At the northern tip of Manhattan the 196-acre Inwood Hill Park offers a variety of natural elements- cliffs, caves, forest, and the curvy shoreline of Spuyten Duyvil Creek straightened into the Harlem River Ship Canal. Being in this park gives one a hint of the Hudson Valley further to the north.
At low tide the cove in the park appears tempting to cross, but the mud here is as soft as quicksand. In the background the Henry Hudson Bridge frames the Harlem River’s confluence with the Hudson, with the New Jersey Palisades on the horizon. The peninsula on the right used to be in the Bronx prior to the 1930s.
Where it Flows
On the official hiking trails map of the park, the curve in the shoreline is marked as Salt Marsh. Prior to 1936, the knob of land between the cove and Spuyten Duyvil Creek was part of the Bronx, informally known as Johnson Point after the ironworks that stood on it. When Spuyten Duyvil Creek was straightened, the tip of the former peninsula was fused to Manhattan, becoming part of Inwood Hill Park.
Looking at the 1955 G. W. Bromley atlas, the former Bronx border juts into the park and its boat basin. On the peninsula a boathouse was built with a dock, but over the decades the silting of the cove made it impractical for mooring boats. At low tide, the boats would rest on the muddy surface.
In 1939 New York Times publicized plans for the boat basin as a “mooring area for large yachts.” The reporter compared the new basin and straightened waterway to that of a highway, with dangerous curves eliminated in favor of a streamlined route. Although a cove was carved and a boathouse was later built here, the yacht docks were not. Today, only three marinas citywide are operated by Parks, with another 12 on parkland run by private organizations.
In this 1941 photo from the Municipal Archives we see the outline of the cove nearly completed. A natural salt marsh has been filled with dry land. To manage flow in the cove, a narrow canal cross the peninsula.
That channel is still here, spanned by a bridge connecting to the peninsula. At high tide, it becomes an island. In the background above is the Columbia University’s boathouse, part of its Baker Field athletic complex.
On the tip of the peninsula next to the unused Nature Center is a wigwam that serves as an educational conversation piece. The rangers tell me that is was constructed by a local Native individual who fashioned it entirely out of natural materials, foregoing modern conveniences like glue, tape, and nails.
A closer look reveals the intricate detail that went into its construction. Ironically, this wigwam survived dozens of winter storms and heavy rains, while the Nature Center next door was battered by Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. Its presence in the park is a reminder that while European colonists began building their Manhattan at its southern tip, the most populated Native communities were up here, where there were more abundant sources of food and water. The settlement of Shorakkopoch, and the caves inside the park are two examples of their historical presence, along with arrowheads, beads, trinkets, and wampum shells that are occasionally unearthed.
Indian Life Reservation
Today’s society would view a full-time display of Native Americans in a park to be nearly as demeaning as that time when the Bronx Zoo had a Congolese pygmy living among its animals, or when the American Museum of Natural History kept a Greenland Inuit family in its basement. All of this happened in the early 20th century.
Between 1926 and 1938 Inwood Hill Park contained a 20-acre Indian Life Reservation that was populated by Native American staff who reenacted a traditional life of making beads, pottery, and headdresses, along with ceremonial dances and competitions. The “reservation” was concocted by historian and amateur archaeologist Reginald Pelham Bolton, who had been digging for artifacts in the park since the turn of the century. His partner in the project was Emilio Gabriel Diaz, a Chibcha-speaking Native of Colombia, who identified the tulip three in the park as the purported site of Peter Minuit’s 1626 “purchase” of Manhattan.
The “reservation” opened in a festive ceremony on May 8, 1926. As the original Lenape departed this site in 1643, their replicated village was “populated” by Cherokees, Mohawks, and other distant Natives living in New York. The above image comes from Harlem World, which writes about its most famous resident the Cherokee “Princess Naomie.” At the time, the surrounding neighborhood was largely Irish and Jewish so it’s no surprise to see the Natives stopping by a nearby synagogue bazaar.
Next to the “reservation” was a cottage with a pottery studio that resigned materials in the Native style. The highly detailed blog My Inwood has all the details on it. Today New York has the largest Native population of any city in the country, comprising of nations from across the U.S. and Native immigrants from Latin America. Indian Road, which borders the park is named in memory of the park’s Native history.
Finding the Past
In 1919 Bolton drafted a map of his findings in the park, including rock shelters, scattered lodge sites, shells, and pottery. The map provided an accurate account of where the Weeksquaesgeeks camped in the centuries preceding colonization.
The most dramatic change to the park’s interior came during the administration of Commissioner Robert Moses. On this 1932 map by Bolton, we see outlines of Cock Hill Fort, House of Mercy, and House of Rest. All institutions, mansions, and cottages inside the park were removed by the decade’s end. Indian Life Reservation is marked within the rectangular plot at the center of the map. A park inside a park.
Henry Hudson Bridge
As an alum of CCNY, I am proud to know that the engineering department’s home, Steinman Hall carries the name of the man who built Henry Hudson Bridge. Completed in 1936, the arch span was a decades-long project that began with a beaux-arts design that evolved towards modernism. Fun fact: David B. Steinman grew up in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, a likely inspiration for his life of bridge-building.
From the Municipal Archives, the 1907 design resembled High Bridge, with its heavy-handed display of masonry. At the time, local residents feared the bridge’s impact on the park’s virgin forest and the suburban Riverdale neighborhood to the north.
From the same collection, an undated modification of the arch design provided a wider central span to accommodate the Harlem River Ship Canal that was carved from Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
The final failed design was in 1931, which envisioned a concrete-clad suspension bridge. All in all, the modernist design by Steinman is the least intrusive on this natural scene, comparable with nearby George Washington Bridge, which was also initially designed with a masonry cover but completed with an exposed steel skeleton.
Sandwiched between Inwood Hill Park and the Columbia University‘s boathouse, this landscaped marsh, boat ramp and boardwalk was completed in 2014 as collaboration between Parks and Columbia. Its designer, James Corner Field Operations is more famous for the High Line and Domino Park. The name Muscota is of Lenape origin translating as “a place in the reeds.”
From the dock at Muscota Marsh looking northeast, the JFK High School was built atop the original streambed of Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Prior to its burial in 1913, it snaked around Marble Hill. Prior to when it snaked around Marble Hill. Constructed in 1972, its concrete design resembles that of LaGuardia High School, my alma mater.
Bordering the marsh, Columbia has the old Gould-Remmer Boathouse and the actively-used Class of 1929 Boathouse.
Future of Inwood Hill Park
With its history, terrain, and views, Inwood Hill Park offers many things to visitors, but there’s so much more that could be done concerning the improvement of vistas, ecological restoration, and historical preservation. In 2011, the city released its 2030 Master Plan for Northen Manhattan Parks. Within this park, the plan calls for channeling a creek in the lowland that runs through the center of the park, and a boardwalk along the salt marsh cove.
Where the ridge descends to the park’s lowland, there is a sign indicating a natural spring. Inwood used to have dozens of springs. As the last Manhattan neighborhood to urbanize, many survived long enough to be photographed.
Concluding my visit, I returned to the salt marsh cove to look at it in low tide. Among the city’s waterways, could this be the one with the greatest visual contrast between high and low tides? Looking at it, I thought of what the world would look like if the sea level were to recede. More real estate for my species! Unfortunately, the opposite is happening, and it is happening too quickly.