The Newtown Pentacle

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Posts Tagged ‘Standard Oil

burns best

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Visiting one of the seats of empire, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Long have my eyes wished to look upon this place, found in Lower Manhattan at Bowling Green nearby Battery Park, and literally across the street from that charging bull statue which is meant to represent capitalism. You can put up all the bronze monuments you want to capitalism that you’d like to, but nobody – and I mean nobody – can hold a candle to what “the man” built at 26 Broadway nearby “de Waalstraat.” This was the center of the American Imperium, ultimately. If you want to answer the question Americans were asking directly after the attacks of Septmber 11th, 2001 – “Why do they hate us?” – you can start weaving the answer to them right here at 26 Broadway.

As a note, a long time before this 31 story office building’s opening in 1928, 26 Broadway was Alexander Hamilton’s home address.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like the entity which inhabited it, the building is an agglutination which solidified and agglutinated over time and was built by many hands.

The original building at 26 Broadway was ten stories tall and went up in 1885. It was expanded in 1895, and then again in 1921 (that construction took 7 years, finishing in 1928) which resulted in its current form. The original structure is contained somewhere within the 1928 version, which was the tallest building in Lower Manhattan when it was finished. 26 Broadway is crowned by a pyramid shaped structure that was once illuminated, meant to act as a beacon for ships entering New York Harbor, and said pyramid was modeled after the Mausoleum of Maussollos in the City of Halicarnassus – part of the 4th century b.c. Achaemenid Empire in modern day Turkey. “Maussollos” is where modernity derives the word mausoleum from, incidentally.

The master of the early modern world had moved his organization here to Bowling Green back in 1885, from Cleveland.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We live in an era defined by the fact that he once walked amongst us. We live in an era during which the corporate leader is exalted as a princeps, and ruthless business tactics are celebrated. This was not so when he was born in 1839. In his lifetime, he was viewed as the epitome of American villainy. He is the model for Mr. Burns from the Simpsons cartoon, Mr. Potter from Frank Capra’s “it’s a wonderful life,” and Lex Luthor from the Superman mythos. His empire made him the richest person in recorded history, wealthier than all the kings and queens of England, the Pharoahs of Egypt, and all the Caesars of Rome – put together. Only Augustus Caesar enjoyed personal wealth and power that began to approach his. His instrument – “the organization” as he called it  – controlled better than 90% of American petroleum production, and 26 Broadway was his headquarters.

This is the former home and HQ of the Standard Oil Company, and it’s master was John D. Rockefeller.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One normally eschews visiting this section of Manhattan unless it’s absolutely necessary. A meeting I was invited to was being held “nearby Bowling Green,” as I was told. Once I consented to attend, and was then told the address where the gathering would be occurring, a broad smile broke out across my normally sullen and sunken countenance.

Esso, as Standard Oil’s New Jersey arm became known in the early 20th century – it’s Exxon now – was headquartered here until 1946. Greenpoint’s Mobil, the New York operation, was similarly managed out of the Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway until 1956.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The views from 26 Broadway are exactly what one would expect in terms of being spectacular.

The crowded warrens of the lesser corporate towers fill the streets abundantly, and humanity is fairly removed from the equation, reduced to the status of crawling insects from this perpective. You see a few survivors of the Beaux Arts era from up here – the old Customs House (modern day Museum of the American Indian) pictured in the previous shot, the Cunard building, Castle Clinton over in Battery Park. The most important building in this area, saving the actual Stock Exchange – in terms of American History – is the Standard Oil building.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In his lifetime, John D. Rockefeller was reviled. He was, personally, the “one percent.” A culture which celebrated the self made man nevertheless saw this self made man as a monster, despite his best efforts to demonstrate his humanity and Christian virtues. In his later life, seeking to salvage the family name from infamy, Rockefeller and his sons began a career of philanthropy which familial descendants continue to this day. Standard Oil was notoriously ruthless in the continental territories of the United States, but it’s when you look overseas that the true scope and infamy of their ambitions become clear. The company’s agents, operating in the smoking ruins of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, began troublesome relationships with the Sheiks and Mullahs of the Arabian Penninsula (along with British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell) whose consequences continue to bedevil the American Imperium to this day.

Why hit the World Trade Center? It was the personal project of John D. Rockefeller’s grandson David. Memory is held long in the near east, and revenge is a dish best served cold.

Upcoming Tours and Events

April 14 – Exploring Long Island City – with NY Adventure Club.

Long Island City is a tale of two cities; one filled with glittering water-front skyscrapers and manicured parks, and the other, a highly active ground transportation & distribution zone vital to the New York economy — which will prevail?
Tickets and more details here.

