Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Gowanus History Revealed

May 23rd, 2008 · 1 Comment

Gowanus Yachting

When the Center for the Urban Environment (CUE) began our Gowanus Cruises in 1997, we were initially surprised to learn that we were following in a long tradition of pleasure cruising on the Gowanus Canal! Indeed, during the 19th century, the Gowanus Bay was an extremely popular site for sailing and enjoyment well before it became industrialized. A dramatic image of this can be seen in the accompanying illustration (included here) from a Harper’s Illustrated Weekly article dated June 9, 1877 entitled, “Yacht Rendezvous, Gowanus Bay, Brooklyn – Preparing for the Yachting Season.” The caption that accompanies the sketch underscores the “great activity” that the yachting season caused among owners and participants alike—as they rendezvoused in preparation for “cruising over the summer.” “No yacht clubs in this country are more efficiently organized or possessed of better yachts of the various classes than those of Brooklyn,” claims the author, “whose regattas are regarded as among the most noteworthy and pleasurable incidents of the season.”

One of the more prestigious clubs, the Atlantic Yacht Club, was organized in 1866 and its first facilities were located on Gowanus Bay at the foot of Court Street at the end of Gowanus Creek. The club rapidly developed into one of the most active yacht clubs in New York City, hosting regular regattas and competing against the leading yacht clubs in the region. An article from the New York Times dated June 18, 1878 describes the annual June Club Regatta on a “sultry, calm and unpromising” morning when, by 10 o’clock, the seventeen competing yachts had hauled out of Gowanus Bay. This was one occurrence among many over the years. From spring until autumn, several clubs—including the Nereid Boat Club—held regattas in Gowanus Bay. Among the number of ship yards and ship builders located on the Bay and Creek was C & R Poillon’s wharfs and yard. (They also had a yard at Bridge Street.) The Poillon brothers built—and in many cases designed—a variety of vessels from Civil War gunboats, transports and ferries to America’s Cup defenders, schooners, sloops and steamers. As time passed, increasing industrialization of the area and the construction of the Gowanus Canal led to the relocation of the yacht clubs, ship builders and yards—many to Long Island.

Today the banks of Gowanus Bay are dotted with tug boats rather than yachts—but it doesn’t take much to imagine its rich past. To regain some of the enjoyment of yesteryear, join us on our next Gowanus Cruise on June 22. For details, click here or call 718, 788-8500, ext 217.

–Ruth Edebohls

Ruth Edebohls is the Coordinator of Urban Tours at the Center for the Urban Environment. To learn more about the Center click here.

Tags: CUE · Urban Environmentalist

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