At the city’s extreme northeast is Pelham Bay Park, a vast greensward that is three times the size of Central Park. One could not feel more distant from the city when visiting the park’s destinations: Orchard Beach, Bartow-Pell Mansion, Split Rock Golf Course, and the trails of Hunter Island and Twin Islands. On the inland side of the park is the Hutchinson River, known to most New Yorkers as the namesake of the parkway that follows its course.
The river has a history relating to the conflict among Puritan colonists in New England that led to the English annexation of New Netherlands.
Where it Flows
Hutchinson River has its furthest headwaters in Scarsdale, flowing south through New Rochelle, Pelham, and Mount Vernon before crossing the city line into the Bronx. The map on the left was designed by Hutchinson River Restoration Project, outlining the municipalities along its course. I added to it the bridges crossing the river within the city.
At five miles from source to mouth, I’m not sure why this stream is called a river rather than a creek, but in the course of my research on urban streams, there is no standard for defining a brook, creek, and river.
For the world’s oceans, seas, gulfs, bays, bights, channels, and straits, there is the International Hydrographic Organization that defines their borders, names, and other standards. Fittingly, it is based in the seaside monarchy of Monaco.
From its Source
Hutchinson River’s furthest source is at the appropriately named Brookline Road in Scarsdale. The swale where the water emerges from the ground is on private property, sizable leafy yards in an upscale suburb of the city.
A mile from its source, the brook widens into three reservoirs that were created to provide water for the surrounding villages. In 1885, the city of New Rochelle built a dam to hold back nearly 300 million gallons that comprise First Reservoir.
Within a decade, a second dam was built to supply water to Pelham and Eastchester. A few years later, a third dam was added to the river. The first reservoir also carries the name Lake Innisfree, from an 1893 poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
The website for the Interlaken Gardens Co-ops has a detailed history of this reservoir. Among the reservoir amenities for the co-op members are boating and a private beach. On the 1930s aerial survey that appears on the co-op’s history web page, we see Reservoir #2 in the foreground, Reservoir #3 in the middle, and Reservoir #1 (Lake Innisfree) in the background. Their numbers are not in sequential order, but chronological, based on the years of their completion. From Reservoir #1 to the Bronx, the river is followed by Hutchinson River Parkway, which runs from the Connecticut border southward to Whitestone Bridge.
In contrast, Reservoir Number 3 and Reservoir Number Two are public property, enveloped by Twin Lakes County Park. The web page for this park offers nothing on the park’s history, nor a map of the park. It has icons indicating permitted activities at the park, such as fishing, hiking, and horseback riding. It’s in contrast with most of NYC’s parks, whose web pages typically feature a park’s history, highlights, recent news, map, inspections, and projects.
Nearly two miles to the south of the three reservoirs, Hutchinson River is again impeded by a dam that holds back Pelham Lake. Built in 1886 to supply the Town of Pelham with its drinking water, the grounds of the reservoir are within the county-operated Willson’s Woods Park. This park’s web page gives us details on its namesake and touts its popular wave pool, but gives us nothing on Pelham Lake.
Fortunately there is Town of Pelham Historian Blake Bell, whose blog offers everything that there is to know about Pelham Lake, including the above 1950s postcard of Hutchinson River Parkway passing by the lake and its dam. The reservoir’s use as a source of Pelham’s drinking water ended in 1929, when the town was linked to the Catskill-Delaware aqueduct that primarily serves New York City.
The final park along Hutchinson River within Westchester county is Glover Field, a complex sandwiched between the river and the parkway. This town-operated park is used for running, football, soccer, baseball, softball, and tennis. The field was dedicated on October 15, 1955. Although its use for sports dates back two decades prior, it lay across the river from a sewage treatment plant and a trash incinerator, earning it the moniker Stink Field. Its other historical names were Parkway Field and Colonial Field. The field’s namesake is Colonel John Glover (1732-1797), a Revolutionary war commander who led a small brigade of 750 men against British General William Howe‘s 4,000-man invasion force at the Battle of Pell’s Point. Although the British won, their casualties far outnumbered the Americans. A mile to the south in Pelham Bay Park, near the battle site is Glover’s Rock, which has a plaque commemorating Glover.
