Friday, October 15, 2010

Floyd Bennett Field & Dead Horse Bay

I needed to work off the massive amounts of food that I consumed at the Octoberfest. A long bike ride down to Floyd Bennett Field would do the trick. As we were getting ready to leave the house, Heydi texted me that she was looking at a Cattle Egret in the community garden at Floyd.

Cattle Egret had been sort of a jinx bird for me for several years. I always seemed to be hearing comments like, "One was just here a few minutes ago. You didn't see it?" Unlike my real, former jinx bird, the Golden Eagle, which is uncommon on migration, Cattle Egrets are listed as breeding in NYC and upstate NY. I guess I was always just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Last November I assumed my losing streak was over when Heydi pointed one out that was foraging in the grass at Floyd Bennett Field. On Sunday morning I replied to her text message, "Ask him to wait around for me."

It took a little longer than expected to get to Floyd Bennett as I had to fix a flat tire. Fortunately, the Cattle Egret got my message and was still hunting for insects within Floyd Bennett Field's grassland when Robin and I arrived. The egret seemed unperturbed by a pair of kestrels that were hunting above the fields. While I was taking pictures of the small, white heron, three calling American Pipits landed in the field. They were the first of the season for me and a sure sign that all of our expected winter species were close at hand.

We walked around the community garden for a short time before heading over to Dead Horse Bay to look for American Golden-Plovers. Floyd Bennett Field was built on what was formerly known as Barren Island. Prior to the creation of the airport, the island had been the location for various rendering plants, fertilizer plants, sanitary plants (incinerators) and a landfill. Time and tides have chipped away at the shoreline, releasing to the bay, decades of refuse, mostly in the form of glass bottles. I always feel bad when I spot shorebirds foraging for marine organisms among heaps of garbage. Occasionally I get sidetracked and begin scanning the bits of history rolling in the surf or jutting from the sand rather than the living creatures. I used to collect old glassware and am sometimes tempted to pick something up and take it home. So far I've resisted, but a whiskey bottle with a painting of a horse almost went home with me. I started to look for a horse femur to position next to the bottle for a photo, but changed my mind. Nearing Dead Horse Point, there is the distinct odor of fuel oil in the air. Depending on the wind direction, the smell is better or worse. Heydi, Robin and I hypothesised that, perhaps, people discarded old residential oil tanks in the former dump. While researching the history of Barren Island I came across the following article published in the New York Times on May 21, 1906. Note the reference to "150 steel tanks, many of them filled with oil", so I guess the smell is century old oil:

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$1,500,000 FIRE LOSS ON BARREN ISLAND

16 Structures Go - Flames Not Checked Early Today.

REFUSE PLANTS DESTROYED

600 Families Flee in Boats to the Mainland - The Plants May Not Be Rebuilt on the Island.

The two great plants on Barren Island where the refuse gathered in Manhattan and Brooklyn is disposed of were burned to the ground yesterday by a fire which started just after 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

The flames started in one of the buildings known as the "digester building." This was a three-story brick structure at the east end of Barren Island, near the entrance to Jamaica Bay.

The building extended along the wharfs of Rockaway Inlet for 500 feet and was 200 feet deep, large enough to cover two city blocks. From this building the flames spread rapidly to seven other big structures, which were completely wiped out, leaving the city without a refuse plant.

The fire kept spreading all day, and the wharves along the Inlet end of Barren Island caught fire just before midnight. At that time the city's fireboat was at work with several streams, trying to save the buildings along the southeast shore of the island. These are the buildings formerly used for disposing of the city's dead animals, and were known as the "horse buildings."

At midnight the flames had caused a damage of $1,500,000 and was still raging in the island's store houses, where 20,000 bags of fertilizer were in flames.

It was said early this morning that the fire had destroyed at least sixteen buildings large enough to be dignified with such a name. Besides these, a dozen or more sheds and shanties had fed the flames. It was reckoned that sixteen acres of buildings had been burned.

Fire Seen for Miles.

The fire could be seen for many miles at sea and from all the seaside beaches about New York, where crowds bent on pleasure stood for hours watching the progress of the flames, believing they were eating up several big ships.

The city's firemen made very little attempt to check the blaze, as they were unable to get fire engines over to the island. The fireboat Seth Low, however, did some work at the island. That was about all that was attempted In the way of fighting the flames, as the firefighting plant owned by the Barren Island contractors was burned up early in the day.

