In the heart of Central Park is The Ramble, a 38-acre woodland where the park’s trimmed lawns give way to an Adirondack terrain of thick forest, boulders, and The Gill, an artificial brook that flows through The Ramble, emptying into The Lake.
At its widest point, The Gill flows through Azalea Pond, the smallest named waterway in Central Park. The maze-like paths deep inside this section of Central Park serve as a sanctuary for birds, a refuge for illicit activities, but at its most basic, a place to forget that one is in the middle of Manhattan.
Where it Flows
The earliest map showing The Gill is an 1860 planner’s map of Central Park. Green areas indicate sections where grass was seeded, trees were planted paths laid out. The Ramble and The Lake were among the first sections of Central Park to be completed. At the time, The Lake did not yet have its boathouse, and there was dispute on what would be built to its east. This map is accurate enough to allow for its use today when exploring The Ramble. The Gill appears as a stream inside The Ramble.
The stream’s name is an old British term for a small waterway, coming from the Norse term for a “deep glen.” As with The Loch, Dene, and Greywacke, throughout the park, Olmsted used antiquated toponyms to give the park a sense of history.
Along the Course
The source of The gill is beneath a set of boulders overlooking a small pool. One can hear the babbling sound of cold water flowing from an opening beneath these arranged rocks.
The opening resembles a small cave with an underground waterfall inside it that creates the sound of water rushing forth. In reality, that cascade flows out of the city’s aqueduct, with water sourced from the Catskill-Delaware-Croton watersheds.
The first crossing over The Gill conceals the stream beneath boulders carrying the footpath. Their stone age appearance give this section of The Ramble a prehistoric look.
The widest section of The Gill is Azalea Pond, named after the flowers planted along its banks. This is the most popular spot for bird watching in the park.
As this 1980s archival photo from Central Park Conservancy shows, Azalea Pond wasn’t always so beautiful. Without maintenance, erosion takes its course, silting the pond until it becomes a naturally occurring swamp.
Crossing The Gill
Flowing out of Azalea Pond, the brook widens a bit. A handcrafted rustic bridge crosses the stream, with matching benches nearby. Both items are the work of Central Park Conservancy and its generous philanthropists. Look for plaques with names if you wish to express gratitude.
Among the park’s stone arches and bridges, no two are the same in their appearance. The same goes for its wooden crossings. Each is a marvel of craftsmanship.
At the End
Towards its end, thick forest cover gives way to exposed rocks as The Gill tumbles down a miniature gorge before emptying into The Lake. Atop the gorge, a constructed path of boulders crosses over the stream. It then zigzags between rocks, crossing its final wooden footbridge at the bottom of the gorge.
At its mouth, one can see the residential towers of Central Park West and again recognize that this stream is deep inside the city, in the heart of its preserved greensward.
Battle of The Ramble
As sacred as The Ramble appears, in May 1955, a 14-acre chunk of it was threatened by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who proposed a senior center here. with a $250,000 grant from the Lasker Foundation, Moses planned the facility on the site of a small lawn on the northern edge of The Ramble. The horizontal appearance of this Moore & Hutchins structure from the New York Times archive had the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Anywhere else, it would have been welcomed by the public. But not here.
Bird watchers, naturalists, and the park going public rose up in a spirited public campaign to defeat the plan. Many people were also offended at the prospect of fencing off The Ramble behind three gates. One can understand the rationale. The fear of crime and illegal activities. At the time, gay couples often relied on the woodland’s privacy for their dates, and were upset at being locked out from their favorite hangout. Their opposition was a precursor to the 1969 protests at Stonewall.
In December of that year, the Lasker Foundation withdrew its grant and the plan was kaput. Along with the building, plans for installing game tables, croquet, shuffleboard, and other active outdoor activities were also cancelled. To this day, The Ramble does not have a single building inside its borders, truly preserving its naturalistic look.