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Historic Artefacts Discovered During Cleanup of New York’s Gowanus Canal

Michael East, Red Revolution

Several artefacts of historical interest have been found during the ongoing cleanup operation at New York’s Gowanus Canal, one of the dirtiest and most polluted bodies of water in the entire United States.

The Gowanus Canal, originally known as Gowanus Creek, is a 1.8-mile canal in Brooklyn, New York, that was once a key part of the city’s cargo transportation network. The canal emerged in the mid-19th century out of existing wetlands and streams and has been a source of pollution in New York since the height of the industrial era. The canals proximity to Manhattan and upper-class Brooklyn, currently undergoing redevelopment, restarted the calls for the cleanup operation amid fears that the development projects could be adversely affected by the environmental risks from the canal.

Gowanus Canal Conservancy tour. Photo: Anahita Rouzbeh

The canal has become a dumping ground and runoff point for a great many sources of pollution over many decades, including raw sewage. Experts have discovered high levels of bacteria and heavy metals (including arsenic) in the water and say that pollution levels are sixty times higher than the level that would be considered safe.

Now a $500,000 clean-up operation is underway by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the pilot study work at the project site has uncovered many relics from Brooklyn’s long and interesting past. The artefacts found include a wagon wheel, textile spools from a local factory and a Second World War crash boat.

While not having much historic value, the most interesting find is the crash boat which was used to rescue pilots from downed airplane during the war according to reports in the New York Post. The vessels colourful history included later use as a Fire Island Ferry, a houseboat in the Bronx, a floating art space in Brooklyn and latterly a LGBTQ+ party boat.

The remains of the Second World War crash boat

Jonathan Bream, an Archaeologist from the Archaeology & Historic Resource Services was asked to examine the artefacts and requires the use of a Tyvek suit and protective gear, a task that proves that archaeology is often far removed from mysterious tombs and discovering the gleaming treasures of the past.

“When this stuff first comes out, it kind of has a fecal-petroleum-musty smell that you have to have a good stomach to be around, the grossest part of it is when something accidentally falls in the drink and splashes you, because you’re not expecting it.” – Jonathan Bream
The wagon wheel found in the Gowanus Canal. Photo: Twitter – @Gothamist

Working initially at the Fourth Street Turning Basin, it is not expected that anything too old will be pulled from the water, the Basin being built during the 1860s and 1870s. Experts are hopeful for further and more significant finds in the coming years as the project enters other areas of the canal, the Gowanus playing an important role during the American Revolutionary War at the Battle of Long Island when American forces fled across the former swamp from the victorious British.

Workers will place sand, clay, and carbon-absorbing materials at the bottom of the canal to form a clean bottom in the Basin before dredging the rest of the canal and carrying out the same procedure. Full scale dredging work at the canal is expected to begin in 2020.


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