlands, and would allow for future plans to fill in the land and develop it further. This plan to create a commercialized canal was well-liked by the community and thus initial measures were taken to adopt it. The marshlands were drained, but the digging was quickly halted after a scandal involving Richards’ miscalculation of funds left the project without a lead.
Soon after the fall of Daniel Richards, the Common Council approved a petition that would extend the Bond Street Sewer. The extension would convey surplus water from the meadows and marshlands and would end at the Gowanus Canal. After the marshlands were sufficiently drained, many landowners in the area hired Irish working men to begin digging according to Daniel Richards’ survey plans. However, the lack of leadership and cohesion among landowners further halted the plan further until over a decade later a man named Edwin C. Litchfield took a stab.
Litchfield was a wealthy entrepreneur with many extra bucks to invest in Brooklyn. He and his brothers had made their fortune through the development and connection of railroads between the Northeast and Midwest, profoundly impacting New York City’s trade and economic capacity. With the new railroads and connections, New Yorkers could now enjoy corn, beef, grain, and lumber from the Midwest at much cheaper prices.When the undeveloped land to the east of the Gowanus presented itself as an opportunity, Litchfield snatched up 88 acres of land along the marsh and 150 acres from Jacques Cortelyou (of the Dutch surveyor Jacques Cortelyou of the late 1600s). This land included the Vecht Mansion, then referred to as the Cortelyou-Vecht House (and now known as the Old Stone House). After purchasing several other surrounding farms, the square-mile worth of land cost him a total of $250,000. Because the land had not been developed yet, it had caught Litchfield’s eye as an investment that would soon make him a man of (even more) exceptional wealth.
When Litchfield had arrived in Brooklyn, the population was already swarming at 97,000. Litchfield’s first projects included the development and construction of roads in the empty marshland area. He graded and paved roads from his land to connect to the rest of South Brooklyn using his own funds. Part of this development including knocking down the Prospect Range and using the land to fill in the Gowanus marshland. But after the Panic of 1857 threatened all of Litchfield’s roads, land, and hard work, he and his brother began to refocus their attention to the Gowanus Canal, which had been somewhat forgotten about over the previous decade. But between the anxiety of the Panic and prospects of Litchfield’s new efforts lies a crucial period in Gowanus’ history: the development of sewers.
The Nation's First Sewer System
In October 1856, the city published a plan to extend the Bond Street Sewer even further to empty into the Gowanus Canal. The sewer had been long backing up and was a source of complaints for years. With the ever-increasing need for a more modern sewer system than the current cesspools, privvies, and drainage areas, Brooklyn’s Water Board was upgraded to the Brooklyn Sewage Commission in 1857. The commission immediately passed an act that pushed forward the development of sewerage and drainage in Brooklyn, prompting the Bond Street sewer extension. Julius W. Adams, a famous railroad engineer at the time, was recruited to survey Brooklyn’s streets and land to create a plan for the nation’s first modern sewer system. The plans that Adams drew up, based on Edwin Chadwick’s design in London, would be infamously known more than two centuries later, causing a constant nuisance to the city, especially the Gowanus Canal.
Adams’ sewer design was a single-pipe system that would convey both rainwater and stormwater through the same pipe. This became known as a combined sewer system and many cities across the country would soon implement a similar sewer systems based off of Adams’ and Chadwick’s plans. In retrospect, the pipes Adams designed in Brooklyn were far too small in capacity based on the actual amount of waste that was being generated. Some sewer pipes were as small as 12 inches in diameter.
Before the completion of the sewer system, the streets of Brooklyn were infested with trash, feces, and refuse. Generally, residents had shared privies or cesspools, or emptied their personal chamber pots into a nearby privy vault. Sometimes privy vaults or individual privies were directly emptied into water bodies like the Gowanus Canal. With a need for an emergency stormwater outlet, and considering that at this time there was no scientific research connecting bacteria and germs of fecal matter to the spread of disease, it comes at no surprise that Adams’ design consisted of discharge points that expelled sewage into water bodies. On the other hand, there seemed to be some understanding between the relationship of the lack of clean water available and the increasingly unsanitary conditions. In fact, in the early 1840s, after a large Cholera outbreak, Manhattan had secured a public water works system by creating the Croton Aqueduct. Following in suit, when the state of New York introduced Brooklyn’s sewerage act, it also introduced an act to develop a public water works system.
