New York’s Bottle Beach
If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we’re headed to New York, where they say if you can make it there, you have a better-than-average chance of making it anywhere.
The Bottle Beach
In the 1850s, Barren Island on the southeast side of Brooklyn was a pretty disgusting place. The entire city of New York carted its garbage to the island, where it would sit in towering piles until it could be burned or buried. Dead horses were sent to Barren Island to be boiled down at rendering plants, with their bones added to the garbage or tossed into the nearby bay. Fish manure was manufactured there, and the island had no running water or sewer system for its small community of mostly immigrant employees and their families. Needless to say, the place smelled awful.
By the mid-1920s, as horses were being replaced by automobiles, most of the plants had closed, leaving behind decades of trash and bones that washed ashore, collecting in the curve of a small peninsula that became known as Dead Horse Bay. At about the same time, the city began connecting the island to the mainland using six million cubic yards of sand pumped from nearby Jamaica Bay. To supplement the sand, they also buried mounds of garbage that had been sitting there for decades, raising the ground 16 feet. This created an area large enough for the city’s first airport, Floyd Bennett Field.
This impressive engineering feat remained stable for nearly 20 years until one of the landfill caps broke in 1953, releasing 100 year old garbage into the bay. The cap has never been repaired, so if you head down to Dead Horse Bay today, you’ll find that it now has a more apt nickname—Bottle Beach. Hundreds of empty bottles, as well as old shoes, ceramics, and synthetic nylon stockings litter the shore, most dating from the 1930s. It’s an antique-lover’s dream, and many people come to the beach to retrieve a few unique bottles to display in their homes or sell on eBay. However, they are technically stealing from what is now a national park, a crime that can bring a charge as serious as a federal misdemeanor. In addition, many historians worry these bottle snatchers are removing artifacts that might have important cultural significance. Without cataloging these artifacts properly, it’s hard to say why kind of rare discoveries might have already been lost.
So feel free to visit Bottle Beach the next time you’re in the Big Apple, but, please, leave the bottles where they belong.
Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!
Peruse all the entries in our Strange States series here.