In 1874, a map like none other was unfurled before city planners by Col. Egbert Ludovicus Viele. Designed in a time when the city was rapidly expanding north thanks to advances in public transportation, Viele captured for posterity the locations of the island’s springs, brooks, creeks, and swamps, where land meets landfill, tracing former shorelines and hilltops. To this day, this map is used by structural engineers in Manhattan, who check it for buried streams when constructing buildings, tunnels and utility lines.
With 82 of the 101 hidden city streams in my book located outside of Manhattan, what map did I use to find these waterways?
The answer is Joseph Rudolf Bien, the outer boroughs’ answer to Viele. In his 1891 atlas fully titled “Atlas of the Metropolitan District and adjacent country comprising the counties of New York, Kings, Richmond, Westchester and part of Queens in the state of New York, the county of Hudson and parts of the counties of Bergen, Passaic, Essex and Union in the state of New Jersey.” The maps in this atlas include topographic lines, town boundaries, wetlands, forests, railways and bathymetric measurements, taken in part from the the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Geological Survey of New Jersey from 1890. Joseph Bien was the cartographer and Julius Bien was the publisher, along with surveyor Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule.
At the time, the outer boroughs were less than a decade from being annexed by New York City, still largely rural but traversed by ancient roads that later became arterial routes with local streets weaving between them in newly-built neighborhoods.
In the example above, the northern shore of Staten Island, was already built up in places as the Town of Castleton. Its main streams were Clove Brook, Palmer’s run and Bodine Creek. Its lakes include Silver Lake, Factory Pond (no longer extant), Clove Lake, Brook’s Pond and Martling Pond. The map dutifully depicts the lakes with their surface elevations. The stream draining out of the lake was covered by development in the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to Bien’s marking of Jewett Avenue and Clove Road, one can search for the former stream bed by following these two roads, which still have the same names as back in 1891.
In a closeup of central Queens, the northbound stream with the red line is Flushing Creek, its color marking the boundary between the towns of Newtown and Flushing. horizontal blue stripes indicate that a sizable wetland takes up both of its sides. The limits of the wetland correspond to today’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. On the northeastern corner of the map, Kissena Creek flows into Flushing Creek. The tributary’s buried stream bed is today the Kissena Corridor Park.
On the left bank of Flushing Creek, the main tributary is Horse Brook, which originated near the center of Newtown and flowed east towards Flushing Meadows. Horse Brook had its own tributaries, one feeding from the north on the site of present-day LeFrak City, and another from its south which originated in a valley marked by Yellowstone Boulevard. The road meanders through the valley and includes a park that preserves the topography amid dense apartments.
As if the map isn’t valuable enough by all the details mentioned above, a closer look at the village of Corona shows two glacial kettle ponds, Linden Pond and Shady Lake. The former became the centerpiece for Linden Park, a three-acre space that predates Central Park in Manhattan. The pond was drained in 1947 and is presently a softball field. Shady Lake was located to the south of the bowtie-shaped intersection on 108th Street and Corona Avenue.
In its day, it was used for ice harvesting but was drained in the early 20th century. Ironically, the corner of Corona Avenue and 108th Street is the location of the Lemon Ice King of Corona, a popular purveyor of Italian ices founded in 1944.
Bien was not my only source however. The New York Public Library has a helpful online collection of fire insurance, topographic and property maps that can be used to find the city’s hidden streams. No annoying watermarks, so go ahead and save these maps for your research.