After my visit to the site of One Mile Pond, I felt it was a good opportunity to travel downstream and document the story of Baisley Pond, the largest lake in southern Queens.
Having visited this park after a morning snowfall, the terrain was muddy and there were few people to be seen. It is a post-glacial landscape akin to when mastodons roamed the earth. In 1858, the remains of this creature were unearthed by the pond by construction workers who were transforming the pond into a reservoir.
Where it Flows
Within Baisley Pond Park there are a few helpful maps that note the amenities and the pond’s location. Acquired for park purposes in 1919, Baisley Pond Park is comprised of three tracts, the largest one containing the pond. Prior to development, a creek entered the pond from the north and then exited the pond on its way south towards Jamaica Bay. Note how this 2001 park map has the Mayor and Parks Commissioner named. In recent years with term limits, and to avoid unfair publicity, Parks maps and signs no longer list the Mayor and Commissioner by name.
Like many southern Queens ponds, this one is manmade, with Cornell Creek dammed to power a gristmill. In the early 19th century the mill belonged to David Baisley, the pond’s namesake.
The earliest map of Baisley Pond that I’ve found is from James Pugh Kirkwood’s 1867 book Brooklyn Water Works and Sewers: A Descriptive Memoir, which has maps of the pond from 1861.
Here we see three tributaries: Beaver Brook, Jamaica Creek, and Riders Creek feeding into the pond. The first one originates near downtown Jamaica at Beaver Pond; the second one flows in from One Mile Pond; and Riders Creek widens into the pond’s eastern bay. It also appeared on some map as Smith’s Brook. Both namesakes owned land along this stream.
The pond was acquired by the city of Brooklyn in the 1850s for use as an aqueduct, with its 3,500,000-gallon supply flowing into people’s taps in 1858. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the outline of the pond in 1858 as “very much the shape of an old-fashioned mitten, with a thumb to it.” Its alternative name was Baisley’s Pond and Jamaica Pond.
As mentioned the pond was once home to an American mastodon, a close relative of the mammoth. Both of these cold-weather pachyderms died out towards the end of the last ice age, with early humans hunting the remaining survivors into extinction. In the early years of the United States, natural wonders were celebrated by artists and writers as examples of things that made America unique. The mastodon was also celebrated and treasured whenever its remains were found. No surprise that the same 1858 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article on the pond went into detail on the find: five molars and a bone fragment, but sadly no tusks. The playground in Baisley Pond Park has a replica of a mastodon to inspire children’s imaginations.
Capturing the Water
As this 1907 Belcher-Hyde atlas shows, the streams of southeast Queens all flowed from north to south. The straight line running along the lower third of the map is today’s Conduit Avenue, the service road to Belt Parkway. Its name recalls the Brooklyn Water Works aqueduct that originated at Hempstead Lake and ran to the Ridgewood Reservoir, collecting water from creeks that it intersected along the way.
After Brooklyn’s annexation by New York City, this aqueduct became obsolete, and its former reservoirs were transferred to Parks. That’s the common story of Baisley Pond Park, Springfield Park, and Brookville Park. As the map above shows, Baisley Pond is the largest of these former reservoirs-turned-parks.
The exact spot where Cornell Creek intersected with the aqueduct was uncovered by construction workers in 1926, as seen above in a Municipal Archives photo. Along with Conduit Avenue, the nearby Aqueduct racetrack also preserves the memory of this 19th-century engineering marvel. This spot is today the southern tip of Baisley Pond Park, where JFK Expressway branches off from Belt Parkway.
The 1930s was the time of the country’s greatest economic recession but for Parks it was a golden age of construction thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, ambitious Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, and the support of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. With federal funding, unemployed workers were paid to refurbish existing parks and build hundreds of new playgrounds across the city.
Ahead of Baisley Pond Park’s reconstruction, a Praeger aerial survey was commissioned by the city in 1934. We see here a small memorial for local World War One fighters that will later be expanded; the merge of Sutphin and Rockaway boulevards on the bottom third. At this merge were greenhouses, the last agricultural holdouts as tract housing were making their eastward march. To the south of Rockaway Boulevard, an old pumping station in an undeveloped section of the park hearkened to the time when it collected water for Brooklyn. On the top third of the photo, one can see undeveloped parcels where Beaver Creek and Jamaica Creek flowed into Baisley Pond.
An Olmstedian Plan
A rare find in Parks Archives is this partially realized 1940 plan for Baisley Pond Park. At its northern end, the playground and ballfields were built atop the dry streamed of the pond’s feeder creeks.
