In 1831, “An Act to Provide for Sick and Disabled Seamen” was passed by the New York State Legislature. A tract of farmland was acquired for the purpose, and by 1837, a proper hospital was constructed, funded by a head-tax imposed on sailors entering the Port of New York. The intention was admirable and the structure was impressive. Looking at the distinctively 19th-century facade of the old Sailor’s Infirmary today, it’s easy to imagine the place brimming with leathery old salts in their twilight years, regaling each other with adventures at sea that’d put Herman Melville to shame.
In those days, the porticos of the Infirmary offered commanding views of the New York Harbor and the surrounding countryside. In 1862, the Infirmary’s Chief Physician rhapsodized on the subject: “the weary invalid can breathe the bracing air of the sea…the sight of his chosen element, covered with the white winged messengers of a world-wide commerce that fills his mind with hope and cheer.”
Today, its pastoral surroundings have been swallowed up by development, the “white-winged messengers” have vanished from the harbor, and the halls of the hospital no longer resound with tales of youthful exploits in the exotic port cities of the world. Instead, a fire alarm near the front door blares interminably, to nobody at all.
While the idea of a hospital for sailors might seem odd to the modern observer, there was an urgent need for this sort of specialized care in the 19th century, when sailing was a much more common occupation and working conditions were deplorable. The Infirmary’s first Chief Physician described the health of a newly admitted patient in 1838 as such: “Arrived last night on brig from round Cape Horn…Has been to sea 118 days and had nothing but indifferent salt food to feed upon…Twenty days after sailing his gums became sore and spongy and bled very freely…Around the small of each leg caked hard and over the instep a deep blue almost black color…Suffered universal pain…Very much prostrated and emaciated and was brought into the (Infirmary)…Had no lime juice on board nor any other antiscorbutic effectual in preventing scurvy…It is in this shameful manner vessels are provided to the destruction of seamen…An object of pity to behold.”
In addition to advocating for better living and working conditions for seamen, the Sailor’s Infirmary made a lasting impact on world health as the birthplace of one of the most formidable biomedical research facilities in the world. In 1887, a young doctor founded a one-room bacteriological laboratory in the attic of the hospital to investigate epidemics like cholera and yellow fever. Over the course of the 20th century, his humble “Laboratory of Hygiene” evolved into a federally-funded research initiative that still operates today with an annual budget of $30 billion. Needless to say, it outgrew the attic long ago.
Over the course of the 20th century the infirmary greatly expanded its services, and the campus grew to include a seven-story hospital and multiple ancillary buildings, dwarfing the original structure in the process. Under federal ownership, the grounds served military families, veterans, and later the general public. An organization of the Catholic medical system took over in 1981, and the hospital’s focus pivoted to psychiatric care and addiction rehabilitation. In recent years, the campus has been racked with financial problems, and its services have been consolidated to a few floors of the main hospital building. The rest of the complex sits abandoned, facing an uncertain future despite multiple landmark designations.
Like many grand, old buildings, the 1837 Infirmary appears to have been shut down from the top down. Dental clinics and early childhood programs lingered into the early 2000s on the lower floors, while the top floor sat unused for decades. Today, the interior is largely empty and plain—drop ceilings and fluorescent lights abound. But the attic retains a much older patina, and a few odd relics that feel fantastically out of step with the modern trappings below.
(Note: This is one of those rare abandoned buildings that isn’t vandalized beyond all recognition. In the hopes of keeping it that way I’ve chosen not to disclose its actual name and location, or to identify some key elements of its history.)
In other news… I’ve got a new website that just went live. Head over to www.willellisphoto.com for a look at some of my other photo projects, plus a sampling of the work I do for a living (shooting non-abandoned architecture and interiors.) You can also sign up for my newsletter if you’re so inclined, or buy a book. (They’re 10% OFF with the code “ANYC.”)
There’s a stretch of the Arthur Kill between Rossville, Staten Island and Port Reading, New Jersey that’s something of an abandoned wonderland. From the New Jersey side, the horizon is dominated by the twin natural gas tanks of Chemical Lane, and the famous Staten Island Boat Graveyard is plainly visible just across the water. But towering over the scene is a structure that rivals both with its staggering beauty and power—the McMyler Coal Dumper.
