Real [Terrifying] Estate: Love Canal

We're looking back at some of the entries of The New York Grimpendium with unpublished photos and adapted accounts of my visits to these macabre oddities. Pick up the book today!

January 31, 2018 — It was a blue-sky, late-summer day, and I was standing at the edge of a grassy field. It was a peaceful scene, idyllic even…except for the ugly, 10-foot-tall chain-link fence wrapped around the field and the “authorization required” sign hanging off the fence. But this wasn’t a “blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind” moment. The owners weren’t trying to hoard that land from me. They were trying to protect me from that land.

Love Canal. I know. It sounds like a euphemism for a part of the female anatomy. Truth is, it’s one of the more disturbing examples of corporate and municipal irresponsibility in the history of the country. We’re talking toxic sludge and deformed babies, here.

Love Canal began as the entrepreneurial vision of a man named William Love in the 1890s. His aim was to dig a canal in the Niagara Falls region of New York to divert water from the Niagara River to power a community that he was planning.

For various reasons that just slow the narrative from getting to the disturbing stuff, the project fell through and only about 3,000 feet of the canal were dug. Reported measurements vary, but it was anywhere from 50-100 feet wide and ranged in depth from 10 to 40 feet. Mostly, locals used the watery pit as a swimming hole.

Sometime around 1920, it was bought by the city of Niagara Falls, lined with clay, and used as an industrial waste dump. In the 1940s, it was taken over by Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation, which continued to add barrels of toxic chemicals to the brew. Eventually, more than 20,000 tons of all kinds of Toxic Avenger-inducing sludge was dumped there, running a gamut of Twinkie ingredients that ranged from caustics to carcinogens.

In 1953, the pit was capped and covered. Eventually, grass grew over the spot and made the whole thing look a lot more appealing than a toxic waste dump full of hundreds of chemicals should.

Meanwhile, the population of Niagara Falls was expanding. Houses and schools were needed, and that 16-acre plot and its surrounding land became extremely tempting for a city looking to raise such infrastructure. The school board in particular wanted Love Canal. It seemed like a great place to teach children. And they were right, as long as the curriculum centered on the horrors of life.

Here’s where the story gets kind of confusing. Apparently, Hooker, against all stereotypes of evil corporations, didn’t want to sell the land due to safety and/or legal concerns, but eventually acquiesced to pressure from the school board and gave it to the board for one symbolic dollar. The deed clearly outlined the dangers of the property, and representatives even took the purchasers out to the site and drilled holes to show them Love Canal’s creamy filling.

Basically, Hooker did enough to play the Pontius Pilate role in this Passion Play.

So the board constructed a couple of schools adjacent to the area, and the banks of the canal were sold off to residential developers who built entire neighborhoods for the growing populace. Symbolically, the only thing built directly on top of Love Canal was a playground.

Gradually all the set up shots from the horror movie this was shaping up to be began to pay off. Sometime in the 1970s, people started noticing strange odors, and oily noxious liquids oozing into their basements and lying in ominous puddles on the ground. Plants and trees turned colors only describable by H.P. Lovecraft. Strange metal barrels could be found protruding from the soil. People would burn their feet just walking around. The miscarriage rate increased to an improbable level, and kids seemed to be contracting lots of medical problems.

It didn’t take long for tests to reveal toxic waste contaminating the entire area as if there were some badly maintained underground dump site nearby. The story went national and reporters came in and filmed angry parents protesting with footage-conducive signs. The Environmental Protection Agency, which had only been instituted earlier that decade stepped in, and President Jimmy Carter designated it a disaster area and invested federal funds to clean up the area, demolish the affected school buildings and houses, and relocate some 900 families.

That previous paragraph makes it sound like it all happened quickly, but it actually took years for everybody to figure out what was going on and what needed to be done and how to get it done. Oh, and who to blame. The faceless corporation that was Hooker, which by this time had been purchased by another company, Occidental Petroleum, was held accountable for exactly $129 million worth of blame.

The event was so influential that it became the catalyst for the federal Superfund initiative, a strangely named project that continues to this day cleaning up neglected industrial waste sites throughout the country.

Today, most of the 16 acres of Love Canal proper is surrounded by a rectangle of ten-foot tall chain-link fence. Inside, it’s just a green stretch of land strewn with innocuous-looking wells and access pipes for testing the groundwater. A small water treatment plant sits on the site to help filter rainwater. Mostly, it’s an empty field.

You can drive all the way around the property, which I did. I was hoping for some photo ops with “Danger” or “Hazardous Chemicals” signs. I was even ready to settle for a Mr. Yuck sticker, but nothing like that adorned the fence. I also wanted to see if anything was left over from the mass and massive demolition, but apparently the materials were buried right there in Love Canal, before the whole site was covered with layers of protective plastic and soil.

Honestly, the land looks serene. Like the perfect place for a soccer field or a park. Or for a traveling carnival to set up on every year. Love Canal still sits in the middle of a residential area, and the houses, while not crowded around it as in past decades, are still pretty close, some a mere strip of road away and others just a couple of blocks, but all that is a testament to the work being done to keep the location safe…I guess.

And that’s the story of, that’s the story of love canal. No evil corporations. No power-mad politicians. No bad guys, really. Just a lot of regular people making a lot of bad decisions based on social pressures and self-interests. You know, everyday life.

And Twinkie ingredients.

This fascinating macabre site and some 250 more can be found in the dark depths of The New York GrimpendiumBuy it today.