On the ridge overlooking Raritan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean is a set of connected parks, the Staten Island Greenbelt. High Rock Park is regarded by the Parks Department as the “buckle” of the Greenbelt. The park has its natural ponds, and not all of them have names.
Two such ponds are at the southern edge of High Rock Park, separated by the unused Altamont House. For the purpose of this post, I’ll call them Altamont Ponds.
Where They Are
Looking at the November 2015 High Rock Park Conceptual Plan, Altamont Ponds are labeled as Woodland Pools, comprising of two ponds and a sizable vernal pool. The road leading to these ponds is an extension of Altamont Street, a steep dead-end that branches off from Richmond Road. Between the ponds is Altamont House.
A wood and brick structure, it dates to the period when High Rock Park was a campground operated by the Girl Scouts Council of Greater New York. Its most defining feature is an enclosed balcony overlooking one of the ponds. Located deep in a forest and far from highways, it has the feel of far upstate but within the city’s borders.
In 1965, the Girl Scouts could no longer afford to maintain the site and it faced threat of development. An advocacy campaign led by local conservationist Gretta Moulton and her neighbors resulted in its designation as a city park. In the following decade having defeated developers, Moulton also fought Robert Moses’ plan to extend Richmond Parkway through High Rock Park.
Throughout the Parks system there are houses that are used either as offices or as museums maintained by resident caretakers. For these 19 lucky city residents, these houses-in-the-park could be described as the best public housing in the city, after Gracie Mansion. Altamont House has its shower and bathtub, but nobody lives here anymore. The plan is to use it as an office for Parks patrol officers.
The pond below Altamont House’s balcony is deep, formed in the retreat of the most recent ice age, when broken off chunks of ice melted in place, leaving kettle-shaped depressions that filled with water.
To the north of Altamont House is a shallower pond filled with dead trees in a scene that brings beavers to mind. Bronx River has its beavers as does Richmond Creek, but I did not see the states’ official mammal here.
What appears on the map above as a third pond is a vernal pool- a seasonal pond that fills with water after heavy rainfall. This section of the park borders on the Moravian Cemetery, which has its own hidden waterway that feeds into New Creek.
The upland part of High Rock Park is where visitors can find its other ponds and most of its buildings. That section deserves a separate blog post. There is one element of the upland section that I do wish to share at this time.
A Forgotten Garden
Next to the lab building in the park’s hilltop circle are two concrete bowls that puzzled me. My guesses ranged from Olympic flame cauldrons to a modernist art installation.
The answer lies in a 1970 photo taken by Suzanne Szasz for the Environmental Protection Agency showing it as the park’s Garden for the Blind, planted by the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State. What an innovative idea!
Although this pioneering garden has become neglected over the decades, the Fragrance Garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden has its braille signs and smells for the visually impaired, as does Helen’s Garden of the Senses at the New York Botanical Garden. It was named after blind advocate Helen Keller.
When I look for hidden waterways across the city, I never know what else I could find, in this case, a forgotten garden for the blind.