“I want an uplifting story this time!” George bellowed. “None of that death and gloom you usually dish out. We got enough of that these days.”
My mind raced. Uplifting? Hmmm…“How about a nice local story about bridges that lift up over a little stream?”
George chomped on his cigar and muttered, “OK, but make sure those bridges don’t blow up for Crissakes!”
So this article will be like that uplifting movie, The Bridges of Madison County. Except there’s no Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, or romance. And the part of that idyllic Iowa stream is played by a canal brimming with sewage and dead horses. But there are bridges. Five of them! And one is even a covered bridge. However, unlike the ones in Iowa, with birds chirping all around, this one is covered by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and 200,000 daily vehicles crawling above, while 55,000 more rumble over the bridge below.
What follows then is a remembrance of uplifting moments when drawbridges wouldn’t close and a reminiscence of one Brooklynite who never made it to the other side.
Where to begin? The Gowanus Bridges have been entirely rebuilt more than twenty times and have been stuck on so many occasions, their malfunctions were offered by Robert Moses as a major reason for erecting the War of the Worlds behemoth above Hamilton Avenue that effectively locked down Red Hook long before Corona. Even today, with traffic on the Gowanus Canal dwindling to a pittance, citizens are demanding a rebuild of the decrepit Union Street Bridge. It’s a familiar refrain. A little history music if you please, maestro…
In 1834 the City of Brooklyn was incorporated when the Village of Brooklyn (Brooklyn Heights bankers) joined hands with the Town of Brooklyn (the common people – whom God must have surely loved because he made so many of them, as ol’ Abe Lincoln used to say). Why incorporate? Brooklyn’s population was exploding then, tripling since 1814 when Fulton’s steamboat inaugurated a 12 minute passage between Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan. New streets needed to be opened and paved, more ferries were needed, and especially better overland transportation to the East River for the Townies. Only a City could float bonds and levy assessments to pay for all that stuff.
In April 1836 the Brooklyn & Jamaica Railroad (the forerunner of the Long Island Rail Road) started steaming all the way to the end of Atlantic Avenue. A month later a new “South Ferry” – meaning way south of that fancy Fulton Ferry – shoved off there too, offering a seamless commute for those rail travelers (and farm produce) across the River to Whitehall Street. And everybody on Whitehall still thinks “South Ferry” refers to the place where you get that Staten Island ark. Hey, Manhattan! That was our south ferry, you name-stealing jamokes!
Amidst all this hub-bub, the need for hoof-driven access to the waterfront was immediately foreseen by some cagey Manhattan capitalists. By simply fording a tidal creek flowing in from Gowanus Bay, they could make the venerable Hamilton Avenue the principal road connecting the waterfront to 3rd Avenue and points south – particularly to the City’s southwestern frontier where Green-wood Cemetery would open for customers in 1840 and become the hottest party spot in New York.
But travelers got what they paid for when the hastily-assembled Penny Bridge opened in 1835. It was so rickety that the City immediately began negotiations with the Gowanus Toll Bridge Company to buy and rebuilt it. But the asking price was way too high. Then in 1846 a third ferry service opened at the foot of Hamilton Avenue, and suddenly the Penny Bridge issue rose to the top of the list for the Brooklyn Common Council. The need was not to facilitate travel for the peons of Red Hook and Gowanus so much as to accommodate the thousands of visitors to Green-wood now streaming off the ferry from Manhattan.
And so in 1847 Alderman James Stranahan rolled up his sleeves. The historian Thomas Campanella aptly describes Stranahan as “one of the unsung heroes of our urban landscape” in his recent opus, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City (if you can’t afford the book, read his delightful account of tracing an old stream that ran by his boyhood home in south Brooklyn at https://www.terrain.org/essays/10/campanella.htm). Also, as you no doubt remember from the Star-Revue’s seminal 2015 monograph by Townie Connor Gaudet – a self-described “Brooklyn-based writer and musician passionately pursuing a life of debt and poverty” – Stranahan played a major role in making the Atlantic Basin accessible long before becoming the father of Prospect Park. So taking care of a rickety bridge was not a heavy lift. Perhaps the crucial moment that impelled immediate action occurred on July 28, 1848, when his fellow Aldermen aboard a horse-drawn hearse on its way to Green-wood suddenly jumped off as they neared Gowanus Creek, preferring to walk across the “rotting and decrepit Penny Bridge.” Within a year, the nuisance was gone, and the City was erecting a new bridge in its place while the length of Hamilton Avenue was simultaneously widened, graded and paved.
Of course, another major impetus for that new drawbridge was the transformation of the Creek into a shipping canal. In 1849 the NYS legislature authorized the dredging of the Creek and widening it for a length of almost two miles north and west of the bridge. This allowed barges laden with coal, oil and building supplies to offload much closer to their destination. Traffic on the new Canal was brisk from the outset, even before the final dredging was completed in 1869. As a result, the Hamilton and its four sister bridges downstream had to be raised and lowered. A lot. Their piers and pilings also got rammed and shredded by tugs and barges. A lot. And the vehicular traffic just got heavier and thicker every year, including horsecars, followed by trolleys, buses and trucks. Lots and lots of trucks.