Fulton Street Bridge
Passing behind the football field, Hutchinson River quietly enters its tidal phase, at sea level and subject to the ebbs and flows of the ocean. IN 1888, its tidal phase was straightened and dredged. A few yards downstream is the furthest inland dock on the river, the Sprague Energy oil terminal. Its address is Canal Street and on some old maps, this section of Hutchinson River is labeled as Eastchester Canal. The terminal is the reason why South Fulton Avenue has a drawbridge across the river. the Town of Mount Vernon is on the left while Pelham is on the right. In this section of the river, the oil tanks have asphalt plants, car repair shops, and parking lots as neighbors.
Looking south from this drawbridge, we see a shopping center parking lot on the Pelham side. The thin strip of land on the water’s edge could be designed as a promenade, but what’s there to look at? On the Mount Vernon side is a truck depot and scrap metal yard. The giant arch carrying an oil pipe across the river has an unusually high clearance to allow for tankers to pass underneath.
On the horizon are the towers of Co-op City, located just south of the county line within the Bronx. I’m sure some intrepid urban explorer has climbed this arch, but I’m not the type to do these things.
Not in the above frame but a few yards to the west of the scrap metal yard is Saint Paul’s Church National Historic Site, a colonial period building with a cemetery that played a role in the American Revolution. Its grounds have been maintained by the National Parks Service since 1978. At the time of its NPS designation, the church was a holdout surrounded by small offices and manufacturers. When it was built in 1666, it was surrounded by countryside with an unobstructed view of Hutchinson River from its cemetery.
Eastchester Bridge, Bronx
On a summer day, a close-up shot of Hutchinson River from Eastchester Bridge appears almost as natural as it was when namesake Anne Hutchinson arrived in the area in 1642. A panoramic view shows the oil terminal, concrete plants, and canal-like inlets of the river. A few yards north of this bridge is the invisible border line that marks the northern limit of New York City.
Eastchester Bridge is entirely within the City of New York, taking Boston Road across the river. The road is an ancient one, combining a series of Native footpaths that linked New York and Boston. In 1926, it was designated as part of U. S. Route 1, which travels down the eastern seaboard from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida. Within Westchester County, it carries its full colonial name, Boston Post Road.
Owing to a quirk of geography, there is a small piece of the Bronx connected to the rest of the borough solely by Eastchester Bridge. This Bronx neighborhood straddling the river is Eastchester, sharing its name with the town located further upstream. The enclave has three avenues branching off from Boston Road. It has an IHOP, Wendy’s, and above (in gray) a shopping center where one can park on the borderline. If one’s car is stolen here, which police department to call? Scrap yards on the shoreline have docks for barges. Also on the map above is Split Rock, which I will discuss in more details below. Huguenot Avenue hints at nearby New Rochelle, which was founded in 1689 by French Huguenots who fled persecution in their homeland.
On the far left is Provost Avenue, whose intersection with Boston Road marks the southern terminus of New York State Route 22. It travels north along the state’s eastern edge, terminating in the town of Mooers, a couple of miles shy of the Canadian border. Like U.S.-1, this state road is also a successor to Native trade routes and colonial postal roads.
Anne Hutchinson, the River’s Namesake
Now is an ideal moment on the tour to discuss the person behind the river’s name. Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643). She was born under the name Anne Marbury in Alford, Lincolnshire, England. In 1612, she married a merchant named William Hutchinson and they immigrated to Massachusetts in 1634.
Hutchinson worked as a nurse and midwife. She organized meetings in her home that discussed religious topics. Branded a heretic by the Puritan authorities, she was expelled from Boston in 1637. Failing to recant her views, she was then expelled from the colony. Even in the secular-governed Rhode Island, she faced opposition.
Following her husband’s death in 1642, she immigrated to the more tolerant New Netherlands. Her relations with local Natives were god but when Governor Kieft launched a genocidal war against the Natives in the following year, all white settlers became targets.
Anne Hutchinson was killed along with her servants and all but one of her children. Her daughter Susanna had been picking berries at the time of the massacre. Lore has it that she hid in the cleft of Split Rock, the glacial boulder located near the river, where Hutchinson River Parkway crosses New England Thruway. She was raised by the Natives as one of their own for two years before being released to Dutch authorities.
According to Richard Lederer’s 1978 book The place names of Westchester County, New York, the Natives referred to this river as Aqueanouncke, which translates as Red Cedar Trees. Following the assassination of Hutchinson, not only did the river take on her name, but the peninsula on its eastern side was known for generations as Anne’s Hoek.
