A few months back, the Brooklyn Collection provided some images and expertise to ABC News for a story about Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay. The story was most excellent – if you missed it you can check it out here. I used the video as a source for a note taking lesson and, during the lesson, my students kept peppering me with questions: What was life like for the people who lived and worked on the island? What was school like? How did the island's inhabitants navigate all that garbage?
I could only answer their questions in adjectives: smelly, exhausting, backbreaking, dangerous, filthy, putrid, infested. So, I went on a quest looking for answers in complete sentences.
Colton, J.H. Map of the country thirty three miles around the city of New York. 1852. Brooklyn Historical Society blog, 16 Mar 2012. Web. 9 Jan 2014.
Long story short: Barren Island went from being an uninhabited island good for fishing and burying (alleged) pirate treasure to a hub of offal factories -- harboring the largest concentration of them on the planet -- within a twenty year span. Offal refers to the internal organs of animals, usually those not consumed by humans. These factories rendered animal waste, similar to today's rendering plants, where they turned carcasses, bones, and intestines into glue, fertilizer, buttons, etc. In the above map you can see the island in the bottom right-hand corner.
In the mid-19th century, both Brooklyn and New York City had messes on their hands. Horses routinely died in the street, butchers slaughtered cows in the alleyways, and packs of feral pigs seemed to be in continuous turf wars with packs of feral dogs. Garbage and manure, both human and otherwise, were collected and taken to dumping piers on the waterfront alongside the waste from tanneries and offal factories. Thus, the shoreline of the East River was slowly morphing from a sandy beach to a goopy sponge of entrails and blood. It. Was. Super. Gross.
Barren Island was the solution. Offal factories, rooming houses, saloons, and single-family homes were built and then populated, creating a multi-ethnic community amidst the hordes of flies and the putrid smells.
"Barren Island Factory." 1911. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
In 1877, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter went on an excursion to the island and noted the "the faint odor of decayed horses and putrid dogs" that hit him as he approached. "The stench is something to be feared, even by persons having very strong stomachs." (Side note: We melted a TON of dogs.) In the late 1870s, the population was noted at roughly 500: one hundred gaunt and semi-feral dogs, nine horses, some thirty most likely tubercular cows, about one hundred hogs, 270 men, and 10 women. Most of the humans were Irish, Swedes, and English.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 20 Aug 1877.
Although the island was bustling in the summer months, many factories went dark during the winter, leaving only eight permanent families. Permanent or not, none of the island's residents received a lot of press unless they were involved in a drunken saloon fight; part of a gang of toughs called the "Bone Gang"; kicked off a train for smelling horrible; one-eyed; or sick with cholera, diptheria, or any number of other illnesses. The newspaper lumped all of the island's inhabitants and the garbage with which they worked together. Rarely was there discussion of the conditions of the factories or the families of the workers, but constantly there were discussions about how the offal runoff was ruining the beaches for the middle-class across the bay.
Jump to the 1890s. Benjamin Miller's Fat of the Land has a pretty succinct description of the island and its amenities: "In 1897, there were five factories and four saloons on Barren Island, one store, one road, no doctor, nurse, or pharmacist, no church, no electricity, no post office, no social hall, no reading room, and a one-room school (on the first floor of a Polish tenement) into which some fifty of the school-age children on the island crowded for daily lessons." By that time, the population was said to be mainly Italians, Poles, and African-Americans.
One of the factories was used for the melting down of animal carcasses: horse dog, pig, cat, goat; another said to boil down over one million fish weekly. The fish were used for oil and fertilizer, but first dried on massive platforms. The waste wasn't just from New York City and Brooklyn, but also towns in New Jersey. Often, the offal washed back on shore when the tide was high, creating pools of perpetually soggy waste along the shoreline.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 9 1899.
In 1897, Barren Island's PS 120 was shut down. Held in a multi-family dwelling, the children packed into one of the lower rooms for their schooling. The closure was ordered by the Heath Department, as it had come to their attention that a man was dying of diphtheria in an upper apartment. Aside from that, the physical structure wasn't safe. "The school sits in a depression that fills up with water at every tide," wrote a reporter. "After the tide goes out the damp ground is left to dry by evaporation, with stenches of all kinds arising from refuse matter thrown out and left to decay... In front of the school house and about 400 feet from it is McKeever's plant, in which he makes fertilizer out of the carcasses of horses." The school's floors were rotten, the building slanted, and the windows were always shut to keep out the smell.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 17 Sept 1897.
