8. Gowanus Was Once Known as the Gaslight District

Gowanus Canal

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Gowanus Canal’s pollution stems back well over a century. However, it’s much less known that Gowanus at one point in its history was referred to as the Gaslight District. Around the 1860s, many manufactured gas plants were constructed throughout the neighborhood, converting coal transported down the canal into gas. Much of the leftover coal tar from these factories was dumped directly into the canal.

The canal had previously been used for oyster farming and milling, which declined amid Brooklyn’s rapid industrialization in the mid-1800s. The canal was deepened around this time so it could be used as a commercial waterway, which allowed as many as 100 ships to pass through daily. Amid the neighborhoods flour mills and cement factories were manufactured gas plants, which was not ideal considering the canal was only open at one end and thus could not flush away the toxic pollutants. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that the New York State Legislature appointed a commission to study the canal’s pollution.