On the shoulder strip of parkland separating the westbound Grand Central Parkway and its service road in Hollis Hills, there is a pond tucked in the woods, once larger and with more water, reduced in size and all but forgotten.
Even its name is unclear as signs call it Potamogeton Pond but old newspaper articles call it Pea Pond.
Where it Flows
none of the old maps of Queens have Potamogeton Pond on it on account of its small size and lack of historical significance. Looking at a topographical survey, we see that the pond is sandwiched between the highway and its service road, between exits 18 and 19. In contrast to expressways, the city’s parkways were designed to provide a more scenic drive. When Grand Central Parkway opened in July 1933, it featured two lanes in each direction, wooden lampposts, and generous green space on the sides to give the impression of driving through a park. On the stretch between Cunningham Park and Alley Pond Park, the highway runs atop the glacial terminal moraine.
On south side of the moraine is Hollis with its gently sloping plain, and on the north is Hollis Hills, with its knob and kettle terrain. This is where the Pleistocene ice sheet had its southernmost extent.
A Changing Landscape
Looking at aerial surveys from 1924, 1951, and 1996, we see how the woodland around Potamogeton Pond was reduced to nothing more than the shoulder space of Grand Central Parkway. The woods of Hollis Hills used to have other kettle ponds but all have been filled in favor of tract housing and the unimaginative street grid. To negotiate the steep descent of the terminal moraine, Bell Boulevard takes a curving route near the pond.
In its early years, the park corridor linking Cunningham and Alley Pond parks had a bridle path that went past the pond and beneath the roads crossing the park. When the local stables closed, the trail was abandoned. Other large parks that have horse paths include Central Park, Prospect Park, Forest Park, Van Cortlandt Park, and Pelham Bay Park.
A few blocks to the north of this corridor, the privately-owned Vanderbilt Motor Parkway was acquired by the city in 1938 and preserved as a linear park with a bike path. It quickly became the preferred connector between Cunningham and Alley Pond Parks. As a result, the original corridor and its pond became neglected. Grand Central Parkway’s green shoulders and Vanderbilt Motor Parkway are links in a larger chain of connected parks that also include Flushing Meadows, Kissena Park, and Fort Totten.
Highway Grows, Pond Shrinks
The completion of Grand Central Parkway and opening of the Motor Parkway as a park path reduced this once popular ice skating site to a bog. The roadway cut off some of the water that fed the pond, resulting in less water intake. The perch, carp and catfish that lived in the pond died off in 1963 as the parkway was widened in conjunction with the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows taking place the following year. Silt covered up the pond and plants grew atop its former surface. In the view above, we see the pond covered in vegetation. Although it does not appear deep, stories of drowning have been told by local residents. Grand Central Parkway runs in the background, behind the trees.
Preserving the Pond
The public’s awareness of the pond can be credited to public school science teacher Thomas F. Schweitzer and Queens College ecology professor Andrew Greller, who led tours of the pond site and founded organizations that advocated for its restoration. Schweitzer’s Hollis Hills Civic Association teamed up with Greller’s Queens College Ecology Club to lobby the city, which by 1970 determined “the area known as Pea Pond… no longer receives sufficient water to maintain a pond.”
Undeterred, advocates for the pond enlisted the support of the Boy Scouts, the Queens Village Centennial Association and local high school nature clubs. Under the banner of the East Queens Ad Hoc Committee for a Natural Attitude Toward Natural Urban Recreational Environment (NATURE), supporters succeeded in blocking the state and city’s plans to cover the pond’s site.
What is Potamogeton?
It is unclear when Potamogeton became the official name of the pond and possible that “Pea” is a fancy corruption of “P Pond,” shorthand for Potamogeton. On his visit to the pond in 2011, Kevin Walsh of Forgotten-NY found a misspelled Parks Department sign, “Potomogeton [sic].” Since then, a correct spelling sign has been installed.
Its connection to this pond is difficult to establish as the namesake plant, potamogeton epihydrus is native to the region but not as easy to spot. The image on the left is the potamogeton polygonifolius, from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, published in 1885 in Germany. I did not see any potamogeton, but plenty of phragmites and cattails.
Entrances to the Potamogeton Pond Trail can be found on the Grand Central Parkway service road at either 217th Street or 82nd Avenue. The lack of natural water sources for this pond indicates that in order to maintain its historical appearance it must be maintained constantly by the city in a manner similar to Kissena Lake and Bowne Pond.
In the News:
Brooklyn Paper reports on the arrest of turtle poachers at Prospect Park Lake.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle reviewed my book, Hidden Waters of NYC. “Well-written and easy to understand, and it’s a must for anyone who wants to find out more about nature and history in the big city.”