"The Great People Poop Wreck" 
by Richard Glueck  All photos: Harry A. Glueck  April, 1961

Some know Brooklyn as the home of Fort Hamilton, the place they took their draft physicals and were ushered into the armed forces.   Some know Brooklyn as the final bastion of steam switcher service into the 1960's.  It is memorialized  as home of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field.  It is the home of a recognizable accent, and the eastern side of New York's most memorable and historic bridge.  For my father, it was none of these.  For Dad, it was the location of the biggest railroading nightmare he faced in his 45 years of service to the Long Island Rail Road.  The nightmare was called "Bay Ridge Yard".

Bay Ridge faces the southern side of New York Harbor, edging the Atlantic Ocean.  The Long Island owns the track, and until the 1950's, Pennsylvania Railroad B3 electric boxcabs sorted freight cars under catenary wire, and loading them onto car floats, to be shoved across to New Jersey and sent on to the rest of America.  With the end of Pennsy dominance, Long Island's fleet of electric locomotives was culled, and yard switching was handed over to Baldwin Diesels.   The wires still stood but the source of freight became the New Haven Railroad.  Trains were lugged down over the Hell Gate bridge, most often behind the blocky, ex-Virginian, EF-4 electrics.  These heavy locomotives often caused rails to roll or crack.  If that wasn't enough, the local youth vandalism was vicious. Sometimes it was switch locks broken, turn-outs being thrown, and cars on the ground.  Sometimes it was kids climbing onto the slowly passing freights, reaching up to grab the wires, and the results catastrophic.   Bay Ridge wasn't a fun place to grow up, live, or work.

As the population of Brooklyn grew, the City of New York had to face facts regarding living conditions.  Urban renewal meant replacing tenements and management of waste water, which is a nice way of saying,  "What do you do with sewerage once you flush."   It couldn't be dumped in New York Harbor any longer.  Once it had been the practice that when one flushed the toilet, and the waste disappeared, it simply was passed on waves, through a number of subterranean brick and concrete tubes, and dumped, "sploosh", into New York Harbor.   With a rising population and the growth of urban properties, this approach was no longer feasible.  In fact, New York Harbor had become a dead zone.  Where sturgeon historically migrated up the Hudson River, was now occupied only by heartier species of soft shell clams and Horseshoe crabs, feeding on whatever settled into the muck and, in legend, the occasional mortified  gangster.  Then there was the fact that along the southern shore of Long Island and the Coney Island beaches, evidence of human inhabitation was washing ashore.   

The response was built just on the southern side of the Bay Ridge Yard.  In the 1950, Owls Head Waste Water Treatment plant was constructed.  The sewerage plant was a series of huge tanks, with twelve inch thick walls, built of concrete, reinforced with steel grids.  The contractor[1] had built similar tanks in California, and they continued to function without problems.  This composition was stronger than concrete alone, stronger than steel alone. 

A modernized sewerage system pumped the human effluent into the ten immense tanks where it was screened, settled, digested by bacteria, made less toxic, and eventually separated into liquid that was acceptable for release into the ocean directed current, and solids that could be used to fertilize parks and to cover landfills of incinerator ash and refuse picked up off the streets. 

On the railroad side, next door in Bay Ridge Yard, tugboats ferried in empty car floats and left with barges loaded with  scores of freight cars.  The only connection to the Owls Head Waste Water Plant was the ominous odor of bacterially generated gases carried in the cooling sea breezes as land temperatures rose during the day.  The familiar "rotten egg" odor was largely composed of hydrogen sulfide gas, which might have been a possible clue that water absorbed by the concrete walls contained sulfides, and sulfides were coming in contact with the steel wire in the pre-stressed concrete.    It hadn't been a source of concern in over 2,500 other tanks built in this manner, so it didn't raise concern or suspicion at the time.  And rust never sleeps.

On a night in April, 1961, it became a major source of concern,  if you were a brakeman assembling a train, or a conductor working in a New Haven caboose, or an engine crew suffering through that awful odor that seemed to be stronger than ever experienced before.  

