What Remains of Kissena Creek

What if my book had a children’s edition for a younger audience? With a warm Sunday two days ago, I took my daughter to Kissena Park. Having recently gained the confidence to walk, she was excited to do it in open space where there’s so much to discover.

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The centerpiece of the park is Kissena Lake, a natural waterway that drains into a wetland. It is a remnant of a larger stream that flowed through central Queens on its way to Flushing Meadows. Most of this stream is buried, but where exactly does it disappear from the surface?

The Way It Was

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According to the 1891 Julius Bien atlas, Kissena Creek (also known as Ireland Mill Creek and Mill Creek) originated in a peat marsh known as Gutman’s Swamp, flowing  east through Fresh Meadows, then turning north at Utopia Parkway and finally east near Kissena Park Golf Course. The stream widened into a lake in Kissena Park, continuing through Kissena Corridor Park and Queens Botanical Garden towards Flushing Meadows, where it merged with Flushing Creek. As the map above shows, Kissena Lake also had a northern tributary.

The story of Kissena Park is tied to Samuel Bowne Parsons, a botanist who established a nursery in the present-day park in 1872. He is the namesake for Parsons Boulevard, which approaches the park. An amateur historian, he studied the Native Americans and bestowed the Chippewa word for “it is cold” on the lake. It did not seem to matter that the Chippewa nation lived further to the west. The name appeared fitting as it was used at the time for ice harvesting in winter.

Kissena ice

The lake was first proposed as a park by urban planner Louis Risse in 1900. Looking at the path of the abandoned Stewart Line, he envisioned a series of connected parks stretching between Flushing Meadows and the eastern edge of Queens. It was an early example of a linear park atop an unused rail line, a predecessor to today’s rail trails.

A Scandalous Start

Most of present-day Kissena Park was purchased by the city in 1907 at the cost of $594,233. Critics ridiculed the parcel as a worthless swamp and demanded an investigation into the allegedly inflated asking price.

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In the sale Flushing lawyer and former State Assemblyman George L. Glaser received a $60,000 commission, which also raised eyebrows. The investigation also involved broker James A. Gray, Jr, who claimed that originated the sale and deserved a cut of the commission. Both the investigation and the lawsuit cleared Glaser of perjury. Glaser reappeared in the headlines in 1917 when he was found wandering aimlessly in Harlem after being reported missing by his wife. A year later, he was committed to Rivercrest Sanitarium, where he was held for harboring illusions of grandeur.

Queens Borough President Joseph Bermel (1860-1921) was also suspected of graft as his bank account was significantly increased at the time of the sale. In 1906, Bermel rebelled against his boss, Borough President Joe Cassidy, accusing the clubhouse Democrat of corruption and successfully running against him as a Republican reformer. Two years later, Bermel himself was accused of the same practices. Instead of appearing before the grand jury, he resigned on April 29, 1908 and fled to Europe, dying at Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia in 1921. Cassidy’s notoriety died not end with his ouster. In 1912, he was sentenced for trying to sell a judicial seat.

Flushing’s Central Park

Although the acquisition of the park was under shady circumstances, having spent an exorbitant sum to obtain the land, the city designed a park that resembled Central Park and Prospect Park in appearance.

old kissena map

On the 1908 map above, the Paris-MacDoudal Company shows its completed homes (in red) to the north of the park. The white line within the park is the abandoned railway, unused since 1879. I highlighted present-day Booth Memorial Avenue, 164th Street, and Kissena Boulevard for reference. The water features within the park include Kissena Lake, and two smaller lakes connect by Kissena Creek. Most of the surrounding landscape has been parceled out but not yet developed.

Among the early features of the park that were lost over time are a stone bridge spanning the northern inlet of the lake, which was buried; a rustic gazebo; and an outdoor swimming pool fed by water from the lake.

Leaving the Lake

At its western end, the lake drained into Kissena Creek through a constructed rapids that sounded like a babbling brook. Forget about that today. In the 1940s, the rapids were channeled into  pipe and a neck of dry land separates Kissena Lake from the wetlands of Kissena Creek.

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The Wetland

A more recent but undated map shows Kissena Park in its current condition, representing various constituencies- small children, athletes, and bikers. In blue is the freshwater wetland of Kissena Creek. The park’s two smaller lakes were covered and the northern inlet to Kissena Lake at Oak Avenue is now a playground. A horizontal bow that bisects the park is the embankment of the Stewart Line. No rails or rail ties remain from this old railway.

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In this wetland, water emerged from the ground beneath a thicket of branches. Could this be a natural spring? Quite a rarity in the city.

Tucked in the wetland is a clearing where Kissena Creek descends beneath the surface into a sewer, never to see daylight again. Here’s my daughter exploring around the sewer drain, her first time poking around a hidden city waterway. Above the drain is the embankment of the Stewart Line.

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As the older maps above show, Kissena Creek used to flow on the surface westward for another mile and a half. Between 1940 and 1954, the creek was filled using earth from the nearby Long Island Expressway excavation. The western third of Kissena Park is entirely landfill, as is Kissena Corridor Park and Queens Botanical Garden.

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Where water appears

After heavy rainfall, water often reappears in the low-lying sections of Kissena Corridor Park where the creek once flowed. These oversize puddles are vernal pools, a habitat that hosts fairy shrimp, wood frogs, and salamanders.

Restoration of the Lake

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After decades of complaints about algae growth, the city undertook a $2.3 million restoration of Kissena Lake that was completed in early 2003. The project provided aeration to improve water quality, replaced portions of the concrete shoreline with rocks and plants, and constructed a bird sanctuary isle in the lake. The naturalistic splendor of the lake raises the question: could the rest of Kissena Creek be restored as well?

With the Staten Island Bluebelt as an example, one way of restoring Kissena Creek to the surface is in the form of a constructed wetland that would reduce the burden on the city’s sewers by transporting, storing, and filtering storm water through natural means. The land is there in Kissena Corridor Park, meaning that no private properties would be affected by a restored Kissena Creek.

As the 1909 Bromley atlas plate shows, the stream’s course flowed entirely within the rough outlines of today’s parks.

1909 Kissena Bromley

Perhaps at some point when my daughter grows up, instead of following Kissena Creek to a sewer drain, she will follow it through the entire length of Kissena Park, as had been possible prior to 1940.

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