So the 1849 Hamilton Avenue Bridge was replaced with a new model in 1857. Tracks were laid at that time for the horse-drawn rail cars which charged a nickel a ride. A bridge tender was appointed each year by the ruling political party to open and close the draw for the increasing boat traffic below for a dollar a day. Shortly after this third Hamilton bridge was completed, its new-fangled boiler contraption powering the drawbridge blew right up, killing the bridge-keeper and maiming his assistant. His replacement was on duty the moonless night of Wednesday, August 19, 1863, however, when a northbound horsecar approached the open bridge shortly before 10pm. Sitting in the rear were a blind preacher and his teenage guide who lived at the corner of Columbia & DeGraw Street. They were returning from a sermon delivered to Union soldiers at Fort Hamilton about to embark for the War. In addition to the conductor and the driver, there was also another young man who boarded at 9th Street & 3rd Avenue.
The horses, the car, and the people all went into the drink. The driver survived and told the Coroner he usually had four drinks a day, no big thing. By the way the New York Times, in its three dispatches on this story over the course of a week, identified the site of the tragedy as the Hamilton Avenue Bridge while the Brooklyn Daily Eagle maintained it was the bridge at 9th Street. I went with the Times because they outnumbered the Eagle’s stories and plus, I wanted to show my support for New York’s only surviving daily paper from the Civil War.
After the War, activity along the waterfront exploded. Sand stones barged across the harbor from quarries on the mainland were unloaded from the Canal’s banks and assembled to form the row houses of what is now called Brownstone Brooklyn. The new Brownstones then discharged their brown effluvia back into the Gowanus, as the Canal became the waste treatment plant for up-Slopers. Now add the benzene, pyridine, creosols, naphthalene, toluene, hydrogen sulfide, phenols, and coal tar from the many gas plants springing up there. Sprinkle in the perfumes of adjacent lime kilns, cream of tartar works, fertilizing factories and you have what Lynyrd Skynyrd used to croon: “Ohhhhh, that smell, can’t you smell that smell?”
So come 1883 with a new Brooklyn Bridge to get to, well folks was mad as hell and weren’t gonna take it anymore. The damn bridges kept getting stuck and rebuilt, causing delay after delay. In 1888 alone, the five bridges had to open more than 22,000 times on demand. And they took quite a while to close. Which afforded riders quite a whiff of the increasingly noxious surroundings. In 1889 a Commission appointed by the Mayor to study the problem recommended closing the Canal and sealing it up. They noted a dozen carcasses of dead horses and other animals in the Canal during their brief survey, along with “the outpourings of a large number of water closets and four sewer lines.” Failing the nuclear option, it recommended shoring up the deteriorating bulkheads, installing a flushing tunnel and tearing down all five bridges, replacing them with higher spans. “The condition in which the Canal is allowed to exist is simply a disgrace to the city of Brooklyn,” they concluded.
In 1893, a bill was introduced in Albany by the Sanitary League, with the backing of the Mayor, to fill the Canal, pave it and erect a railroad on top with sidings to existing businesses, from Butler Street all the way to a rail barge dock that would be built under the Hamilton Bridge, thereby substituting “one form of highway for another.” The Board of Trade objected and the bill, like so many before it, was dead on arrival. A pumping station with a flushing tunnel at the west end of the Canal did provide some relief in 1911. Until it eventually broke down. Just like the drawbridges.
But after World War II, traffic on the Canal started a long decline. And all the magnificent bridge rebuilds since the 1980s provided more clearance for vessels. Now only the Hamilton opens on demand, but always at off-peak. In fact, from 1990 to 2017 total annual Gowanus bridge openings declined from 4,400 to just over a thousand. The flushing tunnel was revived, the EPA’s Super Fund cleanup of the Canal will start in September and the Union Street Bridge rebuild is a certainty.
So there’s your happy ending. But one thing still bothers me. Sonny Dove. Sonny was a Senior at St. Francis Prep in Williamsburg when I was a Junior at St. Augustine in the Slope. Sonny single-handedly beat us in 1963 with an unstoppable jump shot. Sonny, like so many of us Brooklynites now, was a mixed blend. African-American, Narragansett tribe on his father’s side, Mashpee Wampanoag on his mother’s. He was once described by the Daily News as “a study in grace and athleticism.” He was also deadly from the top of the key and went on to win the NIT with St. John’s, then spent five years in the NBA, including the Nets, before a really bad bicycle accident ended his career. He became a sports broadcaster, calling St. John’s games on the radio but it didn’t pay a lot, so he also drove a cab to make ends meet.
On a snowy Monday night in February 1983, Sonny was returning in his empty yellow cab to Manhattan, driving west on Hamilton Avenue. The bridge was up but due to an electric malfunction its guard rails didn’t descend and there were no lights. Sonny hit the brakes and skidded into the Canal 25 feet below. He died on impact and was recovered by NYPD divers. His family sued the City for $1 million and they settled for $750,000.
I’ve been driving over that bridge for most of my life – and cursed when it opened more times than I care to remember. Especially on Saturday mornings. But every time it did, after February 14, 1983, I couldn’t help thinking about Sonny Dove.
After the Hamilton Avenue Bridge was completely rebuilt in 2017-2018, the Department of Transportation, as part of “The Percent For Art Program,” installed a fixture created by Jim Conti, a former Pratt Institute professor, consisting of LED lights viewable in all directions by pedestrians, motorists and mariners alike. It’s called “Assent Ascent” and is actually quite dazzling. Sort of like Sonny Dove’s smile after he went vertical to drain a jumper.
I think they should rename those lights “Sonny’s Ascent.” Just sayin.’
This has been a Joe Enright Production.
“When you’re right, you’re right, but when you’re always right, you’re Enright.”