Gowanus, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, is an area steeped in rich history that dates back centuries. From its origins as a salt marsh to its industrial heyday and recent revitalization, Gowanus has been an integral part of the development of New York City. In this blog post, we’ll take a journey through time to discover the fascinating history of Gowanus.
Before the Dutch arrived in the early 17th century, the Gowanus area was inhabited by the Lenape Native Americans. They called the area “Gowanes,” which meant “a place of rushing waters.” The area was a salt marsh, with the Gowanus Creek winding through it and emptying into Gowanus Bay. The Dutch settlers drained the marshes and used the fertile land for farming.
The 17th century was a time of significant change in the Gowanus area. Prior to the arrival of the Dutch, the Lenape Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of the region. The Lenape referred to the area as “Gowanes,” which translates to “a place of rushing waters.” This name was likely a reference to the Gowanus Creek, which flowed through the area and emptied into the nearby Gowanus Bay.
The Gowanus Creek was a vital source of food and transportation for the Lenape people. They fished in the creek and used canoes to travel along its waters. The surrounding marshes were also a source of food, providing wild plants and animals for hunting and gathering.
However, when the Dutch arrived in the early 17th century, they began to reshape the landscape of the Gowanus area. One of the first things the Dutch did was to drain the marshes in order to use the fertile land for farming. They built dikes and canals to redirect the water from the creek, allowing them to reclaim the marshland and create more farmland.
The Dutch also established a trading post in the area, which later became the village of Breukelen (modern-day Brooklyn). The trading post was strategically located on the East River and allowed the Dutch to trade with the Lenape people and other Native American tribes.
Over time, the Dutch expanded their settlements and farms throughout the Gowanus area, displacing many of the Lenape people. The Lenape were forced to adapt to the changing landscape and economy, often by working for the Dutch as laborers or by trading with them for goods.
The 18th century was a time of growth and expansion for the Gowanus area. With the Dutch firmly established in the region, the area continued to develop and evolve throughout the century.
One significant event in the 18th century was the construction of the Gowanus Road in 1704. The road, which ran from Brooklyn to New Utrecht, provided a vital link between the Gowanus area and the rest of the region. The road also helped to spur the development of the area, making it easier for farmers and merchants to transport their goods to markets in other parts of the region.
In the mid-18th century, the Gowanus area saw an influx of immigrants, particularly from Ireland. These immigrants, many of whom were Catholic, settled in the area and established a thriving community. They built their own churches, schools, and other institutions, and played an important role in the development of the area.
The 18th century also saw the beginning of industrialization in the Gowanus area. The construction of the Erie Canal in 1825 opened up new markets for goods produced in the region, and the Gowanus Canal was extended to connect with the canal. This allowed for easier transportation of goods, and many new factories and mills were built along the canal.
The Gowanus area also played a role in the American Revolution. During the Battle of Long Island in 1776, American troops made a stand at Gowanus Pass, a strategic location near the Gowanus Creek. The battle was a decisive victory for the British, but the American troops were able to retreat across the creek and escape capture.
By the end of the 18th century, the Gowanus area had become a thriving center of commerce and industry. The area was home to numerous factories, mills, and warehouses, and was an important hub for transportation and trade. The influx of immigrants and the development of new industries had transformed the Gowanus area from a small farming community to a bustling center of activity.
The 19th century was a period of rapid growth and change for the Gowanus area. The area continued to develop as a center of industry and commerce, and also played a role in the growth of New York City as a whole.
One of the major events of the 19th century was the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. The canal connected the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and allowed for easier transportation of goods from the interior of the country to the East Coast. The Gowanus Canal was extended to connect with the Erie Canal, and the Gowanus area became an important hub for transportation and trade.
In the mid-19th century, the Gowanus area saw a significant increase in immigration, particularly from Germany and Scandinavia. These immigrants brought new skills and expertise to the area, and helped to further drive the growth of industry and commerce.
The Gowanus area was also an important center for shipbuilding during the 19th century. The Gowanus Bay was an ideal location for shipyards, and many of the ships that sailed out of New York City were built in the Gowanus area. The area was also home to several iron foundries and machine shops, which produced machinery and equipment for the shipping industry.