The reporter goes on to list other factories and odors, culminating in the description of a particularly dangerous puddle: "All sorts of things have been thrown into it... pigs and cows use it at will; dead cats and dogs lie in it and the people who live near it have made it a general dumping ground for all their refuse. One of the objects noticed in it was a large straw tick and the reporter was told that it was the tick on which two children died of diphtheria a short time ago. It has been thrown out to the air and left to scatter germs with every passing wind."
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 17 Sept 1897.
After much debate, money was put forward to build a new school building. When the structure opened in 1901, the Eagle sent a reporter to cover the story. In this reporters eyes, the school was "the only bright spot for children of that desolate place." Not even the teachers could stand the island for very long, choosing to make the long commute by boat every morning rather than live amongst their students. One educator, described by the reporter as "a pretty teacher," explained how even getting a drink of water was an ordeal: "The water tank in our house was in an indescribable condition of filth, and there is not any water fit to drink upon the island. There are a number of wells on the island from which is must be carried to the house. It usually tastes like oil, though sometimes by way of variation it is flavored much more horribly."
"PS 120." Board of Education Collection. 1905. Print. New York City Municipal Archives.
"Barren Island." 1912. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
*This is another photograph of PS 120 from 1912, a slight alteration having been made to the front of the building.*
The island's inhabitants lived "in small wooden houses which might be called huts." Here is where the reporter makes choice use of quotation marks: "A few bedraggled sunflowers serve to decorate their 'gardens' and the houses all in a row, each having a number, like a convict settlement or the outdoor wards of a pest house. Amidst such an enviornment these little children are being 'raised'. Down at the opposite end of the island and near the crematory is a dance hall, where a monthly 'soiree' takes place."
He goes on to talk about the plentiful liquor used to dull the sorrows of the "drunken workman of the garbage heap," and the fact that fruit doesn't grow in the sandy soil. Not that it would matter, writes the reporter, as "it remains a doubt whether the inhabitants would find it of interest. They find amusement in the saloon and the dance hall." The parents would bring their children to the parties with them; "the young white women frequently choose negro partners and the children look on and drink in, as children do, all the sights and sounds of the seamy side of Barren Island society." The saving grace was the school, which provided refinement "unknown in their homes."
What a glowing review, right?
So often, this is where the story ends. An outsider tells us how it is and, because we lack an opposing voice, we accept it. This particular reporter painted a picture of filth, both human and otherwise. The adults were morally inferior, the children tragedies, and the "pretty teachers" martyrs. We don't get to hear about the community that formed on the island, the culture and connections that these immigrant and African-American people made amongst themselves.
Thank goodness for Daniel Edwards, principal at PS 120. (This man is my new favorite.) Edwards wrote to the Eagle the following Sunday with a letter to the editor directly rebutting the claims made by the reporter and systematically breaking down the false description of the island community.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 25 Aug 1901.
Edwards admitted that the island has an odor, but claims it nowhere near as bad as reported. He also made clear that the squalid huts mentioned are actually "respectable cottages," that the inhabitants of the island were "hard working, thrifty people," and that the children were "remarkably healthy and bright."
Barren Island Houses. 1936. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. Print.
*The above image was taken in 1936, a few years before the residents evicted and the houses demolished. I'm not sure if these are the "respectable cottages" mentioned by Principal Edwards, but they very well could be.*
And my favorite part, "Some of the children, it is true, go down to the 'Klondike,' as the garbage dumping ground is called. Here they find brass, silver, gold, and once in a while a diamond. But are they not to be commended for thus earning a penny, rather than engaging in more questionable pursuits?" A 1918 article from the Eagle described a special "brass apron" worn by children on their treasure hunts, essentially an embroidery apron folded into a big pocket.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 4 May 1918.
Barren Island was filled in and is now part of Floyd Bennett Field. All of the inhabitants were evicted in the late 1930s and, as the ABC News story mentions, you can still find treasure out at Dead Horse Bay. If you go, you can leave your "brass apron" at home, as the rangers at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge discourage treasure hunting. With that said, if you do visit and walk away with a diamond, I won't tell.