Hutchinson’s descendants include Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush; and presidential runner-ups Stephen Douglas and Mitt Romney. Leadership is in their genes.
Battle of Pell’s Point
Another descendant of the Puritans was John Glover, born in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1732. At the outset of the American Revolution, Glover commanded a patriot militia that defended his home state from the Redcoats and transformed fishing vessels into armed warships, the first navy of the newborn country. In the campaign for New York, Glover held off the British, enabling Washington to make strategic retreats.
Having failed to make an advance at Throgs Neck, the British made a second landing at Pell’s Point on October 18, 1776, seeking to advance towards White Plains, cutting off the retreating Washington in Manhattan. On the site of Pelham Bay-Split Rock Golf Course, Glover’s Marbleheaders hid behind stone field boundaries and shot at the British invaders. Vastly outnumbered, they fired their shots, slowed the enemy, and then retreated to join Washington’s forces.
At the tip known as Pell’s Point one may still hear gunshots as it is the site of the police shooting range, appearing on contemporary maps as Rodman’s Neck. Looking at the Charles Blaskowitz survey of the battlefield, Hutchinson River was the intended route north for the invaders.
On October 18, 1901 in honor the 125th anniversary of the battle, The Bronx Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a tablet on a boulder inside Pelham Bay Park on the road to Orchard Beach. Dubbed Glover’s Rock, it stands as a memorial to the fighters. Town of Pelham Historian Blake Bell has a detailed dossier on this battlefield and what’s there today.
In the early years of commercial aviation, all five of the city’s boroughs had airports. Manhattan had a short-lived landing strip on Governor’s Island which Mayor LaGuardia unsuccessfully proposed for an airport; Brooklyn has Floyd Bennett Field; Queens had five airports at one time (presently down to two), and Staten Island had a couple.
On the western side of the Hutchinson River there was Bronx Airport, founded in 1929 by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. It was an ambitious idea, resting on 250 acres of marshland but not a single plane ever took off or landed in The Bronx. The location offered many advantages: proximity to two railroad lines, far from dense neighborhoods while still within the city and with plenty of room for expansion.
Joseph Raskin’s book The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System offers a chapter on this unbuilt airport, noting that the stock market crash of 1929 doomed its prospects. Blake Bell adds opposition from the neighboring town of Pelham, where homeowners feared the airport’s encroachment into their town. In 1946, the marshland was sold by former Curtiss official Richard Gatewood to a developer for $500,000. What if all five boroughs had airports? It would be an absurdity to imagine, with the amount of land that airports take up and airplane noise. Flying from the Bronx to Brooklyn is as silly as it sounds.
Freedomland on the Hutch
The marshland where Rattlesnake Brook and Givan’s Creek empty into the Hutchison lay empty for another three decades until June 19, 1960, when crowds of pleasure seekers descended on it.
The river where Anne Hutchinson sought freedom became the site of Freedomland U. S. A., a short-lived theme park whose name echoed the patriotism of the Cold War. This time instead of railroads, the location was ideal as it was sandwiched by the New England Thruway and Hutchinson River Parkway, easily accessible to city residents and suburbanites.
Designed in the shape of the country, it was divided into seven geographic areas with their own themes that celebrated the country through restaurants, gift shops, entertainment, and rides. Its planner was Disneyland designer Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood. After falling out with Walt Disney, he went on to design his own theme parks around the country. In totalitarian fashion, Disney erased any mention of Wood in his company’s publications. When Wood billed Freedomland as the “Disneyland of the East,” his former employer threatened him with a lawsuit.
It was a highly ambitious park with a design team that included 19 Academy Award nominees and a Broadway songwriter who composed the park’s theme music. The first season drew crowds but the novelty quickly wore off and the park struggled with debt, accidents, and lawsuits. One bad episode involved the robbery of a cashier in the park. The thieves fled on a getaway boat on the Hutchinson River. The 1964 New York World’s Fair in Queens meant few visitors to Freedomland and the park closed and filed for bankruptcy that year.