In the late 19th century, the Gowanus area underwent a significant transformation as the city of Brooklyn began to expand. The Gowanus Canal was widened and deepened to accommodate larger ships, and the area around the canal became a center of heavy industry. Factories and warehouses sprang up along the canal, producing everything from textiles to coal.
However, the rapid industrialization of the Gowanus area came at a cost. The Gowanus Canal became heavily polluted with industrial waste and sewage, making it one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. The area also experienced significant social problems, including poverty, crime, and unsanitary living conditions.
Despite these challenges, the Gowanus area continued to play an important role in the growth and development of New York City. In the late 19th century, the area was a hub of industry and commerce, and was home to a diverse and vibrant community of workers and residents.
The 20th century saw significant changes to the Gowanus Canal and the surrounding area. The continued industrialization of the Gowanus area and the growth of New York City as a whole had a significant impact on the canal and its environs.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Gowanus Canal continued to be a vital transportation hub for the region. The canal was used to transport goods such as coal, oil, and grain, and was an important link between Brooklyn and the rest of the city. However, by the mid-20th century, the Gowanus Canal had become heavily polluted with industrial waste and sewage, making it a dangerous and unsanitary place.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Gowanus area saw a decline in industry as many factories and businesses closed or moved to other parts of the country. The decline of industry in the area led to a decline in the neighborhood as a whole, and the Gowanus Canal became a symbol of neglect and decay.
In the 1960s and 1970s, efforts were made to revitalize the Gowanus area. However, these efforts were often met with resistance from residents and business owners who were wary of the changes that were taking place. Many saw the area’s industrial heritage as an important part of its identity, and were concerned that efforts to clean up the canal and redevelop the area would erode that identity.
Despite these challenges, efforts to clean up the Gowanus Canal and revitalize the surrounding area continued throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the canal as a Superfund site, which meant that it was eligible for federal funding for cleanup and remediation efforts. Since then, various plans and proposals have been put forward to clean up the canal and redevelop the surrounding area.
In the 21st century, the Gowanus area has undergone a significant transformation. The area has become a hub for artists and creatives, and new businesses and housing developments have sprouted up. However, the Gowanus Canal remains a significant environmental challenge, and efforts to clean it up continue to be a priority for the city and the federal government. Despite the challenges, the Gowanus area remains a vital part of the history and identity of Brooklyn and New York City as a whole.
Recommended reading, featured by the Brooklyn Paranormal Society:
- Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names
- From Bedford-Stuyvesant to Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s historic names are emblems of American culture and history. Uncovering the remarkable stories behind the landmarks, Brooklyn By Name takes readers on a stroll through the streets and places of this thriving metropolis to reveal the borough’s textured past.
- The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide Paperback
- Bill Helmreich walked every block of New York City―6,000 miles in all―to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Later, he re-walked Brooklyn―some 816 miles―to write this one-of-a-kind walking guide to the city’s hottest borough.
- Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal
- For more than 150 years, Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal has been called a cesspool, an industrial dumping ground, and a blemish on the face of the populous borough―as well as one of the most important waterways in the history of New York harbor. Yet its true origins, man-made character, and importance to the city have been largely forgotten.
- Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs
- Gowanus Canal, Hans Knudsen
- On the banks of Gowanus Canal, a fetid stream in a squalid Brooklyn neighborhood, Hans Knudsen, son of a liberal Lutheran minister, seeks among the warring pressures of consubstantiation, transsubstantiation, and no-substantiation, the old world and the new-new world, the ideal and the real, the Cogito and the un-self, Martin Luther and Descartes, the abstract and the concrete, for a way into modern, post-religious culture, hope, and life.
The history of Gowanus is a fascinating journey through time. From its early days as a salt marsh to its industrial heyday and recent revitalization, Gowanus has played an integral role in the development of New York City. Although the area has faced many challenges over the years, it continues to be a vibrant and unique neighborhood that draws residents and visitors alike. Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, or a fan of urban exploration, Gowanus has something to offer.
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