Still, nothing was done to prevent the raw sewage from building up in and along the edges of the canal even after it was first recognized as a problem. As the discharged waste increased, complaints of stench and disgust began to pile in. As early as 1861, just several years after the sewer system was completed, the Gowanus Canal’s foul odor and appearance became the talk of the town.,,
A Nuisance to Gowanus
In 1861, a ‘Mr. Peters’ filed a lawsuit against the city of Brooklyn. He claimed that sewer discharge onto his land and the resulting stench and presence of raw sewage had kill his father-in-law, severely degraded the health of his wife, and damaged his property, which was now of little to no value. This was the first recorded complaint of the canal, with a century a half filled with more complaints to follow.
One of the most notable complaints is Dr. J.H. Raymond’s formal report of the state of Gowanus. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article in 1877 with the headline: “VERY VILE: The Disgusting Condition of Gowanus Canal” in large, block letters. The canal was affecting the health of South Brooklyn and the residents were concerned. “The condition of the Gowanus Canal, arising from the accumulation of filth from the sewers which empty into it has long been a source of complaint to the citizens of South Brooklyn,” it stated. The canal was, at this point, a continuing source of contention and complaints for those who lived and frequented the area.
Requesting immediate action, the Eagle released a report from Dr. J.H. Raymond, the Sanitary Superintendent, regarding the state of the canal. At a meeting with the Board of Health on August 30, 1877, preceding the article’s publication, Dr. Raymond presented his investigative report. The Gowanus Canal at this time was essentially an open sewer, with sewage overflowing from discharge points at the ends of Bond Street, President Street, Sackett Street, and Centre Street. Dr. Raymond insisted, “No sewer should be permitted to discharge into this canal, and I would most earnestly recommend that the Board of Health give this matter their consideration at the earliest possible moment.” Dr. Raymond’s words were eerily far ahead of the time and the government’s ability to solve this problem.
At the release of Dr. Raymond’s report, the sewers were already discharging thousands of pounds of sewage into the canal every day. The President Street sewer was 18 inches wide and served a population of 287 homes of 2,500 people. Its daily discharge was 150 pounds of feces and 200 gallons of urine into the canal. Similarly, the Centre Street sewer served 287 homes of 2,500 people, discharging 150 pounds of feces and 200 gallons of urine into the canal. The Sackett Street sewer, also 18 inches in diameter, served merely 25 homes of 215 people. It discharged an average of 87 pounds of feces and 62 gallons of urine into the canal daily. However, the Bond Street sewer was constructed at 72-inches in diameter and was made from brick. The Bond Street sewer was infamous to the neighborhood because of its massive overflow and terrible odor. It discharged 8,000 pounds of feces and 10,000 gallons of urine into the canal every day. Combined, these sewers discharged 9,187 pounds of feces and 10,688 gallons of urine daily into the canal with an annual total of 1,676 tons of feces and 63,600 hhds (barrels/casks).
Dr. Raymond described what it was like to stand at the mouth of the Bond Street sewer: as material is discharged, gases coming from decomposing substances at the bottom of the canal, come to the surface, suggesting that “the nuisance existing here must have a most important place among the causes of disease.” This was of the first acknowledgements of the relationship between sewage in the canal and the potential for disease and death.
In response to Dr. Raymond’s report, Dr. Crane, the President of the Board of Health, agreed that the canal was indeed a vile nuisance and an open sewer. “The stench is perfectly awful,” he explained. “All that part of the city is affected with malarial troubles.” The agreement throughout Brooklyn at the time was a need for dredging or removal of the raw sewage from the canal. However, no ideas for cleaning the canal came to fruition yet. “The dredge cannot be used successfully as the filth slides from the shovel back into the water as soon as it is displaced. In my opinion, the Bond Street sewer should be carried through to the foot of Wolcott Street, East River.” Dr. Crane’s response illustrates the complete misunderstanding of the issue during this time period. The assumption that redirecting the sewage into a different water body would have ultimately solved the problem was wholly wrong, but it seemed that nobody could suggest a more feasible plan.
