How Buttermilk Channel got its lovely name

New York City neighborhoods and waterways have some wonderfully descriptive names—such as Hell Gate, Rat Island, and Dead Horse Bay.

But there’s something especially poetic about Buttermilk Channel, the narrow tidal strait that separates Governors Island from Brooklyn (at right, in a 1766 British map).

So how did such a lovely name stick?

One theory has it that the waters were so choppy, liquid being ferried from Brooklyn to Manhattan turned to butter in transit.

In the 19th century, Brooklynite Walt Whitman referenced the channel, stating that it was once so shallow, cows could walk across it at low tide to graze on Governors Island.

But a letter submitted to The New York Times in 1906 may have the most credibility. The writer mentions an 1832 book called Historic Tales of Olden Time and explains:

“As late as 1786, Buttermilk Channel was used for a boat channel, through which boats with milk and buttermilk, going to New York market from Long Island, usually made their passage.” 

[Governors Island, with Buttermilk Channel separating it from Brooklyn, above, in 1918]

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5 Responses to “How Buttermilk Channel got its lovely name”

  1. Paul Says:

    Usually the most prosaic reason for a name is the true one. The others definitely have the flavor of folklore. Nomenclature for nautical navigation have always fascinated me. It’s only considered a channel because a land mass separates a body of water for a small portion of it from another land mass. I wonder what the criteria limits are for this designation.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I love the folklore though. Just imagine a bunch of Brooklyn cows wading across to Governors Island!

  3. Mike Says:

    The British map of Brooklyn of 1766 (I think the map is named something like that) shows the channel at 5 fathoms or so deep…which is 30 feet.

    Obviously we don’t have 30 foot tides here…

    PS – What is the name of the map you have in the picture above? I’ve been looking for a beautiful map like for a long time.


    PSS – I’ve read this blog for what seems like a year now…and it is such a beautiful thing…thank you for it.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks so much! The map is from The Historical Atlas of New York City by Eric Homberger and is captioned “New York in 1766-67, surveyed by Lieutenant Bernard Razler.”

  5. Sixth Boro Summer | tugster: a waterblog Says:

    […] Turecamo exits the Buttermilk west with a light (?) dry bulk barge Montville, which probably recently carried […]

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