The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

on toward

with 3 comments

The Hamilton Avenue Bridge, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

“The truth of our times, as told in graphic narrative” requires a lot of “boots on the ground” time.

To wit, last weekend, a rare Sunday afternoon with no obligations presented a humble narrator with an opportunity to visit the hellish expanses of the Gowanus Canal onboard a tour boat chartered by the Open House NY group.


The Hamilton Avenue Bridge is a bascule bridge with two parallel leafs, one carrying the northbound roadway and the other carrying the southbound roadway. Most of the length of Hamilton Avenue runs below the elevated portion of the Gowanus Expressway, including the bridge. The bridge connects Smith Street and Second Avenue over the Gowanus Canal and is the first canal crossing north of the Gowanus Bay.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The tour utilized a NY Waterways Ferry, leaving from Manhattan’s World Financial Center Ferry Terminal on the Hudson River, nearby Vesey Street. After transiting through Gowanus Bay, which is a whole other story, the vessel arrived at the somewhat unique Hamilton Avenue Bridge – a skew bascule type drawbridge.

a fascinating discussion of this “knee-girder bascule bridge,” and its recent reconstruction, by the actual engineers that performed the rehabilitation, can be found at

The rarely seen Hanover skew bascule, also known as a knee-girder bascule bridge is a unique and complex movable structure in terms of both design and construction. The replacement of a movable bridge during an accelerated construction period is also an incredibly difficult task to engineer and construct. Either one of these constraints would make a project difficult to execute. For the Hamilton Avenue Bridge project in New York City, however, these two levels of complexity combined to create a one-of-a-kind project that would challenge the owner, designers and constructor to achieve a near impossible goal: to replace a skewed bascule bridge with a new, fully operational span in sixty-four days. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The bridge’s horns sounded, and its traffic gates were deployed, and employees of the NYC DOT thereupon activated the electrical systems that drew the roadway up and away from its piers. An obtuse angle was achieved, relative to the waters level, which opened an aperture and allowed navigation.

from 1863, ay

THE RAILROAD ACCIDENT AT HAMILTON-AVENUE BRIDGE — CONCLUSION OF THE CORONER’s INVESTIGATION, AND VERDICT OF THE JURY. — The investigation relating to the circumstances connected with the deplorable accident on Wednesday night, upon which occasion car No. 119 of the Greenwood and Fulton Ferry line was precipitated into Gowanus Creek, in consequence of the opening of the draw of Hamilton-avenue Bridge, was concluded before Coroner BENNETT and a jury, yesterday afternoon.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In the distance, the Smith 9th street elevated Subway station and the Ninth Street lift bridge glitter.

from 1892’s United States Congressional serial set, Issue 2914, courtesy google books


– photo by Mitch Waxman

SuperfunD. That’s how people refer to both Gowanus Canal and my beloved Newtown Creek. That’s superfun with a capital D following it. The more you learn about these places, however, the less fun they are.


The Gowanus Canal is a 100-foot wide,1.8-mile long canal located in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Kings County, New York. Connected to Gowanus Bay in Upper New York Bay, the canal borders several residential neighborhoods including Gowanus, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook. The adjacent waterfront is primarily commercial and industrial, currently consisting of concrete plants, warehouses, and parking lots. There are five east-west bridge crossings over the canal, located at Union Street, Carroll Street, Third Street, Ninth Street, and Hamilton Avenue. The Gowanus Expressway and the IND Culver Line of the New York City Subway, an aboveground section of the original Independent Subway System, pass overhead.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A winter time shot of the bridge’s roadway, which is overflown by the hurtling viridian of the Gowanus Expressway, high overhead. I’m told it’s close to a 300 feet drop from top to bottom.


Beginning in 1939, Robert Moses oversaw construction of the Gowanus Parkway, an elevated highway placed on top of the pillars of the old 3rd Avenue BMT Elevated Line through the Sunset Park and Gowanus sections of Brooklyn. It would eventually become part of a limited-access parkway loop encircling four of the five boroughs. Since the Gowanus Parkway was to be constructed atop a pre-existing elevated facility, Moses had little trouble getting his project approved by the New York City Council.