In the early morning hours, over the thrumming of Diesel engines, a grinding, groaning, cracking, sound  emanated from one of the filled-to-the-brim tanks of raw household  sewerage.  What followed more or less defies human imagination.  A deluge  in excess of  2,000,000 gallons, of  human effluent,[2] comprised of everything that passes down a kitchen sink, the "S" tube of a toilet, a bath, or shower exploded outward.  Green "combers",  with surfing "bergs" of fractured rubble, overwhelmed the railroad yard.   The concrete bowl of the tank scattered itself over the tracks.  A steel New Haven caboose simply bowled over, as did loaded refrigerator and hopper cars.  The yard was a mire of ...of... yuch!  What did not  settle into pools between the tracks, simply rushed to the car floats where it remained dripping at daylight. 

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The remains of the destroyed tank.  Apparently the walls of the "bowl" were 12 inches thick, not 12 feet as stated in the N.Y. Times article
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Crew working directly in the "flood plain" guide a bucket over debris.  Note the cap of the sewerage tank fallen into the center of the "bowl".
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Standing on a slab of the destroyed sewerage tank, and official scrapes his shoe clean.  A nest of reinforcement wire is snarled in the foreground.  Un-affected, a Long Island caboose and Baldwin switcher are seen in the back ground.
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Two trackmen begin the slow process of collecting concrete slabs from the tracks

My father, along with other officials of the track department, got the call in the middle of the night.  For whatever reason, he thought to carry along his Argus C3, and what you see in these pictures is, to the best of my knowledge, the only pictorial record of what became known as "The Great People Poop Wreck".    

In the twenty-first century, one can only imagine O.S.H.A. handling this with personnel in Haz-Mat suits and self contained breathing apparatus.  In 1961, specialized gear called for gum rubber shoe covers for executives, while the work crews wore the usual steel toed boots.  No doubt a great deal of laundry was done each night until the scene was cleared of wreckage and the tracks restored.   During clean-up, the remaining treatment tanks were drained to half-depth.  The un-ending accumulation of waste water was managed by pumping it onto barges and towing it ten miles out to sea, where once again, out of sight meant out of mind.   Ocean currents then reinvested the material back on the coastal shoreline. 

Whether it was a build-up of waste generated gases, a poor quality of concrete, or rusting through of the wire mesh inside the walls, would be argued out in court well into the summer of 1962.  The tanks were eventually drained and plated with steel. 

The effect on the rail yard was considerably different.  Retired railroaders reported that once the concrete debris was gone,  the waters evaporated, and things set to right, a garden blossomed in the yard; vegetables!   The plants thrived.   It was not unusual to find red tomatoes, firm zucchinis, and other vegetables growing in amongst the ties.  Whether they were harvested or not, I am unable to say, but obviously, more than a tree grew in Brooklyn.

Today's Owls Head facility, is sandwiched between the edge of the Belt Parkway, and the retired railroad facility. In 2012, it still elicited odor complaints from neighbors, but has been rebuilt and is an active part of lessening pollution and raising water quality in the Hudson River and off-shore. 

Merged into the Penn Central and its successor Conrail, the New Haven Railroad no longer exists.   Freight is shipped over tracks of the former New York Central, without touching Brooklyn.   At Bay Ridge Yard, the catenary wire has been sold as scrap.  The car floats and tugs are a memory.  The remaining track is used as a storage facility.  Occasionally a Long Island MTA switcher wanders into the yard to pick up or drop off a random car.  

[1] Preload Corporation
[2] Asbury, Edith Evans; "Builder Defends His Sewage Tank", New York Times, August 09, 1962

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Railroading in 1961.  No Haz-Mat suits, no O.S.H.A. standards here.  "You're an employee, you go to work, you do your job."

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Officials and clean-up crews of the New Haven and Long Island railroads examine the immediate damage and assess strategies to remove debris and right the freight cars.
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A broader view of Bay Ridge Yard, featuring the blown-over freight cars, Long Island Baldwin 409, and caboose C-35.

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A better look at the scope of the flood. The Bay Ridge car floats are seen in the distance.

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A covered hopper and M.D.T. refrigerator car knocked off their trucks.  Cranes of the Brooklyn Navy Yard stand in the distance.  A Long Island Diesel switcher is seen in the distance.

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New Haven Railroad caboose C583, bowled over by the impact of the released water pressure.  Crews are about to pull the trucks to upright position.
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City to Reinforce 15 Sewage Tanks
New York Times, August 08, 1962
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"Builder Defends His Sewage Tank", New York Times, August 09, 1962
Originally appeared in: "The Keystone" Vol. 48 No. 3 Autumn 2015