Despite all the major construction going on in downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and to a lesser extent, pretty much everywhere across the borough, there remain many locations where, at least for now, the past looms large, no more so than on the Red Hook waterfront, where many vestiges of the area’s industrial past remain to intrigue and remind us of bygone eras. One of the larger structures remaining in the Gowanus Bay area is the decaying hulk of the former NYS Grain Terminal, a near-hundred-year-old government project built to boost activity and jobs in New York Harbor at a time when many grain shipping companies were moving to cheaper ports at Philadelphia and Baltimore. Today the decaying structure threatens daily to collapse into the Henry Street Basin over which it precariously hangs.
New York State opened the grain terminal in 1922 as an adjunct to the reconstruction and incorporation of the Erie Canal into the New York State Barge Canal System. That project was undertaken to reinvigorate the use of the Erie Canal and the ports of New York Harbor. The grain terminal was an example of way too much too late. There are fifty-four concrete silos, thickly built to withstand any possible grain explosion, with a capacity of two million bushels of grain. Despite the plant’s then-state-of-the-art construction, most of the lost grain movers didn’t come back, and the terminal never reached the level of business and capacity that would make it profitable. Government officials referred to the terminal as the “Magnificent Mistake.”
The state operated the terminal at a loss until 1944, when it transferred the deed for the property to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which kept it limping along until finally shutting the terminal in 1965. The property was sold to a private owner in 1997. It’s currently closed to all but the intrepid trespassers who occasionally break in to document the plant’s interior before it’s gone.
We have no idea what the future holds for the grain terminal, though we feel it’s safe to say it doesn’t include grain. It’s beautifully ugly, a 120-foot high, 430-foot long, mold-covered cement hulk crumbling into the basin, sections with their foundations rotted away drooping precariously over the water below. Our reporter paddled up the Henry Street Basin in a canoe to get the exterior photos included here, risking life and limb to get close-up images of this fantastic piece of Brooklyn history. We like to think the artifacts of the past will remain as symbols of our industrial heritage, a time when things seem to us looking back simpler and more black and white (both ideas mistaken, nostalgic misrepresentational deflections from our too complex present). Reality, and economics, may call for a different outcome.
For the moment, the terminal stands. If you’d like to check it out in person, take the B61 bus from Smith-9th St. (F/G trains) or the B57 at the Jay Street Station of the A/C/F/R trains, both buses heading toward Red Hook. It’s a short walk from IKEA across the Red Hook Ball Fields to the Henry Street Basin. (Google map it.) You can’t go in, but the waterfront area of Red Hook is active, vibrant and beautiful, and definitely worth the trek.
For a beautiful, moving look into and around the terminal, check out this video from Carlito Brigante.
Interior Picture Source: atlasobscura.com