On the road connecting mainland Queens to the Rockaway peninsula is the island community of Broad Channel. The southern half of this island is a residential neighborhood while the rest is a wildlife refuge administered by the National Parks Service. East Pond and West Pond are well-known to visitors of this park, and then there’s Big John’s Pond, which I did not know about until this week.
In a city that rewards historic landowners and political greats with places on the map, who was Big John and what is the history of this little-known pond?
Where it is
Looking at a close-up of the park’s map, we see the park’s two big ponds and the you-almost-missed-it Big John’s Pond enveloped in marshes between Cross Bay Boulevard and East Garden. To get to this obscure pond, one would leave the visitor’s center, wait for the walk signal at Cross Bay Boulevard and descend into a thicket where the traffic is out of view and the trail begins.
There are no markers or maps on this trail, so unless your phone reception is good, you’ll have to trust your instincts. On the trail are patches of asphalt suggesting that before this park was a preserve it may have been a conventional park or an unfinished street.
When there’s a fork in the road and only a single arrow indicating “trail,” follow it as it takes you further away from the sounds of traffic. The chirping and rustling of nature becoming more audible as you proceed.
Branching off the trail is a wooden walkway leading to a wall. I was curious to see where it leads and what it blocks. At the wall, one walks around it and it is a bird blind with a roof, where one can look at Big John’s Pond through holes in the wall.
Big John’s Pond
This pond has the appearance of an impressionist painting, but it is less than four decades old. In May 1999, a New York Times reader posed the question about the pond’s namesake to columnist Daniel E. Schneider (most Times writers have middle initials). Who was Big John and why was his name attached to such a tiny puddle?
The site supervisor at the time, David J. Taft (maybe I should start using my middle initial?) pieced together what he learned from his colleagues.
“He was working here one afternoon in 1982 and happened to finish his project early. One of the rangers was able to convince him to excavate a new pond, which had been planned for the park about 10 years before, and he did. He was just a big. friendly guy, a real cooperative guy, and everyone here liked him.”
Big John was a tractor operator who carved out the eponymous pond within two days and the grateful rangers named it after him. “It’s funny, but no one ever knew his last name,” said Taft. ”He probably doesn’t even know the pond was named after him.”
So there we have it, in contrast to the powerful and wealthy, this namesake’s last name (and middle initial if he had one) may have to remain a mystery.
Eager to continue my visit to the wildlife refuge, I continued on the trail as it crossed over the moist surface atop planks. The paper birch trees reminded me of Russia, where it is as much a symbol of the country as bears, onion domed churches, and nesting dolls.
At East Pond is another bird blind and a beach. It is a long and shallow waterway separated from Jamaica Bay by the embankment carrying the A train. Not seen above is North Island, a tiny bird sanctuary isle in the pond. at 117 acres, it is the largest pond in the city and boats are not allowed here. Expect to see birdwatchers here with their camouflage clothing and high-resolution cameras.
A century ago the marshes around East Pond were dotted with fishing shacks set up by squatters in an unofficial community known as The Raunt. The Long Island Railroad did not mind the presence of shacks along its trestle and set up stations to accommodate its customers. Its name is likely a Scandinavian product from the Danish word “rogen,” pronounced “raun” which translates to roe, a type of fish. A smaller cluster, Goose Creek was located at the northern tip of today’s Broad Channel island and also had its own station.
The Raunt lost most of its structures in a 1931 fire. By that decade’s end, the census recorded only a hundred remaining residents. When the city condemned this community in 1950, there were only 15 structures standing. The last holdout, Agnes Rafferty, rowed away for the final time in October 1954. Since then, the pilings eroded into Jamaica Bay, leaving no trace of The Raunt.
As it Was
Referring to the ever trusted Julius Bien map of 1890 for guidance, we see an entirely different Broad Channel. The sole method of reaching the Rockaways at the time without treading water was on the Long Island Railroad. Midway across, it ran atop an archipelago of marshy islands and inlets. Cross Bay Boulevard would parallel the tracks across the bay in 1923, and some of the islands would be fused together in the 1950s.
At the visitor’s center, there is a before-and-after map showing a century’s worth of changes to the map. Today’s Broad Channel island is largely a combination of Rulers Bar Hassock, Big Egg Marsh, and The Raunt. A more detailed history of land engineering here can be found in the book Other Islands of New York City, printed by the same publisher as my book.
As it Wasn’t
It’s shocking to see that the beautiful preserve around Big John’s Pond could have looked like the 1907 planning map above- proposing a seaport of more than a hundred piers and two giant islands in the middle developed with ugly rectangular street grids. Fortunately Jamaica Bay was spared and the international port was instead developed at Newark Bay.
Dedicated as a city park in 1953, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was transferred to the federal government by an act of Congress in 1972, which included it in the larger Gateway National Recreation Area. A modest visitor’s center offers maps, a ranger, short film and books.
To my surprise, neither Other Islands of NYC nor Hidden Waters of NYC were on sale at the park’s bookstore. This needs to change!
Because of its proximity to the Visitor’s Center and parking lot, the 45-acre West Pond receives more visitors than East Pond. When the refuge opened in 1953, city parks officials described it as a “man-made Galapagos” for having two freshwater ponds on an island surrounded by saltwater. This juxtaposition made them magnets for migratory bird species, and in turn for birdwatchers.
In contrast to East Pond, this pond’s trail has informational signs with maps and images of the flora and fauna. Notice how the pond is ringed by upland which is ringed by marshland. Prior to 1950, both ponds were part of the inlets separating islands in Jamaica Bay. As the land is very low-lying, it is subject to storm surges. In particular, Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 breached the embankment around West Pond, making it again a saltwater waterway. The breach in East Pond was repaired as a result of the subway trestle reconstruction. West Pond however, remains breached and flooded with saltwater, although NPS has plans to restore the pond as a freshwater waterway.
It is easy to forget that you are within the borders of NYC, but the cityscape is never out of sight.
My Thoughts on NPS
It is inspiring to know that an island park in Queens shares the same significance as Grand Canyon, Denali, and Yellowstone in being cared for on the national level. Through its signage, brochures, media, and literature, the NPS explains how its sites are identified with the country. This is what I do at NYC Parks- telling the stories of its properties large and small to the public.
Other Jamaica Bay Parks
On the aerial survey of Jamaica Bay, one can see that this waterway is more than a National Parks site. Other public agencies responsible for it include the Port Authority, which administers JFK Airport; and NYS Parks which runs the unused Bayswater Point State Park. NYC Parks has nearly a dozen properties along the bay, including a set of preserves on the bay side of the Rockaways such as Vernam-Barbadoes, Brant Point, Dubos Point, Thursby Basin, Edgemere, and Motts Basin. I plan on telling the stories of each of these parks.