However, the Gowanus Parkway would require more land for a wide roadway and entrance-exit ramps. This required the demolition of many homes and businesses along Third Avenue, a tightly knit block of Northern and Western European immigrants. In his 1974 biography The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro argued that Moses’ highway created a “Chinese wall” that accelerated the process of deterioration that began two blocks west, along the waterfront terminals. He also points out that residents fought to have the highway placed closer to the waterfront to protect the neighborhood.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another wintertime shot, this one from the Ninth Street Bridge looking back at the entrance – the front door, if you would – of the Gowanus Canal.


The construction of the Canal began in 1849 and was accomplished by deepening and widening the Gowanus Creek and creating bulkheads along the waterfront. The Canal was fully built out by 1869.

Even before it was complete, the Canal was attracting foundries, shipyards, gas manufacturing plants, coal yards and paint and ink factories to the waterfront and adjacent lots. By 1870, the surrounding area, with its natural marshlands and freshwater streams, had been fully urbanized and industrialized.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Back to last Sunday, and the approach to the Hamilton Avenue Bridge on the NY Waterways Ferry’s return trip. The closest analogy I can use to describe the Gowanus experience, for those of us who live along the currently undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens, is visiting one of the tributaries of Newtown Creek – specifically Dutch Kills. (tour this weekend! scroll down for details)

also from

The Canal was the one of the prime catalysts in shaping the industrial nature of the area, as foundries, gas manufacturing plants, coal yards, paint and ink factories and other businesses flocked to the waterfront and adjacent lots.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We’ve got the LIE on Dutch Kills, multiple drawbridges, and a similar historical tale.

Both waterways began the industrial age as the home of tidal mill ponds, but Dutch Kills was spared a lot of the early and quite dirty industries which called the Gowanus home as early as the 1860’s. What happened to Dutch Kills largely occurred in the late 19th and especially early 20th centuries (the bad stuff was happening further up the Creek in those days, in Blissville, along English Kills, and especially on Furmans Island).


After almost 150 years of industrial use and decades of raw sewage discharges from New York City’s sewers, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation’s most contaminated bodies of water. The putrid sediments at the bottom of the canal contain PCBs, heavy metals, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, sewage solids and coal tar wastes. Adding to this toxic legacy, the manufactured gas plants (MGP), cement factories, oil refineries, tanneries, chemical plants and other industries that have called the canal home also have left behind underground plumes of pollution and contaminated the land and the groundwater, which continues to leach toxins into the canal.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Hamilton Avenue Bridge, gateway to the notorious Gowanus Canal, lords and ladies.


That same June evening, without having heard a word from the sea, Malone was desperately busy among the alleys of Red Hook. A sudden stir seemed to permeate the place, and as if apprised by ‘grapevine telegraph’ of something singular, the denizens clustered expectantly around the dance-hall church and the houses in Parker Place. Three children had just disappeared—blue-eyed Norwegians from the streets toward Gowanus—and there were rumours of a mob forming among the sturdy Vikings of that section.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

There’s a Newtown Creek walking tour, and a Magic Lantern show, coming up.

Saturday, June 7th, 13 Steps around Dutch Kills with Atlas Obscura.
Click here for tickets and more info.

Wednesday, June 11th, Newtown Creek Magic Lantern Show with Brooklyn Brainery.
Click here for tickets and more info.

Written by Mitch Waxman

June 4, 2014 at 11:00 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] Yesterday, the Hamilton Avenue drawbridge which provides entry to and from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was described. Last Sunday, a humble narrator found his way on to an Open House NY boat trip to the troubled waterway, which penetrated as far back as the Fifth Street Basin. […]

  2. […] I do like the point of view one is offered by the entrance to the Gowanus Canal, don’t forget that Gowanus Bay is kind of a separate banana from the Gowanus Canal, whose navigable entry point is found at the Hamilton Avenue Bridge. […]

  3. […] That’s the Hamilton Avenue Bridge just below the Gowanus Expressway, if you’re curious, and it was discussed in this Newtown Pentacle post from 2014. […]

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