Bushwick Inlet’s Fascinating History
Bushwick Inlet, the truncated, morose, post-industrial body of water west of Kent Avenue at North 14th Street, hardly seems worthy of the huge controversy for a shoreline park, nor would it appear to have a rich history, but the body of water is both controversial and historic. Although park protests have generated a lot of headlines, few know its history.
There was not always a Bushwick Inlet. The inlet is a relatively recent creation. It was once Bushwick Creek, which was a far longer, deeper and prettier estuary whose headwaters covered much of what is today McCarren Park. A tidal creek, at high tide its waters covered a large area encompassing much of McCarren Park, forming a water boundary between Williamsburg and Greenpoint and beautiful miniature bays. Low tide, though, was a different story as the waters receded they left a stinky slime whose odors offended local noses for generations.
It is hard to imagine today, but once the waters of the creek were pristine and full of shellfish, which were harvested by the local Native Americans, the Keskechaugue, who used the abundant shiny oyster shells to make wampum, Native American money. About 1640 a European, Dirck Volckertszen, showed up at the creek and began to cut the abundant local timber and trade with the Keskechaugue. Volckertszen, called Dirck The Norseman by the Dutch, built a house along the creek in 1645, which was burned ten years later by the Native Americans in the great war with the Europeans that raged in Greenpoint. The house was rebuilt and stood on its southern shore for almost two hundred years. Norman Avenue, a corruption of the name Norseman, was named Norman’s Kill by the Dutch in Volckertszen’s honor.
In 1838 a wooden bridge was built over the creek by Greenpoint’s first developer Neziah Bliss. Shipbuilding soon followed and parts of the creek were filled in with landfill to create shipyards. Local shipbuilders threw huge numbers of lumber spars, long wooden beams, into the creek because soaked in water, the spars were far more resistant to cracking. The David Taff Spar yard stood at Wythe and North 13th. Some of the sunken spars are still visible today. The most famous ship ever built in the area, however, was not built of wood. The first ironclad ship, the Civil War Monitor, was constructed on Quay Street right by the creek in 1861. It was a harbinger of the doom of local wooden shipbuilding.
Shortly after the Civil War, Charles Pratt built the nation’s first modern oil refinery on the northern shore of the creek, which dumped huge amounts of oil into the creek killing the shellfish and turning the once pristine creek into a malodorous stagnant horror. The swampy ground around the creek quickly became a dumping ground and sewers from recently built houses in Greenpoint began to discharge sewage into the creek. The area developed a horrible stench. Much of the marsh on the sides of the creek was filled in and rock fights regularly erupted there between the children of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The creek quickly became industrial.
CLANCY’S coal yard was founded at the edge of the Creek, but the creek started to fill up with refuse and silt, blocking navigation of the creek. CLANCY made every effort to have the creek dredged up to his coal yard but the government refused to appropriate the necessary money. In order to prove that the creek was navigable he had a canal boat towed up the creek to his yard, but it could not sail back out of the silted up creek. There it remained and rotted and was used for firewood. A local gang of hoods, the Rainmakers, used to hide under the bridge over the creek in the 1870s and would waylay and rob unsuspecting pedestrians crossing the bridge. In 1895 Bill Cody brought his wild West show to Greenpoint and the cowboys and Native Americans camped in the fields by the creek.
By the 1900s the stench was so powerful from the creek that the public demanded that it be filled in and McCarren Park arose on the new land. Bushwick Inlet was soon born.