1870 Smell Map

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This “smell map” shows Greenpoint’s effect on  Manhattan during the 19th century, it was widely believed that bad smells carried diseases. In the 1870s, the New York City Metropolitan Board of Health created the below “stench map” to point out where malodorous industries—then called “offensive trades”—were located in the city.

Greenpoint reeked to heaven. The area had oil refineries, bone processing plants, Animal rendering factories and fertilizer plants, which were the worst because of the malodorous sludge that was a by-product. There was a major problem with this sludge oil that was an essential ingredient in the production of fertilizer. It stank to high heaven and frequently the winds that blew from the East carried the stenches of Newtown Creek across to the residences of the affluent in Murray Hill in Manhattan. The New York Times began to report with increasing regularity on the stenches wafting over the East River throughout the eighteen-seventies and into the eighteen-eighties. The Times reported in a May 5th, 1878 report about the stench emanating from the creek. It noted how the sludge acid mixed with decaying fish, flesh and all sorts of offal. The Times also described how refuse from the plants was dumped into Newtown Creek whence it readily found its way into the East River, covering the water thickly with a greasy poisonous substance.

When the Enoch Coe Fertilizer Company on Newtown Creek  was prosecuted for its production of noxious odors no one in the courtroom was brave enough to remove the stopper from a bottle of its sludge acid.  The Times also noted that the area was the worst smelling district in the world and the paper reported on the Long Island Railroad’s journey to Hunter’s point with obvious disgust. A reporter stated, “ The waters of Newtown Creek run through a region that gives out more disgusting smells per square inch than any other portion of the world can furnish in a square mile. ” The report also stated” There is not a man, woman or child who travels the Long Island Railroad who will not testify to the horrible nature of the smells, which assail the passengers during their journey along Newtown Creek.”

A special Committee of the New York State Health Department did a fact-finding mission along the creek and reported that the creek was so full of oil and refuse that the water almost has the consistency of tart. The first of many noxious odors greeting the committee was the stench from manure boats, which discharged their holds for the area’s fertilizer plants.  When visiting one of the plants that mixed water with sludge acid the odor was so strong that Assemblyman Brooks, who was along with the delegation, commented that the power of the smell was as if, “ A knife had pierced him after taking one whiff. “

The Nichols Chemical Plant on the Queens side produced sulfuric acid that would start a person coughing and sneezing. Nothing however could be done to protect the Greenpoint air since the plant discharged no liquid; the factory’s air pollution was completely legal.

The committee had the power to recommend the closing of any plant that polluted the creek with sludge or allowed offensive smells to escape, but Standard Oil was a powerful force in Albany and knew whom to pay so that the firm and other could continue polluting the stream for years to come. If the smell was noxious in Manhattan, one can only imagine how much stronger the stench was in Greenpoint. It is not surprising that the eighteen-seventies witnessed many well-off families moving out of Greenpoint. Locals wistfully observed that the once pristine stream teaming with schools of fish and shellfish had in only a few short years become a malodorous ecological dead-zone and one of the most polluted bodies of water on the planet.

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