Sylvan Water, Brooklyn

The largest cemetery in Brooklyn lies atop a knob-and-kettle terrain shaped by the last ice age, with dramatic views of New York Harbor and Manhattan. Like its contemporary Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and the Evergreens cemetery on the Queens border, Green-Wood Cemetery has a landscape that respects topography with winding roads and four natural ponds that predate the cemetery.

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The largest of the cemetery’s ponds is Sylvan Water, as seen here in a 2007 Forgotten-NY tour. Each of the lakes is ringed by the resting places of some of the city’s most famous individuals, an calm view for their admirers, and those who visit to observe birds, architecture, and nature.

Where They Flow

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The four ponds of Green-Wood Cemetery are founds in its western section ringed by hills. They are: Crescent Water and Dell Water on its southern side; and Valley Water and Sylvan Water on the west. A fifth pond, Dale Water was the most recent pond to be filled in, appearing as a green blot on this undated topographical map. In the initial decades after its first interment in 1836, this cemetery was the second-most popular tourist destination in the country after Niagara Falls. This was before there were national parks, let alone Central Park. This cemetery has the nature, scenic views, architecture, and famous dead.

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But even a seemingly ideal place like Green-Wood needs updates to its appearance every few decades. In 2007 the landscape architecture firm Quennell Rothschild drafted a master plan that includes a detailed historical survey of the cemetery. In this document are old maps that show changes to its interior waterways. The earliest map provided is 1846, which shows only three ponds: Sylvan Water, Green-Isle Water, and Arbor Water. The third one is not around anymore and the second was renamed Valley Water.

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The popularity of the ponds resulted in the carving out of four more: Border Water, Dell Water, Crescent Water, Dale Water, and Meadow Water. On the 1873 map, the number of ponds is at its peak. At the time Border Water on the south side was being eliminated. On the north side near the Hill of Graves the Almond Water was then created but it lasted only through the 1894 and likewise with Meadow Water, the cemetery’s smallest pond. There was also a small circular reservoir on Fountain Hill.

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As this 1875 photo illustrates, Arbor Water once appeared natural but was quickly being hemmed in by monuments. By 1911, Arbor Water and the reservoir were gone and at some point in this century Dale Water also disappeared, leaving only the four present ponds.

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As the largest of the ponds, Sylvan Water was the most likely to appear in stereoscopic views and postcards. Although it is a natural pond, the cemetery built a well house nearby in 1855 to keep its water level the same. The pond was expanded and its pumped water was also used for the cemetery’s other ponds.

Like the ponds of city parks, the four ponds of Green-Wood must be maintained to prevent silting and algae growth. The wildlife of the cemetery’s ponds includes fish, aquatic insects, and reptiles such as the red-eared slider, box turtle, eastern painted turtle, and snapping turtle. Without a sufficient amount of oxygen in the water they cannot live here.

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Among the city’s cemeteries, Green-Wood is the most prepared for “the day after” all of its burial spaces are filled up. It has a lively social media presence, including Instagram where I found this 1870s photo of a father and daughter sitting by Sylvan Water.

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When visitors were not walking or taking horse carriage rides in the cemetery, they rowed boats on its ponds, as seen in this undated photo of Arbor Water. A circular driveway presently occupies the site of this pond. The fountain kept the water circulating. Without a doubt the visitors likely had a guidebook on hand for their visits.

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Consider The Middle States: A Handbook for Travelers. In its 1881 fourth edition, the entry for Green-Wood Cemetery reads like a scavenger hunt for famous burials, hilltops with names, and monuments. Seriously, if you can’t spend an eternity here, you can certainly devote a day for walking around.

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Although this Instagram photo serves as an invitation for visitors to submit their photos for the cemetery’s calendar, it can easily be a tongue-in-cheek advertisement for a burial in New York’s most prestigious burial park. And while most of the cemetery’s waterways were not as eternal as the gravesite, with only four ponds remaining I am confident that they will still be here centuries from now.

If you wish to learn more about lakes in cemeteries, read my page about Maple Grove Cemetery and Delta Lake in Queens, Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island, and Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Happy Halloween!

 

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