Barren Island's harsh past brought to life

Self-contained colony of trash workers was isolated from New York

December 03, 2000|By Kirk Johnson | Kirk Johnson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - It was a place of the discarded and the dead. There were no roads. There was said to be nothing green that could live. The smell could sicken at a distance of two miles.

In the early years of the 20th century, the tiny island off the coast of Brooklyn was a nightmare: a dumping ground for most of the trash and animal carcasses of the teeming city.

Yet it was also a living community, full of families and children and immigrants dreaming of a better life as they sorted, scavenged and rendered New York's garbage.

They were people like Ignatz and Amelia Kishkill, immigrants from Poland whose son Edward, now 80, can still remember the wind whipping through the planks of the thin-walled cottage where he was born.

The place was called Barren Island, and it is truly a lost piece of old New York. Its name cannot be found on modern maps or in most history books. Connected to the mainland in the 1930s - by landfill, appropriately - the island became an unnamed extension into Jamaica Bay.

But from its beginning in the 1850s until its last residents were evicted during the Great Depression, Barren Island was one of New York's strangest and most isolated places: a self-contained colony of trash workers, cut off from the city by sea and from mainstream New York by its harsh occupations.

A new book about the rubbish of New York, written by a former City Sanitation Department official, Benjamin Miller, has resurrected the tale of Barren Island and the other forgotten scandals, scoundrels and saints of the city's bygone refuse.

The book, called "Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York, the Last 200 Years" (Four Walls Eight Windows), is full of stories that seem straight from the pages of Dickens or Jacob Riis. The aging survivors of Barren Island like Kishkill, who were tracked down by the New York Times through census records, bring the story further to life. The combined result is a portal into a forgotten world.

"We raised chickens and ducks for eggs, we did fishing and crabbing," Kishkill recalled. "But the factory was about one block away from our house, and if the wind was blowing your way, there were horrors."

Source of nitroglycerin

At its height around World War I, when glycerin from boiled-down garbage was used to make nitroglycerin for the battlefields of Belgium, Barren Island was home to more than 1,500 people - mostly Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants, and a few blacks.

But for an island of garbage, the best of times were, of course, also the worst for the people who lived there - a searing reminder across the years that New York's environmental headaches are eternal.

Barren Island - the name was apparently a corruption of an old Dutch word indicating the presence of bears, and became aptly descriptive as an English name only in later years - was at its heart a foul and filthy industrial enterprise requiring a kind of labor and an isolation that few Americans would put up with. So its jobs fell to immigrants and others with few choices.

Some people, according to old newspaper accounts, arrived in America, proceeded directly to Barren Island for a job and never saw anything else of their new country again. School was let out early so that children could help their parents sort through what the garbage scows had brought that day.

Some families, in a descending order of social status, sorted bone, while others specialized in scavenging metal or paper. At the bottom were the rag-pickers. The bare hand was considered crucial for getting what was called "the feel" of the garbage in seeking out the desired material, Miller writes.

For generations, through the Civil War and the Gilded Age and into the era of the automobile, the radio and the refrigerator, and the carcasses of dead animals from the nation's largest city all ended up there, accumulating daily. The vestigial name, Dead Horse Inlet, in Jamaica Bay, still marks the location of the pier.

Ton after ton of fish arrived for reduction into fertilizer. Considered the worst work of all, it generally fell to the island's lowliest residents at the time, its blacks.

And then, on top of all that, was the endless stream of garbage, all the household waste of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx combined. It was a profitable, capital-intensive industry where factories with row upon row of vats boiled garbage day and night - a precursor to the modern system of recycling - but the result was a horror.

At the turn of the century, a few years before Kishkill's parents arrived from Poland, Miller writes, Barren Island had no doctor or nurse, no electricity or post office. The church that Kishkill remembered had not yet been built. It had one store, four saloons, five factories, and a one-room schoolhouse that was frequently closed because of diphtheria and typhoid epidemics.

Lacking proper medical care, residents dosed themselves with self-styled medicine. Salt pork wrapped around the neck with flannel, for example, was said to be sure protection against contagion.

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