5. The History of Dead Horse Bay

Dead Horse Bay-Brooklyn-Vintage Bottles-Landfill-Garbage-Beach-Jamaica Bay-NYC_18 (1)

Just next to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn sits Dead Horse Bay, whose macabre name aptly describes its history. Though the bay is technically within the Gateway National Recreation Area, it is close enough to Marine Park that we decided to include it here.

Dead Horse Beach was once a separate island known as Barren Island, before the area was landfilled to create Floyd Bennett Field. In 1859, the first horse rendering plants were constructed on Barren Island, which processed dead horses by mashing them up, steaming them, separating the products and boiling the bones down into glue. The remnants became commercial fertilizer. This was seen as a better alternative to the ongoing practice, where horses were simply left to rot and decompose on New York City’s streets. Originally, Barren Island was considered ideal for this noxious activity because it was so remote, nobody would complain about the smell.

Later, Barren Island was also used to deal with the city’s garbage problem. Prior to the formation of the New York Sanitary Utilization Company, trash was dumped into the waterways. Motivated by financial reasons – the garbage was getting in the way of ship traffic – the city selected Barren Island for the processing and disposal of trash.

Similar to the horses, the trash would be boiled and steam cooked until a layer of grease emerged at the top to be skimmed off and sold for industrial lubrication and soap. But with encroaching development, even Barren Island became too close for comfort due to the smell. The stench, which could reach a radius of six to ten miles, would waft over to beach goers on Manhattan Beach where hotel evacuations would occur.

Unsurprisingly, neighboring communities began complaining and locals formed the Anti-Barren Island League. The landfill ceased operation in the 1940s and was capped off in 1953, but the waste emerges on a daily basis due to erosion, leaving a beach of strewn bottles, old toys, and shoes.