Actually, it would be more accurate to call it a McMyler Coal Dumper. It was one of many nearly identical structures built on the shores of the New York Harbor in the early-to-mid 20th century, including two on Pier 18 in Jersey City. But the Port Reading site is notable for being the last one standing in the New York area. It was constructed in 1917, making it 99 years old at the time of this post.
In a vast regional network of coal mines, breakers, railroads, and manufacturing hubs, these machines provided a vital link that helped fuel New York’s industrial age, transferring massive amounts of coal brought by rail from Pennsylvania and the Alleghenies into ships entering the harbor. A McMyler Dumper could unload a 72-ton car of coal every two and a half minutes, operating on a continuous loop for maximum efficiency.
Upon entering the pier, railroad “hoppers” carrying a full load of coal would be pushed up a ramp with a mechanism called a barney. Once in position at the base of the tower, the entire car and its contents would be lifted up on an unloading platform and tilted at 120 degrees, spilling the coal into an enormous “pan,” which funneled the material through an unloader chute and into the holds of outgoing barges. Once empty, the car would be lowered and pushed onto a kickback trestle by the next car in the line-up. These rails looked very much like a roller coaster, and they worked in a similar fashion, using the power of gravity to propel empty cars off of the pier and into the rail yards beyond. The contraption required twelve men to operate, and the work was risky. The brute force of the machine claimed many lives and limbs over the years.
The design stood the test of time, and the pier operated for over 60 years with nearly uninterrupted use (a fire caused considerable damage in 1951, but the unloader was quickly rebuilt.) With demand for coal declining, the machine dumped its last load in the early 80s, and has been steadily deteriorating ever since. Though there has been interest in designating the structure an historic site, its location on private property in an active industrial area has made it an unlikely candidate, and the cost of restoring or moving the structure would be prohibitive, to put it mildly. Unless new industrial development threatens the site, it will likely remain a picturesque ruin for another century before eventually collapsing into the Kill and vanishing into the muck.
That is lucky for the throng of Canada Geese who’ve made a surreal home out of the hulking relic. Though they’re nice to look at, I’ve never had a pleasant encounter with these creatures, and have been charged at by enough of them on the remote shores of the outer boroughs to know they mean business. This time around they were content to squawk and hiss their disapproval from a distance, but I would advise everyone to stay far away during nesting season, which is right around the corner.
You can see (a model of) a McMyler Coal Dumper in action in the following video:
Old buildings have many lives. Often the objects left behind in a modern ruin only reflect a place’s most recent iteration. But in Rockland County, one structure exists as a veritable nesting doll of time periods. Today, some areas of the abandoned Children’s Hospital at Rockland Psychiatric Center are unsettlingly modern, looking like a tornado swept through a present-day kindergarten classroom. But stepping from one room to the next can take you back another 10, 20, 30 years…
The squat, maze-like ward was constructed in 1929 to house the youngest subset of Rockland State Hospital’s population. (The history of the institution and its notable bowling alley were outlined in a previous post.) Though it hasn’t been used to house mentally ill children since the 1960s and 70s, it continued to serve the needs of kids and families in recent decades. Beginning in the 1980s it was used as a day care center for children of RPC employees called “Kid’s Corner.” In 1998, sections of the building were used for a program called “Under the Weather,” which provided free care to moderately sick kids, enabling their parents to get back to work while their children recuperated. These valuable programs were abruptly closed by the Department of Mental Health in 2008 for budgetary reasons.
All of these developments can be traced through the hospital’s extensive collection of murals. They vary greatly in quality and subject matter, but all represent a concerted effort by founders and staff to brighten up the institutional halls over the years. The finest of them is a series of thoughtfully designed and obviously professional works depicting scenes from the tales of Washington Irving. These and a similar set depicting the four seasons were painted in the 1940s by the Works Progress Administration muralist Victor Pedrotti Trent. Much of the work is well-preserved, but some areas have suffered irreparable water damage. Years ago a study estimated that moving and restoring the paintings would cost $100,000, a prohibitive figure. Since then, there’s been little interest in preserving them.
The building is the oldest of several structures on the campus that catered to children with psychiatric disorders. A modern children’s center is still in operation at Rockland Psych, and another built in the 1960s is currently being leased as a filming location for the hit Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” standing in for the women’s prison depicted in the series. The 1929 hospital was slated for demolition years ago, but that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.
