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Dead Horse Bay- from Tragedy to Treasures

Recently, I spent the afternoon at one of NYC’s strangest and most eerie destinations…Dead Horse Bay.

Long Story Short: From about the 1850’s - 1930’s Barren Island was the site of a horse rendering facility. Horse rendering is the process of converting horse remains into usable material (such as glue). During this time, horse carcasses were discarded directly into the bay. Eventually, Barren island was joined with the rest of Brooklyn using dredged sand and the site became known as Dead Horse Bay.

Fast forward to 1953 NYC. 

At the behest of famed public official Robert Moses several entire neighborhoods were displaced to make space for his plan to build a highway system throughout NYC and the boroughs. These neighborhoods (located in far flung areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx) were impoverished and thus the residents were unable to afford the moving trucks necessary to relocate all of their belongings. 

In the end, many personal items were abandoned in the homes. Eventually, these houses were demolished and all of their contents were dumped into Dead Horse Bay. 

To this day, horse bones and household items still wash up on the shores of Dead Horse Bay. The beach there is referred to as Glass Bottle Beach as the shoreline is mostly covered in a colorful mosaic of glass.

Fast forward again to Saturday June 3rd 2017. 

My husband and I decided to take our new (to us) Prius on an urban adventure. It was a beautiful sunny day as we strapped in to make the roughly 45 minute drive from our home in Bushwick out to Dead Horse Bay near the Rockaways. We encountered some traffic on the way as everyone else apparently had a similar idea. 

However, while they were planning on spending the day hanging out on the beach we were looking forward to a day of scavenging very old bottles and gawking at horse bones.

We parked the car across the highway and made our way over to the pathway that leads to the beach. The trail that leads to the shore is heavily wooded and very green. It felt more like we were entering the forest than heading toward the sea. Soon enough, we started noticing bits of sparkly glass glinting along the trail and we knew we were almost there. 

The end of the trail opened up to a rocky (and very glassy!) shoreline. We had arrived and it was just as I amazing as I hoped it would be.

We walked up and down the beach marveling at the detritus from decades past. In addition to all the glass there were rusty household appliances, bits of plastic toys, wads of fabrics and nylon stockings, huge dead horseshoe crabs, and of course horse bones.

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As a vintage lover I was most excited by the different types of glass I observed (jadeite, milk, carnival, and perhaps a piece of a Pyrex mixing bowl) and anything that was branded (Clorox, Heinz, Ponds). While most of the bottles are broken you can definitely find some that are still intact enough to use as a vase or candle holder. 

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In the end, we left with several bottles- including two Heinz 57 bottles, a milk glass Pond’s face cream tub, and a beautifully weathered seashell. The bottles will be used for flowers and candles and I'm sure I'll make good use of that milk glass tub (Q-tip holder maybe?) For now, I've created the vignettes pictured here :)

 Dead Horse Bay has a dark and interesting history that I barely covered in my Reader’s Digest summary at the top of this post. For more detailed info I highly recommend this video put out by ABC. This video not only covers the history of the bay but it also includes interviews with an artist who uses items from the bay in his work, a former teacher who turned the bay into an archeological site for his students (best field trip ever!), and the historian from the NYC department of sanitation who sees historical significance in this “trash” from the past.



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