Posts Tagged ‘Dead Horse Bay’

How Buttermilk Channel got its lovely name

March 19, 2010

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]