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Gowanus Canal’s Industrial Past

By the mid-1800s, Brooklyn had become the third largest city in America. As Brooklyn grew and industrialized in the 1800s, so did the need for navigational and docking facilities. Recognizing the opportunity a canal would bring to Brooklyn, New York State authorized the construction of the Gowanus Canal in 1849. The canal was completed in 1869 and extended the industrial transportation route of the Erie Canal and New York Harbor into Brooklyn. As a result, the canal became the hub of Brooklyn’s maritime and commercial shipping activity.

Businesses and industry quickly sprang up along the canal’s two-mile length. It was a hub for Brooklyn’s maritime and commercial shipping activity including cement works, machine shops, chemical plants, shipbuilders, incinerators, and Manufactured Gas Plants (MGP). Paint, ink, and soap factories were built. Warehouses, tanneries, coal yards, flour mills, and other businesses needed to support the new modern economy appeared.

The thriving Industrial Revolution brought growth to the banks of the Gowanus and the canal served as the conduit for building materials, including much of the borough’s now iconic brownstone. However, untreated industrial wastes, raw sewage, and surface water emptied into the canal and continued for decades resulting in the canal becoming one of New York’s most polluted waterways.

By the early 1900s, the Gowanus Canal was the busiest industrial and commercial canal in the United States, transporting more than six million tons of cargo annually. In 1911, New York City built a “Flushing Tunnel” to replace the stagnant water in the canal with fresh, oxygen-rich water that would improve water quality. The tunnel, which brought water in from Buttermilk Channel, worked until the 1960s, when mechanical failure caused it to shut down and the canal became polluted and stagnant again. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) subsequently restored and reactivated the Flushing Tunnel in 1999 with a temporary shut down for upgrades from 2010 to 2014.

The Canal Today

By the middle of the 20th century, the industrial activity along the canal decreased dramatically. Most of the manufacturing facilities had left, prompting many areas around the canal to transition to commercial and residential use. These changes resulted in much less canal traffic and a growing desire for alternative uses of the canal, including recreation. In April 2009, the US EPA proposed that the Gowanus Canal be placed on the National Priorities List (NPL). The NPL is a published list of hazardous waste sites in the country that are eligible for extensive, long-term clean-up actions under the Superfund program.

Regardless of its ultimate use, we all want to see a cleaner and healthier Gowanus Canal.

For more information, please view the EPA’s Community Involvement Plan.