In the late 1980s to early 1990s, I was part of a nature guide program through the public school district I attended. As a fourth-grader, I was trained to lead classes through the Mill Stone Trail and onto Dead Horse Bay, part of Jamaica Bay in the Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn. The program followed my cohort up to the eighth grade, and we continued guiding classes on this nature trail until we graduated.
I learned all sorts of facts I can still remember about the flora and fauna, but what interested me the most was the fact that the trail lead us to the beach, and on the beach, if you were lucky, you could find a horse bone. What I knew about the horse bones was that once, in that area, there was a glue factory, and old carriage horses were brought there to be processed. Sad, but cool.
The history of Dead Horse Bay is much more complex. While I believed I was reliving colonial life as I walked through those trails (in fact, the millstone that gives the trail its name is from the 1700s), I was also walking over the trash of New York City from the late 1800s to early 1900s. No one ever told us nature trail guides this part of the story.
A brief history of this area, once known as Barren Island, can be found here. This article says “a cap on one of the landfills burst” in the 1950s, and since then, trash has been washing up on the shore. In 1990, there was no trash on this beach, just some shells, some driftwood, and some horse bones. I returned to Dead Horse Bay a few weeks ago after seeing some pictures online.
I couldn’t believe this was the same place I had visited as a kid, but it is. The tide has taken over, and in some spots along the beach you can look into the garbage, piled five feet high. With every storm and wave, more of this trash is pulled out onto the beach and into the water, an entire history unearthed and brought back to life. I’ve never considered writing historical fiction before, but there are stories here, tons of them. One in every bottle, every piece of ceramic, every bloated baby doll arm, every shoe sole. The stockings, the rusted metal, the dead things you find on the beach all tell a tale. I have been back twice; I will return again, I’m sure.
Residents of Barren Island were ridiculed by the rest of New York. They lived on a landfill; they processed the city’s dead animals; they lived among a putrid smell and they, in turn, smelled. But there was a school teacher who dared to teach those children. There were houses and immigrant families, and there was work to do to make it in America. In the late 1930s, the final residents were ordered to leave as part of a public domain issue; an airfield was being built, a bridge was going up nearby. There is no evidence, on the surface, of the buildings where they lived and worked. It’s all been plowed, filled in, buried under. As a writer, one day, like the tide, I will bring them back to life.
You can enlarge all of the pictures in this post by clicking on them.