The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

lined with sorrow

with 3 comments

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One of my little phrases, that I bandy about as if I know what I’m talking about, is “Newtown Creek is where the Industrial Revolution actually happened”.

Ruminating on this, literally this morning, I started putting this post together, picking a random and unremarked spot along Newtown Creek (which I had ok photos of, naturally) and shining a light on it. The semi modern history of this spot, an auto impound lot which was a “Gaseteria” facility more recently than it was the Ditmas Oil Terminal, which lies along the English Kills tributary of the Newtown Creek isn’t that hard to find out.

Child’s play, if the child happens to be 40 and change years old, and refers to himself constantly as your “humble narrator”, that is.


During the early nineteenth century, the portion of present-day Brooklyn between the village of Williamsburgh and New town Creek was a rural farm area dotted by small settlements. Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century, at the time the ferries to Manhattan were initiated, the Williamsburgh and Jamaica Plank Road was established on the route of the present-day Metropolitan Avenue.

Around the same time, the Newtown and Bushwick Turnpike, also known as the North Road to Newtown, was built on the present-day Meeker Avenue. The turnpike crossed Newtown Creek at a site where a ferry had operated since the late 1600s; in 1836 a toll bridge was built which came to be known as the “Penny Bridge” after the fee charged to pedestrians. Bushwick Avenue, which connected with Humboldt Street, was an important north-south route.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This part of the English Kills canal follows the grid of the surrounding Brooklyn streets and looks nothing like the vernal wonderland of salt marsh and game laden grasses described by the Dutch and so carefully mapped by the English. This is the work of 19th century engineers, who were trying to put nature right, imposing right angles and impossible angles upon the water. It’s not too far from the intersection of Metropolitan and Grand Avenues in East Williamsburg.

It’s also pretty close to where the Bushwick Chemical Works of M. Kalbfleisch & Sons once stood, if it’s not the actual spot.

from “A history of American manufactures from 1608 to 1860” via google books

The Bushwick Chemical Works—M. Kalbfleisch & Sons,

Situated in the Eastern District of Brooklyn, a few miles from New York, are among the most important and extensive Chemical manufactories in the United States. The Works are composed of numerous buildings of various sizes, the largest being from one hundred and sixty to two hundred feet in length, and from sixty to seventy feet in width. Among them is a Glass House and Pottery, in which are made all the Retorts and Bottles used in manufacturing and packing the Acids and other products of the Chemical Department. The whole group of structures, with their extended walls, spacious roofs, and lofty chimneys, covers an area of over five acres, and presents an imposing appearance even at a distance. The interior appointments and equipments are of a character corresponding with the extent of the buildings. One of the chambers, for manufacturing Sulphuric Acid, is two hundred and seventeen feet long by fifty feet wide, no doubt the largest in existence, and is a model in every particular. Among the noticeable objects that attract the attention of visitors, are three Platina Stills, imported from France, at a cost of about fifteen thousand dollars each.

The products of these Works include a great number of those articles recognized as standards in the commerce of the world. Of Sulphuric Acid they have a capacity for producing three hundred thousand pounds weekly, and of Muriatic Acid, about three hundred and fifty carboys weekly.

Besides these, they manufacture Aquafortis, Muriate of Tin, Strong Ox. Muriate Tin, Soda Ash, Aqua Ammonia, Tin Chrystals, Nitrate of Iron, Sulphate of Zinc, and other officinal chemicals. The firm employ constantly from seventy to eighty workmen, for whom they have provided comfortable dwellings in the vicinity of the Works. The Office and Salesrooms are in the City of New York, at the corner of Fulton and Cliff streets.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like the precursor of Phelps Dodge over on the Queens side of the Creek (which was known first as Nichols and then as General Chemical) M. Kalbfleisch & Sons manufactured the wonder chemical of the early 19th century- sulfuric acid.

The chemical itself had been around in one form or another for centuries, but its manufacture was the provence of jewelers and alchemists, and its manufacture was a particularly ugly process and produced limited quantities of the stuff. It required large glass or earthenware vessels to distill, which were prone to breakage, which is bad when acid is involved.

One would either burn sulfur and saltpeter along with sodium nitrate and combine the ashes with water, or distill the stuff from a mixture of ferric sulfate and silica. The former mixture is also known as Brimstone, and the latter as Oil of Vitriol to esotericists.

from America’s Successful Men of Affairs , An Encyclopedia of Contemporaneous Biography via google books

MARTIN KALBFLEISCH, chemist, a native of Flushing, Netherlands, born Feb. 8, 1804, died in Brooklyn, N. Y., Feb. 12, 1873. In 1822, the youth sailed to the island of Sumatra, but finding that the Asiatic cholera was raging there, he promptly returned with his ship to Antwerp Thence he went to Havre, France, and spent four years in commercial enterprise. In 1826, he came to the United States with small means but splendid pluck.

In New York city, hard work as a clerk and chemist brought him a little money and, in 1835, he started a manufactory of colors and chemicals in Harlem. After several changes of location, the business, which had prospered under his energetic management, was finally moved to Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn.

The works now occupy eleven acres of ground on Newtown creek.

Mr. Kalbfleisch was a man of clear head, strong common sense and ability. He served in various public offices in Brooklyn and was elected Mayor in 1861. In 1862, his fellow citizens sent him to Congress and in 1867 and 1871 again made him Mayor.

Later, they offered him the nomination for Governor of the State on the same ticket with Horace Greeley.

In 1854, he was married to Elizabeth Harvey. Eleven children were born to them: Elizabeth W., wife of Robert Robinson; Frederick W. Kalbfleisch; Helen M., wife of Rodney Thursby; Edward L. G., Charles H., Albert M., and Franklin H. Kalbfleisch; Josephine M. L., wife of Robert S. Fleet; Isabella G., wife of James E. Weaver; and John and George Kalbfleisch.

He retired from business in 1868 in favor of his sons, who thereupon organized the firm of Martin Kalbfleisch’s Sons, which controlled the business until 1886.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The sulfuric acid part of the industrial revolution started when a fellow in Great Britain named Roebuck figured out that he could produce the stuff by the pound, and then the ton, using an innovative series of lead tanks to distill the acid. The method spread and evolved, and even today, sulfuric acid accounts for nearly 40% of total U.S. chemical industry volume output.

Manufacture of sulfuric acid has advanced considerably, of course, since the days of M. Kalbfleisch & Sons. The company itself seems to have suffered a premature decline, due to mismanagement (and I’ve found hints of some sort of Standard Oil interference with it as well but nothing I could back up). The fellow who got the property in receivership was a manufacturer of electrical glass, the sort of material you see on high tension wire connections.

Who can guess, all there is, that might be buried down there?

from A history of the city of Brooklyn, By Henry Reed Stiles via google books

3 Responses

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  1. […] always engaging Newtown Pentacle elaborates on his claim that ‘Newtown Creek is where the Industrial Revolution actually […]

  2. […] I’ve been able to find in the historical record, so far, was explored in the post “lined with sorrow“- describing “the Bushwick Chemical Works of M. Kalbfleisch & […]

  3. […] industry, when a byproduct of the large scale manufacture of sulphuric acid at the works of M. Kalbfleisch or William Henry Nichols – called sludge acid- was dumped directly into the water, kids would […]

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