Continuing on the southeast Queens theme, here’s another hidden waterway visible to countless airplane passengers but nearly inaccessible on the ground to the public.
Flanking the western edge of JFK International Airport, Bergen Basin has been used mainly for fuel deliveries to the airport’s massive tank farm. Prior to the construction of the airport, the highly polluted basin was an inlet of Jamaica Bay, site to a fishing community long forgotten.
As it was
The stream originally emerged from the ground near 131th Street at Conduit Avenue, a point labeled on 19th century maps as Bergen Landing and at the turn of the 20th century as Richmond Hill Circle.
In the 1901 E. Belcher-Hyde map above, the future site of JFK Airport is mostly undeveloped marshland punctured by inlets. On its western edge is the LIRR Rockaway Branch; highlighted is the Brooklyn Water Works conduit that later became the Belt Parkway. The red line is the ancient Bergen Landing Road that connected downtown Jamaica and Bergen Basin. Today, this road is indicated by 131st Street, Lincoln Road and Lakewood Avenue. These three connected streets follow the path of Bergen Landing Road, predating the north-south grid that was later imposed on the landscape.
What was the Bergen Landing community is presently occupied by Jamaica Water Pollution Control Plant. The first water treatment facility at this location was constructed in 1903 and has been expanding since then to handle untreated water coming from 25,313 acres of land in southeastern Queens.
The stream emerges to the surface to the south of the plant, flowing west and then turning south towards Jamaica Bay. On its eastern bank, the inlet is lined with fuel storage tanks and runway approaches. To its north and west are long-term parking facilities situated along the southern tip of Lefferts Boulevard. Since 2003, these lots were connected to the airport’s passenger terminals by the Airtrain, an 8.1-mile elevated transit system.
In the late 1940s aerial from the Port Authority archives, all the creeks and inlets draining into Jamaica Bay had been covered by the airport. Only Bergen Basin remains, carved as a channel around the airport’s western side. What was Idlewild airport in 1942 was renamed the Major General Alexander E. Anderson Airport a year later. In 1948, the City Council renamed it New York International Airport, but people continued to call it Idlewild. It received its final name, JFK on December 24, 1963 a month after the assassination of the beloved 35th president.
East Hamilton Beach
The neck of land situated between Bergen Basin and the Rockaway subway line is divided between parking lots, a training facility and undeveloped space. Prior to the early 1960s, it was a neighborhood comprised of fishing shacks with canals between them. The neighborhood’s 200 residents were given notice of the airport’s expansion in 1947 and that year some of the homes were removed by flatbed truck.
Aerial photos from 1924 and 1966 show the changing fortunes of Hamilton Beach. While the western half was growing, the eastern half was condemned in 1945 to make was for an expanded Idlewild Airport. The 1966 survey shows a few vacant homes remaining near the shore of Jamaica Bay, where three finger-like canals provided boat access to dozens of backyards. By 1966, all were gone and the canals were filled in.
What’s there today
No trace of East Hamilton Beach remains today expect a graffiti-covered pumping station tank at the mouth of Bergen Basin. With airport security in mind, the site of the former neighborhood and Bergen Basin remain inaccessible to the public.
On the Google Maps aerial above, the site of East Hamilton Beach is the green strip between Bergen Basin and the Rockaway line, an unplanned wildlife preserve that is the result of tight airport security. The long-term parking lots on Lefferts Boulevard are on the northwest; the Jamaica Bay Water Pollution Control Plant is on the northeast; and the tank farm is inside the bend of the stream.
Although the basin is closed to the public, the city is always looking for ways to reduce the trip between the airport and Manhattan. In November 2001, Empire WaterLink proposed a ferry service with a dock on Bergen Basin that would connect the airport with Middletown, New Jersey, a 45-minute ride with a $98 fare. In May 2014, a boat carrying local elected officials interested in starting a ferry to JFK Airport ran into mud, indicative of where the proposal still stands to this day.
Books on Streams
As today is Wednesday, here are a few books that mention streams in southern Queens that I’ve used as sources.
The first two books describe the transformation of the Idlewild marshland into an international airport while the Laurelton book served as my source on yesterday’s post about Twin Ponds. No article about Bergen Basin would be complete without giving credit to Dan Hendrick’s book on Jamaica Bay, which he later expanded into a documentary narrated by Susan Sarandon.
In the News: WNYC reports on the proposal to construct tidal gates at Jamaica Bay to hold back storm surges.