I recently found a postcard that shows a boathouse on the Bronx River but had no idea where this boathouse stood. By its appearance, it is a counterpart to the boathouses of Central Park and Prospect Park but while those parks are also located at the centers of their respective boroughs, most of Bronx Park is not an open park. For more than a century, its land was set aside for the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden.
So if this boathouse was within the park, what happened to it and what’s there today?
Boathouses in city parks
The city’s history of boathouses in Parks can be summed up in three generations with the first being the Olmstedian boathouses of Central Park and Prospect Park, followed by the Depression-period public works projects that built boathouses in Van Cortlandt Park, Crotona Park, Flushing Meadows, Kissena Park, and Brookville Park. Along with storing boats, the city’s park boathouses serve as comfort stations, and provide space for offices and restaurants.
Over the decades, some of the parks experienced changes in usage and funding shortfalls that resulted in the demolitions such as Brookville, and changes in use such as Kissena and Crotona, which are no longer used as boathouses but are still standing.
The most recent boathouse category is from the last three decades that includes the Peter Jay Shart Boathouse at Sherman Creek, and the Bronx River Boathouse that opened this year. Having opened in 1907, the boathouse in the postcard above should be put in the Olmstedian category.
A Greensward for the Bronx
Thanks to the efforts of newspaper editor John Mullaly, the city acquired land for Bronx Park in 1888 intending it to serve as a central park for the future borough. The New York Botanical Garden was assigned the northern half of the park in 1891 and Bronx Zoo opened on the southern half in 1899. Around the park’s periphery playgrounds and pathways were constructed while a segment of the ancient Boston Road running through the park was closed to outside traffic.
The section of Bronx River running through the zoo has two mill dams on it that form Lake Agassiz and Bronx Lake. On the latter, a boathouse was built in 1907 containing boat rentals and a restaurant catering to zoo visitors. In its early years the public could take a boat from here and see the zoo from the Bronx River. At the same time, there were also a few cases of boats coming too close to the waterfall at the 182nd Street Dam, spilling over the edge and causing injuries to passengers. As author Steven Paul DeLillo writes, these were often daring young men trying to impress their girlfriends.
Seeking to further enhance its status as a tourist destination, the zoo made a bid in 1909 to have a replica of Henry Hudson’s ship Half Moon docked in Bronx Lake after the tercentennial celebrations on the Hudson River concluded. The ship’s owners declined the bid arguing that Hudson had no connection with the Bronx River.
When did the Boathouse Disappear?
As I no longer work at Parks Archives, I did not have instant access to documents to answer when this boathouse closed. Relying on old maps of the Bronx Zoo, I found the last map (above) to feature the boathouse dating to the 1950s.
A map of the zoo from the following decade looks nearly identical but the boathouse is gone. In 1983, the Jungle World building was completed on the site of the boathouse and next to it the Wild Asia (formerly Bengali Express) monorail makes its loop around Bronx Lake presenting elephants, rhinos, and Siberian tigers to visitors from a safe distance. It opened in 1977 on previously undeveloped land within the zoo’s borders.