With plans underway to transform the landfills along Jamaica Bay into a 407-acre State Park, it is an ideal time to focus on the current largest State Park within NYC, the 265-acre Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve on Staten Island. It is a post-industrial landscape reclaimed by nature as a thick forest and wetland with five named ponds and two named brooks.
The largest of these is Sharrotts Pond, glacial kettle pond near the southern edge of the park. Unlike many of the city’s parks, there are no high-rises peeking from behind the treetops, so the view is truly natural.
Finding the Park
The park is sandwiched on parcels bound by West Shore Expressway on the east and Arthur Kill Road on the west, cobbled together from farm purchases, unused quarries, and undeveloped properties. To its east is the neighborhood of Rossville, and to its southeast is Charleston.
This corner of Staten Island has a long industrial history of shipbuilding, brickmaking, oyster harvesting, oil refining, and automotive repair. But in contrast to Staten Island’s North Shore, the industries in this area were spread out, with plenty of natural spaces between them.
As the park’s name indicates, the clay in the ground here was ideal for making pottery, a tradition dating back to the native Lenape people. As is the case with all of Staten Island, the terrain here is geologically diverse, containing freshwater marsh, pine barrens, and fields of sand. The site was designated a State Park Preserve in 1977, the only one on Staten Island.
Pottery and Bricks
The development of the region began in 1700 when the Androvette family settled on Staten Island. They were among the many French Huguenots who fled religious persecution in their homeland and established new communities across New York. In 1854, Bavarian immigrant Balthazar Kreischer built his brick factory near the Androvette farm and Androvetteville became known as the Kreischerville company town. The brick works operated until 1927, relying on the clay soil of the future state park for its products. In 1917, in the midst of World War One, the Germanic name of this neighborhood was replaced with the decidedly English Charleston, after Balthazar’s son Charles. Forgotten-NY tells the neighborhood’s story here, and here.
Looking at the 1917 G. W. Bromley map of the site, it is divided into properties whose borders stretch to the shore of Arthur Kill. Some of these parcels belong to Kreischer, others to the Ultramarine Works- a clothes dyeing factory, and the Staten Island Kaolin Company, which operated a rail spur from the clay pits to a dock on Arthur Kill. The creek flowing across this map is Ellis Swamp, which s followed by Clay Pit Road. The major road here, Arthur Kill Road is an ancient path running from Richmondtown to Tottenville, an important link between central Staten Island and New Jersey.
Seen by Sperr
On September 23, 1937 prolific city photographer Percy Loomis Sperr visited this corner of Staten Island, documenting its rural scenery. In the photo above on Sharrotts Road and Carlin Street, a child is seen pushing a tire down the road. This paly is reminiscent of the age-old game of pushing a barrel ring with a stick.
Sperr also noted that there was an ice harvesting pond on the southern side of Sharrotts Road with a toy boat floating in it.
From a hilltop inside the future state park, Sperr looks to the northwest with the Charleston Reformed Church in the foreground and Socony oil tanks behind it, a mix of industry, forest, and rural architecture. The caption describes their location as Soconyport. Throughout Staten Island’s history, neighborhoods developed by companies were named after their employers: Factoryville, Linoleumville, Port Ivory, and Port Mobil come to mind.
Welcome to the Park
Not far from where Sperr took the photo of the child pushing a tire is the southern entrance to Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. At this dead-end on Carlin Street, the park’s administration buildings have the look of a campground office far upstate. Inside I was pleased to find maps and literature on the park, and kept in mind that a State Parks employee lives here. Best public housing that there is, perhaps better than the White House and Gracie Mansion when one considers the ample backyard here.
Behind the administration buildings a trail leads to a roofed pavilion overlooking a ravine. An informative sign explains how the park got its name and the former clay pits that have been restored by nature to this forested landscape.
Arthur Kill Road
Descending into the woods, the trail meets the Ellis Swamp creek, which flows west in a straight line. It has an undisturbed appearance, the foliage covering up numerous clay pits of the 19th century. At Arthur Kill road, the creek leaves the park, and enters Arthur Kill within a few yards of the road.