April 15- Newtown Creekathon – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

That grueling 13 and change mile death march through the bowels of New York City known as the “Newtown Creekathon” will be held on that day, and I’ll be leading the charge as we hit every little corner and section of the waterway. This will be quite an undertaking, last year half the crowd tagged out before we hit the half way point. Have you got what it takes the walk the enitre Newtown Creek?
Click here to reserve a spot on the Creekathon.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

April 9, 2018 at 11:00 am

demon beckoned

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1854, lords and ladies, 1854.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Kerosene was “invented” by a Canadian named Abraham Gesner. He received the patents for the stuff, and coined the name (like a lot of 19th century industrial product names, we use the trademarked nomen as the descriptor for the entire category. It’s the same shorthand we use for facial tissue as being “Kleenex” or photocopying as “Xerox”) for a distillation of coal oil. Gesner was looking for a way to get an angle on the lamp oil trade. In 1854, lamp oil was produced from animals, in particular from fish and especially whales. When the time came to set up shop and build a factory to produce his coal oil, it was along the Newtown Creek that Abraham Gesner built the first large scale Kerosene works in North America – in what we call Queens.

from wikipedia

Gesner’s research in minerals resulted in his 1846 development of a process to refine a liquid fuel from coal, bitumen and oil shale. His new discovery, which he named kerosene, burned more cleanly and was less expensive than competing products, such as whale oil. In 1850, Gesner created the Kerosene Gaslight Company and began installing lighting in the streets in Halifax and other cities. By 1854, he had expanded to the United States where he created the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company at Long Island, New York. Demand grew to where his company’s capacity to produce became a problem, but the discovery of petroleum, from which kerosene could be more easily produced, solved the supply problem.

Abraham Gesner continued his research on fuels and wrote a number of scientific studies concerning the industry including an 1861 publication titled, “A Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum and Other Distilled Oils,” which became a standard reference in the field. Eventually, Gesner’s company was absorbed into the petroleum monopoly, Standard Oil and he returned to Halifax, where he was appointed a Professor of Natural History at Dalhousie University.

via Wikipedia

This was Gesner, who kind of looked a bit like General Zod in my opinion.


– photo by Mitch Waxman

The North American Kerosene Gas Light Company, later the New York Kerosene Company, would eventually be acquired by Charles Pratt and folded into his growing Astral Oil empire (Pratt’s own Kerosene refinery was centered at Bushwick Inlet at the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg) and would became a part of Standard Oil when Pratt joined forces with John D Rockefeller. The Gesner works are often mentioned by environmental officials, but no one ever gets specific about where they were. You’d think the first large scale petroleum refinery in the United States would have left behind a plaque or something, but welcome to Queens.

from 1909’s “The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Volume 1”, courtesy google books

During the year 1859 the North American Kerosene Gaslight Company imported upwards of 20,000 tons of Boghead coal for the supply of their works at Newtown Creek Long Island at an average cost of $18.00 per ton It was found that a ton of this mineral run in common retorts yielded 120 gallons of crude oil per ton which gave 65 gallons of lamp oil 7 gallons of paraffin oil and 12 pounds of paraffin wax The cost of the oil was estimated at 63 cents per gallon 5


– photo by Mitch Waxman

A bit of work has gone into screwing down the exact location of the facility around Newtown Pentacle HQ in recent days, and I can tell you that the footprint of the North American Kerosene Gaslight Company was incorporated into what we now refer to as Pratt’s Queens County Oil Works – which is in Blissville and across the street from Calvary Cemetery. Equidistant from the Greenpoint Avenue and long demolished Penny Bridges, this is the site of the Blissville Seep, which I’ve been rattling on about for a few years now.

from a December 2011 posting at this, your newtown pentacle

Sadly, oil is seeping out of a bulkhead on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek.

Famously, the Greenpoint Oil Spill (click here for a link to for more) occurred just across the water from this spot, but every indication points to this as being a separate event. The former site of Charles Pratt’s Queens County Oil Works, which was an approximately 18 acre parcel which would later be called the “Standard Oil Blissville works”, the sites occupation in modernity has little or nothing to do with petroleum.

also, from 1921′s Welding engineer, Volume 6, courtesy google books


There are two public Newtown Creek walking tours coming up,
one in LIC, Queens and one in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Glittering Realms: Brooklyn’s Greenpoint with Atlas Obscura, on Saturday May 17th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

Modern Corridor: Queen’s LIC with Brooklyn Brainery, on Sunday May 18th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

An Oil spill… in Queens

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– photo by Mitch Waxman (February 16, 2009) 

Sadly, oil is seeping out of a bulkhead on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek.

Famously, the Greenpoint Oil Spill (click here for a link to for more) occurred just across the water from this spot, but every indication points to this as being a separate event. The former site of Charles Pratt’s Queens County Oil Works, which was an approximately 18 acre parcel which would later be called the “Standard Oil Blissville works”, the sites occupation in modernity has little or nothing to do with petroleum.

Welcome, by the way, to Newtown Creek- and to the “Blissville Oil Spill”.

Just a note: For the purposes of this posting, I’m departing from the normal formatting, and the photos are presented along with the dates upon which they were captured.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (September 14, 2008)

My practice for the last several years has been to shoot everything I see along the Newtown Creek, whether or not it seems significant at the time. This practice evolved out of the paucity of photographic documentation of the place which survived the 20th century, and the effort has been made with the notion of leaving behind something for future researchers to work with. As time has gone by, and my technological capabilities have expanded, I’ve developed quite a library of shots.

