The Night Soil and Offal Docks, and Jell-O
I was seeking out some information on a shunned 1960’s religious group which had headquartered at a disused 19th century Satmar Yeshiva (which burned to ash in 1973) over on the Greenpoint side when I read about “Conrad Wessel’s noxious and pestilential night soil and offal dock on Furman’s Island, along the Newtown Creek”. This reference was connected to Gov. Flower’s “smelling committee” which traveled up Newtown Creek in a steamboat during the summer of 1894 to confirm that the waterway did, in fact, smell. The Smelling Committee placed much blame for the miasma which permeated Long Island City, Dutch Kills, and Greenpoint at the doorstep of the bone boilers on Furman’s Island.
A muddy patch midway at the branch of Maspeth Creek with the main waterway, Furman’s (originally Smith’s) island was connected to the shore by a plank road. This plank road would later become Maspeth Avenue. At the corner of Gardner, where the Maspeth Tanks towered until just recently- was Peter Cooper‘s Glue Factory. This picture is from the Brooklyn public library:
Cooper- as in Cooper Union- and Canton Iron- as in B&O Railroad- as in the first transatlantic telegraph wire- was a brilliant chemist who worked in the “we use every part of the pig but the squeal” days of the American meat industry. By 1870, his operation specialized in the refinement of glues, albumen, and aspic from bone and inedible parts of animals. He invented the process by which gelatin can be powderized, flavored, and shipped to waiting consumers. His product- jell-O brand gelatin (patented 1845), is just one of the many everyday items invented and originally manufactured on our troubled newtown waters. One of New York’s greatest men, Cooper’s factory was nevertheless a gigantic animal tissue distillery which was spewing a plume of grease and acid directly into the Newtown Creek. Dead animals were collected all over the greater New York area (these were the horse and buggy days) and loaded onto barges headed for Furman’s Island. Also, human and animal poop littered the streets of Manhattan in those days.
The classic Sanitation man, in white uniform with a pail on wheels and armed with brooms and brushes- the sort you see show up in old warner bros. cartoons- was part of a nocturnal army who would open hydrants and water mains on top of the hill at 5th ave. and sweep the filth down to the rivers. This accumulation was in turn loaded on barges destined for… you guessed it… Newtown Creek. This is also where your grandmother’s threats about becoming a street sweeper if you didn’t do your homework come from. I grew up in the 70’s, and “garbage man” was a solid, well paying, union job.
Cooper’s men would first boil the organics and by-products, reducing them to fatty acid kept near boiling, then the foul chowder would be pumped through ceramic pipes to become constituents for whatever use Mr Cooper, or later his nephews Charles and George, desired. A reading of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, which is admittedly based in Chicago, gives a fairly good taste of what life must have been like on New York’s own bubbly creek back then. Compare with “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York” by Jacob Riis for the New York slant.
Cooper was the largest of the bone boilers, but not the only one. His plant was considered a model as compared to the Fertilizer and Rendering Works of Peter Van Iderstein, Jr. or Fred Heffner’s fat rendering operation. Also present along the Creek was the aforementioned Conrad Wessel’s Offal Dock, along with wire manufacturers like William Grossback and Co., and Charles Tendele’s Provisions dealership. Thousands of small operations worked in barns and sheds shoeing horses and building crates and barrels.
For a free historic New York Times column on the Smelling Committee and it’s findings- click here (registration required)
Its not the oil spill you should worry about folks, for things darker than petroleum flow beneath the gentle waves of the Newtown Creek.
Also, if anything you read here is contradictory to something you know, leave a comment and let’s talk about it…