Wrong Side of the Tracks in Blissville

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Blissville, once a thriving bucolic community, is one of the darkest sections of the fabled Newtown Creek. Named for Greenpoint’s Neziah Bliss who – with Eliaphet Nott – founded the community in Newtown during the early 19th century, Blissville was once what we would call “affordable housing” for the industrial laborers of Bliss’ operations on the Brooklyn shore. Europeans have lived here since the 1600s – in Maspeth and Hunters Point in particular – but it wasn’t until the period right around the 1860s that things really kicked into gear around these parts, when the whole place began its descent into a sort of 19th century industrial hell.

This post gets kind of gross, I’m warning you now, but that’s Newtown Creek for you.

From Wikipedia:

Blissville is a neighborhood within Long Island City, in the New York City borough of Queens. It is bordered by Calvary Cemetery to the east; the Long Island Expressway to the north; Newtown Creek to the south; and Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek, to the west. Blissville was named after Neziah Bliss, who owned most of the land in the 1830s and 1840s.

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Map courtesy Wikipedia

Industrial concerns were operating in the area long before the arrival of Neziah Bliss, of course.

Tidal grist mills, lumber yards, and large farms were in these parts before the American Revolution, I will concede, and it is true that General Chemical, and M. Kalbfleish & Sons, and Peter Coopers Glue Factory were all well established elsewhere along the Creek by 1840 – all of which were early examples of the so called “Second Industrial Revolution” kicking into gear – it all depends on what you mean by “industry.”

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Master, apprentice, journeyman, mechanic — all of these terms had far different meaning in the past than they do today.

So did the term “industrial.” Before the rail came through, and by “rail” I mean the Long Island Railroad in the late 1860s and 70s – operations around the Creek were necessarily small. An employer of a hundred working men in 1800 would have been a tycoon, and the “factory” would have been no larger than a modern day primary school, and even then only the largest and most successful companies would have been so comfortably ensconced.

From 1876′s Our Dumb Animals, Volumes 9-14 – courtesy Google Books:

…an account of a visit of Mr. Bergh to certain stables attached to the distillery of Gaff, Fleischman & Co., at a place singularly named Blissville, on Long Island. Within the enclosure he found three immense stables, containing about nine hundred cows. There was not a single door or window open, and the tainted atmosphere arrested the progress of all present. Many cows were lying down, but the insufficient space necessitated their partly resting on one another. Dr. Raymond, Sanitary Superintendent of Brooklyn, says: “These animals never leave the stables, until, giving no more milk, and being- ‘ fattened,’ they are driven to the slaughter-house, contributing during life to the propagation of disease through their milk, robbing the infant of its sole chance of life; and, alter death, furnishing diseased meat to all consumers.”

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After the rail came, operations like General Chemical/Phelps Dodge or the National Enameling and Stamping works became possible – vast complexes of multi story structures, connected  by rail sidings to the LIRR and to the harbor by bulkhead docks, their brick chimneys belching smoke some six to seven stories above the ground. The vast populations of the great cities around the Creek- Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Hunters Point, and New York – were made possible by the vast industrial mills which arrived in the middle and latter half of the 19th century.

Those self same mills are what ended up staining the reputation of Blissville in the historic record.

From 1879′s The Analyst, Volume 4 – courtesy Google Books:

Sir,—In the month of February I made an official inspection of some cow stables, at a place called Blissville, on Long Island, which were connected with a distillery. Thinking that my investigations at that time might prove of some interest to yourself and other Public Analysts, I tako the liberty of writing you upon the subject.

At the time of my visit to the above stables there were between 700 and 800 cows in them, crowded into narrow stalls, to which they were fastened by a rope not more than three feet in length, which barely permitted them to lie down, but kept their mouths continually at a trough into which flowed the “swill” from the adjacent distillery in a steaming and fermenting condition.

Most of the animals were emaciated and feverish, and were affected with cough, diarrhoea, and polyuria. Some appeared to have recently arrived, and were in good condition. The temperature of several of the animals was noted, and ranged from 102° to 109°. The stable floors were kept all the time wet and slippery with excrementitious matters, and I did not see how it was possible for the cows to be milked and prevent the surrounding filth from splashing into the milk.

These poor creatures, crowded together within low sheds, with insufficient food, imperfect or no moans of ventilation, no exercise, no pure water to drink, and breathing an atmosphere poisoned by the exhalations from their wretched bodies, their excretions, and the steaming and fermented food, are expected, under these conditions, to secrete milk fit for human consumption.

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The caption reads “The cholera breeders in New York and vicinity, how pigs and cows are kept at Blissville and Hunter’s Point.”

In 1879, conditions around the Hunters Point and Blissville sections of the Newtown Creek were infamous. The distilleries which lined the Queens banks produced a series of waste products, known collectively to the locals as “swill”, which was fed to a sickly group of cows and pigs imprisoned in overcrowded and hellish stables. Pneumonia and open sores were reported by state inspectors, and they intimated that animal waste was observed as mingling with the water in great abundances.

The “swill milk” produced by these cattle was, of course, cheaper than more wholesome substitutes and meant for the children of the poor.

The situation drew much attention at the time, and there is even an illustrated view of the conditions available at the National Institutes for Health, presented above (click image for full size).

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Any attempt to describe its homes, schools, and churches is overshadowed by the tales of pneumatic cattle, wormy pigs, bad air, and mountains of rotting offal. Pity poor Blissville, a place whose name brings a wry and ironic smile to the face of modern visitors. It was once a beautiful place to live.

From 1884′s Annual report of the State Board of Health of New York – courtesy Google Books

The stench nuisance next in the series along the main trunk of the Long Island railroad consists of and is located at and near the old distillery and yeast factory recently known as Gaff & Fleischmann’s, and now controlled by an ownership and superintendent mentioned in the inspector’s list. It has long been an insufferable nuisance because of the “swill-like odor of the mash,” and still more, because of the fact that the cattle stables on the right alongside the railroad track are reeking with semi-liquid filth (see page 12 of report marked C).

The next in the series is Preston’s bone-boiling, bone-burning and fertilizer establishment where the “web scrap,” horse-flesh, entrails and other putrescent matters from numerous fat rendering factories are stored in great quantities, and where bones and refuse flesh and waste “clippings” from the markets and elsewhere are boiled in kettles that are not kept suitably covered, which necessarily pollute the atmosphere to a considerable extent beyond the premises, which are located close along the south side of the Long Island railroad track. The business of calcining the bones obtained in the business just mentioned, and from other sources, is carried on at Preston’s factory, and is a source of very offensive stenches which extend along the line of the railroad for half a mile or more. This factory being a branch of the fertilizer factory owned by the same persons and situated near Keyport, N. J., much of the storage as well as mixing of materials for the latter establishment is carried on at this place in Blissville, and at times is the source of exceptional offensiveness.

Next is the place of John Kehoe, situated near Preston’s and the distillery above described. He boils fat in open kettles.

Reid’s fertilizer factory is next in order as we proceed eastward upon the north bank of Newtown creek. Superphosphate fertilizer is made by the use of sulphuric acid upon scrap and the phosphate rock of South Carolina.

Though the offensive odor does not extend a great distance, and probably is offensive to only railway passengers and along the line of the railway, the business is too offensive to be long permitted to remain close by the side of a great highway like that of the Long Island railroad.

Next in the series is the bone boiling establishment of Fred. Hoffner, who works with open kettles, giving off excessively offensive stenches.

Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.