Though much of the building is crowded with modern-day kid stuff, some wings of the structure–namely the former boy’s ward–appear to have been walled off during the 80s and 90s. Those halls are largely empty, and the few artifacts left behind are far older and institutional in nature. I wonder if the youngsters at Kid’s Corner realized there was a children’s asylum ward preserved like a mosquito in amber just on the other side of their playroom…
IN OTHER NEWS… I’ve had a few spots open up on a tour of Dead Horse Bay I’ll be leading this weekend. It will take place Sunday, November 8th and we’ll be meeting at 10AM. It’s short notice, but I’d be happy to have a few more folks join in! Tickets available at this link.
ALSO… I’m excited to announce Abandoned NYC just went into its second printing! Thanks to all who helped me reach this milestone by ordering a book, showing up to events, and supporting the blog. To those who haven’t gotten their hands on a copy, get your signed first edition while supplies last!
In 1923, the New York state legislature passed a $50 million bond issue for the construction of new mental hospitals. After a disastrous fire at Ward’s Island in 1924, “where scores of mentally afflicted…were burned to death,” $11 million was set aside for a new campus designed specifically to relieve overcrowding at institutions in New York City. The town of Orangeburg, NY was chosen for its proximity to the five boroughs, picturesque surroundings, and “salubrious climate.”
With funding in place, the construction of the Rockland State Hospital for the Insane moved forward at a staggering pace. Townspeople looked on as the monstrous institution swallowed up tract after tract of farms, houses, and undeveloped land. As patients flooded into the new buildings by the thousands, escapes became a regular occurrence. The “potential menace” of this “new and formidable population of undesirable outsiders” was a cause of great concern for locals. Infrequent but grisly murders in the vicinity of the hospital were attributed to “mentally disturbed” escapees. But the real horrors were occurring on the inside, as many of Orangeburg’s citizens could personally attest to–the institution was one of the largest job providers in the county.
The real trouble started during World War II, when lucrative war industry jobs lured much of the staff away and a large number of Rockland’s male attendants left to join the armed forces. As the population soared to nearly 9,000, patient-to-staff ratios plummeted. “The work is hard, disagreeable and frequently dangerous, and the hospital has found it next to impossible to recruit employees.” New hires during this period were often untrained and unqualified. From a 1940s Times article: “An employment bureau in New York City sent a number of applicants here, but most of them were found to be suffering from arthritis, cardiac ailments or “unnatural” temperament and had to be sent home. ‘Some of them should be patients,’ Dr. Blaisdell said.”
Like most all institutions operating during this period, the overcrowding and lack of effective treatment led to systemic abuse and negligence. Until the development of antipsychotic drugs in the 1960s, shock therapy and lobotomy were the only treatment methods available for severe cases of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. As the century progressed and the new drugs became readily available, most patients were able to live independently outside of the asylum system. Since the 1970s, Rockland Psychiatric Center (as it is now known) has predominantly been used as an outpatient facility. By 1999 it housed less than 600 patients. Several new facilities were constructed in more recent years for outpatient care, but vast expanses of the 600 acre campus are entirely empty.
Today, a grid of overgrown streets divides a vast configuration of maze-like buildings known only by number. These were separate wards for men, women, children, and other subsets of the population like the infirm, the violent, and the criminally insane. Others were workshops, auditoriums, power plants, administration buildings, staff housing… the list goes on and on.
Exploring the buildings can be confusing and perilous. One ward’s heavy wooden doors had the nasty habit of slamming shut and refusing to open again, which can be a serious situation when there’s only one or two ways out. My solution was a series of improvised doorstops–beer cans, scraps of debris, whatever I could get my hands on–which doubled as a trail of breadcrumbs to give me a reasonable hope of finding my way out again.
One of Rockland’s most interesting features is the old four lane bowling alley. It’s a heavily trafficked area full of tempting props. Pins, balls, shoes, and trophies have been endlessly moved around, manipulated, and arranged into perfect triangles in the middle of the lanes. While I don’t blame fellow photographers for this sort of thing, it can be disappointing to walk into something that looks more like a stage set than a wild, unpredictable ruin. I’ll take that over the mindless graffiti–some if which I removed with a little Photoshop magic in the images below.
