In the northeast corner of the Bronx, Seton Falls Park takes up nearly 36 acres of woodland and freshwater marsh with a small stream flowing through the park. Its name was a curiosity for me. How is it that a park named after a waterfall does not have any waterways appearing on maps of the area? Did the stream dry up or was it buried? How big was this waterfall?
On a winter day, the channel flowing through the park is nearly dry and covered with dead leaves. This is the surface remnant of Rattlesnake Brook that flows through Seton Falls Park
Where it Flows
On my previous blog post relating to Rattlesnake Brook, I wrote about its course downstream from Seton Falls Park, where one may find Reed’s Mill Lane, a short road that memorializes a long-gone mill and a buried pond. Since then, I found a 1905 map of the northern Bronx that shows the entire course of Rattlesnake Brook. Many of the streets on it are paper streets- mapped out but not yet built. Highlighted are the borders of Seton Falls Park, the ancient Boston Post Road, and Provost Avenue (NY-22)
Approximating its source, it appears to have been at what is now the corner of Hill Avenue and East 241st Street in the Wakefield neighborhood. The stream flowed south and then turned east at E. 233rd Street in the Edenwald neighborhood. Presently, the stream emerges to the surface within Seton Falls Park at a point just south of East 233rd Street and Wilder Avenue.
From the street, one sees a ravine widening into a marsh amid the trees. Below, one sees a storm sewer portal from which the water flows. Its gate is locked and inside it is filled with rocks to discourage spelunking. Had this been Central Park, the entire portal would have been out of sight, covered with rocks to resemble a naturalistic spring.
When charting the former courses of urban streams, look for grid-defying streets, superblocks, and buildings that were built much later than their neighbors. New York Public Library’s Edenwald branch is one such example. While much of the residential stock was built here in the 1950s, the library was completed in 1972. On old maps, the brook flowed across the library’s property. It is a simple modernist design that could be up for a reconstruction in the near future. At the time of its construction, public libraries across the city were building new branches.
Currently the library’s entrance plaza is in the design phase for reconstruction. The project would enliven the space with trees, shrubs, and bike parking racks. The rendering above is by the firm Nelligan White on behalf of the city’s Department of Design and Construction.
Considering the building’s location atop a historic streambed, when the time comes to update the library, expect the standard postmodern features such as see-through glass walls, green roofing, and colorful interiors. I would like to see the library as a place to get in touch with local history. One way to do this is to have a glass floor with a recreated Rattlesnake Brook flowing beneath it in full view. Such an interpretive design could fulfill the Percent for Art requirement that is included in city construction projects. The photo on the left is from an unattributed Pinterest collection.
Downstream in the Park
Inside Seton Falls Park are helpful maps with historical descriptions of the park. The closeness of the contour lines shows the steepness of the ravine. On the park’s western edge is the John Philip Sousa school campus that has four middle schools inside it. When building new public schools, sometimes the city had to alienate parkland to make them happen. Other examples of such “schools in the park” include PS 36 in Morningside Heights, and Automotive High School in Greenpoint.
Inside the park, its namesake waterfall is a small manmade cascade, its the name evoking a more scenic place. For local residents, the park is associated with a mysterious local stalker. There’s a bit of truth in it as forested parks have been used on occasion by muggers looking for prey.
Out of the Park
At the corner of Marolla Place and Pratt Avenue, the stream is captured by a weir and disappears beneath the surface. The stream appears to have more water here than at the northern side of the park, suggesting natural springs and tributaries within the park.
On Pratt Avenue, there is a retaining wall across from the park. It is likely that the wall may predate the house behind it and the house stands atop former marshland.
On Marolla Place across from the park there are still a couple of vacant lots where Rattlesnake Brook used to flow. Behind this lot are dozens of homes built in 1996 on reclaimed land.
Crossing Boston Road
In the above 1906 construction photo from the Robert A. Bang Collection, John Tolley Archive, we see the trestle crossing above Boston Road, which runs above Rattlesnake Brook. The first trains ran here in 1912. This trestle was later extended as Boston Road received more lanes.
Where Marolla Place meets Boston Road there is an undeveloped but paved pedestrian space that lies atop the buried stream bed. The site can easily become a bioswale, collecting runoff from the street into a daylighted portion of Rattlesnake Brook. In the background the Dyre Avenue subway line crosses above Boston Road. In the background are the Boston Secor public houses. Prior to their completion in 1967, their parcel was the site of Hollers Pond. Reeds Mill Lane travels behind these projects its name memorializing a long-gone gristmill that dammed the pond.
Comparing a present-day aerial and another from 1924, we see how Rattlesnake Brook became one of the borough’s least visible streams. Rattlesnake Brook flowed into the tidal section of the Hutchinson River in a wide salt marsh that was later filled in favor of Freedomland and Co-op City.
In the News:
Queens Chronicle reports that the state DOT confirms that there will be a park underneath the new Kosciuszko Bridge.
Architectural Digest reports on the upcoming transformation of a derelict graffiti space by the Gowanus Canal into an art venue, to be redesigned by Herzog & de Meuron.
New York Times looks back at the 1960s, when pollution in New York was at its height. A must-read for Scott Pruitt.
Curbed reports on plans to transform the Harlem Bus Depot into an affordable housing development with a memorial for a historic black cemetery on site.
Meet the Author:
I will be lecturing on the history of Rattlesnake Brook and other nearby streams on Sunday, May 7 at 2pm, at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. For more information, contact 718-885-1461. Signed books will be available for sale.