“When the Mayor of New York dedicated the new incinerator at 215th Street and Ninth Avenue a little while ago, he said plainly that he didn’t like it. Perhaps he was justified in his opinion of it as a piece of sanitary engineering, but when he went on to say that it looked ungainly and unsightly, and that it reminded him of Sing Sing, one wondered what he really wanted. Did he want it dressed up to look like the Municipal Building, or dressed down to look more like an incinerator? I hope it was the latter, for the Mayor’s whole reputation as an architectural critic rests upon this decision.” (Lewis Mumford, 1934)
“Stranger, touring Manhattan, do not forget to come to Inwood, the northernmost part of it. You will behold the most thrilling sight in our glorious city. No, that billowing cloud of smoke and soot is not a volcano. It’s the new incinerating plant opened last Thursday by Mayor LaGuardia.” (New York Times, June 29, 1934)
Inwood’s 215th Street Incinerator Smokestacks
On 215th Street, near Tenth Avenue, sit three massive smokestacks, which have towered over the Inwood skyline, east of Broadway, since 1934.
The smokestacks, part of a decommissioned Department of Sanitation “destructor plant,” once incinerated some 7,500 tons of New York City garbage daily. The fires of the incinerator burned trash round-the-clock and coughed up so much smoke, soot and other horrifying vapors that residents of one apartment building on nearby Park Terrace East felt compelled to file a lawsuit against the city just years after the $1.5 million facility went on-line.
The June 28, 1934 opening of the plant represented an historic day for the city. From that day forward, under court order, New York would begin burning its garbage, ending a long-standing practice of dumping refuse at sea.
The Inwood plant, and three others that would go on-line the following day, had been constructed after the Supreme Court imposed a deadline after which the city was forbidden to dump trash offshore. The deadline, which also imposed a $5,000 a day penalty for non-compliance, was the result a lawsuit filed by the State of New Jersey. According to the suit, New York’s waste disposal practices had left the Jersey Shore so polluted that its once beautiful beaches were no longer fit for bathing. The practice, they argued, must end—and the Supreme Court agreed.
The incinerators, designed by architect Frank S. Parker, were each to burn nearly 400 truckloads (750 tons) of garbage a day. At the time, the plants, constructed by the Superior Incinerator Company of Dallas, Texas and the L.E. Myers Company, were the largest and most modern in the world.
Jersey Cries Foul
During the 1920’s the beach resorts along the Jersey Shore found themselves dealing with a full on health crisis and bathers were getting sick.
The problem was garbage. Tons of it. Furniture, household waste, manure, street sweepings and more drifted onshore in an endless stream originating far off the coast.
Where the noxious rubbish came from was no great secret. Since at least the 1870’s New York City had been piling its waste onto great ocean bound barges known as scows. The scows took the trash offshore and dumped the City’s unmentionable excretions into the salty deep.
Some of the estimated 3,000 tons of waste dumped each day sank to the bottom, while the rest was tossed and blended into the greatest garbage gyre the Atlantic Ocean has ever seen.
Because of its proximity to the dump sites, much of the waste wound up on the shores of New Jersey and Long Island where “in places the remnants of garbage are piled a foot thick at high water mark, and it is no uncommon thing to bump into melon rinds and grapefruits while in bathing. On the beaches may be found the remains of chickens, cats and dogs, which, added to the putrefying vegetable refuse, attract flies, pollute the air and are a menace to public health.” (New York Times, July 24, 1923)
In an effort to improve sanitation in New York City, these ocean dumps were legally permitted, provided the scows dumped their stinking cargoes at least twenty-one miles offshore. But as the urban population swelled, New York’s solution became a dangerous business for its coastal neighbors.
“Last Saturday on one strip of beach 300 yards long on the south shore of Long Island no less than three cats and one dog were cast up within the same hour. They came ashore amid a profusion of grapefruit skins, pineapple tops, cans of shoe polish, bottles and other choice bits of refuse,” wrote the New York Times. (New York Times, July 1, 1925)
The Times urged city leaders to end the practice of dumping garbage at sea all together. The system, the Times argued, was under-regulated and the scows often dumped their loads within miles of shore.
