Van Cortlandt Lake, Bronx

Each of New York’s flagship Olmsted-designed parks has its own pond or lake, intended for ice skating, fishing, and boating. Often these waterways predate the parks, with long natural and human histories relating to the development of neighborhoods around the parks. One such example is Van Cortlandt Lake in the Bronx.

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In the midst of the fall season, it is an ideal place to capture the sight of the foliage as it changes colors with the cooling temperatures.

Where it Flows

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Van Cortlandt Lake was formed in the 1699 when Tibbetts Brook was dammed to power the Van Cortlandt family’s gristmill. The brook has its headwaters in in Redmond Park in Yonkers, continuing south into Tibbetts Brook Park, towards the city line, where it enters Van Cortlandt Park.  The stream is named after colonial settler George Tippett. His descendants were loyalist and expelled from New York following the American Revolution, but the name remained on the stream, with the slight misspelling.

The valley through which the brook flows also includes the Harlem River north of 155th Street, separating the ridge of Washington Heights, Inwood, and Riverdale on its west, from the ridge of Kingsbridge Heights, Morris Heights, and University Heights on its east.

In 1888, the property surrounding this mill pond was given to the city, after a century and a half as the Van Cortlandt family’s estate. In the 1905 topographical map above, the park appears at its greatest extent, disturbed only by the Old Putnam rail line. On its southeast, Mosholu Parkway connects Van Cortlandt Park with Bronx Park. By the 1950s, the park will be sliced apart by three highways, still retaining its forested appearance but with the endless whooshing of vehicles behind the vegetation.

The Forgotten Gristmill

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Within the park, the footprint of the Van Cortlandt family is heavily imprinted on the landscape, where visitors can access the Van Cortlandt Mansion and the family’s burial vault. What’s missing is the gristmill that formed Van Cortlandt Lake. According to one book on the neighborhood, it burned down in a lightning strike in 1911.

Van Cortlandt Mill in Art

The historic significance and rural look of the gristmill made it a subject of art and photography, including an 1898 etching by Charles Frederick William Mielatz and a 1900 shot by an unknown photographer. The etching is in the collection of the Museum of the city of New York; while the photograph is in the new York Public Library’s Digital Collections.

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When Oscar Florianus Bluemner painted the dam site at Van Cortlandt Lake in 1936, the mill was gone. The bridge in the background is the railway trestle, with the water cascading into a pool that leads into a sewer. Judging by the colors, it appears to be a fall setting.

Old Putnam Crossing the Lake

The last train to rumble across Van Cortlandt Lake was in 1980, serving a lone manufacturer along the line after all others had closed. Soon after, nature had reclaimed the right of way and the tracks were removed after the Old Putnam line was designated as a pedestrian and bike path. Along with the trestle, other traces of the railway within the park include a platform canopy, and the Grand Central Stones. Commuters haven’t stood under the canopy since 1958, when competition from automobiles and the nearby Hudson Line made the Putnam Branch unprofitable for passenger service.

Into the Pool

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The cascade painted by Bluemner isn’t so attractive. A purely functional structure located on the site of the gristmill, it channels Tibbetts Brook into a sewer that runs south beneath Broadway towards Harlem River and the Wards Island Sewage Treatment Plant. The stream was forced underground between 1891 and 1894, with Tibbett Avenue running atop its former course in the Kingsbridge neighborhood.

Steve Duncan has been inside this sewer, but I’m content talking about its history from this vantage point. Under a proposal being discussed in the Parks Department, the brook would be released from its subterranean demise and channeled along the Major Deegan Expressway into the Harlem River.

Restored Wetland

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Not all of Tibbetts Brook’s water leaves the lake bound for the netherworld. Some of the water flows a few feet to the south of the sewer weir into a wetland located between the lake and the park’s public pool. Prior to 1894, the brook flowed freely through this marsh, continuing out of the park. Regarded as a nuisance and a mosquito breeding ground it was drained by 1922. Part of the wetland was developed in 1938 as the park’s stadium, and next to it, the public pool opened in 1970. A portion of the marsh was restored at the turn of the millennium, allowing some of the water from the lake to rest here, seeping into the ground.

