On Wednesday, environmental activist Christopher Swain attempted to swim the full length of the Gowanus Canal — he quit soon after citing concern for safety of his crew — as part of an Earth Day stunt to remind the public what they already know: the waterway is putrid, noxious and historically, has always been like that.
The Gowanus Creek was plagued with grossness after it was widened and transformed into the namesake canal in the 1860s. As Brooklyn’s population exploded and heavy industry along the banks of the Gowanus rose, so did the amount of pollution entering the waterway. Back in the day, there was no such thing as environmental laws and a lot of manufactures would routinely discharge all sorts of crap and waste products into the water, as did its human residents. In an 1856 New York Times article, the paper of record explains that a ghetto of Irish immigrants surrounded the area with “a collection of huts” known as “Derby’s Patch.” The surrounding area, known as Gowanus Beach, wasn’t great, but it was cheap:
The land at this place is owned by a Mr. Wood of Brooklyn, and the squatters pay from $20 to $30 a year rent for a lot. They put up their own shanties, and live along one year after another, if they can successfully contend against the poisonous malaria arising from the contiguous flats.
In August of 1889, the Times announced the formation of the Gowanus Canal Commission, an body appointed to address the “means of abating the nuisances at present noticeable about the Gowanus Canal at Brooklyn.” Several residents who lived near the canal for over two decades reportedly “testified that the odors were frightful,” said the paper.
Twenty-one years after that, the city came up with a plan to help clean the dirty canal in the form of a flushing tunnel that would help pump water from New York Harbor to the head of the canal. In 1911, the New York Times celebrated the opening of the flushing tunnel and by the sound of it, so did a bunch of Brooklynites:
In gala attire, all South Brooklyn took a holiday yesterdays to celebrate its long looked-for emancipation from thee evil smells given forth by the murky waters of Gowanus Canal, which the municipality has built at a cost of nearly $100,000 to flush and cleanse the much-used waterway.
In the same article, the paper notes the difficulties of cleaning a canal that’s constantly filled with shit:
The Gowanus Canal is one of the greatest assets in the City of New York. Efforts to purify it have been frustrated by the city government in permitting sewers to be emptied into it. I counted sixteen of the sewer holes opening into the canal near its head today.
But the efforts seemed futile. In 1922, 11 years after the paper published an article celebrating the cleaning of the canal, the New York Times reported that over $100,000,000 in goods are ferried up and down the canal, describing it as “one of the dirtiest, one of the shortest and one of the most important waterways in the world.”
During this time, the canal was at its peak use, and reportedly hosted “25,000 vessels per year serving more than 50 different manufacturers.”
Towards the beginning of World War II, the Gowanus Canal entered a period of serious decline. Famed mega builder Robert Moses began construction of the Gowanus Parkway and trucks begin to rapidly replace barges and the relevance of the canal altogether. The waterway quickly fell into disuse.
The Gowanus got especially fucked when the giant propeller in its original flushing tunnel died in the 1960s, transforming the canal into a fetid cesspool. In 1973, the city once again launched an effort to clean the smelly waterway, reports the Times:
It would cost at least $1 million to dredge the canal…because odors from the sewage-ridden waterway were posing an environmental hazard to neighborhood residents.
This flushing tunnel, the only source of recirculation for the Gowanus, was eventually fixed in 1999, over three decades after it broke, leaving a sea of pollution in its wake. “The odor would curl your toes,” said one local to the Times. Apparently it always has.