Sunswick Creek, Queens

Its name appears on a popular tavern in Long Island City and despite its “sunny” name, it is nowhere to be seen on the surface. On a recent visit to Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, my daughter stumbled on a sizable puddle in the park that lingers long after the rain is gone.

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This puddle is as ephemeral as the sculptures in the park, but it may carry the spirit of Sunswick, the waterway that flowed across this site on its way to the East River at Hallets Cove.

Where it Flowed

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When it comes to western Queens history, my leading source is Bob Singleton and the Greater Astoria Historical Society. From its collection, the earliest map showing Sunswick Creek dates to 1780. Beneath Hell Gate, the elevated knob of land is the Astoria peninsula and to its south is Sunswick Creek. Sunswick is derived from the Native name Sunkisq, or “place of the chief’s wife.”

This map is a true GIS treasure as it also displays other hidden waterways that I’ve written about including: Dutch Kills, Luyster Creek, Jackson’s Mill Pond, Flushing Creek, Horse Brook, Kissena Creek, and Newtown Creek. notice how the colonial period roads often ran atop watershed boundaries to avoid being flooded.

The sources of streams flowing away from each other often originated from the same hilltops, for example Horse Brook and Maspeth Creek; Dutch Kills and Jackson’s Mill Creek. No wonder at the turn of the 20th century there were canal proposals to connect streams whose headwaters were so close to each other.

Hallet’s Mill

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Looking at an 1840 map of where Sunswick Creek flowed into Hallets Cove, we see a mill pond dammed by Vernon Boulevard.  The mill was constructed in 1679, and rebuilt in 1753 by Capt. Jacob Blackwell and Joseph Hallett. The former owned Roosevelt Island while the latter owned land on the Astoria side of the East River. In its early years, the milldam opened for small boats that carried goods from the farms of John Greenoak, John McDonnaugh and George Van Alst, which stood alongside the creek.

Van Alst is not forgotten: his last name graced 21st Avenue until the 1930, still appears on a local playground and a subway station. His descendants lived in the area into the early 20th century.

The star on the above map corresponds to today’s corner of Broadway and 12th Street, which at the time was Grant Thorburn’s Nursery. Thorburn (1772–1863) had emigrated to America in 1794 as a nailmaker. As automation killed his job, he turned his shop into a grocery, and in 1834, a flower nursery. His busy mail-order enterprise won Thorburn the honor of doubling as the postmaster of a new Hallett’s Cove Post Office.  Thorburn wrote a book about his life entitled “Reminiscences” that tells us of his gardens and life in the village.

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Looking upstream from Vernon Boulevard at the site of the Mill Pond, we see a graffiti-covered wall on a car repair shop with Long Island City High School in the background. The taxi is parked on the Broadway of Queens, which runs for 3.9 miles from Astoria to Elmhurst. The most recent mention of the mill pond in newspapers was a New York Times report from April 20, 1957 on a sewer line excavation at this site. Workers dug up two wooden mill wheels five feet in diameter, heavy oak timbers, and Spanish “pieces of eight” dating to 1797. In the country’s early years, Spanish currency was regarded as a safer bet in comparison to the dollar. The high school in the above photo was completed in 1986, its athletic field taking up much of the mill pond’s place on the map.

Steven  Duncan at Sunswick

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Beneath this street scene, the buried stream flows through a brick sewer tunnel dating to 1893.

Large enough for a walk, it was explored by Steven Duncan and chronicled by National Geographic in its online series Change The Course, which addresses bodies of water around the world that were affected by overdevelopment.

Draining and Filling Sunswick

Following the consolidation of Long Island City in 1870, the farmland along Sunswick Creek industrialized and made the waterway polluted. As Vincent Seyfried tells it in his book Vincent Seyfried’s 300 Years of Long Island City, 1630-1930:

The foul sludge acids from the factories and the refuse of the manure boats and docks and filth of the slaughter houses washed in over the meadows where it became lodged in the sedge and putrefied, occasioning nauseating odors and fouling the ground waters. The damming of the Sunswick Creek cut off the flushing-out of the meadow lands and the salt water that used to ebb and flow became stagnant and slimy and filled with mosquitoes. By 1866 chills and fever were becoming endemic in Hunter’s Point and Dutch Kills, especially during the summer months.

Sunswick Creek had to go and in phases it was covered from source to mouth. Newtown Creek historian Mitch Waxman tells that story in detail. Excavation debris, ash, earth from bridge and subway construction provided the fill for Sunswick Creek.

As a Property Line

Although the stream was no longer visible on the landscape its phantom course lingered on maps as a property boundary

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On the 1891 Chester Wolverton map above, the source of Sunswick can be pinpointed to corner of 21st Street, between Queens Plaza South and 43rd Avenue, where Silvercup Studios is today. I highlighted the path of Queensborough Bridge, which will be completed in 1909. A curious item on this map is Ravenswood Park, which was planned but never completed. Instead, most of this park’s site became Queensbridge Houses and in exchange two waterfront parcels nearby were dedicated as Queensbridge Park and Rainey Park.

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A 1908 E. Belcher-Hyde property map shows an undeveloped superblock for the Ravenswood Park site and the right-of-way for Queensborough Bridge slicing through the street grid. I highlighted the phantom streambed in blue for easy identification. At the top of the map above you see a green street triangle. Hold that thought and scroll down to learn more about it.

Library on Sunswick

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At that street triangle is the Long Island City Library, completed in 2007. It is an excellent place to learn about local history and it stands atop the phantom streamed. Its façade features a low relief public art piece. To its right is the yard of Public School 111, the Jacob Blackwell School. Not only did the Blackwell family own Roosevelt Island, it also had properties on in the neighborhood that later became Ravenswood.

Reflecting Forward on Sunswick Creek

 

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Down the block from the library is Sixteen Oaks Grove, a triangular park on a very busy 21st Avenue. The park was acquired in 1939 and originally named after Anthony Leo Placella, a local resident who served in the First World War and died a few days short of the November 11, 1918 armistice.

In 2012, Sunswick Creek briefly reappeared on the landscape as a series of art installations: in Mary Miss’ 2012 work Sunswick Creek/Reflecting Forward, commissioned by Socrates Sculpture Park and the Noguchi Museum. With informative signposts and reflective mirrors along its former path, Miss sought to connect pedestrians to the rich natural and human history buried beneath the concrete. The furthest inland piece of the work was a cart with native grass at Sixteen Oaks Grove. These pieces ran up to the water’s edge of Hallets Cove at Socrates Sculpture Park.

Mary Miss’ permanent environmental artworks can also be seen at the Union Square subway station, and South Cove at Battery Park City.

A drink at Sunswick Creek

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As neighborhoods around Sunswick Creek experience real estate resurgence, old names that vanished from the map such as Dutch Kills and Dominie’s Hoek now prominently appear on local business names. At the corner of 35th Street and 35th Avenue is Sunswick 3535, a tavern that opened in 2005 catering to a growing population of young professionals. It has an amazing logo that blends European and Native American elements, a creative tribute to the creek’s history.

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