Foch Boulevard runs atop an embankment through the park. for readers unfamiliar with French, it’s pronounced Fosh, after the heroic French general of World War One.
The mitten shape of the pond is preserved as it is ringed by winding paths in a forested landscape. In reality, this pond never received its boathouse. So unlike Prospect Park Lake or Meadow Lake, one cannot paddle their way through this park. Ice skating also proved unrealistic as winters warmed up in the second half of the last century. The pond’s thin ice resulted in a few deaths over the decades.
The southern portion of the park was acquired for parks purposes in 1929. In this plan, Cornell Creek would have been reshaped into a small and large pond, with ice skating in mind. The southern border of the park was Belt Parkway, built on the right-of-way of the unused Brooklyn aqueduct. In reality, Cornell Creek was buried in this section of the park with sports fields built atop the former streambed.
Following the reconstruction of Baisley Pond Park, another aerial survey was commissioned in 1940. The lake’s outline now has rounded bays reminiscent of Mickey Mouse. On its eastern side a crescent-shaped promenade was built. Near the merge of Rockaway and Sutphin boulevards, the World War One memorial was expanded with a walkway leading to a circular flagpole plaza.
The southern portion of the park however remained undeveloped. It will finally see its own baseball fields in the 1960s, along with the demolition of the pumping station. The empty parcels to the east of the park will be developed in 1942 as Woodrow Wilson High School. It was renamed in 1971 for Tuskegee Airman August Martin. Note of irony: Wilson’s quotes appears on the building’s exterior walls. President Wilson was a southern racist, while Capt. Martin was a pioneering figure in black history.
Another find in Parks Archives shows the parcel acquisition map for Baisley Pond Park. Note how this map envisioned for 120th Avenue to bridge the pond while Cornell Creek ran through the parcels undisturbed. Perhaps the planners envisioned this suburban neighborhood eventually becoming as dense as Manhattan and the need for more streets here. The bridge over the pond was never built. As the neighborhood remains largely low-density to this day and there is little congestion on the surrounding streets, a bridge running through this park would be unnecessary.
Present Pond Conditions
In the park’s northern portion the playground and sports field were built atop the filled stream bed. Notice how the field takes a dip towards Barron Street. When the ground is sinking, it’s nature’s way of reminding the public that a stream used to flow here.
Although Foch Boulevard does not cross any streams, it runs atop an embankment through the park, a measure deigned to prevent flooding on the road. Baisley Pond can be seen in the distance deep inside the park’s central parcel.
Looking south from the pond’s northern tip, the pediment of August Martin High School is on the horizon. Some of the city’s most architecturally distinguished public high schools face waterways- Forest Hills High School overlooks Meadow Lake; Thomas Jefferson overlooks the East River; Stuyvesant is on the Hudson; George Washington High School overlooks the Harlem River; and Bay Ridge High School is on a cliff above The Narrows. Their location enhances their appearance.
The crescent promenade on the pond’s eastern side features frog sculptures and plenty of bird droppings. At times this pond grows plenty of lilies, and other times it is green with algae. Like many ponds in the city’s park system, it is constantly maintained in order to keep its natural appearance.
From the Municipal Archives collection, there is a 1979 photo of Mayor Ed Koch acting like a commodore atop the two-vessel Baisley Pond cleanup fleet. By his side were Queens Borough President Donald Manes and Councilman Archie Spigner. The boats were powered by giant fans similar to the boats used in the Everglades and the Louisiana bayous.
To the south of Belt Parkway/Conduit Avenue, Cornell Creek was covered in 1945 with JFK Airport built atop the former Idlewild marshland.
In 2014, Kevin Walsh of Forgotten-NY visited Baisley Pond Park and the surrounding neigoobrhoods for his detailed tour of the area.
Interesting post Sergey. I have a some familiarity with the park myself and to this day have not found the mastodon. In your research for the park/pond did you come across sources that explored the societal pulse in response to the city pumping the water? I found that many farmers were upset at their water sources being depleted by the burgeoning metropolis. As a follow up to this great post it would be fascinating to see what presently exists at locations surrounding the pond to see how the neighborhood has changed.
I can look up how the farmers felt, but that’s one reason why the Brooklyn aqueduct was not extended farther east to Massapequa, Babylon, etc- upset farmers. The mastodon remains were eventually donated to the American Museum of Natural History.
Some wooly mammoths long survived the last Ice Age. A remnant population on Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia lasted until about 3,600 years ago – when they finally died out, the Pyramids were a thousand years ago.