On March 20th, twenty countries all over the world observed Obscura Day by participating in 80 events all designed to celebrate hidden treasures in their local communities. This day was orchestrated internationally by a group called Atlas Obscura, which seeks to send explorers out into the world to investigate the curious, the oddball, and the truly bizarre. Down the rabbit hole, baby.
As part of this massive day dedicated to exploration, I trekked out past Floyd Bennett Airfield to explore Dead Horse Bay, a fascinating inlet just this side of the Rockaways. The Bay had piqued my interest ever since reading about it on Nathan Kensinger’s blog last year. The fantastic folks at Underwater New York had organized the visit in tandem with Atlas Obscura, and they brought loads of historical articles to read through as we explored the beach.
It turns out that the bay is actually a former island (“Barren Island”) which was the primary trash processing facility for the New York metro area beginning in the 1850’s. The bay acquired its gruesome name as an ode to the past; at one point, there were as many as two dozen animal processing facilities operated by a colony of settlers who turned the remains of fish from fish oil plants, streetcar horses, and the city’s dead animal population into fertilizers. The island supported a population of as many as 1,500 residents at its peak, though the lack of sewage and electricity, when combined with the stench one could reportedly smell from two miles away, made it a blight on the Brooklyn landscape.
In the 1920’s, once automobiles had started to replace horses and NYC had begun dumping its trash into the sea, the island population declined. In the late 1920’s, nearby Floyd Bennett Airfield was built and landfill construction connected Barren Island to the Brooklyn mainland. Now, the topography of the area has once again changed into the beautiful Gateway National Recreation Area, though relics of the past remain at Dead Horse Bay (especially at low tide). Despite its bizarre past, Dead Horse Bay is truly one of the most interesting places I’ve visited in Brooklyn, and a strangely beautiful glimpse of post-industrial anthropology.