During the last decade of the 19th century, Irving T. Bush built a massive warehousing complex along the Gowanus Bay on land inherited from his father. The Bush family had owned an oil refinery, which Irving’s father sold to Standard Oil, and when he died, Irving received a huge inheritance. He bought the land back from Standard and began building warehouses to store the many products that were coming into and out of New York Harbor at the time. He soon built additional larger buildings and rented space to companies that needed it and added huge piers, each of which could accommodate the docking of four large cargo vessels and all the cargo they unloaded.
After some years of success, Irving expanded his operation to include shipping the products he and his tenants were storing, adding more buildings and a network of railroad tracks, including a huge rail yard, and was soon loading and unloading products and materials to and from at least eight regional railroads, including the Baltimore & Ohio, the Erie-Lackawanna, the NY Central and others. He even had his own railroad company, the Bush Terminal Railroad (BTRR). Bush built a line of tracks from the terminal to existing Pennsylvania railroad tracks. At least two of the terminal railroad tracks curved past the warehouses and ended right at the water, where groups of entire cars were pushed onto car floats that were then guided across the harbor by tugboats to New Jersey, from where they carried their goods across the country.
By the end of World War I, the terminal spread over twenty city blocks, has seven piers along more than 3,000 feet of waterfront and held more than 100 warehouse and manufacturing buildings, its own railroad, and upwards of 25,000 workers.
Irving Bush died in 1948, and soon after, external factors led to a fall-off in the shipping portion of the Bush Terminal Company’s business. Bush Terminal Company sold the buildings in 1963. The port remained active until 1974, while the buildings remained almost fully occupied by a rotating series of tenants through the 1990s.
In 1956, a huge explosion rocked the entire neighborhood. Sparks from ironworkers making repairs in one of the pier sheds ignited materials below and the fire soon moved to coils of fuse material that exploded. The blast was felt miles away. Ten people were killed and hundreds injured.
The complex changed hands more than once, and finally sold in 1983 to a group that changed the name to Industry City. Today, Bush Terminal’s physical plant has been resurrected. Industry City is a sparkling wonder, with hundreds of tenants that include artists, design, media, retail, manufacturing, and technology companies, along with government agencies, non-profits, and of course, warehouse space. It’s also an entertainment venue, with such events as the Brooklyn Crush Wine and Artisanal Food Festival and Rock and Roll Playhouse, a free summer concert series, a brew festival, Table Tennis Tuesday, and many other events throughout the year.
That said, much of Industry City is currently empty or underused. The current owners have recently begun the process of rezoning the complex and its immediate area to allow for additional businesses to come in, to convert up to 272,000 square feet to hotel space, and renovating 387,000 square feet for academic use, 900,000 square feet for retail space, and 43,000 square feet for event space. The entire process up to the beginning of the work could take eighteen months or more.
For now, the area retains its industrial flavor, and the railroad tracks remain embedded along First Avenue, curving every block into one of the docks built between the wings of Bush’s original buildings.