The property destroyed was owned by the New York Sanitary Utilization Company and Frank White, whose father-in-law was the originator of the scheme to dispose of the city's refuse on Barren Island. Christopher Behlln, a watchman employed by the White concern, discovered the fire while making his rounds in the "digester plant," where the city's refuse is boiled. There were 150 steel tanks In this building. Many of them were filled with oil, which burned rapidly when the flames spread to the woodwork about the tanks.

Before the watchman had time to turn in an alarm to summon the COO men who live and work on Barren Island the flames were leaping through the roof of the building. Then they jumped to the pump house, a three-story frame structure, equipped with apparatus for fighting fire. By the time the volunteer firemen arrived they found they could do nothing, as the pump house was in flames.

600 Families Plee.

The pumps, which were used to force salt water through pipes, could not be reached by the firemen, and all they could do was to stand by and see the flames eat up one building after another. Then when the Brooklyn refuse building began to burn the people living on Barren Island began to look about for a means of escape, as they feared their homes were doomed to go.

Six hundred families packed up their valuables as quickly as possible and climbed into boats. All sorts of craft, tied to the piers about the island, were brought into use. There were launches, naphtha launches, rowboats, yawls, sloop yachts, and scows. The residents of the island's Polish, Bohemian, and Italian men, women, and children piled pellmell into the boats, carrying all sorts of household articles with them.

Some of them even took their carpets. Clocks, bedding, and looking glasses, however, seemed to be the popular things to rescue. Almost every resident of the island took these things with him before abandoning the little shanties in which the families lived.

In the rush for boats several persons tumbled Into the Jamaica Bay waters, but all were rescued. One woman carrying a parrot and a marble clock fell into the water from the West End pier. She was dragged out by her husband, who scolded her In Bohemian because she had let the clock and parrot go. The parrot was rescued by a boy in a row boat and taken to Canarsie.

Refugees in Canarsie.

Most of the people who fled from Barren Island went to Canarsie in the boats they had seized. After being assured later in the day that there was no danger of the fire spreading to the dwellings on the island, many of the women and children were taken back. With them went the woman who had lost her clock overboard. She, and her husband obtained fishing tackle and lowered hooks and sinkers, fishing for the marble clock, while the fire raged in the buildings of the plants.

The big frame boiler buildings were swept away by the flames, together with the machine shops and the hydraulic press plant, before the fireboat arrIved. The delay in getting the fireboat was explained by a fireman, who said that the boat had never been at Barren Island before, and had to find a skilled pilot before attempting to enter Rockaway Inlet.

In the hydraulic press plant there were fifty-two hydraulic presses, each valued at $3,800, so that the damage there amounted to $200,000. All the presses being ruined. The big derricks and rigging along the docks for half a mile were also destroyed, and the wreckage from them fell into the bay.

The drying plants, which occupied two great buildings a city block long, were burned to the ground. Then the fire, crept over to the storehouses. Twice the roofs of the horse buildings, half a mile away, caught fire, but the crew of the Seth Low stamped out the fire there both times.

Owners Rush to the Island.

When the news of the fire reached this city, E. J. McKeever, the owner of the remaining plants on Barren Island, chartered a steamboat and with his brother, who is his partner, hurried to the island. They had been told that their plant had been wiped out, but on reaching the island found that the fire had not extended to their plants. They were in danger, however, so the McKeevers pressed into service all the men they could find, about 400, and set them to work wetting the roofs of their building with several streams pumped up by six tugboats.

The McKeever Brothers own what is said to be the largest fertilizing plant of the sort in the world, and it was said last night that if they succeeded in saving it they would be able to help out the city greatly by disposing of the city's refuse until a new plant can be erected on Fire Island.

Early this morning it was calculated that the fire had wiped out sixteen acres of buildings, many of them brick, which will probably not be rebuilt. The tall brick chimney which was a landmark on Barren Island and which could be seen twenty miles out at sea, tumbled to the ground an hour after the fire had started, and the big building which it had shadowed for many years was left a mass of crooked, twisted iron.

Those who ought to know said last night that the fire would have the effect of doing away with the many Barren Island nuisances which the public had been fighting against for a quarter of a century.

1 comment:

Yojimbot said...

Interesting history lesson! I like how they were more up front amount monetary losses back then.

Also, two species I saw on Governor's Island were a gull billed tern and Peregrine Falcon. Im also sure they have kestrels, but havent found them yet.

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