On Buttermilk Channel

It’s called Buttermilk Channel. You have to love that name, evoking such pleasant visions of rich and creamy undulation. This undulation is in fact a narrow tidal strait, one mile long and one-fourth mile wide, separating Governors Island from Brooklyn; but while its name is pleasant, the origin of the name is obscure.

Presumably, the name comes from the channel itself. Nowadays it flows deep and placid, after being dredged in the 19th century, but once it was shallow and turbulent; its waters would foam up like buttermilk, according to contemporary accounts.

Some folklorists believe that the name derived from the trade of dairy farmers who once crossed the channel to sell milk in Manhattan markets. Crossing the foaming like buttermilk channel was apparently a rough transport and legend has it that the farmers’ milk was churned to butter upon reaching Manhattan.

Yet another possible (if more prosaic) source is that before it was dredged to allow for cargo ship traffic, cows were driven across the channel at low tide to graze on Governors Island. Walt Whitman, in his newspaper articles on Brooklyn history, states that “as late as the Revolutionary War…cattle were driven across from Brooklyn, over what is now Buttermilk Channel, to Governors Island.”

During the incredible winter of 1817, the Year Without a Summer, temperatures dropped to -26®F (-32® C) and froze New York Bay. That year, when the “buttermilk” probably assumed a more sherbert-like appearance, not only cows but horse-drawn sleighs were driven across Buttermilk Channel.

Our historical and cultural continuity depends on the various appellatives that our ancestors deemed appropriate for the ancient topographical and architectural sites around us; they had a way with words. If often vague in meaning, mysterious in origin, these names are oftentimes poetic in effect. A person finds sweet tantalization in a name like Buttermilk Channel, even if they’ve never tasted buttermilk.