Newtown Creek is part of the Hudson Estuary, flowing west for 3.8 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 a tidally influenced estuary with a total surface area of 140 acres. Its natural depth was 12 feet, but today it can be as shallow as four feet.
In the early days its shores presented a beautiful sight. The Creek’s natural sources were fresh water streams which flowed between wooded elevations and further along lowlands until they mingled with the salt water of the East River. When the tides met, the backing up of these tides caused the stream to overflow into marshes. The creek abounded with fish and shellfish and was also a favorite swimming spot. While the Creek once flowed through wetlands and marshes nearly the entire stretch of the creek now has bulkheads (retaining walls.).
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries – European Settlement
The Creek has been used by man for hundreds of years starting with Native Americans whose village and fields were at the head of the Creek. Dutch explorers first surveyed the Creek in the seventeenth century. The Dutch, and then the English, used the Creek for agriculture and fledgling industrial commerce, making it the oldest continuous industrial area in the United States Farms and plantations lined both shores of the Creek from the mid-1600’s to the mid-nineteenth century.
The 19th and 20th Centuries – Industrialization
The country’s first kerosene refinery (1854) and first modern oil refinery (1867) brought jobs and infrastructure to the area. 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. By the 1920s and 30s, the Creek was a major shipping hub and was widened, deepened, and bulkheads were added to accommodate bigger barges. This destroyed all its fresh water sources. Newtown Creek became home to such businesses as sugar refineries, hide tanning plants, canneries, and copper wiring plants.
A Polluted Waterway
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 the impact 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.
A New Beginning
Things have begun to change. Remediation, although halting has started. Recently, life has returned 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 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.