Former staffer Frank Adamo wrote the book on Freedomland’s brief existence, with Robert McLaughlin. The same way that there are books on the city’s Other Islands, unbuilt subway lines, public art, and hidden waterways, Barbara and Wesley Gottlock wrote the encyclopedic Lost Amusement Parks of New York City, which offers a chapter on Freedomland. If you love categorizing everything about NYC, raise your hand.
Co-op City on the Hutch
The owner of the land where Freedomland stood was developer William Zeckendorf. Recognizing that it is possible to build on marshland, he envisioned a new middle-class neighborhood on it. Construction commenced in May 1966 with the first residents moving in at the end of 1968. In total, 35 high-rise towers and seven townhouse clusters were completed, housing more than 40,000 residents. Co-op City is an unusual blend of an urban appearance and a suburban lifestyle. It is the largest cooperative housing development in the world. The Cold War design exemplifies Le Corbusier’s “tower in the park,” and more than two-thirds of the neighborhood’s land is open space. There is no subway access and Co-op City is physically separated from the rest of The Bronx by New England Thruway. It has its own power plant, school, shopping center, and security force.
The shoreline is nearly inaccessible to residents, covered by thick vegetation and construction equipment, in contrast to Manhattan, which has park trails along nearly the entire shoreline of East River and Hudson River. Traveling by boat, the view is a study in contrast, with towering apartments on one bank and the natural forest of Pelham Bay Park on the other. Further upstream, a bus depot and scrap yards line the shore.
Pelham Bay Park
By acreage, Pelham Bay Park is the largest park in the city. Its namesake is English settler Thomas Pell, who “purchased” 50,000 acres of land from the Siwanoy natives in 1654. In 1666, King Charles II chartered the property as the Manor of Pelham. The estate remained in the hands of his descendants until 1888, when the city acquired it as a park.
Islands on the Hutch
Downstream, just before Hutchinson River empties into Eastchester Bay is Goose Island, an uninhabited speck of land serving as a bird sanctuary. The island once had a family residing on it, but its last known permanent dweller, Abigail “Mammy Goose” Tice, vacated the island in 1884 at age 90. She died two years later on City Island. The island was acquired by the city in 1935 and functions as a bird sanctuary.
Another island on the Hutchinson River, Codling Island, once existed just south of Boston Road. It appears as the island on the left of the road on the 1913 map above. By the mid-20th century, it was fused to the mainland as the Eastchester enclave became developed.
The smallest island in the Hutchinson River is a rocky islet on the southern side of Pelham Bridge. According to Blake Bell, this precarious outcropping used to have a hotel and restaurant serving locally sourced clams. Patrons would stop halfway on the Pelham Bridge and descend down a staircase to the restaurant.
The bascule drawbridge carrying Shore Road across the Hutchinson River is the fourth bridge at this location, the first having been completed in 1815. Blake Bell has numerous articles on the bridge’s keepers, its clam bar, and notable events. The current bridge dates to 1908.
At the point where Hutchinson River flows into Eastchester Bay is a grassy mound fenced off from the public. On the map it is part of Pelham Bay Park but one cannot hike to its summit and for decades it was regarded as a health hazard to local residents. From the early 1960s until 1979, this site served as a trash dump. At the time, the city’s trash was deposited in landfills located near waterways, such as Fresh Kills on Staten Island, Edgemere in the Rockaways, and Spring Creek in Brooklyn.
During its operation, corrupt city workers accepted bribes and toxic sludge was included in the landfill. Local children suffered from leukemia and an activist battle was waged by local resident Patricia Nonnon to shut the dump. Her three children Kerri, Justin, and Danielle had died from illnesses relating to this dump. Declared a federal Superfund site, it received assistance in remediation. The cleanup was completed in 1998 and the landfill was declared safe for public use in March 2011.
Efforts to transform this hilltop into a passive recreation park are in the very early stages. In the meantime, the city is working on reducing Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) along its portion of the Hutchinson River. Beyond the landfill, the river widens into Eastchester Bay, an arm of the Long Island Sound.
In the News:
DNAinfo reports on plans to build a new park on the Queens landing of the new Kosciuszko Bridge on Newtown Creek.
Kitsap Sun reports on the restoration of Kitsap Creek’s natural course in the village of Silverdale, Washington.
Meet the Author:
I will be lecturing on the history of Hutchinson River and other nearby streams on Sunday, April 2 at 2pm, at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. For more information, contact 718-885-1461. Signed books will be available for sale.