Moravian Brook, Staten Island

With the Republican National Convention taking place next week, I have Staten Island on my mind. Historically, the borough has been the city’s most reliable GOP stronghold and the party’s headquarters can be found at 2300 Richmond Road, a former florist shop that is used as a campaign center during elections.

Directly across the street from this urban elephant outpost is Moravian Cemetery, one of the city’s elite burial grounds, mentioned in the same dying breath as Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery or Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

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The cemetery has a stream flowing through it, but where does it originate and what is its destination after it enters the underworld upon leaving the cemetery?

A Church and a Cemetery

In colonial New York, people were usually buried in either a family plot on private property, or in a graveyard adjoining a church. Examples of the former include the Brinckerhoff, Remsen, and Cornell cemeteries in Queens and Barkaloo Cemetery in Brooklyn. The most visited church graveyards in the city are those of Trinity and Saint Paul’s in Manhattan’s Financial District.

Staten Island’s Moravian Cemetery traces its origins to the New Dorp Moravian Church, which was founded in 1763, the second oldest church in the borough. The Moravian Church has its roots in Jan Hus’ protests against Catholic authority in late medieval Czechia. Soon after the church was built, the property around it was designated as a non-sectarian cemetery in order to discourage farmland burials. At 113 acres, it is the largest cemetery on the island and the resting place of numerous prominent locals including Alice Austen, William T. Davis, Max Maretzek, and members of the Vanderbilt family.

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There are so many famous names and unique monuments at this cemetery that it inspired Staten Islander Richard L. Simpson to write a book, A Walk Through Moravian Cemetery, along with walking tours through its grounds. Simpson took the above photo for his book’s Facebook page, showing a pond inside the cemetery.

Ponds and a waterfall

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Looking at old postcards of the pond, we see the original church structure that later became the cemetery office at the end of Crystal Lake. In the foreground is a bridge constructed in 1895 that has a waterfall beneath it draining into Sylvan Lake, the cemetery’s second lake. As with Moravian, likewise it was with Woodlawn and Green-Wood. Those cemeteries also have decorative ponds designed to provide a calming effect for visitors.

At the same time, in order to maintain the grounds, cemeteries must continue to make an income by burying more people. Roads are eliminated and ponds are filled to make way for more plots. At the Moravian Cemetery, the two ponds and the stream flowing through them have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. An alternative revenue stream for some local cemeteries is tourism. But where does this stream originate and where does it flow?

Where it Flows

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Looking south towards Richmond Road, we see the creek disappearing beneath the street, with the local GOP headquarters in view. I wonder whether the party’s embrace of Donald J. Trump may end up leading it into the political graveyard. A look at old maps should reveal details on this waterway.

According to Bien

New Creek 3

Looking at the 1891 Julius Bien map of Staten Island, we see three branches of New Creek merge within a wide salt marsh before emptying into the ocean. The westernmost branch of New Creek is marked in light blue, appearing on many maps as Moravian Brook. It has its headwaters in the Saint Francis Woodlands, where Priory Pond marks the starting point of the stream at its highest location. The brook leaves the pond in a trickle, hiding beneath thick forest cover before emerging on the grounds of the Richmond County Country Club. At New Dorp it turns east towards the wetlands.

One of the last two private golf clubs in New York City (the other one is in eastern Queens), its 135-acre Dongan Hills course has operated since 1897. At the time, the club also hosted the country’s first lawn tennis tournaments and fox hunting. The city’s other private golf clubs have since ceased operations or migrated to the suburbs, but the RCCC lived on. In 1989, the state purchased the golf course s part of the Greenbelt expansion and extended the country club a 99-year lease at an annual rent of $1. Leaving the golf course, the brook flows through its namesake cemetery, then beneath the streets of New Dorp before reemerging in the salt marsh.

Moravian Brook in the Bluebelt

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On maps issued by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, Moravian Brook appears within the 2,200-acre drainage area of New Creek, a stream that has been designated as a Bluebelt unit. This designation seeks to preserve natural drainage corridors for the purpose of conveying, storing, and filtering storm water, and in the process creating wildlife habitats and reducing the burden on sewers and treatment plants.

On the map above, it is too late to reconnect Moravian Brook with New Creek  on the surface as its former course has been developed. Blocks marked in pink indicate privately owned parcels acquired by the city to stave off developers and preserve what is left of the wetland.

Why is it New?

New Creek’s name was given by 19th century mapmakers who noticed how the stream’s mouth fluctuated as a result of storms and currents, changing its course and emptying into Lower New York Bay at different locations across Midland Beach.

In the News:

BK Paper reports on the closing of the popular Dog Beach at Prospect Park.

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