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Ghosts of the Gowanus

The EPA is working to trace the history of the toxic waterway before it's too late

In Jonathan Lethem’s novel "Motherless Brooklyn," one character describes the Gowanus Canal as “the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns.”

The lore of the Gowanus and whatever lies buried beneath its murky waters has long entranced New Yorkers. And though the canal might not be truly filled with guns, suitcases filled with drugs and cash, or Jimmy Hoffa, it does hold secrets to the history of settlement along this critical industrial corridor.

As part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup, the federal agency has a mandate to identify the archaeologically significant features of the Gowanus Canal and preserve them wherever possible.

The EPA began this work during the initial Remedial Investigation phase of the cleanup, drawing heavily on a 2004 study created by the Army Corps of Engineers that recommended the canal for the National Register of Historic Places. It also commissioned a sonar scan to evaluate the debris lying at the bottom of the canal.

John Vetter, the national EPA expert on archeology and historic preservation, said that the sonar scan turned up a couple of intact barges, as well as a World War II air sea rescue vessel that Vetter describes as having a “checkered history.” (It was heavily modified and used as a houseboat before sinking into the Gowanus a few years ago.) 

“Much of the debris, the bulk of it, is probably the remnants of barges that had been long-forgotten,” Vetter explained one recent evening as the archeology committee of the superfund’s Community Advisory Group was setting up for a meeting just a few blocks from the contaminated waterway.

Lynn Rakos, an archaeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, said that the usual process for this work starts with remote sensing and documentary research to identify the types of vessels among the debris. When a structure appears to have some historic significance, maritime archeologists may dive into the water to have a closer look, photographing and recording what they find. They take extensive measurements and create drawings to document the findings, and in some cases end up salvaging the structures and donating them to museums.

But Rakos notes that not all of the vessels found in the canal will merit in-depth study.

“Some of these vessels are very common—or if it’s an army vessel or navy vessel, they might have documentation that’s down to the bolt. So is looking at it something like that what we should be doing with federal dollars if we already know what this vessel is and how it functioned and how it was made?”

Another troubling point in the archeological operations is the fact that the findings will likely be contaminated. Vetter recently faced a similar challenge in the Hudson River cleanup, when his team uncovered timber from the site of a colonial-era British fort in Upstate New York.

The timbers were heavily contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the EPA initially determined that they should be buried in a landfill. Vetter and his team decided instead to preserve them, but the decontamination and preservation processes have been arduous.

The toxicity of the Gowanus waters also makes diving expeditions rather unpalatable and possibly even dangerous.

“Since we’re EPA, we’re not anxious to jump into the rivers to get first-hand looks unless we have a real call to do that,” Vetter said.

While the canal’s history as an industrialized waterway stretches back all the way to the 1840s, the EPA team is unlikely to find anything that disappeared into the canal before the 1960s. That’s because during its time as an active navigational channel, the canal bottom was regularly dredged.

And although the sunken vessels may easily capture the public imagination, as far as EPA archeological work goes, it’s really the canal itself and its infrastructure that give evidence of the history that Vetter and his team are trying to preserve—or at least document.

“We’re not looking at this particular object that might have fallen into the canal, but we’re more looking at the process that produced the canal of this configuration, of this design. What service did it provide to the larger city? Because if you alter it and change it, it’s hard to reconstruct that story.”

One major focus of the EPA group’s study has been bulkheads, the retaining walls built to prevent surrounding land from collapsing into the canal water. The bulkheads built along the Gowanus range from timber to steel to concrete and represent well over a century of industrial engineering.

“That kind of historic feature sort of defines the character of an area, if you have steel sheeting, or if you have a poured cement concrete wall versus the wooden constructions that you’ll see as you look around the parts of the canal here,” Vetter said. “But what’s interesting on the Gowanus is you see the full range of designs and technologies. And there’s actually accessible an evolution of the technology of bulkhead design, which is a worthy study in itself because it’s something that goes on all over the world.”

Vetter expects that the Gowanus’s historic bulkheads will be affected by the cleanup. The Superfund process has now reached the Feasibility Study phase, during which the EPA will decide exactly how to remove the contaminated sediment from the canal. The job of the archaeologists now is to offer advice on how best to protect these historic features during the remediation, and to document the pieces if they must be destroyed in the cleanup process.

“If we lose a piece of bulkhead—well, let’s describe that as we take it apart to replace it with something stronger,” Vetter said. “Let’s document it thoroughly. Let’s photograph it, let’s get the information about it. Or find out the history of construction. What sort of people were involved when they worked on it?”

The EPA has enlisted the members of the CAG archaeology committee to help assemble this history, and Vetter said that its members have provided invaluable resources in compiling old photographs, documents, and maps.

Linda Mariano, a CAG member and artist who has lived in Gowanus for more than twenty years, has been thrilled by the opportunity to delve into the history of her surroundings and search for the remnants of old Dutch mills, revolutionary war burial grounds, and sunken ships.

“Something in my gut is interested in our past and the mysteriousness, the undiscovered,” said Mariano. “It’s like taking off a layer of your own skin and investigating what’s in there.”

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