There are few regions of New York City that can match North Brooklyn for its history of metal casting. Many of New York’s most iconic pieces of cast iron, steel and bronze were cast locally. Metal casting was one of the five black arts that shaped North Brooklyn’s industrial era. These black arts also included oil refining, porcelain making, paper production and glass blowing. Even today local foundries continue to create different kinds of metal objects locally. Sadly, even local history enthusiasts do not know the major achievements of local metal fabrication. It is a proud history our area should reclaim.
Most people can identify one of Greenpoint’s most famous metal objects: the ironclad battleship, the United States Ship Monitor, which was built in an amazing 101 days at the Continental Iron Works on Quay Street. The ships’ thick iron turret repelled cannon shots and saved the union in the battle of Hampton Roads in 1862. What you might not know is that many other monitor type ships were also built there and during the Civil War 1,500 men worked around the clock building these iron battleships, but there were many other local non-military achievements in metal.
The Brooklyn Bridge also used the work of local foundries. The bridge architects designed huge caissons, massive iron boxes built by a local firm. John Roebling, the bridge’s architect, designed them in 1868, giving the demanding contract to the shipbuilding firm Webb and Bell, located at the foot of Milton Street. Building these massive objects itself was a daunting engineering feat. Nothing like them had ever been built before. There was one for each bridge tower and each weighed an amazing 3,000 tons, larger than any object ever sunk into the ground before. The caissons were 168 feet long and 103 feet wide, an area covering half a city block. Each contained 110, 000 cubic feet of timber and 250 feet of iron with iron walls and a ceiling six feet thick.
Webb and Bell insisted on being paid $100, 000 in advance for the complicated task of building them. To dig inside the caissons workers needed air and the caissons were built with a revolutionary new technology: airlocks made of one-half inch boilerplates, seven feet by six and a half inches in diameter. Due to their enormous size, the massive caissons had to be built in parts and then welded together at the foot of the bridge.
Finally, in May 1870 the caissons were ready to be pulled down the river by two tugboats. They hoped to float them down the river, but launching such heavy objects into the East River was a major engineering problem. Webb and Bell had to build seven launch ways so that these massive objects could reach the river. Thousands of Greenpointers turned out to witness their launch into the river. Huge cheers arose from the throngs assembled along the East River as the caissons hit the water and did not sink. They were then towed the five miles down the East River to the bridge construction site.
The Hecla Iron Works
Some Greenpointers might also be surprised that some of the city’s most beautiful cast iron facades in were also cast locally. The Hecla Architectural Iron Works occupied 35 city lots located between N. 10th Street and N. 12th Street between Wythe Avenue and Berry Street and employed 1,000 workers in its various departments. Founded by two Scandinavian immigrants, Niels Poulson of Denmark and Charles Eger from Norway, the firm has become legendary for its graceful creations
Calyer Street has one of the most beautiful groups of landmark row houses in Greenpoint, where Calyer Street meets Clifford Place. These five Neo-Greek brick houses were built between 1879 and 1880. The quaint landmark houses seem to have jumped straight out of the Edward Hopper painting Sunday Morning. These houses delude you into thinking that Calyer Street is frozen in time—but change is coming quickly to Greenpoint, even to historic Calyer Street.
Perhaps no street is more historic than Calyer Street. The history of the street even predates its official opening, going all the way back to 1645 when the first European home in Greenpoint was built by Norwegian immigrant Dirck Volckerstzen 100 feet from where Calyer and Franklin meet. The house was built on a knoll, but was burned by the Native Americans in 1655 and rebuilt after the conflict had ended. The house and the hill it stood on were leveled to provide landfill for shipyards in the 1850s. Continue reading →
The USS Monitor, built here in Greenpoint by Continental Ironworks in 1862, was one of the first iron-clad battle ships in the US Navy. During the Civil War, the Monitor took part in the “Battle of the Ironclads,” and money from the building of the Monitor contributed to the building of the Church of the Ascension (127 Kent Street).
Given The Monitor’s deep role in the industrial, naval and ecclesiastical history of Greenpoint, and the United States itself, lifelong Greenpoint residents George and Janice Weinmann have been advocating for a museum dedicated to the boat since 1996.
The couple secured land for the museum on Quay Street at the Monitor’s construction site in 2003, and scored a grant from GCEF to fund the museum in 2015. The project requires a restoration of the ecological shoreline at the Quay Street property, and the museum has been working with design and engineering firm AECOM to make it happen. On Wednesday, June 13, friends of the Monitor Museum teamed up with AECOM to host a public info meeting about the current status of the project. Continue reading →
The Greenpoint Monitor Museum received a grant three years ago from the GCEF to build a museum honoring the USS Monitor on the shores of developing Bushwick Inlet, where the great ship was constructed more than 150 years ago. The project requires a restoration of the ecological shoreline, and the museum has been working with design and engineering firm AECOM to make it happen.