“If it can be conclusively proved that every scow has gone the regulation distance on every trip, the lesson is that the dumping place should be still further out at sea. In the meantime, it behooves the city authorities to face that the present system is at best antiquated and that further experiments with incinerators will have to be made until a type is acquired which can be erected in various parts of the city without being an offense to the neighborhood. This is an expensive undertaking, but one which in the long run is more likely to pay than the present system. Not until the city stops dumping garbage art sea can those who use the beaches be sure of finding them reasonably clean.” (New York Times, July 1, 1925)
The following summer, 1926, after watching garbage wash up on their beaches all season, the coastal cities of New Jersey banded together and drafted a resolution, which was presented to the United States Secretary of War.
The demands were straightforward.
No longer would New York City’s practice of dumping of garbage at sea be tolerated. New York must be forced to invest in modern incinerators to combat an odious situation that had befouled dozens of miles of once pristine beaches.
In hearings, David M. Newberger, the President of the Anti-Pollution League, testified that the ocean off the coast of northern New Jersey had begun to resemble the trash-strewn Sargasso Sea.
Charles A. McGee, the assistant superintendent of the Street Cleaning Department of the City of New York candidly admitted that, while the construction of incinerators to combat the problem was in the works, the city continued to dump some 3,200 tons of garbage into the ocean every day.
In May of 1931, five years after the anti-pollution resolution, New Jersey officials took their fight to the United States Supreme Court.
The Court sided with the State of New Jersey, ruling that New York City should indeed be barred from dumping their refuse into the ocean. But, the fix wouldn’t happen overnight. The high court ruled that New York must be given “reasonable time” to construct the long promised incinerators.
Justice Butler, who faced no dissent, ruled that the dumping of garbage at sea constituted a “public nuisance” and assigned a special master, Edward K. Campbell, to determine just how much time New York be allowed to get a new system for waste disposal on-line.
Under advisement of the Special Master the Supreme Court would later impose a deadline of July 1, 1934 after which the city would be forced pay a $5,000 a day fine for each day trash-laden scows continued to leave the harbor.
And, after the herculean efforts of the Department of Sanitation, the plant opened just in time.
When the dedication of the Inwood facility began at 8:30 that Thursday morning Mayor LaGuardia stood at the podium, flanked by 200 members of the Department of Sanitation, known as “White Wings” for their signature white uniforms. Also in attendance were representatives of neighboring states and jurisdictions.
In a description of the event that read like a theater review, the New York Sun described an event full of “pomp, ceremony and a speech by the Mayor.”
“Mr. LaGuardia arrived at the site,” the Sun wrote, “prepared to toss the first shovelful of garbage and to cut loose with a few broadsides on his favorite topic, Tammany Hall.” (New York Sun, June 28, 1934)
The White Wings “snapped to attention,” the Sun wrote, and “remained in military formation until the Mayor had mounted the platform. Then the band struck up, the good old Department of Sanitation Band that used to welcome distinguished visitors to City Hall. How it got there with all its drums and horns intact caused some comment, but there it was, prepared for the occasion.” (New York Sun, June 28, 1934)
And while Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had no qualms accepting credit for getting the operation up and running, he was clearly upset with both the plant’s design and efficiency, which he felt had been hastily constructed in order to meet the deadline.
On the platform, beneath the red, white and blue bunting, LaGuardia addressed the assemblage: “In the past it has been quite easy to make speeches on such an occasion,” LaGuardia lamented. “All the Mayor had to do was dig out an old speech about receiving ‘this new modern plant.’ In this instance this was not possible. The plant is not modern, not well planned, although it conforms to all of the specifications.”
“It was three-quarters finished on January 1 and we had to take it,” LaGuardia continued. “But you can imagine a plant of this capacity having to buy every bit of electricity it uses while 6,000,000,000 thermal units of heat go up the chimneys every twenty-four hours?”
But the Mayor’s displeasure with the plant did not end there.
“There was no need to make the walls look like the walls of Sing Sing Prison,” the Mayor continued while gesturing towards the three towers which stood atop a base of brick, terra cotta and concrete.
Not losing his sense of humor, LaGuardia quipped “he believed it was the first time in the municipal history that a city had met a Supreme Court order of such a nature without asking for an extension of time.”(New York Sun, June 28, 1934)
Before leaving the podium, LaGuardia issued a warning to the State of New Jersey: “In the future the city will not drop a single orange peel in the sea, ” LaGuardia said. “I like to be neighborly, but in a spirit of friendly neighborliness, I ask want to warn neighboring cities that if they dump garbage, I’ll go to the United States Supreme Court order and dump some of the choicest Manhattan garbage right at their doorstep.”
