How the island's shoal filling operations looked 90+ years ago

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Scene #1: Click for close-ups.
The New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) is able to provide this web presentation thanks to the Hertzendorf family of Jackson, N.J., generously making available to NYCHS black-and-white photos of 1920s Rikers Island landfill operations. A dozen of the 5 x 7 inch photos have been selected and digitally scanned by the NYCHS webmaster at 1200 dpi (dots-per-inch) resolution so that detailed close-up section views could be extracted.

Clicking any of the thumbnail images takes the viewer to a page featuring the corresponding full-size overall scene, nearly 9 inches wide. From that page, the first of a series of close-up views showing detailed sections of that scene can be accessed. Using "next" and "previous" navigationals, the viewer can proceed through the several overall scenes and their respective close-up sections. Or the viewer can click on a link listed on any of the overall scene pages and close-up section pages to return to this starter page.

Scene #2: Click for close-ups.

Scene #3: Click for close-ups.
In many close-ups, the details are sharp and well defined; in a few others, less so, but most are sufficiently clear to make out details of interest. Proceeding through the entire presentation will provide the viewer with a good idea how Rikers Island landfill operations looked in the 1920s.

Below are interesting tidbits about how most of Rikers Island rose from the river:

New York City’s municipal government included landfill expansion in its plans for Rikers Island even as the city fathers went about acquiring the East River marshy islet in 1884.

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As the New York Times explained in a Sept. 20, 1886 story headlined “To Build a Bigger Jail,” the Commissioners of Charities and Correction two years earlier had purchased the isle as a step toward replacing the aged and inadequate Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary:

“That scheme includes the reclamation of a great deal of land belonging to Rikers Island and bought with it.”

The U.S. Coast Survey was cited as reporting that

• Of the island’s 87.5 acres, nearly a half – 43.2 – were less than three feet above the high water mark.

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• Some 315 acres of shoal goal lay off its east shore and another 79 off its west shore.

• Those figures were said to make 481.5 acres the “practical” size to set as the target for the island’s land development.

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The Times story reported that to achieve such a reclamation goal a line of “cribwork” would have to be set in the water around most of the island where the low tide depth stood at 12 feet:

“The Commissioners have already learned from experience that they can construct cribwork of best quality for less than 4 cents per cubic foot.”

Rikers Island was not the first landfill involvement for the city's correctional ageny. Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), purchased in 1828 to house various municipal penal and charitable institutions, had island shaping touches applied to it -- the land was made to slope toward the water and a sea-wall was erected.

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The first Tombs prison had been built, beginning in 1838 on a section of the filled-in site of the former Collect, a large, 60-foot deep pond fed by an underground spring.

Inmate labor was seen as a major cost reducing factor in planning the project.

Scene #8: Click for close-ups.
The Street Cleaning Department – city Sanitation’s ancestral name – estimated it could provide fill for the cribwork at the rate of about 50 acres a year.

Of course, that estimate might have seemed to suggest that reaching 481.5 acres for the island’s total size would take only a few years. Actually the work spanned more than a half century.

While NYC Correction staffers and ex-staffers, whether uniformed or civilian, are well aware that Rikers Island is mostly man-made, having been been expanded more than fourfold from solid waste dumping and leveling, far fewer realize the extensive role that other landfill operations have played in the city's penal history.

Scene #9: Click for close-ups.
The first Tombs prison was built on filled-in site of the Collect.

According to the Reconnaissance Mapping of Landfills in New York City study by environmental remediation expert and Columbia University professor, Dr. Daniel C. Walsh:

“For the first 15 years of the 20th century, numerous landfills fed by barge-loads of waste from Manhattan and the western Bronx are identified in the [landfill] literature [study]. Barge-fill sites are identified in figure 3 in the Bronx (Rikers Island, Hart Island and Cromwell Creek) . . . .

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"By 1924, all barge-fed landfill operations were consolidated at Rikers Island. . . .

"During the 1930s, 17 million cubic yards of waste fill was transferred from Rikers Island to northern Queens to build LaGuardia Airport. The 1934 World Fair site was built on 1,200 acres of filled wetland in Flushing, Queens. . .

”Barge landfilling operations continued at Rikers Island through the early 1930s. Unlike other city landfills, which were filled to a height that usually did not exceed 10 feet above sea level, Rikers Island Landfill was mounted as high as 125 in the eastern fill area. . . .

While "Rikers Island" is hand written on this Hertzendorf collection snapshot, the boat bears the name "Sanitation." Perhaps its main work related to the island during the era of the photos; perhaps they were taken while aboard it. Click for larger image. Use browser's "back" button to return.
In 1943 the bargefill operations were moved from Rikers Island to the Great Kills Marsh on the southern shore of Staten Island. . . .”

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Heather Rogers, in her Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (The New Press, 2006 ), quotes a Department of Sanitation employee Thomas DeLisa, who worked on the island's landfill nearly two decades, as saying:

"The rats grew so numerous and so large that the department imported dogs in an effort to eliminate the rats. The dogs were not fed by the authorities but lived soley on the rats. Despite this, . . . the rats continued to multiply. . . .

"Gases . . . were constantly exploding through the soil covering and bursting into flames . . . in the summer the ground resembled a sea of small volcanos, all breathing smoke and flames. . . ."

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