Despite all the modern mischief making, the bowling alley represents the best intentions of the institution to provide quality of life to patients who spent their lives at Rockland. These lanes must have been a welcome distraction from the monotony of asylum living.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the Rockland Children’s Hospital, which features an impressive collection of WPA murals.
The Pennsylvania coal region was once dominated by 300 breakers–mammoth factories that crushed and cleaned raw coal into the consumable commodity that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Today, a few modern plants meet the drastically reduced demand for the stuff. Of the old glory days when coal was king, only St. Nicholas remains.
The structure once held the distinction of being the largest coal breaker in the world, and its sheer size must have played a part in staving off the wrecking ball for the last 50 years. But according to the president of Reading Anthracite, the building’s owner, the place has become an “eyesore and a liability,” and its total demolition is imminent. A state-funded study to determine the cost of transforming the ruins into a historical attraction came up with a figure in the tens of millions.
The demolition won’t happen in one cataclysmic, cathartic crash. Rather, the breaker is being dismantled piece by piece, and mined for valuable scrap metal along the way. The process is expected to last into next year, having been underway since Fall 2014. With a bit more of it gone every day, visitation has picked up as folks have poured into the region for one last look. Security positioned outside aim to ensure they respect the No Trespassing signs.
I took my “one last look” in February on a day that was way too cold to spend in an abandoned factory. Much of the metal siding had already been removed, opening up dollhouse views of the interior. Inside, light poured into corners that had been pitch black before. Elsewhere, panoramas of the surrounding landscape spread wall to wall and floor to ceiling.
After 50 years of abandonment, the old St. Nicholas Coal Breaker still inspires awe and commands respect. The interior of the breaker is noticeably free of graffiti. Visitors have stuck to more temporary means of commemorating their presence, tracing initials in the grime of a dusty control panel or chalking them up on a blackboard, avoiding outright acts of vandalism out of reverence for the building. It’s impressive not only for its physical size and beauty of design, but for the time and place in American history that it represents, a coal industry that employed 180,000 workers and enabled a young country to rise to the forefront of the industrialized nations. As St. Nick falls, little remains to tether that heritage to the here and now.
For more history on the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, see the original post:
What’s Dead Horse Bay?
Beginning in the 1850s, this area of the Brooklyn waterfront served as the final destination for the city’s carriage horses. Horse carcasses were delivered by barge to gigantic bone boiling plants and processed into glue and fertilizer. Following the rise of the automobile and a series of natural disasters, the factories closed down and fell to ruin. What was then a marshy landmass called “Barren Island” was filled in with garbage and connected to mainland Brooklyn. The southern tip of the new peninsula was used as an active landfill from the 1930s to the early 50s.
Over the last 60 years, the man-made beach at Dead Horse Bay has slowly eroded away, and decades’ worth of trash have been gradually excavated from the soil. At low tide, garbage covers the beach, and the vast majority of it dates back to the 1930s and 40s. There’s a preponderance of glass, not plastic, bottles. Some bear the faded trademark of long-lost brand names. Tellingly, most of the toys and trinkets were “Made in the U.S.A.” Others originated in “Occupied Japan.”
The beach is open to the public as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and I know that many of you are adventurous enough to visit on your own. But if you’d prefer a slightly more structured group activity, this tour won’t disappoint.
What are the transport/parking options getting to the event?
Dead Horse Bay is remote and easy to miss, so we’ll be meeting at a predetermined location in Flatbush that’s easily accessible by subway and taking the bus over together. You’ll recieve an email with detailed meeting instructions beforehand. The tour itself will take around two hours, but you can expect to be back at the meeting point 3 hours from the start time. If you prefer to drive, free parking is available in Floyd Bennett Field, just across the street from the beach.
What can I expect from the tour?
After a short bus ride to the waterfront, we’ll be making a loop through Dead Horse Bay’s natural areas, covering the entire shoreline affected by the breached landfill. Along the way, I’ll give you an account of the rise and fall of Barren Island’s industrial age, including the plight of the factory workers, the efforts of the “Anti-Barren Island League,” and the story of how the island became infested with 1,000 wild hogs. Then you’re free to explore on your own before we reconvene for an informal “show and tell” where we’ll show off our favorite finds from the day. More info and ticketing available here.
