For a Buried Mill, a Brief Stint in the Sun
THE ground just inside a fence near the Fulton Ferry Landing on the Brooklyn waterfront was bare last week, only pavement and packed dirt, but that state of affairs, like the rest of the site’s history, was only temporary. Within a year, planners say, a grassy field will slope up to a hill overlooking New York Harbor to form the centerpiece of the long-planned Brooklyn Bridge Park.
“Basically, it’s going to be our Long Meadow,” Regina Myer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, said in a reference to the borough’s beloved Prospect Park. That, provided the economic crisis does not render her statement overly optimistic, will be just one step in a history of change for the property.
Two weeks earlier, the spot had been a series of holes dug by archaeologists investigating the waterfront’s history. A hundred years before that, the site was occupied by a flour mill. And a hundred years before that, before the shoreline was extended outward by landfill, it was a featureless point at the bottom of the East River, yards from one of Brooklyn’s early town centers.
The archaeologists, as it happened, were interested mainly in the mill — the Jewell Milling Company, as it was known — which opened on the waterfront around 1853, in a building that was already two decades old. The structure survived until the 1920s, but by 2008, its foundations were all that remained, buried a foot and a half under the warehouse on the borough’s Pier 1.
While most of the city’s old waterfront industrial and commercial districts have faded, the past has a way of emerging in unexpected ways. In the spring, workers tore down the warehouse to build the park, and this fall, as wedding parties arrived at all hours to be photographed at the ferry landing and tourist crowds stood in lines outside Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, they uncovered what was left of the mill.
As was reported in The Brooklyn Paper, a local weekly, the archaeologists cataloged the mill’s remains as part of a state-mandated historical investigation. Then, to protect the uncovered foundations from the weather, they buried them again.
Still, to anyone standing on the site in a stiff wind, with Lower Manhattan seeming close enough to touch, it was easy to picture the thriving industrial Brooklyn waterfront of the 19th century. In fact, said Alyssa Loorya, one of the archaeologists from the URS Corporation, which did the work, remains of all of the buildings that once stood there are still on the site, albeit a foot and a half below ground.
Though Ms. Loorya, a native of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, has worked on archaeological digs all over the city, spending time along the waterfront, with a view that embraces Staten Island, Governors Island, Ellis Island, New Jersey and Manhattan, gave her a new appreciation for the topography that long ago made the twin port cities of New York and Brooklyn so special.
“I know what the map looks like; I’ve been up and down Manhattan and throughout Brooklyn and even over to New Jersey,” she said. “But you really see where it all comes together in the harbor here. You can see why this area was so important. It really was the gateway to the New World, in some way.”
The dig, which focused on parts of Pier 1 and Pier 6, also explored the buried remains of a ferry terminal at the foot of Atlantic Avenue near Furman Street. There are reports, Ms. Loorya said, that a Revolutionary War-era British battleship was sunk, intact, and used as landfill near the foot of Joralemon Street.
For now, the artifacts from the site are of a smaller sort: bricks, bits of tile and ornamental plaster, and bottles in varied sizes and hues, among them a little blue vial that once held medicine, another bearing the name of a Dr. J. T. Poock of Hoboken, N.J., and two small brown liquor bottles. The stash also included beer bottles: one from Anheuser-Busch — though bottled in Brooklyn — and another from the borough’s own India Wharf Brewing Company.
Why beer and liquor bottles amid the foundations of a flour mill? “Why not?” Ms. Loorya said with a small smile.
By JAKE MOONEY