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Kosciuszko Bridge Renovation Could Unearth Native American Artifacts

LONG ISLAND CITY — The planned construction of a new Kosciuszko Bridge along the banks of Newtown Creek could stir up more than just pollutants in the waterway, a designated Superfund site that separates Queens from Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Historians say the area around Newtown Creek was once home to a Native American tribe called the Mespeatches, where the neighborhood Maspeth got its name, before it was settled by Dutch and English colonists in the 1600s — making it ripe with the possibility of archeological findings.

"The area is very, very rich in potential archeological artifacts," said Bob Singleton, executive director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society. "There have been a number of archeological digs throughout the years along Newtown Creek."

Ralph Solecki, a former Columbia University faculty member and archeologist known for his excavations at the Shanidar Cave in Iraq, conducted digs along Newtown Creek when he was just in high school. During one excavation in 1935, he and others uncovered the hearth of a 17th century settler's home.

"We came up with the remains of a burned-out house in a sandy bank, and it was a fireplace in which we found a number of pipe stems identified 1640," Solecki recalled.

Starting in the 1800s, Newtown Creek became one of the most heavily used industrial waterways in the region, according to the state, and it has seen countless oil spills in the decades since. It was declared a national Superfund site in 2010.

The State Department of Transportation will begin work this fall on the construction of a new Kosciuszko Bridge, and will be excavating areas along the Queens side of the creek near the Long Island Rail Road tracks, south of Calvary Cemetery between Long Island City and Maspeth.

The $511 million project — the centerpiece of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's jobs program — has been pushed ahead 18 months.

Ground water uncovered during the excavation will be treated with an extensive filtering system to remove contaminants before being returned to the creek, according to the DOT.

At a public hearing last week to discuss the plans, a representative for Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan asked DOT officials if they had prepared for the possibility of uncovering artifacts during excavation.

"We're well aware of that issue," said project manager Robert Adams, adding that the DOT and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) is working on refining an existing plan to identify and monitor the areas that have the most archeological potential.

According to a draft of the plan, SHPO considers area around the creek to be "archeologically sensitive" for prehistoric sites — defined as when the land was inhabited by Native Americans, prior to European contact — because of its "proximity to water, topography that features high ground overlooking wetlands, the presence of abundant food resources, and the area’s known use by Native Americans at contact."

But the plan states that the large amount of human activity along Newtown Creek over the years greatly lessens the chance of uncovering intact artifacts.

"This area has been degraded, filled, built upon, so it's unlikely that you're going to find a whole lot of original material," Adams said at the hearing.

Still, the possibility is there, said Christina Wilkinson, president of the Newtown Historical Society.

"I absolutely do think it's a possibility," she said. "Things are uncovered all the time in New York City, believe it or not."

Within and along the creek, she said, one possible discovery could be mounds of oyster shells that Native American tribes used for currency.

Singleton said items from other eras could be uncovered as well. Some of the earliest European settlements were based along Newtown Creek in the 1600s and 1700s. On the Brooklyn side, an area called "Pottery Beach" was known for its rich clay soil and is considered by some historians as the birthplace of American pottery.

"You can find all kinds of things like clay pipes, vessels, pottery that was made, stuff like that," Singleton said.

Folklore also held that William "Captain" Kidd, a Scottish sailor and notorious pirate in the 1600s, stashed his treasure somewhere near the creek — a story that sent generations of neighborhood children digging for the precious loot, Singleton said.

"The area is probably one of the richest archeological sites in New York City," he said. "I'm not saying that they will find anything, but there is a very strong possibility, and every effort should be made to ensure that if something is, the proper techniques are applied."

A draft of plans outlined on the state DOT's website states that archeologists will inspect the project areas prior to construction, and that archeological monitoring will be conducted in regions "designated as moderate to high sensitivity for intact archeological resources."

According to maps included in the draft, a large swath of the affected area is considered to have moderate archeological potential, while two Queens blocks are considered as having high potential for prehistoric findings: near 43rd Street between 55th Avenue and 54th Drive and between 54th Avenue and 54th Road.

The project's prospective construction contractor will be expected to plan for delays that could result from archeological monitoring, according to the DOT.

"The plan will then be included in the Request for Proposals so that prospective bidders will be aware of their responsibilities before they place their bids," DOT spokesman Adam Levine said in an e-mail.

Historic discoveries have been made at New York City construction sites before. In 2010, workers at the World Trade Center site uncovered part of an 18th-century ship that had been undisturbed for more than 200 years.

Wilkinson, of the Newtown Historical Society, said she and other historians would be excited if a similar discovery was made along Newtown Creek.

"My fingers are crossed," she said.