I would have liked to follow the stream to its end, but the signs along the private roads here appear strongly worded. There’s plenty of security around the oil tanks at the end of these roads, so I’ve opted to keep back. The tank farm is concealed by thick forest around them.
Further north on Arthur Kill Road, going past a prison-turned-film-studio, another set of oil tanks comes into view with Arthur Kill and New Jersey in the background. Next to these tanks is a golf driving range, across the driveway from a forested paintball range, and not too far from an indoor skating rink and a gun range. Who says there’s nothing to do out here?
Branching off Arthur Kill Road into the park is Clay Pit Road, a demapped street that serves as a park trail. During the site’s industrial heyday, carts were loaded with clay on this road, bound for nearby factories. It is unusual to see streets being removed from the map in this growing city in favor of parkland. Here’s a recent example of such a removal in Manhattan.
Oil is finite but the sun isn’t going anywhere, so the tanks now have the island’s largest solar panel farm as their neighbor. On the matter of farms, there is the Winant-Gericke farm within the State Park, acquired in 1979. A pioneer in organic farming, it kept going while all the other farms on the island succumbed to pollution and residential development. But the advanced age of Herbert Gericke and high cost of operating the farm resulted in its closing. It is used today by local schoolchildren.
On most days the Gericke / Winant Farm is empty, appearing as welcoming as a movie set from Walking Dead. No chickens running around or horses neighing. My toddler’s beloved Old McDonald lyrics would have to be changed to that of plants rustling and crickets chirping.
fortunately there is a detailed historical sign on the premises to tell the farm’s story, so that I don’t have to type about it further.
Since October 2008, visitors to this park are encouraged to start their hikes at the Interpretive Center, which offers space for exhibits and classes on the park’s natural history and human activities.
Behind the Interpretive Center trails branch off into the woods, their mulch surface laid out by local Boy Scout volunteers.
At the corner of Veterans Road West and Sharrotts Road is another unused residence inside the park. Such homes are a problem for parks everywhere, posing the question on whether they should be restored or demolished, what use could be assigned to them, and whether they are up to code.
There are many transportation options within this park, including a bridal trail that follows the West Shore Expressway service road to Sharrotts Pond.
Clay Pit Schools
For the city’s students, parks serves as outdoor classrooms and as oversized schoolyards. In proximity to Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, two public schools that represent Staten Island’s past and future bookend the forested expanse.
On Arthur Kill Road, the former Westfield Township School District No. 7 dates to 1896. Presently known as P. S. 25, it continues to operate as a public school. Its walls are made of Kreischer bricks, a locally sourced product.
In 2015, P. S. 62 opened to much fanfare nearby, celebrated for its environmentally sustainable design. The 68,000 square-foot facility is packed with green features: more than 2,000 solar panels, a wind turbine, heating and cooling systems powered by geothermal wells, pre-cast concrete façade, and underground tanks that collect rainwater.
A Note on State Parks in NYC
A corner of the borough once regarded as the city’s last frontier is filling up with residences, retailers, schools, and utilities. As it becomes more urbanized, Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve will continue to serve as a reminder of how the island appeared before it was developed and how it would appear again if people were to leave the landscape.
For the purposes of this blog, it is convenient that all of the State Parks situated in New York City are located either alongside a waterway or contain streams inside their borders. As independent as the city feels, it is part of a larger state that shares its name and to which it pays taxes. So far, I’ve documented the following State Parks in NYC:
- Fountain Avenue Landfill (proposed)
- East River State Park
- Gantry Plaza State Park (for Forgotten-NY)
I’ve also written about Hempstead Lake State Park on Long Island, and contributed details to the Wikipedia list of New York State Parks. It has been nearly a year since I’ve written to New York State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey about working at NYS Parks. As this blog shows, I’m quite knowledgeable about the state’s eternal public green spaces. Hopefully someone at her agency s aware of my work.