Bronx Kill

Looks like I’m playing catch-up to Kevin Walsh of Forgotten-NY. He’s beaten me to the city’s newest pedestrian-only crossing between two boroughs, the Randalls Island Connector which opened last November.

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A bridge beneath an existing bridge, it offers views of the northern leg of Triborough Bridge and a stream called Bronx Kill that separates the Bronx from Randalls Island.

As it Was

1948 aerial

In the 1948 aerial above, Randalls, Wards and Sunken Meadow islands retain their separate forms with Little Hell Gate flowing between the islands to on the extreme top of the photo, the Bronx Kill connecting the Harlem River and the upper East River. Not seen here is Mill Brook, the only stream that drained into the Bronx Kill. More about that stream here.

Triborough Bridge takes vehicles across this little-known strait and the Hell Gate Bridge does the same for trains. In 2008, Governor David Paterson had the bridge renamed after former Senator Robert F. Kennedy. However, anyone who calls the Triborough Bridge by its new official name is not a true New Yorker. Pedestrians seeking to cross from the Bronx to Randalls Island had to take a steep ramp on the Triborough Bridge to get there. Since 1948 there has been discussion for a lower elevation crossing for pedestrians but among the logistical issues was a rail yard on the stream’s northern side.

Harlem River Yard

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At the southernmost point of the Bronx is a rail yard, since 1866 serving as the southern terminus of the 96-acre Harlem River and Port Chester Railroad. At 132nd Street and Willis Avenue, city-bound commuters would transfer to the Third Avenue El to continue their trip further downtown. Next to this terminus were freight tracks serving industries in the neighborhood. With the completion of the Hell Gate Bridge, trains terminated at Penn Station and this old terminus closed to passenger service in 1924. As the DoITT CityMap aerial above shows, from that point, the yard went into decline as trucks eclipsed freight trains in the postwar years.

In 1991, the state entered into a 99-year lease agreement with Harlem River Yard Ventures to develop and operate Harlem River Yards as a mixed-use industrial park. A rail link along the Harlem River completed in 1998 transformed the remaining tracks from a terminus to a connector linking the Hell Gate line with the Hudson Line. The following decade saw a number of idealistic proposals for the rail yard seeking to capitalize on its location where water meets highway meets rail- intermodal perfection.

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The one with the highest profile was the unrealized Bronx Community Paper Company, a green business venture proposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association with a design by starchitect Maya Lin. Legal squabbling between competing advocacy groups effectively killed this project by 1997. Presently, a portion of the rail yard is used as a New York Post printing plant and a FreshDirect Distribution center under construction.

Not for Swimming!

Although Bronx Kill has the width of a brook, it is a tidal strait with turbulent currents and significant depth in spots. Prior to the 1940s, it was much wider and even more deadly.

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The most recent drowning on the Bronx Kill was on June 5, 1998, when Christopher Lee, 11 fell into the stream. Over the decades, the stream claimed the lives of wayward souls.

In June 1889, Upper East Side resident Ezra Hirschfield, 11, drowned in the Bronx Kill on his third day cutting classes. A young smoker, Hischfield hitchhiked aboard barges and freight trains. According to the New York Times account of his disappearance, he reportedly fell off a trestle near the confluence of Mill Brook and Bronx Kill. His body washed up on Randalls Island.

In July 1895, three men went boating late at night after an evening of drinking at a local saloon. An argument between the men developed on the boat and soon, all three were in the water. John Doyle, 27, and James Leahy, 25 both lived on Manhattan’s East Side. The survivor, a stonecutter named William Hurd, 27, swam ashore and notified authorities. Unlike Hirschfield’s body, which washed up, Doyle and Leahy were never found and the police did not bother to search, arguing that the bodies may have been carried miles away by the current.

Young Inmates on the Island

Going back a century earlier, Randalls Island had no bridges, serving as a campus of asylums housing troubled individuals. Below is an 1855 rendering of the House of Refuge on Randalls Island.

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On July 7, 1902, Joseph Dillon, 17, who was serving time at the asylum for petty theft drowned in the Bronx Kill during an escape attempt. Together with bicycle thief Michael Verholly and a third unnamed accomplice, the boys scaled the walls of their prison, swimming across Bronx Kill before being identified by rail yard workers. Dillon’s body also found its resting place with the truant schoolboy and the two blue-collar drunkards.

Canoeing the Bronx Kill

With swimming out of the question, there’s still the option of canoeing the creek in group flotillas led by the advocacy group Friends of Brook Park. In 2011, the group succeeded in getting Con Ed to remove low-lying concrete cable ducts that impeded canoes on the stream. The arched Randalls Island Connector is located in place of those ducts, but a slightly higher clearance that enables canoes to pass underneath.

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Water Park on Bronx Kill

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A paper recycling plant by Maya Lin was not the only unrealized grand scheme for Bronx Kill. In 2006, the city initially offered a 35-year lease of 26 acres on Randalls Island to Aquatic Development Group to build a water amusement park for the public. The growth of the site from 12 to 26 acres, the proposed $37 entrance fee, and a past bankruptcy by the developer brought serious concerns to the project. In 2007, the city cancelled the deal, preserving the baseball fields on Randalls Island’s north shore. The developer sued the city in 2012. Architectural renderings don’t come cheap. Notice how green the rail yard and East Harlem appear in the above illustration.

In the News: CityLab‘s Jessica Leigh Hester shares her tips for finding hidden places in a city.

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