That afternoon the very last of the old garbage barges went out to sea at 2:00 from the foot of Roosevelt Street. After that, said Department of Sanitation Chief Thomas Hammond they were transferred to “less odorous duties.”
The following day three other city incinerators, one in the Bronx and two in Manhattan, went online.
When construction on the Inwood incinerator began in 1933, J.M. Johnson, president of the Dallas company overseeing construction, promised area residents that the new furnaces would be odorless. The smells, Johnson said, would be neutralized as the rubbish burned at temperatures between 1,200 and 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
But, despite those early assurances, one can only imagine the awful smells that must have resulted from the delivery and incineration of 7,500 tons of garbage daily.
In November of 1935, the Park Avenue Terrace East Corporation, owners of a six-story apartment building located at 520 West 218th Street filed a lawsuit against the city.
“The City of New York was sued in the Supreme Court yesterday for $50,000 in damages and an injunction restraining the city from operating the incinerator and garbage disposal plant at 215th Street and Tenth Avenue on the ground that it constitutes a nuisance,” the New York Times reported. “The plaintiff alleges that the incinerator emits smoke and cinders and nauseating odors, which have caused it the loss of tenants and depreciated the value of its property.” (New York Times, November 14, 1935)
The suit fell on deaf ears. The trash needed to be burned somewhere. And, for decades to come, that someplace was Inwood.
In summer of 1944, tragedy struck the 215th Street Department of Sanitation plant.
Around 10:15 on the morning of July 23rd a crane operator in charge of moving garbage accidentally dropped a monkey wrench into the forty-foot trash pit adjacent to the incinerator. Quickly, another worker descended into the pit to retrieve the fallen wrench.
As the worker reach the bottom of the pit, he collapsed.
Seeing what had happened, two others scrambled into the pit to assist their fallen colleague.
The crane operator watched with great dismay as the two good Samaritans were also overcome by whatever noxious fumes lay below.
Soon two others, Martin Norton, 43, of Flushing, Queens and Gennaro de Trinco, 56, of the Bronx, climbed into the pit, but were forced back as they began to suffer from the effects of the gas.
Donning special masks equipped with breathing apparatus members of the fire and police departments were able to pull the three fallen Sanitation workers from the pit. The operation, sadly, proved to be a recovery rather than a rescue. After a priest from the nearby Church of the Good Shepherd performed last rights, the three men, Gaetaino Musorrafite, Antinelle Pieri and Michael Gallagher were pronounced dead at the scene.
“The police theory,” reported the New York Times, “was that a small amount of methane gas had accumulated at the bottom of the pit and was thrown off by the decomposition of the garbage. It was said that the five men felled by the gas ordinarily would have been off yesterday but had been working in order to get some extra time off at a later date.” (New York Time July 24, 1944)
In December of 1951, after reports from Sanitation workers that unexploded ammunition had been “popping off” in area incinerators, Sanitation Commissioner Andrew W. Mulrain issued a public plea.
Mulrain told the media that after hunting season came to a close on December 6 that city outdoorsmen had apparently been tossing their unused shotgun shells out with the trash.
The problem was “a particularly regular occurrence” at the West 215th Street and West Fifty-Sixth Street stations. (New York Times, December 19, 1951)
The Sanitation Commissioner warned New Yorkers that it was illegal to toss ammunition into their garbage pails.
“Hunters should turn their post-season surpluses over to the Police Department,” Mr. Mulrain declared. “Fortunately, there has been no damage of injury from exploding bullets thus far, but there always is the possibility of danger to our stationary firemen, who frequently stoke the incinerator fires.” (New York Times, December 19, 1951)
End of an Era
In the winter of 1970, amid cries for better air quality and changing attitudes towards pollution, the City Planning Commission recommended that incinerators be phased out and replaced with land-based dumping grounds.
On November 30, 1970 the Department of Sanitation began the closure of the 215th Street incinerating plant. It was recommended that the loads of garbage that had arrived daily for nearly four decades be rerouted to the 2,000 acre Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island.
The 115 workers assigned to the incinerator were reassigned to other posts around the city.
Today the site, still run by the Department of Sanitation, is used as a base for administration, storage and parking.