Silver Lake Reservoir, Staten Island

On Staten Island there are four golf courses, three operated by city, and a private one operating on state-owned land. The Silver Lake Golf Course is located on rolling terrain on the slope of the Silver Lake Reservoir.

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The shape of the lake resembles an expanded number eight with a dam across the lake’s midpoint to separate its two basins. Once a natural waterway, it was drained in 1913, lined with concrete and connected to the city’s aqueduct.

Where it Flows

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One of the sources of Clove Brook was Silver Lake, a spring-fed waterway resting on the northern slope of Grymes Hill. Its first mention was in 1687 as Fresh Pond in the Palmer Patent, a document that awarded 5,100 acres of land on the island to Captain John Palmer. In my previous blog post on Silver Lake, I wrote about its past and the sensational 1878 trial of the “Silver Lake Murderer” that resulted in the island’s last public execution.

An Olmsted Creation

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In 1900, state lawmakers set aside the grounds around Silver Lake as a public park, with the intention of making it the island’s equivalent to Central and Prospect parks. The 1901 map by the Board of Public Improvements, Topographical Bureau shows the proposed street layout for the recently annexed island borough with two proposed parks: Silver Lake Park and Clove Lakes Park. The signature Olmsted touches include the retention of natural waterways, winding paths that respected the topography and a boathouse for Silver Lake. Olmsted resided on Staten Island, his South Shore house is in need of a restoration.

For reference, I highlighted the island’s major east-west road, Victory Boulevard (Former NYS route 439A). Prior to the 1920s, it was known as Richmond Turnpike.

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The acquisition of parkland is often a piecemeal process, as the above Elisha Robinson atlas of 1907 shows. Developments to the lake’s northwest that were subdivided avoided becoming part of the park, those that only had paper streets but were not yet developed were added to the park.

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In some ways, Silver Lake’s story is reminiscent of the waterways in Central Park, where an Olmstedian landscape surrounds a reservoir that used to quench the city’s thirst. Because what appears to be recreational has a function hidden inside it. Central Park’s Upper Reservoir was built on the site of a vast freshwater wetland, and Silver Lake Reservoir was built atop the footprint of a lake. Above is a view of Silver Lake in 1913, from the NYPL Digital Collections. Shortly after this photo was taken, the lake was drained, lined with concrete and transformed into a reservoir.

Silver Lake Reservoir

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Using pipes that were laid on the bottom of The Narrows, water from the Catskill aqueduct system flowed in from Brooklyn into Silver Lake and then distributed throughout the island. The shape of the lake resembles an expanded number eight with a dam across the lake’s midpoint to separate its two basins.

In 1971, the reservoir’s function was replaced by a new underground reservoir resting below the Silver Lake Reservoir. Like its counterpart in Central Park, the old reservoir was retained as an aesthetic centerpiece of Silver Lake Park.

Silver Lake Drained

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Although the reservoir was no longer used for the borough’s water supply, the question over which agency is responsible for it. The water shortage of 1981 resulted in less water flowing into Silver Lake and in the following summer local residents gathered in protest to demand restoration of Silver Lake’s water. It made the front page of the Staten Island Advance, above, and mention in New York Times. In a city starving for land there are plenty of possibilities for a dried-up reservoir, but for many New Yorkers there is beauty and serenity in a vast inland lake.

Silver Lake Golf Course

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To the south and west of the lake is the park’s golf course, which opened in 1929. Previously its site was partially an undeveloped park and a cemetery for the indigent. The course’s designer was the prolific John Van Kleek, whose other local creations include the courses at Kissena Park, Pelham Bay Park, and Dyker Beach Park.

With the completion of the golf course, the brook that drained from Silver Lake was mostly covered by the grass and a downstream mill pond, Valley Lake (also known as Britton Pond and Schoenian Lake) was reduced in size. Prior to its role as a water hazard this pond was used for ice harvesting.

Tour Around the Lake

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As much as I love trees, for photography the best views of landscapes is in winter when there are no leaves in the way. From a distance Silver Lake has the appearance of a Catskills reservoir.

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Each of the city’s Olmstedian parks feature at least one road that winds through them in a scenic fashion with gentle turns and overlooks. Consider East and West Drives in Central Park, Forest Park Drive in Queens, and the .7-mile Silver Lake Park Road, which runs partially atop the earthen dam holding back the lake. On one side of the road is the lake and on the other is the valley containing the golf course.

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One can imagine if a tournament of professional golfers were to take place here. The drive overlooking the course could be packed with spectators and it’s an excellent view. The nearest public golf course that I could name which hosts professional competitions is the one at Bethpage State Park on Long Island.

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The dam that divides Silver Lake into halves is an ideal place to feel the breeze blowing off the aqueduct-supplied water. If the shoreline is for jogging, this dam seems perfect for a start to finish sprint. Throughout its length, the aqueduct has structures inspired by classical architecture, including these two gatehouses.

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The slope on the water’s edge and if this waterway were to be drained, its bottom would have the same concrete appearance.

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On the eastern side of Silver Lake, the sun beats hard as it sets on the southwest. Winter days are short and there’s little time to photograph.

It’s Been a Year

A year ago this week Hidden Waters of New York City made its appearance on bookshelves citywide and online. The book has given me opportunities, through interviews, tours, and presentations. I learned about authors in other large cities who have been telling the stories of their cities’ hidden waterways, and I received feedback from urban planners, engineers, historians, and tour guides. It is a pleasure to meet people from so many walks of life who share an interest in this topic.

As the companion blog enters its second year, look forward to posts about hidden waterways beyond New York City, personal anecdotes on the waterways of my life, and the interaction of cities and streams.

As before, I look forward to reading your comments, answering questions, and delivering lectures of hidden urban waterways. Your input is vital, share, retweet, like, tag a friend, leave a comment, and let me know.

Thank you to publisher WW Norton’s Countryside Press, my wife, children, parents, grandparents, colleagues, and all of you.

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