Is it OK to take things from the beach?
While a few might bristle at the thought of removing “artifacts” from Dead Horse Bay, there is no official word on the issue. A steady stream of artists, crafters, and collectors have been gathering supplies and curios here for years, without much of a reduction in the overall amount of garbage. Generally, I don’t have a problem with removing things from the beach (I’m certainly guilty of it.) But since we’ll be visiting as a group, I do want to minimize our impact as much as possible. I won’t stand in your way if you’d like to take home a bottle or two, but the best policy might be to leave things behind for others to enjoy.
Here’s a few of the best finds I’ve made over the past few years: (Click to enlarge)
Many of the most remarkable abandoned buildings loom over their surroundings and dominate the landscape, but Newark’s Old Essex County Jail is barely there. Much of the structure is walled off behind a twelve foot barrier, and all that rises above it is difficult to discern through the overgrowth. On the grounds, the building remains obfuscated, half in ruins and only visible in parts, with an absence of any unifying architectural feature. Inside, its footprint is no less disorienting, resulting from a series of haphazard additions made at the turn of the 20th century as the jail’s population increased. Unlike the comforting symmetry of asylum wards, the whole disordered mass seems to be governed by a bizarre dream logic, made all the more sinister by the fact that you can’t look the building in the face.
The jail is known as a haven for “crackheads,” and it’s absolutely filled with garbage and drug paraphernalia, some old, some new. When I first visited a couple of years ago, we had only been inside for a few minutes when the place started coming to life around us, first clanks and creaks, then voices and shadowy figures walking by in the hallways. It wasn’t my decision to leave that day before we came face to face with anyone, but I didn’t put up much of a fight. As sympathetic as I felt toward these unfortunates, I figured that anyone voluntarily residing in an abandoned prison cell was in a desperate situation with very little to lose.
The original building was constructed in 1837 and planned according to the “Pennsylvania system” of incarceration, which was characterized by solitary confinement and an emphasis on rehabilitation over manual labor and corporal punishment. It’s one of the lesser works of the distinguished British architect John Haviland, who is better known for the revolutionary design of Eastern State Penitentiary. Through the early 1900s the Essex County Jail expanded to a capacity of 300. It was replaced by a new facility in 1970 and subsequently occupied by the county’s Bureau of Narcotics until 1989, when the building was deemed unsafe. In 2001, a catastrophic fire destroyed much of the structure. Reports of the place being inhabited by the homeless go back to the 1990s.
Two years after my first trip to the Essex County Jail, I came back with the resolve to see things through and a new exploring buddy. It had rained overnight and the constant dripping sounded just like footsteps, but otherwise the place seemed deserted. Objects left behind by recent inhabitants overshadowed any artifacts from the building’s early history, with garbage middens clustered in almost every cell. An hour or so in, I had my first anticlimactic encounter with a squatter, who greeted me politely and went about his business. Over the course of the morning, two others walked past me without saying a word. As scary as the place was, there were no monsters or maniacs living here, just a few people looking for a place to be left alone, finding a bleak kind of freedom in the most unlikely of places.
At the turn of the twentieth century, tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death in the city and a major world health concern known to disproportionately affect the urban poor. In New York City, two-thirds of the 30,000 afflicted were dependent on city agencies for treatment. Growing concern from charitable organizations spurred the establishment of New York’s first public hospital designed exclusively to treat tuberculosis, care for the “sick, poor, and friendless,” and keep the epidemic under some measure of control by isolating sufferers from general hospitals. If you were diagnosed with tuberculosis in the early 1900s, your prognosis was grim. Lacking a cure, the only treatments thought to ease symptoms were fresh air, rest, sunshine, and good nutrition. A pleasant view was also considered essential for staving off depression. For this reason, hospital planners settled on a privately owned 25-acre hilltop parcel in rural Staten Island called “Ocean View,” just across from the already established New York City Farm Colony.
