About the Creek
Newtown Creek is part of the Hudson Estuary, flowing west for 3.5 miles between Queens and Brooklyn and emptying into the East River. The creek is comprised of small branches known as Dutch Kills, Maspeth Creek, Whale Creek, the East Branch, and English Kills. It is tidally influenced estuary with a total surface area of 140 acres. While the Creek once flowed through wetlands and marshes, today the ecology is mired in its industrial past. Nearly the entire stretch of the creek is bulkheaded.
There is more than 400 years of rich, if often troubled, history on Newtown Creek.
Newtown Creek has a length of four miles. Its natural depth was 12 feet, falling to four feet at the head of navigation. In the early days its shores presented a beautiful sight. In the background were the hills covered with trees. In the swamps below, the stream and its tributaries had their rise. Broadening on its way, the stream flowed quietly between wooded elevations and further along lowlands until it mingled its waters with the salt of the East River. When the tides met, the backing up of these tides caused the stream to overflow the marshes, and this fact led the Indians to name the waterway “Mispat”, that is, an overflowing tidal stream. An ancient deed from the Indians calls Maspet Kills “Quandoequareous”. The creek abounded with seafood and was also a favorite swimming spot.
In the neighboring forests the deer and the wolf had their habitation. At the head of the stream was the village and cornfield of the Mispat tribe. Near its mouth a few adventurous Normans had established themselves, clearing the land and trading with the Indians.
In 1638 Governor Kieft purchased the land near the creek, and the new Charter of Freedoms and Exemptions, published in 1640, providing that “all good inhabitants were allowed to select lands and form colonies,” attracted settlers to this neighborhood. Thus a small band of former residents of the Plymouth Colony, under the leadership of the Rev. Francis Doughty, settled in 1642 near the Indian village. Near Meeker Avenue, Humphrey Clay operated a ferry across Newtown Creek to Bushwick as early as 1670.
County lines were unknown; the creeks were dividing lines between the several plantations, for the reason that lands near a creek were taken up in preference to others, and the creeks were used in place of roads to transport the produce of the farms to the river, and thus it was made possible to reach the fort on Manhattan Island.
The territory along the Newtown Creek, as far as Old Calvary cemetery and along the East River to a point near the present Queensboro Bridge, was known as Dutch Kills. On the other side of the cemetery was a settlement of men from New England and therefore named English Kills. Farms and plantations lined both shores of the Creek from the mid-1600’s to the mid-nineteenth century.
The rapid industrial development occurred after 1860. A 1935 report indicated the waterfront on both sides of the creek added up to 11.6 miles. Dockage of more than 51,000 feet was available. The creek is “dead water”. It rises and falls with the tide but does not flow.
Dutch Explored Newtown Creek in 1613-1614
In 1612 we hear of two navigators whose work represents much of the beginning of Manhattan history. These men were Henry Christiaensen and Adriaen Block. They first went to the great river discovered by Verrazzano, and explored by Hudson, in a vessel of their own, but not commanded by themselves. On this first voyage they procured a cargo of peltries and carried back to Holland two sons of Indian chiefs. In the year that followed each of the two friends took command of a separate vessel, Christiaensen of the “Fortune,” and Block of the “Tiger,” and cleared again for the Hudson. This expedition of 1613 had enduring results. In the first place Christiaensen determined on a departure from the earlier plan. In place of returning to Holland when his particular business was completed, he resolved to spend the winter on Manhattan. He erected as a beginning a number of rude huts, using as material the bark and the branches of trees. These were, of course, the first European habitations of any kind built on the site of what was, in course of time, to become the greatest city in the world.
It appears to have been in the spring of 1614 that Block put a new ship to use exploring waters they had not before ventured on. He sailed up the East River, closely making notes of the coasts of Manhattan and Long Island, passing through beyond the headlands of Throgg’s Neck and Whitestone, and finally with a new sense of discovery found himself in the broadening waters of the Sound. To the cartographers of Europe the existence of Long Island Sound had not up to that time been suspected, for the coast line of Long Island had been merged upon the maps of that date with the mainland of New England. It is a feather, therefore, in the cap of Adriaen Block, that he was the first to provide an available description of the Sound and its coasts. On that same voyage he also discovered the Connecticut River and made permanent notes of certain islands and waters, one of the islands, Block Island, retaining in its name a memory of the intrepid navigator.
Meanwhile it had occurred to Christiaensen that the trade in furs would be very much advanced if something in the way of a permanent settlement were established at points up and along the great river. The Indians would, in this wise, become accustomed to bringing their skins to fixed localities easily accessible to them. The trade would in this way be invested with a character of greater regularity and would receive greater stimulus by interesting a larger number of tribes stretching over a more extended territory, than could be reached by irregular and impulsive visits to places selected without any fixed schedule. The island of Manhattan would, of course, be the chief trading place. But Christiaensen, having fixed his base there, went further and diligently explored the bays, creeks, and inlets of the immediate vicinity in every direction in order to open up lines of negotiation with the aborigines. This was towards the close of 1613.
From the Dutch to Today
Dutch explorers first surveyed the creek in 1613-14 and acquired it from the local Mespat tribe. The Dutch and English used the creek for agriculture and fledgling industrial commerce, making it the oldest continuous industrial area in the nation. The country’s first kerosene refinery (1854) and first modern oil refinery (1867) brought jobs and infrastructure. By the end of the 19th century, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, which began as Astral Oil Co. in 1880, had over 100 distilleries on both sides of Newtown Creek, and each refinery’s average effluent discharge per week was 30,000 gallons, most spewing into the creek. By the 1920s and 30s, the Creek was a major shipping hub and was widened, deepened, and bulkheaded to accommodate bigger barges, destroying all its fresh water sources. Newtown Creek became home to such businesses as sugar refineries, hide tanning plants, canneries, and copper wiring plants.
Up until the latter part of the 20th Century, industries along the creek had free reign over the disposal of unwanted byproducts. With little-to-no government regulation or knowledge of impacts on human health and the environment, it made business sense to pollute the creek. The legacy of this history today is a 17-30 million gallon underground oil spill caused by Standard Oil’s progeny companies, copper contamination from the Phelps Dodge Superfund site, bubbling from the creek bed in the English Kill reach due to increases of hydrogen sulfide and a lack of dissolved oxygen, and creek beds coated with old tires, car frames, seats and loose paper. Nearly the entire creek had the sheen and smell of petroleum, with the bed and banks slicked black.
There is no natural freshwater flow into the creek as the historic tributaries were covered over. Flow exclusively consists of contaminated stormwater runoff, carrying trash from numerous bridges, unsewered and wholly paved streets and industrial sites, waste transfer stations, and combined sewer overflows (CSOs) from the city’s sewer system. Moreover, severely toxic groundwater seeps through the bed and banks of the creek. Every year Newtown Creek receives 14,000 million gallons of combined sewage overflow, a mixture of rainwater runoff, raw domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater that overwhelms treatment plants every time it rains. There are also discharges from numerous permitted and unpermitted pollution sources. The creek is mostly stagnant, meaning all the pollutants that have entered the creek over the past two centuries have never left. The creek is also home to a federal Superfund site, several State Superfund sites and numerous brownfields that have not yet secured the attention of regulators.
All is not lost, however. Recently, life is returning to the creek. You can find blue crabs at the mouth, fish swim in its waters, and waterfowl are prevalent. Wetland plants are taking over the abandoned bulkheads and sediment piles. The Newtown Creek Alliance is actively fighting to help life return to the creek by decreasing pollution and helping restore its ecological function.