Waste watcher: Historian dredges up Gowanus Canal’s dirty history

The Brooklyn Paper
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The only thing filthier than the Gowanus Canal are the tycoons who built it.

A new book about the polluted waterway focuses largely on the Gilded Age scoundrels of Kings County, whose green-back ambitions helped transform the Gowanus Canal from a pristine tidal estuary into a toxic fecal nightmare. The author of “Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” who will discuss it on Oct. 13 at the Brooklyn Historical Society, says the canal’s development throughout the ages tracks that of the greatest borough ever built.

“The Gowanus Canal is a lens through which you can look at the development of Brooklyn as a city,” said historian Joseph Alexiou. “You could stand at the water’s edge from 1630 to 2015, and you can tell exactly what period you’re in by how the canal’s being used. In the pre-colonial era you’re seeing natives fishing for oysters. Post-colonial you’re seeing Dutch settlers and grist mills. During the revolutionary period you’re seeing rebels getting shot, and during the industrial period you start seeing pollution.”

That pollution started during the late 19th Century, and Alexiou’s book lingers longest amongst the railroad tycoons, gas producers, and Gilded Age new money millionaires whose legacies are — for better or worse — inseparable from the Gowanus area.

Among those bourgeois Brooklynites was Edwin C. Litchfield, who used the wealth from his railroad holdings to fund the the canal’s construction and expand the area’s coal production facilities — a potent source of the pollution that continues to plague the waterway.

Alexiou recounts how Litchfield built the grand thoroughfare called Third Street — conspicuously wide and well-paved compared with the dirt roads surrounding it — so that he could ride pleasantly from his office near Fifth Street to his flamboyant mansion in what is now Prospect Park. The tycoon leaned on corrupt city officials to divert taxpayer funds and fuel to light gas lamps along Third Street, lighting a glorious highway that was used by almost no one but him, according to Alexiou.

“That’s what money and power does,” Alexiou said. “It gives fancy people the ability to build a fancy driveway.”

“Brooklyn’s Curious Canal” at the Brooklyn Historical Society [128 Pierrepont St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights] Oct. 13 at 7 pm. $10 ($5 for members).

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Sam from Gowanus says:
May I be so bold as to suggest it was the people following on the heals of the tycoons (who by the way were profiting from the eager beaver middle classes) and since who have been most destructive to the environment more often knowingly than not, not unlike the techies of developing countries today? It was the decline of these industries here and rise of them elsewhere that caused the most damage through negligence, propelled by free market sensibilities without a care for stabilized transitions?
Oct. 9, 2015, 11:34 am
Hekate from the natural world says:
I always found it odd how the fake river and lakes up in Prospect Park were built around the same time when the Gowanus meadowlands were being obliterated. Clearly people valued open water in an open landscape.

I also find it odd that today we don't know any better as we build fake wetlands along the East River in our new Brooklyn Bridge Park while piling contraptions like the Whole Foods market store on top of the wetlands that naturally thrive in Gowanus, even today.

Development is by no means more sensible today then it was in the past--and maybe even less enlightened given the lack of real consideration of infrastructure and the inconsequential token nod to environmental conditions.
Oct. 14, 2015, 2:55 pm

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