Sunfish Pond, Manhattan

In the Manhattan neighborhood of Murray Hill, prewar office buildings share the blocks with brownstone residences and churches. Park Avenue South runs through this old neighborhood, offering no hints of a stream and pond that once lay at the intersection of Park Avenue South and East 31st Street.

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Here was Sunfish Pond, depicted above in Kenneth Holcomb Dunshee’s 1952 publication As You Pass By.

History of the Pond

The pond’s source was a stream that originated at West 44th Street and Broadway in present-day Times Square. Its Dutch name was t’Oude Wrack, or “old wreck,” named after a ship that was wrecked in the East River near the creek’s mouth. This stream paralleled Broadway towards Herald Square, making a turn to the east where it emptied into Sunfish Pond. The stream then continued towards Kips Bay at 34th Street, where it emptied into the East River. Below is an image of the Kip house from the NYPL Digital Collections.

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This cove’s namesake was Dutch settler Jacobus Hendrickson Kip, whose 1655 farmhouse at Second Avenue and East 35th Street survived to 1851.

In his 1809 satirical work 1809 satirical history The Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving attributes Kip’s Bay to Jacobus’ father Hendrick Kip. There is a high school named after Irving a mile to the south at Irving Place and E. 17th Street, winch features a bust of Irving and interior murals on state history by artist Barry Faulkner.

At the Pond

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The site of this pond is in an inland neighborhood known since colonial times as Murray Hill, named after shipping merchant Robert Murray, who built his Inclenberg farm on a nearby hilltop in 1762. To the east of the pond, Eastern Post Road meandered its way north along Manhattan’s East Side, roughly parallel to today’s Third Avenue. The road continued in the Bronx as Boston Post Road, connecting the two vital colonial cities. Sunfish Pond served as a rest stop for travelers on this road.

American Revolution

During the American Revolution, Robert’s wife Mary Lindley Murray was credited with saving the lives of Generals George Washington and Israel PutnamLocal lore suggests that as George Washington was retreating uptown following his defeat at Brooklyn Heights, the British attempted to cut him off by landing at Kips Bay. The landing was depicted below in a 1777 painting by Robert Cleveley.

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Mrs. Murray invited General William Howe and Governor William Tryon to the Inclenberg mansion for tea, entertaining them long enough to enable the patriots to escape. “It has since become almost a common saying among our officers, that Mrs. Murray saved this part of the American army,” wrote local doctor James Thatcher in his journal.

A plaque installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution at 130 East 37th Street at Lexington Avenue marks the site of Inclenberg, commemorating Mrs. Murray. The mansion burned in 1834 and a decade later the Murray family sold their land to developers. A restrictive covenant on the former farm listed clauses banning the use of the properties for slaughterhouses, glue factories or circuses. But outside of the Murray farm’s borders, industry was creeping in.

Glue seals the pond

In 1821, Peter Cooper bought a glue factory near sunfish pond, taking advantage of its proximity to Bull’s Head Market, which relocated to the area in 1813. The market supplied Cooper’s factory with cows’ and calves’ feet, which were used to produce glue, gelatin and household cement. He lived nearby on 28th Street until 1848. That home survived to 1909, replaced by an office building. Cooper went on to a successful career as an early railroad pioneer, anti-slavery activist, Native American rights advocate and presidential candidate. His lasting gift to New York is the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a tuition-free private college located in East Village. Other reminders of Cooper in the area is the Peter Cooper Village co-ops and a park called Peter’s Field.

Fire by the Pond

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As pollution and development increased, the pond was no longer a reliable supplier of water for the area. In 1838, the House of Refuge, the nation’s first youth asylum caught fire. Originally an armory, the school was located near Sunfish Pond at present-day Madison Square Park and water from the pond was used to douse the flames. After a few gallons, the water turned to mud, effectively draining the pond.  Cooper’s success resulted in the pollution of the once-pristine skating pond and in 1839 it was filled.

Railroad Tunnels

Although the burial of Sunfish Pond did not result in the slum conditions that followed the burials of Minetta Brook and Collect Pond, it reemerged in the headlines in 1907, when the Pennsylvania Railroad was constructing the East River Tubes connecting Long Island with Penn Station. Leaking walls forced workers to reinforce the tunnel beneath Park Avenue.

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On the 1955 Bromley atlas above, the pond’s outline is highlighted. The railroad tunnel below 32nd Street is marked as “Penna Tunnel.” With the exception of a small parking lot, the entire site of the pond has been developed.

Empire State Building

At the northern edge of Murray Hill, the Empire State Building stands atop the course of t’Oude Wrack. It has been written in many guidebooks that pumps beneath the iconic 1931 skyscraper work nonstop to keep the water out. Most books on this building do not mention Sunfish Pond so it may be a stretch of the imagination to presume that the creek poses a hazard to the 102-story structure.

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On the Bromley page for the skyscraper’s block, the brook draining into the pond appears to have flowed across the property . It was drained a century before the Empire State Building was constructed.

No park or pavement marker commemorates Sunfish Pond. When standing at the corner of Park Avenue South and East 31st Street, fishing and ice skating could not be further from one’s mind.

In the News:

Coming up:

I will be speaking tomorrow at the Douglaston-Little Neck Historical Society’s annual meeting, on the streams of northeast Queens. Everyone is welcome to attend this free public event. Signed books will be available for sale.

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