By Gordon Macrae
What if I told you that there is a lost island off the coast of New York City?
Floyd Bennett Field is a strange protuberance off southeast Brooklyn. It sticks down like a thumb into Jamaica Bay. Stand in the middle of one of its six runways and the open ground reaches far enough to the horizon that you can forget you are in New York City at all.
But you are also standing on a lost island. Sitting in Rockaway Inlet, this forgotten strip of land is known as Barren Island and, until landfill connected it to the mainland in 1962, it formed a chain of tidal islands in the bay.
Lost islands hold a certain romantic appeal in the mind. They conjure images of pirates, forgotten treasure, volcanic eruptions, and mysterious forces. The truth is often more mundane but no less fascinating.
And so it is with Barren Island. Native Americans called the area Equindito (Broken Lands). The Dutch, who settled the area in 1640 named it Beeren Eylant (Bear Island), which the English butchered to Barren Island.
From the mid-nineteenth century up until the 1930’s the island was a graveyard for horses and other city refuse (horses being the primary mode of transport at the time). The western shore of the island soon earned the grim moniker Dead Horse Bay.
And that isn’t a mistranslated Dutch name. Dead Horse Bay beach itself sits at the western edge of a marshland once dotted by more than two dozen horse-rendering plants, fish oil factories and garbage incinerators.
At 10 a.m. each weekday, a “horse boat” would arrive with up to 50 dead horses on board, along with the bodies of cats, dogs and the occasional cow. The carcasses were transported from Manhattan and manufactured into glue, fertiliser and other products.
The chopped-up, boiled bones were later dumped in the water, which is how the bay acquired its grim moniker. In addition to the rendering factories, the bay shores were home to fish oil plants and waste disposal facilities. The smell was, we can imagine, unpleasant.
It was, indeed, a barren place. “In 1897, there were five factories and four saloons on Barren Island, one store, one road, no doctor, nurse, or pharmacist, no church, no electricity, no post office, no social hall, no reading room, and a one-room school,” according to local historian (and former sanitation official), Benjamin Miller.
Today it is no longer an island. After the 1930, the factories were all but gone, as the automobile replaced horses as the primary means of transportation. Around the same time, the city began dumping its rubbish at sea. Some of that refuse, along with sand and coal was used to connect Barren Island to Brooklyn, creating what is known today as Floyd Bennett Field, which opened in 1927.
Today, Dead Horse Bay remains an active junkyard. Walking along the beach, what you notice is that before our current plastic phase, everything came in bottles: colas, potions, and booze; Vicks, Milk of Magnesia, and Bovril, to name a few items. From inkwells to gallon jugs, a surprising number of the bottles are in good condition. Since glass, like ancient pottery, turns out to be quite durable, especially older bottles, the beach is a collector’s dream.
The best time to make the trip is when the tide is out. The trail starts right across from the Flatbush Avenue bus stop to Floyd Bennett Field, just before the Gil Hodges Bridge. The trail soon splits into three, and the rightward leaning path leads through fields of knee-high brush. When the path arrives at the beach, you can see a marina filled with summer boaters across the water.
Stand close to the shoreline and you’ll hear the melodic glisten of the sea washing over hundreds of glass bottles. The area is protected as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, so while it’s technically illegal to remove anything from National Parks, nobody will prevent you picking up a couple of mementos because, well, you’re literally cleaning up rubbish.