A resident by the name of Mr. Bergen, however, seemed to have more of a grasp on the issue than most. The Eagle described that during high tide, the mouth of the sewer would become completely covered by the canal. This caused the dirty water to enter the sewer and backup into surrounding residents’ drains. Considering the filth of the the stagnant water throughout the canal, drain backup was yet another nuisance to the Gowanus neighborhood. The backup water was muddy and greasy, carrying a sickening stench along with it. “The present underground sewers are too small for the passage of water during severe storms,” Mr. Bergen noted. Disagreeing with Dr. Crane’s suggestion to extend the Bond Street sewer to the East River, explained that the project would not only be expensive, but additionally would not have the desired effect. He suggested, in contrast, that the canal be completely filled in below Third Street. A project like this would have turned the canal into a closed sewer, perhaps alleviating the neighborhood and surrounding land from the symptoms of an abused waterway. These were just some of the slew of early suggestions on how to solve the nuisance of Gowanus.
While all of the drama from the sewers ensued, Litchfield was busy developing his new brainchild, the Brooklyn Improvement Company (BIC). The BIC was a new investment created to focus Litchfield’s attention on developing Brooklyn further through Industrial Revolution. Founded in 1866, Litchfield began constructing bridges, docks, and wharves along the canal as a way to attract more commerce and production. His vision for an industry-laden corridor essentially ignored the fact that the canal was, at this point, an open sewer. And so, factories that burned coal for gas production began to sprout up along the corridor. The improper disposal of coal added more pollution to the mix of sewer water. But Litchfield was adamant about the canal being an important source of commerce for the city.
Soon after Litchfield’s company gained traction, the City funded the Gowanus Canal Improvement Commission with similar goals to the BIC. GCIC pushed along the once-envisioned development of the canal as a full-fledged commercial corridor, wide enough for larger, modern ships to fit through. The commission was responsible for ultimately dredging the canal to its final form based on Richards’ plans a decade earlier and for building docks, wharves, and sturdy canal walls. But before the BIC was able to dredge the canal to its full capacity, taxpayers in Brooklyn found themselves fed up with Litchfield. This exploded when Litchfield sought to cut through Third Avenue to continue dredging the canal. There was so much opposition from the community that the State Senators, who had initially given him the approval to dredge, revoked his permissions. However, Litchfield, in the middle of the night, hired a team of diggers and continued to dig towards Third Avenue. A police officer was able to stop the commotion, but Litchfield obtained an ex parte injunction that allowed to him continue digging until a court hearing was ordered the next day. The Daily Eagle explained:
“Mr. Litchfield went to a judge and got that easily obtained and almost invariable instrument of wrong, an ex parte injunction, ordering the city not to stop the cutting, until a hearing had been had, which was fixed for the day distant enough to allow the whole job to be done before the city would have a chance to prove that Mr. Litchfield had no right to do it.”
The Daily Eagle was modest in their bashing of Litchfield, although it was clear the community was tired of his entitlement:
“He acted very discourteously to the city in not giving the authorities any notice of his action... [Because] the people were to known to feel so strongly on the matter, it would have seemed that a decent respect for the opinions and feelings of the community as well as for the position of the city government as overseers and guardians of the street, should have impelled the canal makers to give notice to the municipal corporation, and show their title before then began to cut.”
Although the canal was thus completed, the fall of Litchfield was quick to occur after he had lost the trust of his community and the City. But with the fall of Litchfield, it seemed nobody had the money or interest to invest in the canal for many years to come. And still, the issue of the canal’s crumbling state of health continued to escalate.
An Optimistic Solution
As complaints and health issues reached their peak towards the end of the nineteenth century, something had to give. In 1895, a “Petition for the Purification of the Gowanus Canal” was published. The preface of the petition explained that the canal had “been for a long time very much offence to all who come in contact with the disagreeable smells that emanate from it and are wafted over the city.” Although the canal was acknowledged as a great value for the city through commerce and production, the petition requested purification of the water as a “best for its bucks” resolution. In the petition, the canal is described as having “black, dirty water,” and as a “malodrous object.” The 180 residents who signed the petition believed that the canal’s stagnant water could be purified through simple and practical methods: circulation. This would be accomplished through the construction of an underground conduit that reached from the head of the Canal, through Baltic Street, and into the harbor. The water would mix with the harbor water and, through constant circulation, the canal’s water was projected to be just as clean as the harbor within a month’s time. Marketed to the residents as “To all Taxpayers--Citizens of Brooklyn who desire Pure Air and the Purification of Gowanus Canal,” the petition promised 9,500,000 gallons of clean water to flow into the canal daily. The cost was set not to exceed $200,000 and insisted that it would be worth ten times that cost to the city’s value.