Van Cortlandt Lakehouse

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Every park with a sizable lake has a boathouse. The boathouse for Van Cortlandt Lake was razed decades ago, but to its right in the above 1901 postcard is the much larger Van Cortlandt Lakehouse, built as the clubhouse for the oldest public golf course in the country. The course opened in 1895 and the clubhouse was completed seven years later. The course’s designer is the prolific Tom Bendelow, known as the Johnny Appleseed of American Golf. Over the course of 35 years, the Scottish immigrant designed nearly 600 courses across this country. Bendelow expanded VCP’s course from 9 holes to 18, giving it a less crowded appearance.

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In its early years, the VCP golf course was a popular venue for professional and amateur tournaments, as well as spectators attracted to the novelty of the sport, depicted above in an October 1899 New York Herald sports section. Since then, the Lakehouse has hosted many famous New Yorkers who came there to golf, as well as charitable events and private functions. North of Van Cortlandt Lake, Tibbetts Brook runs through the golf course and in places such as Hole 4, it was incorporated into the design as a water feature.

Winter Sports on the Lake

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Another Scottish sport, curling was also played at Van Cortlandt Lake in the early 20th century, as seen above in a photo from the historical guide to the park. While golf has caught on across this country, the sport known as “chess on ice” is associated by most Americans with Canada and its appearance at the winter Olympics. There is a curling league in Brooklyn, based in Prospect Park.

Ski by the Lake

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Another sport no longer practiced by Van Cortlandt Lake is skiing, which briefly took place in the 1960s, using the slopes of the golf course. The park’s humble hills opened to skiers in 1961, offering ropes in the place of lifts, artificial snow when natural snow wasn’t available, and night skiing as seen in the above Parks Archives photo. It had all of three trails mapped out for the sport.

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The city’s subway offered a special ski train to Van Cortlandt Park, going express north of Manhattan’s 96th street, as reported in December 1964 by New York Times. Before automobiles and highways, many of the country’s ski resorts had their own train lines. One by one they were abandoned and some ironically have become cross-country trails. By the decade’s end, skiing was no longer listed as an official offering at the park.

To this day, residents use other hills in the park for sledding and skiing, but without the rope lifts, instructors, and ski express subway service. They may also cross-country on the park’s many trails. The much higher slopes at the Fresh Kills landfill-turned-park on Staten Island will have ski slopes, but without the lifts, lodges, and other amenities associated with the sport.

Future of Van Cortlandt Lake

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In July 2014, the Parks Department published its Master Plan for Van Cortlandt Park, seeking to improve connections in a park slashed by highways, restore the ecology of Tibbetts Brook within the park, build a skating rink, among other items. Under this plan, Van Cortlandt Lake will appear as a centerpiece on Tibbetts Brook, rather than as its last hurrah before entering the sewers.

Learn More:

The park has two civic groups active in promoting public involvement in the park’s upkeep, the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy and Friends of Van Cortlandt Park.

While visiting the area, pick up a copy of Riverdale Press, the respected local weekly newspaper operated for many decades by brothers Buddy and Richie Stein. The former was my journalism professor in graduate school, while the latter proofread my works when I served as editor of The Jewish Star on Long Island.

Bronx Historical Society will be conducting a tour of Van Cortlandt Park on Saturday November 19.

Book Review:

Eric Sanderson and Christopher Spagnoli of the Wildlife Conservation Society reviewed my Hidden Waters of NYC book for The Nature of Cities.

In the News:

Queens Gazette reports on recommendations issued by the Astoria Park Alliance.

New York Times reports on Donald Trump’s plan to expand his golf course at Ferry Point Park, which faces local civic opposition.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that the City Council in Richmond, Va. voted against the restoration plan for Reedy Creek, on account of  concerns over tree removal.

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