Imagine the waters of the Dyckman Marina so fouled that only the eel fishermen, who gathered around a sewage discharge pipe favored by their slippery prey, could stomach the stench.
By the early 1900’s that was the situation in northern Manhattan. And the situation had become unbearable. Unbreathable, really.
The population of the surrounding area, called Inwood, some twelve miles from downtown, had exploded since the arrival of subway services in 1906.
Now, any fisherman will tell you, eels love raw sewage, kind of like pigs take to slop, but people—not so much.
In 1916 city leaders announced a modern solution to the sickening scenario.
They proposed building Manhattan’s first sewage treatment plant at the far western end of Dyckman Street; where the thoroughfare meets the Hudson River. (Old timers called the spot Tubby Hook)
“Formerly,” reported the New York Tribune, “the sewer at this point discharged at the edge of the shore line without treatment, and an intolerable nuisance resulted.” (New York Herald, October 1, 1916)
Three years and nearly $80,000 later the plant opened to about as much fanfare as one might expect for the opening of a sewage treatment station—that being very little.
But something incredible had happened all the same.
“The plant,” it was reported, “is located in a modest building west of the tracks of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company and is intended to remove all impurities from the sewage flowing from an area of 315 acres, extending from West 173rd Street, in the Washington Heights district, to Emerson Street (now West 207th Street), just south of the Spuyten Duyvil.”
Some 7,000,000 gallons of raw sewage were processed within the squat brick building daily. Inside the plant two fourteen-foot diameter screens and a two-story grit chamber were used to filter out unwanted debris. From there the sewage, “screened and washed,” was pumped through a sixteen-inch pipe to the middle of the Hudson where it was deposited on the river bottom.
Decades later, in 1935, the Public Works Department erected signs that warned bathers about the lingering hazards of swimming in the Hudson—typhoid fever, dysentery…the usual culprits.
A long way from safe, but the water certainly did smell better.
About the only folks unhappy with the Dyckman Street solution were the eel fishermen.
“This new fandango business,” wrote one fish and game columnist, “has killed eel fishing at the Dyckman Street pier. The eels don’t like water when all the real sewer life has been chased out of it. Eels know what they like to live on.”
“Purification of water,” the writer cheekily continued, “is a direct attack on the conservation, propagation and protection of eels.”
The plant operated round-the-clock until as recently as the 1950’s, sharing space, for many years, with the legendary Dyckman Street Ferry.
Former Inwood resident Herb Maruska recalls:
“Around 1954, and my father, Paul Max, and I were walking along Dyckman Street when we came to the Hudson River. The gate to the sewage treatment plant was open. My father said to me ‘Let’s see what’s in here.’ So we walked inside. There I saw a large circular tank, with sewage water flowing into it. There was a large porous wheel situated in the tank, which was rotating slowly around. This filter wheel was tilted at maybe 20 degrees to horizontal. The tank was filled with floating human excrement. The wheel came up out of the water at the front end of the tank. Here they had a large brush, which swept across the top edge of the filter wheel. The brush swept all of the sh*t off the wheel and dropped it down into a 55 gallon drum. When the 55 gallon drum was full, an employee moved it aside and replaced it with a new one. My father said to me, ‘Herbert, this is the Sh*t Brushing Plant. If you do not study in school, you will wind up working here! Disgusting!’ I became terribly frightened. When we got home to Vermilyea Avenue, I cracked open my books, and from then on, I studied day and night. I was the first member of my family to gradate from college. I went to New York University just across the Harlem River. I spent my career working as an engineer, and I never shoveled any sh*t.”