Ten Facts About Gowanus That Are as Weird as the Canal Itself

With the release of the NYC Department of City Planning’s long-awaited Gowanus Neighborhood Plan and rezoning proposal, our interest in all things Gowanus has been piqued. The future of our neighborhood is exciting and promising so we wanted to know a little bit more about the past of this bustling area. Here are a few of the facts we learned about Gowanus and its infamous canal.

1) The canal should kill most marine life because the water doesn’t contain enough oxygen but somehow bacterial life and minnows still manage to survive. In all honesty, no one really knows what is growing in the canal – even the Environmental Protection Agency is clueless. There could be an entirely new species growing in there!

2)  Whale, whale, whale… what have we got here? Whales have been spotted in the Canal! In 2007, there was a baby minke whale spotted in the Gowanus Canal; sadly, she did not survive. There are official police recordings dating back to 1922 of dolphin, shark, and seal sightings.

3) During the Revolutionary War, the Gowanus played a pivotal role. In August of 1776 during the Battle of Brooklyn, American troops were being pursued by 20,000 British soldiers and they retreated across the Gowanus Creek (which would one day become the Canal). The English stopped at the banks, so the Gowanus was a natural dividing line.

4) Gowanus used to be called the Gaslight District. Gas plants were some of the first industries to move into the area. These factories changed coal into gas and the leftover coal tar was dumped directed into and around the canal.

5) The Dutch created ponds and used flooded meadows to power mills for grinding flour and ginger when they first arrived in Gowanus. However, the Dutch didn’t actually dig these ponds; the digging was done by their African slaves.

6) One of the earliest known concrete buildings in NYC is on the Gowanus. The Coignet building was a showcase for a new building material, now known as concrete. Industrialists started the Coignet Stone Company and created this building as an office and a prototype.

7) You can canoe in the canal! The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club raises awareness of overflow issues that affect the Canal while promoting waterfront stewardship. The group empowers people to care for the Canal through advocacy, conservation, and education. If this floats your boat (or canoe), you can check them out and get involved!

8) What’s in a name? No one really knows the origin of the name “Gowanus”. There are a few different theories, some tracing it back to a Native American origin. Regardless of origin, the word “Gowanus” is clearly older than “New York” and “Brooklyn”.

9) Jonathan Swift once said, “It was a bold man who ate the first oyster”. The oysters in Gowanus used to grow to be a foot long, according to 17th-century resources – you would have to be very bold to have tried one of those!

10) If baseball is America’s favorite pastime, the Gowanus Canal was the birthplace of America’s coldest pastime, ice baseball! In the 19th century when the ponds froze over, residents of Brooklyn would skate on them. By 1861, the ice skating phenomenon was combined with baseball to create ice baseball – 12,000 people witnessed a game between the Atlantics and the Charter Oaks in February of 1861.

This neighborhood we call home has experienced lots of exciting and monumental events in its time and we can’t wait to see what the future has in store – Brooklyn Creative League is looking forward to creating more historic events with our coworking members and Gowanus community!

For those of you looking for MORE Gowanus facts, check out the book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal by Joseph Alexiou.