The plot was surrounded by a vast expanse of forested land (known as the Greenbelt today) which enabled the hospital grounds to expand as necessary. When Sea View Hospital was dedicated on November 12, 1913, the New York Times called it “the largest and finest hospital ever built for the care and treatment of those who suffer from tuberculosis.” The Commissioner of Public Charities claimed it was “a magnificent institution that is vast, ingenious, practical, convenient, sanitary, and beautiful, the greatest hospital ever planned in the world wide fight against the “white plague.” Though the new facilities effectively eased the suffering of tuberculosis patients and provided housing for the poor, little could be done to actually save lives in the long term. Most eventually succumbed to the disease.
In 1943, the development of the antibiotic streptomycin at Rutgers University led to a series of breakthroughs in the treatment of tuberculosis over the next decade, and much of that research took place at Sea View Hospital. The enthusiasm over these dramatic developments is captured in a 1952 report by the Department of Hospitals: “Euphoria swept Seaview Hospital. Patients consigned to death at the hands of the White Plague celebrated a new lease on life by dancing in the halls.” The transition was swift. By 1961, Sea View’s pavilions were practically emptied as patients miraculously recovered as a result of the new therapies. Today, a long-term care facility operates in several of the buildings and some structures have been repurposed by community agencies and civic groups, but much of the Sea View Hospital campus lies abandoned.
Past a fenced enclosure delineating the active section of the hospital, the grounds give way to the bramble-choked wilds of the Staten Island Greenbelt. The creepy ruins of the old women’s pavilions situated on the northern border are a popular detour on hikes from the neighboring boy scout camp. To the east lies the imposing Children’s Hospital, completed in 1938 and abandoned in 1974. Its spacious, window-lined solariums are typical of earlier Sea View wards, flanked on either side by open-air porches which were occupied by recovering patients 24 hours a day during the height of the epidemic. In an otherwise clinical Landmarks Preservation Commission report published in 1985, the researcher notes that “the building rises from a deep slope… Wooded surroundings, particularly dense to the east and south of the building, enhance the sense of isolation.” The view he’s describing is indeed one of New York City’s most surreal (pictured below in 2012).
Reuse of the structure seems extremely unlikely given the large number of abandoned buildings within the active hospital complex that would make better candidates for restoration. Area conservationists are fighting to keep the surrounding woodlands protected from developers by making it a permanent part of the Greenbelt network of natural areas, and the building itself is nominally protected from demolition as part of Sea View Hospital’s historic district designation. That doesn’t mean that the building won’t serve a purpose as it continues to crumble. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Staten Island teenagers have a long history of voraciously exploring (and vandalizing) their local ruins. With the renovation of the Willowbrook State School in the 1990s, the later demolition of the Staten Island Monastery, and the impending restoration of the New York City Farm Colony, the isolated, under-the-radar Children’s Hospital may be next in line as the site of that requisite rite of passage. Only time will tell.
IN OTHER NEWS… my friend Oriana Leckert‘s book “Brooklyn Spaces” is out this week. We’re a bit like kindred spirits, Oriana and I, but she goes more for the crowded, lively, and creative than the empty, eerie, and decrepit. The (50!) places profiled in the book show the authentic, human side of the global phenomenon that is “Brooklyn cool,” highlighting the heartfelt endeavors of a wave of culture makers that migrated to the borough for cheap rent and fashioned a network of bustling performance venues, art enclaves, and meeting places out of Brooklyn’s post-industrial landscape. Her obvious passion for offbeat museums, community gardens, communal living spaces, and out-there artist residencies is beyond infectious. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy! And head to what I’m sure will be a raucous, sweaty launch party on May 30th.
On Thursday, May 7th at 6:30 PM I’ll be presenting at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library as part of their Author @ the Library series. This will be the last book talk I’m giving for a while, so if you’ve missed out on past events and would like to attend, now is the time. The best part is it’s totally free, open to the public, and there’s no need to register or buy a ticket. Head here for more info.
Since its release at the end of January, the book has gotten a great response, particularly on the world wide web. For the highlights, check out these bits in The New York Times, Wired, Complex, and Slate, who toured the Jumping Jack Pump House with me and captured it on video back in March.
I have some exciting posts in the works for you, but for now I wanted to share some images from the archive that haven’t been shown here before–places that didn’t warrant a full post for one reason or another, often because I couldn’t get inside, didn’t have time to poke around, or there just wasn’t a lot to see. Some of them are quite interesting nonetheless. Enjoy!
