Many Brooklynites have heard of Bottle Beach, often called Glass Bottle Beach, the stretch of beach along Flatbush Avenue opposite Floyd Bennett Field just before the Marine Parkway Bridge to the Rockaways. It’s one of the most litter-strewn beaches you’ll find anywhere in the world, with every step falling onto not just glass bottles, but all manner of recrement ranging from pieces of animal bones to shoes to tables to refrigerators, the type of trash changing on every visit. Where does all this dross come from?
The water lapping onto the beach is known as Dead Horse Bay, and the beach’s dirty (literally) little secret is that its scattered detritus comes not from the waters of the bay but from under the sand on the embankments behind it. In the nineteenth century, horses were a big part of everyday life. By 1880, there were upwards of 100,000 horses in New York City, working as the engines for streetcars, drays, and coaches. Their utility was indispensable, but they posed huge health hazards, each one generating +/- twenty pounds of solid waste and a quart of urine per day. In addition to that problem, they often died in the street, from sickness or overwork, and a carcass often remained where it fell until it had rotted and dried out enough to be easily carted away.
As people became more aware of how disease spreads, officials looked for a place to process the horses’ bodies and contracted the job to several “horse rendering plants” (read glue factories) on Barren Island, an isolated spot in Jamaica Bay. In addition to horses, the plants processed dogs and cats, cows, goats, pigs, etc., all commonly found throughout New York City and Brooklyn in those days. Besides glue, the factories turned out soap, fertilizer and grease. The island became known throughout the area as the most foul-smelling place in the state, and maybe the country. The workers who lived there with their families were considered somewhat less than human. The post-processing remains of the animals, mainly bones, were dumped into the bay, which along this stretch now carries the Dead Horse moniker.
Once Brooklyn became part of New York City, the island became a repository for trash as well as offal. Later, Jamaica Bay along the eastern part of Barren Island was filled in with sand dredged from elsewhere in the bay, connecting a few other islands together and to the mainland in order to build Floyd Bennett Field, which opened in 1930. The water around these islands had always been shallow and marshy, and the Dutch settlers walked through the bay water from one island to the next and back to the mainland, so filling in all those channels in was not a huge engineering feat. The western side of the former island continued to be used as a dump, and as Robert Moses bulldozed entire neighborhoods to make way for his expressways, many of the poorer homeowners and renters in the right-of-way areas were forced out with not much more than the clothes on their backs. The debris from these swaths of razed homes were sent to Dead Horse Bay, including clothing, furnishings, mementos, photos, and keepsakes, all of which now fall out of the sand banks and onto the beach along with the broken remnants of horse bones and bottles.