The City’s Unbuilt Canals

As today is the day of April fools, I would like to share two outlandish proposals that would have dramatically affected the landscape of Queens.


Imagine a canal running on the route of Van Wyck Expressway connecting Flushing Meadows with Jamaica Bay.

It’s not entirely implausible as the salt marsh of Flushing Meadows extended south for nearly half of the borough’s length. At the Head of the Vleigh was a pass in the glacial terminal moraine followed by a gentle slope down to the Idlewild marshland where Bergen Basin flowed into Jamaica Bay. The 1914 Annual Report of the State engineer and Surveyor presented to the Barge Terminal Canal Commission provided a variety of design options for the canal, including a tunneled canal between Liberty Avenue and Union Turnpike in a manner most closely resembling Canal St. Martin in Paris.

A bill for its construction failed to pass the New York State legislature in 1912 and from that point, the canal project receded further away from realization.

Not too far from Flushing Bay is the Harlem River Ship Canal, the straightened, bulkheaded and deeper transformation of the Harlem River. Notice how the planner’s rendering show the Erie Canal in the distant background. So in theory, a barge docking at Jamaica Bay can travel to Chicago or Duluth with the Flushing-Jamaica Canal as its first link.

Maspeth to Flushing by Canal

nyt 2281895

In the February 28, 1895 edition of the New York Times, a proposed ship canal runs between Newtown Creek and Flushing Creek, transforming the neighborhoods of Maspeth, Elmhurst and Corona into shoreline communities with a sea level canal. Alternative versions of the Newtown-Flushing Canal had its route follow Maspeth Creek to its headwaters and continuing east along Horse Brook ,whose headwaters were nearby. This proposed canal has existed in the imagination of planners since the 1820s, when Erie Canal proponent and Maspeth resident DeWitt Clinton first brought it up. A couple of decades later glue manufacturer Peter Cooper, who had a factory on Newtown Creek also spoke of the need for this canal.

As the route of the unbuilt Flushing-Jamaica Canal is today the Van Wyck Expressway, is it any surprise that the canal route on the map above closely resembles that of the Long Island Expressway? Not really. As canals try to take the least steep route between Point A and Point B, highways do as well. The flatter its route, the cheaper it is to construct and the faster it is to get between the two points.

In Brooklyn

canal 1899

Lest we forget, Brooklyn also has an unbuilt canal that was supposed to connect Coney Island Creek to Sheepshead Bay. Its route was later developed for Belt Parkway.

doug 1.JPG

Likewise, Gowanus Canal was supposed to have extended north by another couple of miles linking to Wallabout Bay, according to an 1870 proposal by Col. David Douglass. Details on this extremely costly proposal can be found in Joseph Alexiou‘s book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal, pages 108-112.


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