GOWANUS CANAL HISTORY LESSON
The whole area surrounding the world (in)famous Gowanus Canal was swampy marshlands in 1776. In fact, 4th Avenue used to be called “Shore Rd” cause its where the shore line used to be from Bay Ridge in through Sunset Park and as you got closer to Park Slope, the shore began to give way to the marsh lands that surrounded the Gowanus,.
Anyway, end of August 1776, the British fleet had basically took over all of NY Harbor (was the largest marine invasion in human history until D-Day) and brought about the famous quote from a lower NY balcony that “it appeared all of London was afloat” in NY Harbor. 20,000 men were stationed over on Staten Island and on the 22nd of August 1776, the British began debarking at what is now the VZ Narrows Bridge but what was Denyse’s Ferry, an old farm house/crossing from Brooklyn to Staten Island which still remains today, as property of the US Army and the hordes of water rats that now call its rocky outcrop home.
It took them a good couple of days to march the length of 4th Ave (Shore Rd) to 3rd Street (where the Old Stone House now stands). It took them longer than anticipated because, as most Augusts are in NYC, it was miserably hot and humid, and the troops who were marching were Hessians and Red Coats. On their way towards the American ranks they were taking target practice on farmers’ watermelons, particularly near the Red Lion Inn (which was located at present day 39th Street and 4th Ave). the watermelon was a fruit which the German mercenaries had never seen before in Germany, or anyo f their other fighting.. Knowing how hot Augusts are here, you can imagine that upon seeing all the water and beautifully red fruit, these guys all decided to grab some, and much to their commanders’ dismay, they were delayed a couple of days.
Those days allowed George Washington to march his troops from Battle Bass (in Prospect Park) down what is now 1st Street, across the Gowanus, but by the time they were making their escape, the Hessians had finally made it along with two other regiments of British regulars who were advancing from Gravesend and chasing behind the Americans through Prospect Park as well as a battalion coming from New Utrecht. All in all, it was a horrific mismatch, around 20,000 Red Coats and something like 6500 Americans.
Washington and his troops were able to escape through Battle Pass in what is today Prospect Park and the British and Hessian forces chased them across the swamps that led to the Gowanus.
Washington was able to get the majority of his men across the marshy canal into Carroll Gardens (very likely marching through the site where Epaulet now stands on Smith St) and up to the Brooklyn Heights where they made a dangerous night crossing during a huge Noreaster (which would have had the humidity building unbearably in the days prior…think about those 4th Ave Watermelons again…*no not those watermelons, get your minds out of the gutter*)
Washington had asked Lord Sterling (a minor Scottish noble who was pissy about the British taking away family land from him back home) and a regiment from Delaware and Maryland (about 400 of them) to hold off the oncoming British and allow the rest of his army to escape across the Gowanus. They did, but were forced to sacrifice many men. They held the British at the Old Stone House which was rebuilt using the original stones and stands today at JJ Byrne Park between 4th and 5th Avenues and 2nd and 3rd Sts, just long enough to get Washington and his army across the canal.
Had Washington been met by the 20,000 or so redcoats, the Revolution would have been over on the spot, but because of the sacrifice of those 400 men, we were able to escape, regroup, and eventually exit Manhattan into Jersey, scoop around the Delaware River and raid Trenton on Christmas night, which is when the war began in earnest to be one between two armies of numbers and able men, not just a group of 2500 or so rag tag militias. The story goes that Washington, on the night of August 29-30 planned his escape under the cover of darkness. He was also helped massively by the nasty Nor’easter that blew through NY that night. Washington had instructed his men to keep their torches burning on the Heights of Brooklyn (close to where the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is today).
He ordered them kept burning through the night so the British would assume they were still there. As the British were eying these torches through the wind, thunder and rain from New York Harbor and the lower East River, Washington had his men silently escape, rowing in shifts on small boats, across the East River more upstream. When the rain subsided and the sun rose, any American resistance forces had left Brooklyn and were well on their way into northern Manhattan and then into New Jersey where they could regroup to fight another day.
Supposedly many men were shot down in the swampy much of the Gowanus to enable Washington to make his great escape, and many are buried in unmarked graves below 3rd Ave between 8th and 1st Sts. The old U-Haul depot was the site for one of those grave sites for those brave heroes who were the first of many to sacrifice for this great land. Many of those who died had surrendered and were supposedly bayoneted by the Hessians who were leading the charge against the Marylanders there. Knowing the conditions on the prison ships in Wallabout Bay, that may have been the merciful thing.
Really cool piece of NYC History, that most have no idea about, as in many text books, its only mentioned in passing as the “Battle of Long Island” or the “Battle of Brooklyn”. But without it, we all wouldn’t be here today…