Leonard Thomas, aka "The Chicken Man"
Red Hook’s east side is bounded by the Gowanus Bay which funnels into the Gowanus Canal at the Hamilton Avenue Bridge. PortSide’s flagship the tanker MARY A. WHALEN frequently delivered home heating oil to the two Bayside fuel terminals on the Gowanus Canal (only one now exists in 2023).
For the MARY, or any work boat or sailboat, to go up and down the canal, the bridges had to be raised by an employee of the NYC DOT, a bridge tender. A beloved and famous bridge tender was Leonard C. Thomas, “The Chicken Man.” He worked as a bridge tender for over twenty-two years, many years of that on the Gowanus that saw less and less boat traffic, giving him time to make plans to expand his weekend chicken cooking into a business.
In 1998, true to his word in Randy Kennedy’s 1996 NYT article below, Thomas published his cookbook, “Cooking with the Chicken Man.,” and you can find the link to that below.
Discussion of the Chicken Man on Facebook also gives us a first hand description of going down the canal from the perspective of an oil tanker.
See below for the link to a New York Times article from 1996 telling Thomas's story, as well as for a link to the cookbook he published in 1998, "Cooking with the Chicken Man."