At a bend in Staten Island’s North Shore where the Arthur Kill gives way to the Kill van Kull, there’s a strange, desolate landscape that’s equal parts industrial wasteland and pristine wilderness. Here, an array of factories and freight lines are enveloped by a network of streams, swamps, ponds, and salt marshes, with place names like “Howland Hook” and “Old Place Creek” that wouldn’t feel out of place in a pirate story.
Mariner’s Marsh makes up 107 acres of the area, buffering a dense residential neighborhood from the sprawling New York Container Terminal with a wide expanse of green. Having endured a brief period of industrial use followed by 75 years of abandonment, the resulting wilderness is characterized by the vine-covered relics of factories that thrived on the spot 100 years ago. Even the Parks Department’s official signage describes the landscape as “eerie.” But the text rightfully avoids its darkest chapter, when in 1976 the tragic final act of a forbidden teenage love affair played out among the ruins of Mariner’s Marsh.
The ruins date back to the early 20th century, when the land was occupied by the Milliken Brother’s Structural Iron Works. Later, the foundry was converted to Downey’s Shipyard, which manufactured war ships, among other vessels. The factories closed down in the 1940s and have sat abandoned to this day. Wood components of the buildings have completely rotted away, but concrete pylons, pits, and passages remain. As the buildings deteriorated, the landscape transformed. Today, the former shipyard’s ten man-made basins function as reedy freshwater ponds. Elsewhere, the topography varies from pine and poplar forests to vine-gnarled swamps where wildlife and rare plants thrive.
Mariner’s Marsh was acquired by the Parks Department in 1997, but it’s been “closed to the public during environmental investigation” for nearly a decade. The investigation in question took place in 2006 under the direction of the EPA, which found that a small area of the park contained a high concentration of hazardous materials stemming from its industrial age. Though it appears that some work has been done on the spot, it’s not clear when the park will reopen. In the meantime, warning signs haven’t stopped neighbors and dedicated bird watchers from enjoying it. Trails are well-defined and the area is relatively free of garbage, despite the presence of some larger debris. The east side of Downey Pond is dotted with abandoned hot rods from another era.
Long before Staten Island’s industrial boom, the Lenape Indians camped here to take advantage of the nearby wetlands, where shellfish were plentiful. Remnants of the wetlands are still visible across Forest Avenue in Arlington Marsh, which is home to some of the last stretches of healthy salt marsh in New York City. Acquiring it was a major coup for the Parks Department, which plans to keep the 55 acres wild. Here, ghostly remnants of long-forgotten piers and burned out vessels seem oddly in sync with the tidal rhythms of the natural world. At low tide, a boat graveyard comes to the surface in an adjacent cove, where native cordgrass and mussel beds take root in the old hulls of 19th century sailing ships.
This post would’ve ended there if I hadn’t come upon a mention of the 1976 murder of Susan Jacobson in connection with the area. Though the scene of the crime is never referred to as Mariner’s Marsh, the description is unmistakable in a New York Times article published in 2011, which begins:
“The 16-year-old boy had settled on a plan on how to kill his girlfriend. There was a blighted section on the north shore of Staten Island called Port Ivory, overgrown coastline facing the industrial banks of New Jersey. The land was pocked with holes leading to small underground rooms, like bunkers.
This abandoned lot was the last thing a 14-year-old girl named Susan Jacobson ever saw as she climbed down into one of those holes with her boyfriend, Dempsey Hawkins, on May 15, 1976. “
Included in the article is a scan of a handwritten letter from Hawkins to the reporter in which he details an idyllic romance with Jacobson that ends abruptly following an abortion. In the final paragraph, he goes on, “In came 1976 and the insanity and the whole painful mess I am about to relate succinctly simply because it’s disturbing. I strangled Susan and concealed her body in a metal barrel in a wooded area across from a Proctor and Gamble factory on Staten Island.”
Two years passed before her remains were discovered by a boy playing in the tunnels. He had assumed they were dog bones until a friend spotted Susan’s tennis shoes. Hawkins, now 55, was denied parole for the eighth time in 2012 despite a history of good behavior behind bars. Parole commissioners have repeatedly taken issue with what occurred immediately after the crime. On multiple occasions, Hawkins himself participated in search parties for the missing girl, knowing all the while precisely where the body was hidden.
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