Mill River, Hempstead NY

Having previously visited West Hempstead and its Pine Stream, I followed up with its parent municipality of Hempstead, which has Mill River running beneath its town center flowing towards Hempstead Lake State Park and into Hewlett Bay. In part on account of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Mill River is the centerpiece of the state’s Living with the Bay plan which seeks to restore sections of this stream and make its watershed more resilient in reducing storm damage.

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Above is a view of this stream emerging to the surface from a culvert at Tyler Avenue and Peninsula Boulevard. Although it hardly looks like a river, this creek played a vital role in the development of Hempstead and in its future in managing storm runoff.

Where it flows

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On this 1897 topographical map, Mill River originated on the east side of Hempstead’s town center, widening into Hempstead Reservoir upon leaving town. It then picks up additional water from Schodack Brook and Pine Stream, flowing through two more ponds before widening into Hewlett Bay. For reference, I colored the Queens-Nassau border in orange and highlighted Hempstead Avenue. At the time, it was all open farmland beyond the tight town center.

Center of Town

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Hempstead had its start in 1644 when dissident Puritans John Carman and Robert Fordham received permission from Dutch authorities to “purchase” land from the local Natives to establish a town. Its name is likely inspired by the English town of Hemel Hempstead, where Carman was born, although the Netherlands had the town of Heemstede whose name is similar to this one. The settlement’s grid was laid out between two branches of Mill River and while the streets are still there, the headwaters of the stream were later hidden beneath the surface.

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In this 1873 F. W. Beers survey, the western branch of the stream has two ponds preserved within parkland while the eastern branch flows undisturbed along Clinton Street. The Hempstead railroad terminal is on Fulton Street but the proposed rail line on the south side of town was never completed. It extends today only to West Hempstead.

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Looking at an aerial survey of downtown Hempstead today, I highlighted its main east-west routes: Fulton Avenue (NY-24), Front Street (NY-102), and Peninsula Boulevard. Running north-south are Franklin and Clinton streets. With the postwar growth of suburban tract housing and corporate campuses, the old downtown experienced vacancies. Much of the streetscape is what Streetsblog would describe as parking craters, wide open paved spaces in the hearts of American cities. The blue lines are illustrations of where the two branches flowed before being forced underground.

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Can one imagine a daylighted Mill Creek flowing across this lightly used parking lot in Hempstead’s downtown?

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Looking at the town’s official zoning map, the hidden branches of the river are highlighted in faint blue, serving as property lines. The town is planning on redeveloping its parking craters into a lively downtown core, but looking at the current plan, daylighting Mill Creek is not in the works here. On the extreme southwest on this map Mill River breaks onto the surface.

East Branch

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As it is with Simonson Creek, very often the headwaters of suburban streams were tapped by water companies with wells in the 19th century with water towers in the last century. The tower of Hempstead Water Works stands on Dartmouth Street and Clinton Street near Brierley Park. On the old maps, this property is where the stream began. to be certain, I circled around Brierley Park to its northeast tip at Wellington Street.

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A slight dip in the landscape indicates a likely source for Mill River here, the furthest point from its mouth.

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Leaving Brierly Park, I followed the course downstream. At Yale Street, it runs through a concrete channel that has been reclaimed by vegetation. This street parallels with Cornell, Amherst, Dartmouth, Wellesley, Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia- the elite Ivy League schools that give this subdivision an air of sophistication. How about we name a CCNY Street in honor of my alma mater, and for diversity, how about some HBCU schools?

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It was a rainy day for suburban exploring but the streambed hardly had any water running, indicating that most of the surface runoff goes into the sewers and with concrete walls, very little groundwater enters this channel.

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With so little water running on the stream bed, I was tempted to enter its underground section at Columbia Street, but it would be quite a long walk in the dark before Mill River sees daylight again at Tyler Avenue. Along the way, it flows beneath Hempstead Town Hall, and the Hempstead Village Commons strip mall. At Franklin Avenue, the two branches merged into Mill River. Crossing this street, it flows beneath a manufacturing district of car washes and repair shops.

Atop the Tunnel

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Beyond Franklin Avenue, the underground stream flows through a channel that is evident on the surface as an alley and as a concrete paving on streets that cross the stream, as seen on Madison Avenue near Peninsula Boulevard.

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It is difficult to imagine a river flowing between these properties but perhaps at some point in the future this alley will either see a building on it, or a daylighted stream.

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When it isn’t an alley atop the buried stream bed, I also look for streets that are interrupted mid-block by a thin strip of grass. In many cases street grids were laid without the streams in mind. After the streams dry up or descend underground, the interruptions in the grid remain, as seen at Polk Avenue at Ashdown Place.

To the Surface

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At Tyler Avenue, at long last Mill River shows itself in daylight. I was surprised to see how easy it is to enter the concrete tunnel. I am not bold enough for (sub)urban spelunking, but if it is your thing, consult with Steve Duncan.

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Looking downstream from this portal, this site could be developed as a park, but before that is done, the stream bed would need a thorough cleanup.

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Atop the portal on Tyler Avenue, the concrete paving indicates the stream. From this point, Mill River leaves town, flowing through the wooded campus of Hempstead High School.

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Hardly any water is seen in Mill River at the high school campus. It then enters the protected forest and wetland of Hempstead Lake State Park.