A decade and a half later, after several proposals, petitions, and coalitions were formed, a similar plan for construction of a flushing tunnel from the East River to the canal was approved. This plan, however, would cost one million dollars (in 1910s US dollars). The tunnel was completed and formally presented by Mayor William J. Gaynor in the heat of the summer of 1911 on South Brooklyn Day, though it had been up and running for some time. In addition to the tunnel, a new high-power water system was also implemented. After only a few days of operation, the New York Times reported that it had flushed out over 5 times the volume of the canal itself. The engineers were also cited to have said that although the canal’s appearance looked the same, the water quality had already significantly increased.
However, the flushing tunnel only functioned for about 50 years before the culmination of several malfunctions and glitches led to its demise. From the 60s until the 90s, the city lacked the funds to fix the pump and tunnel. And because of liability concerns, companies and organizations had no interest in investing in the canal. For almost 35 years, the Gowanus Canal was essentially ignored as it continued to be polluted heavily with combined sewer overflow and chemicals seeping from its foundation. During this time, not only did the canal become a bed for an infestation of bacteria and industrial pollutants, but also, “as legend has, it... [was] a final resting ground for murder victims.” The canal continued to gain a negative reputation as people throughout the twentieth century began to commit suicide by jumping off the bridge into the canal, people continued to drown in its deep waters, and crime rates rose throughout
the neighborhood. Although the construction of Red Hook Wastewater Treatment Plant was completed in 1987, it was not enough to cure multiple centuries worth of rancid water.
Finally, in 1999, the flushing tunnel was reactivated, causing much optimism within the South Brooklyn community. One man who owned a plumbing business next door to the canal exclaimed, “I think this is going to be the Venice of New York! I’m going to be renting out gondolas every Sunday afternoon.” Unfortunately, the reactivation of the flushing tunnel only did so much. The tunnel continued to malfunction and the city was constantly scrambling for funds to fix it. In 2010, the canal’s state was still so polluted and hazardous that the US Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site. The EPA appointed the City of New York and National Grid, Inc. as the primary responsible parties that were required to fund the clean up. The clean up will begin in 2016 and will include fully dredging and capping the canal over an estimated 7 year period. At this point, the surrounding neighborhoods kindly wait for a clean canal.
The Piecemeal Effect
The Gowanus Canal’s long-time negative reputation and foul odor follows it to this day. The canal has suffered from misuse for over three centuries due to the piecemeal planning process that ultimately developed the canal as we know it today. Planning during the 1700s and 1800s was sporadic and occurred “as needed.” It took almost two hundred years after the construction of Freeke’s Tide Mill in 1661 (and Brouwer’s related proposition to dredge a canal) for a formal canal design and plan to be developed. It took years to carry out Richards’ final design plan (and even so, the canal did not follow the plan exactly) and they were never considered intersectionally with the sewer plans. The environmental health of the canal degraded significantly during the subsequent years. It is difficult to put blame on any one cause, man, or commission that led to the burdensome canal. However, when comparing cohesive modern plans today with the intermittent plans of the Gowanus Canal, it is clear that the latter’s lack of formality directly resulted in a lack of policies and laws that may have prevented a portion of the pollution. The knowledge of planning, sanitation, and environmental health at the time was primitive, if even that. Had these plans been more cohesive and overlapping (albeit an unrealistic situation), perhaps the canal would have suffered less. But alas, the Gowanus Canal is still home to remnants of industrial waste that leach into the water from the land around it. It is also still a regular receiving body for raw, untreated sewage from Brooklyn’s deficient sewer system. The Gowanus Canal’s long three-century history has left a sizable impact on South Brooklyn’s landscape and culture.
Andrea Parker (Executive Director of Gowanus Canal Conservancy) in discussion with the author, October 23, 2015.
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“Very Vile. The Disgusting Condition of Gowanus Canal.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), September 3, 1877.
“Want Gowanus Dredged: Effort to Mandamus the Dock Board and Commissioner Kane.” Brooklyn Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), June 29, 1898, 16.