A half mile to the south of Williamsburg Bridge, the East River makes a turn to the southwest with a wide cove at this knee-shaped bend. Known as Wallabout Bay, it was the site of a notorious floating prison during the Revolutionary War and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At the northwestern corner of this property, a deep channel cuts inland as the only remnant of Wallabout Creek.
In the second third of the 19th century, the bay had an artificial island in its middle, Cob Dock, a part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard accessible by the ferry seen in the above postcard. The bay and its feeder stream, Wallabout Creek have a long and storied history.
Where it Was
In this 1873 map of Brooklyn, the original shoreline of Wallabout Bay is seen meandering along the edges of the Navy Yard, much of which was built on landfill in the shallow bay. As the Navy Yard expanded, Cob Dock was seen as an impediment to large ships and plans were made to remove the island.
The 1904 map of the property shows its gradual transformation. The middle of Cob Dock had already been eliminated in favor of Whitney Basin and within a decade, the island’s western tip will also go underwater, making for a larger Wallabout Bay. The only remnant of Cob Dock today is its triangular eastern third, fused to the Navy Yard by a narrow pier.
On the southern edge of the Satmar hasidic section of Williamburg is Wallabout Street, which runs for eight blocks east from the Navy Yard. Looking at the map above, it follows the course of Wallabout Creek, which had its source near Marcy Avenue and was gradually truncated as the surrounding neighborhood grew.
The stream an English corruption of “de Waal Boght,” meaning the Walloon Bay, after Walloon settlers who immigrated to New Netherlands in the 1630s. This French-speaking Protestant community originated from Belgium, leaving their homeland in search of religious freedom. The first Walloon to settle near this stream was Joris Jansen de Rappalle in 1637. Spelling variations on his last name include Rapalje, Rapalye and Rapelye, all indicating a Walloon background. Joris’ daughter Sarah was the first white child born in New Netherlands.
Rapalle purchased a 335-acre tract called that the Natives called “Rennegachank,” located “in the bend of Mearechkawieck,” from the local Native and established a farm on the site. This bay was soon renamed Wallabout Bay. Rapalle’s descendants owned the land until 1781.
On the 1766 Bernard Ratzer map above, we see Wallabout Creek entering its bay. Highlighted are the future Bedford Avenue and Washington Avenue crossing the stream. ON the opposite side of the bay, a farmer named Remsen turned a sand bar into a mill dam, with the mill’s wheel powered by the tides. A decade later, the hills to the south of the bay will be occupied by revolutionary fighters in the Battle of Long Island.
So much can be said about Wallabout Bay, such as its role as a British-run prison during the revolution, and as a naval shipyard from 1801 to 1966, but focusing on Wallabout Creek alone, there is plenty to discuss in regards to its transformation over the centuries.
Washington Avenue Drawbridge
While researching old drawbridges in the city, I came across this old scene. It shows a 123-foot bridge with a trolley crossing Wallabout Creek. The photo is found on Page 67 of Engineering Magazine, Volume XXXVII, October 1909.
According to the description, it was a retractile drawbridge built in 1893, akin in design to the famous Carroll Street Bridge above Gowanus Canal, Borden Street Bridge at Dutch Kills, and Summer Street Bridge in Boston. It took 3 minutes to slide on its rails.
The photo raises many questions: Why was this bridge constructed? Where exactly was it located? When did it stop functioning?
As seen in a postcard commissioned by produce merchant Charles Smith, Washington Avenue ran through the Wallabout Market and across the creek. It enabled farmers from Queens and customers from downtown Brooklyn to easily access the market. According to the description of the bridge, it took three minutes for it to retract, while a capstan guided boats through the channel.
Demise of Wallabout Market
The market’s location adjacent to the Navy Yard sealed its fate. With the Second World War raging across the Atlantic, the federal government demanded tighter security and more space for the shipyard. The Wallabout market was condemned in favor of Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie. On June 14, 1941, a ceremony to marked the closing of Wallabout Market with a procession of the trucks to its new location. Very quickly the old market was demolished, the section of Washington Avenue between Kent Avenue and Flushing Avenue was closed to the public, and the portion of Wallabout Creek upstream from the drawbridge was filled in.
Today, all that is left of Wallabout Creek is an inlet of the East River ending at Washington Avenue. Its source of water are the surrounding sewers and while the shoreline appears empty, there is one structure here worth mentioning.
On a January 2014 visit to Brooklyn Navy Yard, he came across this industrial relic, an abandoned rail transfer bridge on Wallabout Channel that faces north towards Williamsburg Bridge. (those are his photos above)
Before there were highways and cargo planes, railroads transported goods across the country. Prior to 1910, there were no fixed rail crossings connecting Long Island to the continent and many freight depots in Manhattan and on Long Island were not connected to any other railroad networks. Instead, they were often located along shorelines where rail transfer gantries lifted boxcars onto barges that took them to rail terminals on the mainland.
Examples of such gantries can be found in Gantry Plaza State Park, Riverside South Park, and Port Morris in the Bronx. As freight rail declined in the second half of the 20th century, one by one these gantries turned to rust and slipped into the water. The only remaining active railroad gantry in the city is at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.
As with the mentioned examples, Brooklyn Navy Yard had its own network of tracks linked to other railroads by this floating transfer bridge. Trainweb has an extremely detailed page on the internal rail system within the Navy Yard. This gantry was last used in 1995 for a subway car re-builder that was located at the Navy Yard.
Wallabout Channel sees virtually no freight traffic today but at its confluence with East River, on its eastern bank is Schaeffer Landing, a condo development completed in 2006 that includes a small waterfront park with a dock used by the East River Ferry. This Karl Fischer work is an early pioneer in waterfront luxury condos in Williamburg.
Visiting Wallabout Channel
To learn more about the history of this stream, one may visit BLDG 92, the Navy Yard’s educational-historical facility that hosts exhibits and lectures. One may tour the Brooklyn Navy Yard by foot or bike through Turnstile Tours, the in-house tour operator. Wallabout Channel is accessible to small vessels but it does not currently have a public boat launch site.
In the News:
New York Times reports that all of New York City’s public pools opened today for the 2016 summer season.
Books about Brooklyn Navy Yard
Here’s a Wednesday feature I haven’t done in a while, books that I’ve used as sources for my Hidden Waters research.
The two books above illustrate the history of Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The first title above mentions Brooklyn Navy Yard along with other former military properties that have been re-purposed for civilian use. The book on the right is a personal account of the changes that took place at this site.