Hempstead Lake State Park

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Mill River experiences its most naturalistic appearance within this state park, where it flows through four ponds. As it is with natural parks, state parks receive their designation in part because of the sites’ roles in the history of the state and their unique visual aspects. Hempstead Lake was created as a drinking water reservoir for Hempstead and later for the city of Brooklyn.

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Hempstead Lake appears for the first time on a map in 1868, with a gristmill trapping the water. In 1872, the millpond was expanded to hold more than 8 million gallons of water, connected to the Brooklyn Water Works conduit. The expansion merged On the map above, I highlighted Hempstead Turnpike, Front Street, Hempstead Avenue and Peninsula Boulevard as references. Following the 1898 absorption of Brooklyn into New York City, this reservoir became obsolete as a source of water and within a generation it found a new use as the center of a state park.

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In 1925, the Long Island State Park Commission released its report proposing to repurpose the reservoirs at Hempstead Lake and Valley Stream as state parks, anticipating the population boom on Long Island. Once linked by an aqueduct, these reservoirs-turned-parks will be linked by the Southern State Parkway. The state parks and parkways were both products of master planner Robert Moses, the famed “power broker” who also served as Commissioner of New York City Parks.

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Unlike the island’s expressways, its two east-west parkways offer winding routes with generous forested shoulders, and stone arch overpasses that give the impression of driving through a park. At Hempstead Lake, the parkway used to take a sharp detour around the lake before it was straightened in 1949, as seen in the above New York State Archives photo. An earthen dam carries the highway, with the smaller remnant of Hempstead Lake designated as Northwest and Northeast ponds. The old parkway bypass on the east bank of Hempstead Lake was absorbed into Peninsula Boulevard (Nassau County Route 2)

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Even with this reduction in size, Hempstead Lake is the largest freshwater body in Nassau County. In its size and function, it is reminiscent of Meadow Lake in Queens, also a park centerpiece and the largest lake in New York City. It is a deep lake used for fishing and boating, but not swimming. The only freshwater beach on Long Island is on Lake Ronkonkoma.

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A 1940 postcard from Hempstead Lake State Park shows a model boat pond carved from Mill River. Notice the parking lot behind the hedges. The automobile made Long Island what is is today, transforming it from potato fields and duck farms to seemingly endless tract housing for the middle class.

Tidal Section of Mill River

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Most maps relating to Living With the Bay show projects along Mill River downstream from Hempstead Lake, but the detailed report outlines its watershed with a variety of solutions. Selected streets within the watershed will receive permeable paving and bioswales; a greenway trail will follow the river as closely as possible; and the stream bed will be cleaned and dredged to improve drainage and flow.

On this map, Smith Pond is on the top. The river currently goes underground afterwards with the interchange of Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road above it. It then reemerges on the surface at sea level, with a mix of saltwater. It flows on for another mile before widening into Hewlett Bay, which is buffered from the open ocean by Long Beach Island.

Resiliency on Mill River

The full Living With the Bay report is quite lengthy (64 pages) in offering recommendations for managing catastrophic storms. Four panels in particular concern the visible portions of Mill River, and one for its tributary Pine Stream.

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At Hempstead High School, the plan calls for widening the riverbank, clearing it of invasive vegetation and installing geotextile to stabilize the stream.

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At Hempstead Lake, the state proposes dam improvements, habitat restoration, boat and kayak launches, and an education-focused visitors center. A long-neglected state park is seeing improvements. It is unfortunate that it had to take a massive storm to raise awareness and funds for this park.

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In the village of Malverne, the Pine Stream tributary would receive a restored wetland near the Malverne High School campus, while remaining underground as it flows past the school’s athletic fields. Nearby streets would receive the green treatment with paving and sewerage designed to absorb storm water, reducing the amount flowing to water treatment plants.

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Pine Stream flows into Mill River at Smith Pond, the centerpiece of Rev. Morgan Days Park. Here the plan involves dredging the pond, eliminating invasive vegetation, and the construction of a fish ladder and public overlook.

In many ways the state’s plan for Mill River resembles the Bluebelt program that transformed and restored the streams on Staten Island’s South Shore. I believe that Living With The Bay should not be limited to Mill River. Its recommendations should be adopted for all streams on Long Island.

Within the Town of Hempstead, flowing parallel to Mill River are Simonson Creek, Motts CreekValley Stream, Millburn Creek, Meadow Brook, Bellmore Creek, and Seaford Creek. They are listed from east to west, all of them flowing south towards the ocean. All of these could be featured in a Hidden Waters of Hempstead book, if there is a demand for such a book. Until then, if the Town or the State are looking for a historical consultant on these waterways, I would be happy to explore them and post their histories here.

Learn More:

The Nassau County Department of Parks, Recreation and Museums has a list of County-operated parks situated alongside streams. Town of Hempstead has its own online list, but it does not offer the history of its parks. The state has its dozen parks on Long Island, some of which have their own hidden streams.

South Shore Blueway has a map of local streams accessible by kayak, along with places to launch kayaks into the water.

Be Involved:

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Downstream from Hempstead Lake, Mill River flows through Smith Pond. This coming Saturday October 21, State Senator Todd Kaminsky, Assemblyman Brian Curran, and a coalition of local civic groups will roll up their sleeves to clean up Smith Pond. This is an excellent opportunity to take direct action in restoring a hidden waterway.

In the News:

Times Ledger reports on the restoration of Sunset Cove in Broad Channel, Queens.

 

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