History of the Gowanus Canal

Thanks to Larsen Husby for assembling this information.

Early history of the canal from the Gowanus Dredger Canoe Club:

“In 1636 the Dutch made initial purchase near Gowanus Bay and three years later, the earliest recorded real estate sale was made between settlers: land for a tobacco plantation. In the 1600s, many Dutch farmers, who settled along the banks fished for the large, succulent oysters and shipped them by barrel back to Europe, making Gowanus oysters Brooklyn’s first export. The creek was close to sea level and the six-foot tides of the bay forced salt water up into its meandering course to create a brackish mix of water that was ideal for the bivalves. By the middle of the 19th century, the City of Brooklyn was the fastest growing city in America and had incorporated the creek and farmland into the larger urban fabric. A linear village had been established along the shore/Gowanus road that paralleled the east shore of Gowanus Bay.

“As the need for navigational and docking facilities in the burgeoning port of New York City grew, in 1849 the New York State Legislature authorized the construction of the Gowanus Canal (completed in the late 1860s). Despite its relatively short two-mile length, the Gowanus Canal soon became a hub of Brooklyn’s maritime and commercial activity. Factories and residential communities sprang up as a result of its construction. In fact, much of the brownstone quarried in New Jersey and the upper Hudson were placed on barges and shipped through the canal to create what we now refer to as “Brownstone Brooklyn”.

“The Gowanus Canal became one of Brooklyn’s key locations for concentrating heavy industry, including coal gas manufacturing plants, oil refineries, machine shops, chemical plants, a cement maker, a sulfur producer, a soap maker and a tannery. The growth of this industrial corridor along the banks of the Gowanus Canal ushered in new land speculation in the first part of the Twentieth century. Large working class residential areas, populated for the most part by families of Irish and Scandinavian decent, were developed around the industrial core. The neighborhoods of South Brooklyn were growing at a remarkable rate, with as many as 700 new buildings a year. These new buildings required a sewer connection that ended up discharging raw sewage into the Gowanus Canal. By the turn of the century, the combination of industrial pollutants and runoff from the stormwater and the new sewage system had rendered the waterway a repository of rank odors, known to residents as ‘Lavender Lake’. ”

From New York Magazine “A Brief History of the Gowanus Canal” 2009

“Built in the mid-nineteenth century where a creek once meandered, the Gowanus Canal served foundries, coal yards, and paint and ink factories. In 1910, a local businessman was already describing the canal’s water as “almost solid” with sewage. The next year, a 6,200-foot underground tunnel, fitted with a seven-foot propeller, was opened to flush the canal with fresh seawater.

That worked until around 1961, when the pump broke. (Local lore says a city worker dropped a manhole cover on it.)

It wasn’t fixed until 1999, and will be fully overhauled by the DEP in the next two years.”

A basic timeline of the canal’s history, Colonial times through 2005

From an article on the bridges of the Gowanus

“Five east-west movable-bridges cross the canal starting with Union Street, Carroll Street, Third Street, 9th Street and Hamilton Avenue.”

“The oldest bridge that crosses the canal is the Carroll Street Bridge that was built in 1887 and is one of the few remaining examples of retractable bridges in the U.S. The Ninth Street Bridge opened in 1903, and two more bridges appeared in 1905: the Union Street Bridge (rehabilitated 1962) and the Third Street Bridge (rehabilitated 1954). These bridges were originally built as bascule-type of draw bridges. The Ninth Street Bridge was replaced with a vertical lift bridge in 2000.”


From this 3/3/10 NYTimes article:

The Environmental Protection Agency designated the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn a Superfund site on Tuesday and announced plans to clean up more than a century’s worth of noxious pollutants there.

From Gowanus Bay to New York Harbor, the agency has found contamination along the entire length of the clouded 1.8-mile canal in a preliminary assessment, including pesticides, metals and the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs.

The agency estimates that the project will last 10 to 12 years and cost $300 million to $500 million. The city estimated that its approach would take nine years.

Yet even as kayakers glide alongside the banks and fishermen catch striped bass for sport at its mouth at Gowanus Bay — the fish are too contaminated to eat — residents complain about the odors from continuing discharges of sewage and unsightly debris from scrap metal yards and other industrial enterprises.

The E.P.A. has already identified the city, the Navy and seven companies, including Consolidated Edison and National Grid, as potentially responsible for the past discharges. It is seeking additional information from at least 20 other companies so it can map out the financing of the cleanup.

“This is a historical puzzle we’re putting together here,” Ms. Enck said.