The photo above depicts the site in question during the autumn of 2008, and shows the historic condition of the bulkheads.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (September 14, 2008)

A standard codex for interpreting what one sees along the Newtown Creek states that wooden bulkheads are 19th century, reinforced concrete dates from the early to mid 20th, and steel plating is late 20th and early 21st century. This rule is not “scientific” but allows one to approximate the manufacture of these fallen docks to a relative time period. As you can observe in the shot above, the risible decay of the wooden bulkheads, and their manner of construction, speak to a long period of disuse and lack of maintenance as far as September of 2008.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (February 20, 2010)

In the winter of 2010, a crew began to install modern steel plating along this frontage, which drew my interest. Again, anything that is in a state of flux along the waterway is a point of interest for me. This project went on for several months, and was conducted from a barge with a small crane installed on it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (February 4, 2011)

By the same period a year later, in February of 2011, the modern installation was complete. Conflicting reports on this style of bulkhead are often heard. The older wooden structures offer a structure for biological organisms to nest and shelter, but “slow” the already tepid flow of water through the narrow passages of the Creek. The steel ones “quicken” the flow, but offer no toeholds for organic life.

Modern day, (December 2011) google maps screen capture, click here or the image above for the dynamic google map. This is an industrial cul de sac today, accessed by a private driveway. The companies which use this space are largely waste management oriented, warehouse operations, furniture refinishing, or other truck based businesses. Despite the presence of freight tracks through the middle of the site, few of these companies utilize their sidings. Calvary Cemetery and the Kosciuszko Bridge loom large and distinguish the area.

1924 view of the area, screen capture from “NYCityMap” at

The oil tanks in the center of the site betray the presence of the “Queens County Oil Works” of Charles Pratt, which were also known as the “Standard Oil Blissville Works”. Blissville, of course, is the historic name of this part of Queens which was once a residential area.

Clear plans of the area in 1936 overlaid with the 1924 aerial projection from NYCityMap. Click here to see a large version of the overlay.

Detail view of the area, click here for larger incarnation. The works were here as late as 1951, but at this point, I still haven’t been able to confirm the date they were closed down.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

In the summer of 2011, I was tasked with photographing a “Bulkhead Survey” which members of the Newtown Creek Alliance were conducting. The good folks at Riverkeeper volunteered to take our party out on the Newtown Creek onboard their patrol boat, and when we were passing by the former Queens County Oil Works, we noticed the presence of both containment booms on the water and petroleum product flowing freely from the shoreline itself.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

The theory which has been advanced by knowledgeable sources is that when the steel bulkheads were installed, a process in which the plating is slid down into place and then secured, and that a sealed chamber or buried pipeline was likely ruptured during the construction process which freed “the product”.

I have been asked to mention (by Newtown Creek Alliance and Riverkeeper itself) that investigation of the situation is underway, and the State and City officials responsible for policing this sort of thing are fully and enthusiastically engaged in the process.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

The story of Charles Pratt, his “Astral Oil”, and their involvement with John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust will be discussed in a later posting on this subject, as the lengthy history would divert attention from this otherwise serious issue. Suffice to say that the Blissville works were some 18 acres in size, and suffered several “total loss” fires in the late 19th century.

Note that this is a distinct property (and event) from the adjacent State Superfund site which is referred to as the Quanta Resources site.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

Again onboard a Riverkeeper patrol, this time in November of 2011, the overt visual presence and subtle aroma of petroleum was encountered. The black and yellow structure is what is known as a hard boom, and is designed to contain surface contamination and “floatables”. It extends to a few inches below the surface.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

The steel plating at the site is painted with oil, undoubtedly splashed up by wave action during storms at high tide. The white objects which are saturated with petroleum products are absorbent booms, designed to wick up the free floating product.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

The leaves in the shot above are literally stuck into the gluey residues of the oil. You can see the high tide mark left by the water on the cleaner bulkhead which is just beyond the hard boom. Perhaps this is the source of oil, which many have reported to me over the course of the last year, which has been witnessed as it floats toward the East River.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

It is not news that there are environmental contaminants floating freely in this troubled waterway, nor is there any revelation to be found in the fact that petroleum products are commonly observed pooling and flowing about the Newtown Creek watershed.

What is news is that this is in Queens.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

Much of the attention, and deservedly so because of the large and growing population of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which Newtown Creek receives is all about Brooklyn. The north shore of the Creek in Queens is often left out of discussion (and from both remediation and environmental benefits funding)  because of its relatively tiny population and industrial character. One of the questions which this blog has asked since day one has been “Who can guess all there is, that might be buried down there?”.

In the case of the Blissville Oil spill, the question might as well be “How much there might be?”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

This is just the beginning of a new Newtown Creek story, the tale of the Blissville Oil Spill. I fear it will be the first of many such stories, as we move into the Superfund era.

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