Mott Haven Canal

You won’t find Chinese food here, but as with Canal Street in Manhattan, Canal Place in the South Bronx and its parallel, Canal Place West, serve as reminders of a waterway long buried beneath the industrial properties of the neighborhood.

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Proposed in 1850 by Mott Haven founder Jordan L. Mott, it was carved out in the early 1870s. This man-made inlet of the Harlem River penetrated as far north as 144th Street.  Along its shoreline, cranes picked up freight from barges and loaded the goods into warehouses.

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Two bascule bridges spanned the relatively narrow canal with lock-like tide gates underneath to keep out high tides. In contrast to Gowanus Canal, which was originally a natural stream and has water pumped from East River to maintain a steady flow, the Mott Haven Canal did not have a current and its standing water quickly gained a reputation for its odor.

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In 1896, the city’s Board of Health declared the canal a public nuisance and urged the city to acquire the waterway and replace it with a street. An objection was filed by the Bronx Electric Light Company in which Tammany Hall chieftain Richard Croker had an interest. During those days, the influential political clubhouse’s biggest impact on the city’s landscape was elevated railways, following the city’s shutdown of an experimental subway in 1868. In the case of Mott Haven Canal, Croker’s motion was denied and Canal Place was paved over the buried waterway.

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Above: “Mott Haven Canal Case: Court Denies Motion of Opponents of Street on Section of Canal Site” New York Times May 16, 1900

A stub of the canal remained below 138th Street into the 1930s, and after the Second World War, truncated further to 135th Street, where it was used as a barge transfer location by the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s rail yard. This section was filled in 1964 for a truck depot. Only Canal Place and Canal Street remain as signs of this buried waterway.

During its short life, Mott Haven Canal attracted two local impressionists, Charles Frederick William Mielatz (1860-1919), and Margaretha E. Albers (1881-1977), who preserved it for posterity in their art. Mielatz’s drawings of the canal can be found at the Museum of the City of New York and Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Albers’ painting of the canal was sold in 2012 for $1,126.

Between 1901 and 1913, the city’s photographers also documented the canal, their works now part of the Municipal Archives.

With recent talk of gentrification crossing the Harlem River into the South Bronx, now is the time to visit Canal Place before it becomes another row of boring glass box condos. Nearly every property along Canal Place and Canal Place West has “For Sale” signs,” as speculators seek to cash in.

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