Originally published in The New York Times, August 6, 2006.
The Ghost Ships of Coney Island Creek
Burned and rotting hulks of abandoned vessels jut from the dirty beach into the silted, sluggish water of Coney Island Creek. No one is sure when the two dozen wrecks arrived at this little waterway at Bensonhurst's southern tip. No one even knows their names.
BEHIND the tall grass and trees of Calvert Vaux Park in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, hidden from the soccer players on Sundays, is a nautical graveyard. Burned and rotting hulks of abandoned vessels jut from the dirty beach into the silted, sluggish water of Coney Island Creek. The ribs of other ships emerge from the shallows like bones.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently completed an extensive study of the wrecks strewn about New York’s harbor. But the agency investigated only economically viable waterways, and Coney Island Creek — once crowded with commercial shipping and still officially a federal waterway — received no such scrutiny.
”If no one is interested, they are going to deteriorate and we won’t know what was there,” Lynn Rakos, an archaeologist for the Corps of Engineers, said of the ghostly flotilla.
Residents can recall fishing and swimming off boats beached in the stream as far back as the 1950’s. ”I remember when they were all floating,” said Charles Denson, 52, the author of ”Coney Island Lost and Found,” who was born and raised in the area. ”We used to play on them.”
John Andresen, a longtime member of the Excelsior Yacht Club, which is just north of the creek, also grew up in the neighborhood and spent much of his life along the waterfront. As a child, he swam off the barges that were tied to piers.
Back then, pretty much everything the neighborhood lost or tossed away ended up in the creek. Children even used to fish out unopened packages of C rations, from World War II, which Mr. Andresen said probably washed up from Navy vessels that sank off the coast. ”Cookies, cigarettes and crackers,” he said. ”And they were still good.”
Inside the Excelsior clubhouse, Mr. Andresen pulled out an aerial photo of the yacht club from the 1930’s. The black-and-white image showed a string of shipyards with barges and tankers tied up to their piers.
Before roads and subway lines were built across the creek, it was connected to Sheepshead Bay by a meandering marshland and shallow streams, making Coney Island truly an island. Back then the creek was actually an unnavigable strait that connected Gravesend Bay and Sheepshead Bay, which both fed into the Atlantic. It was that little ribbon of water that made Coney Island an island rather than the peninsula it is today. But by 1929, according to Mr. Denson, that connection was broken as the streams and marshes were filled in and the Sheepshead Bay end was closed.
As for the wrecks in the creek, Mr. Andresen, 56, recalls older people in the area telling him that some of them were whaling ships.
One of the yacht club’s veteran members, Armando Gargiulo, 87, said he remembered when the creek was a wild place, a rumrunner’s haven and a dumping ground for everything from bodies to old cars. Even then, the water was so polluted that he used to take his boat to the mud flats, where the chemicals in the corrosive sludge there could be used to wash off the bottoms of vessels.
Mr. Gargiulo also said there was the time a Chinese junk sailed into the creek. The vessel arrived at high tide, and when the tidal flats emptied, the crew rocked it back and forth to fill its leaky seams with mud. Then it sailed away with the tide.
Until as recently as the early 1960’s, the creek was a busy place. But the advent of containerized shipping, which required large ships and sizable, mechanized ports to handle them, spelled the end of small ports across New York Harbor. In 1962, much of the mouth of Coney Island Creek was filled with dredging spoils from the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, for what would become Calvert Vaux Park.
It was around that time, according to Mr. Denson and the Corps of Engineers, that many of the wrecks in the creek and New York Harbor started to appear. Old vessels were stripped of hardware and scuttled, a practice that was outlawed in the 1970’s.
”You just went to a quiet little spot like Arthur Kill and dumped them,” said Ms. Rakos, the archaeologist. Some were left in shallows to rot; others were burned to their waterlines.
The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has no plans to remove the wrecks in Coney Island Creek, fearing that to do so might release whatever toxins are buried in the mud around them.
So the ship graveyard will most likely abide, an anonymous, mysterious reminder of the city’s forgotten harbor life, slowly disappearing from sight and from memory.