Early History: The Swamp and Ash Dump


Flushing Bay 1

Corona Avenue 1

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park did not start out as a place where people can play golf, hit some tennis balls, and visit a science museum. Rather, it started out as a salt marsh. A salt marsh is low coastal grassland that is periodically covered by the rising tide. Salt marshes are found on the edges of estuaries, which is a place where a river flows into the ocean. It is also a unique ecosystem because it is the bridge between an aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem. 3

The Old Flushing Map

The Salt Marsh

As stated before, before becoming an ash dump, Flushing Meadows Park used to be a salt marsh. As you can see in the map above, Flushing used to have small rivers known as the Flushing Rivers that flow from the Flushing Bay into the neighborhood.

What is important to know is that the salt marshes are usually flooded specifically by saline waters and not freshwater. A lot occurs in a salt marsh since it goes through erosion, progadation, and accretion. 4 It is also most identified as a terrestrial ecosystem that is abundant with vascular plants, or plants that require water for fertilization. Furthermore, vascular plants have adapted to anaerobic conditions, meaning that there is an absence of free oxygen, but they would still grow better in aerobic environments. Thus, these plants may have reduced growth, and reduced nutrient uptake.

In the salt marsh ecosystem, what occurs frequently is the oxygen depletion and salt inhibition in plants. Also, according to Mitsch, the salt marsh ecosystem might as well be considered a detritus ecosystem because the bacteria and fungi break down about three-quarters of the primary production. Apparently there are fungi that decompose dead grass, aerobic bacteria that decomposes decayed grass leaf shoots that lie on the ground, and the anaerobic bacteria. It is said that the salt marsh is an area of high productivity because their is flooding, a lot of nutrient uptake, amplitude of water, and a rise and fall of temperatures.  5

It may be stressful for species to live in this type of environment since they need to be accustomed to a water habitat as well as getting exposed to sun and air. Due to the variations of temperature and salinity of water, there is not much biodiversity compared to other ecosystems.

Spartina 6

The salt marsh that existed in Flushing was specifically abundant with a plant species known as Spartina alterniflora. 7 Spartina is also known as cord grass, and is commonly found in salt marshes. This species is able to adapt to these conditions because it excretes salt which allows it to survive although there is constant exposure to salt water. Spartina is used mainly for erosion control and used as a soil stabilizer. Also, it provides food and protection for as common marsh birds and it is known to be important for livestock producers. 8 As Spartina decays, it becomes detritus, or dead organic matter, and is transported to different parts of the salt march by tides, wind, and water.

Additionally, the plants that live in salt marshes are usually referred to as ‘halophytes; and ‘hydrophytes’. Because the roots are exposed to water,  it is important for plants to have certain characteristics in order for survival. Hydrophytes are plants that have adapted to an aquatic habitat and they have a unique leaf structure. It has a tissue called aerenchyma that contains large air spaces so that the plant can float on water. Additionally, plants need to have many aqueous tissue so that amounts of water can be stored.

Microscopic bacteria, algae, and fungi break down the dead plant material in the ecosystem. They assist the ecosystem by stabilizing sediments, become food for predators,  and they contribute to the enrichment of sediments for future Spartina.

A salt marsh is also home to many other species such as birds, grass, algae, mollusks, and fish.  More specifically, this area is perfect for birds because they reproduce, feed, and use this habitat for shelter. Some birds feed upon the insects that thrive in the marsh while other birds feed upon the fish, shrimp, and crab. In return, birds serve a great role in the salt marsh because they provide nutrients to fertilize plants and soil through their feces.

From Salt Marsh to Ash Dump

This area was biologically rich however, by the end of the nineteenth century; it was made into a dump, which did not bode well for fauna and flora living there. By 1920, trainloads of garbage were dumped in the area including furnace ashes. 9 If you have read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you would remember the mention of the “Valley of Ashes”. 10

“About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.  This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke, and finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”

This is referring to the state of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park at that time.

Corona Ash Dump

Then in 1930, Robert Moses, who was the Parks Commissioner, relocated over 50 million cubic tons of garbage. 11 This was the first early act of environmental restoration at Flushing Meadows. 12 Later, the area was turned into a “showpiece” site for the World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964. 13

The Brooklyn Ash Removal Company

Each day about 110 loads of garbage was dumped into Flushing Meadows by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company. Citizens living in Flushing would suffer from the horrible living conditions caused by the unsanitary conditions. Rats would enjoy the rotting trash while the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company would incinerate the trash at night.

The Brooklyn Ash Removal Company was brought together in the 1800s by William Reynolds. The company was in charge of hauling away the cinders and age of major dump sites. In 1909, the company relocated from Barren Island to the Corona Dumps. Due to the company’s actions, by 1920 the salt marsh evolved into the landfill that F. Scott Fitzgerald describes in his novel. Sources state that by this time, the ash dump grew to be 90 feet tall.

Also, as you can see below, the  picture is an example of the setting at the Corona Ash Dump. This locomotive was used to gather garbage and pile it onto the dump with the help of the sanitation workers.

The Locomotive and Sanitation Workers from the Brooklyn Ash Co.

Later on in 1934, the City of New York purchased the land from the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company in order to start the Parks Department in May 1934. This is expanded on our next webpage.

Plan of the Flushing Meadow Park, 1935, pre-development (New York City Parks Photo Archive)


  1. "Flushing," Jason D. Antos”
  2. "Flushing," Jason D. Antos”
  3. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” The Brooklyn/Queens Greenway System: 44.
  4. “Saltmarsh Ecology,” Paul Adam: 2.
  5. “Wetland Ecosystems,” W. Mitsch, J. Gosselink, L. Zhang, C. Anderson:40-45
  6. USDA NRCS Photo Gallery”
  7. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” The Brooklyn/Queens Greenway System: 44.
  8. “Smooth Cordgrass Spartina Alterniflora Loisel,” United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service
  9. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” The Brooklyn/Queens Greenway System: 46.
  10. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” The Brooklyn/Queens Greenway System: 46.
  11. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” The Brooklyn/Queens Greenway System: 46.
  12. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” The Brooklyn/Queens Greenway System: 46.
  13. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” The Brooklyn/Queens Greenway System: 46.

One Response to Early History: The Swamp and Ash Dump

  1. Jason Munshi-South says:

    The visuals you have here are fantastic. However, the captions are not sufficiently informative. The three photos / maps at the top should have captions detailing the year they were produced, as well as a more detailed description. Any media you use should also be described in the text.

    The text needs some editing, and could be expanded to better explain the role of salt marshes in protecting NYC’s marine environment. One aspect you should definitely include is the biodiversity (flora and fauna) that typically inhabit a salt marsh. Shellfish and other economically important species are of particular interest. You do mention the salt marsh grass, but more is needed. Please note that scientific names in italics should be capitalized as follows: Genus species

    As an aside, one of my graduate students was collecting soil at Willow Lake today. He found a layer of ash and coal just beneath the surface!

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