This Saturday, June 9 from 12m to 2pm, the Monitor Museum will host a guided visit of the future museum site. Meet up with folks at 56 Quay Street (at Bushwick Inlet).
Next Wednesday, June 13th from 6:30-8pm the Museum will be hosting a public info meeting at the Community Room at Bushwick Inlet Park (86 Kent Ave). Continue reading →
In a previous post I reported that there was an application to demolish 85 Calyer Street, the historic home of the builder of the first ironclad battleship in the United States Navy, the USS Monitor. The situation looks bleak and the historic house seems doomed. The new owner of the property, Daniel Kaykov, has received an approval to have the historic building demolished. Although the building is rich with local history, the building is not protected by landmark status, so little can be done to save the historic structure.
Sadly, the previous owner of 85 Calyer Street, a man named Tommy, not only knew the history of the house, but even expressed pride in owning this piece of local history. Once, when I was giving a historic walking tour he approached the group and showed us some of his historic photos of the house when Rowland owned it. The house once had a grand entrance for carriages and an elegant facade that has since been covered over with drab vinyl. The owner also told me of a kind of bunker in the back garden that might have been used to help smuggle booze into the area from the nearby Noble Street pier during the prohibition era. Continue reading →
85 Calyer Street looks like many other frame houses in Greenpoint, but it was the home of the greatest mechanical genius to ever live in Greenpoint, Thomas Fitch Rowland, and one of the most important short conversations in American history took place in the parlor there. First, though, lets get a little background on the owner of the house, Thomas Fitch Rowland.
Rowland was born in Connecticut in 1831 and became a railroad engineer, quickly becoming one of the leading experts in the design and construction of steam engines. However, he decided to leave railroad engineering, switching to the construction of steam engines for sailing ships and also developing an expertise in metallurgy. He was soon invited to come to Greenpoint to build ships because of his twin areas of expertise. By 1859 he founded his own company, the legendary Continental Iron Works on Quay Street. Two years later, he would help make history when visionary Swedish naval engineer John Ericsson approached him about building a revolutionary ship in Greenpoint, the ironclad Monitor, which would revolutionize warfare making wooden ships obsolete. Continue reading →
On January 30, 1862 the most important event that ever happened locally occurred. Greenpoint wrote its name in the history book when a ship was launched here that not only changed naval warfare forever, but also helped the Union win the Civil War and end slavery. That ship, the first ironclad ship in the United States Navy, The U.S.S. Monitor, was built locally at the Continental Iron Works on Quay Street and West Street.
The construction of the Monitor was something of a miracle in itself. Its builder, Swedish John Ericsson had previously been falsely blamed by The United States Navy for a tragic incident. In 1844 Ericsson was the mastermind of the construction of a revolutionary warship, the Princeton, which featured futuristic innovations: steam engines below the waterline; a screw propeller instead of paddle wheels and new methods of mounting, aiming and firing guns. Ericsson’s sponsor in building the Princeton was an unscrupulous United States Navy officer, Captain John Stockton who wrongly took credit for designing the ship that was rightfully Ericsson’s. Stockton did in fact design one part of the ship, a huge gun, which exploded on the ship’s maiden voyage, killing numerous Washington big-wigs. Amazingly, Stockton pinned the blame on Ericsson who was blackballed and told he would never build another ship for the Navy. Continue reading →
Did you know that Greenpoint has a museum? Yes we do and at this time it serves as a traveling museum visiting local schools. Motiva Enterprises has donated waterfront property at the launch site of the USS Monitor so a museum could be built in the future. They are now working toward fixing the site to make it open to the public. Please visit their site for more information. www.greenpointmonitormuseum.org
¿Sabías que Greenpoint cuenta con un Museo? Sí tenemos uno y en este momento sirve como un museo itinerante visitando las escuelas locales. Motiva Enterprises ha donado propiedad frente al mar en el sitio de lanzamiento del USS Monitor para que un museo podría construirse en el futuro. Ahora están trabajando hacia la fijación del sitio para que sea abierta al público. Visite su sitio para obtener más información. www.greenpointmonitormuseum.org
Last Saturday the Brooklyn Diggers held a fun and educational event in Winthrop Park to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the U.S.S. Monitor, built in Greenpoint, during the Civil War. Awesome Greenpoint photographer Emily Raw set up a daguerrotype photo booth. Subjects got dressed up and posed for a few moments, but when these kinds of photographs were taken back then, the long exposures lasted for many minutes. To keep subjects still, Emily explained, their necks were held in place by a metal brace. That sounds delightful! Emily left the brace at home that day, unfortunately. There are a lot more from this awesome set here. More about the Brooklyn Diggers here. Emily Raw’s website.
Buy your limited edition Brooklyn Diggers 150th Anniversary T Shirt for only $25 at Kill Devil Hill! Sale goes toward the 150th Anniversary Celebration in honor of laying of the keel USS Monitor in 1861. The FREE event will take place October 22nd in McGorlick Park. More info.