As its name suggests, Springfield Boulevard in southern Queens used to run past a field with a spring from which a stream originated. That stream is Thurston Creek, which its had its source near Springfield Boulevard and 121st Avenue, across from Montefiore Cemetery in the neighborhood of Springfield Gardens. It flowed south along Springfield Boulevard for nearly three miles, emptying into Jamaica Bay.
The creek emerges to the surface in Springfield Park, a 24-acre green space where the creek flows through a brick channel, widening into Cornell’s Pond before continuing south into the Idlewild marshes.
Where it Flows
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. Thurston Creek can be seen running parallel to Springfield Boulevard, picking up its eastern branch tributary in the Springfield neighborhood, widening into Cornell’s Pond before trailing off into the Idlewild Marshes where it empties into Jamaica Bay. Thurston Creek’s namesake is a local landowning family whose history in southern Queens goes back to the 1680s.
The stream flowed past the hotels and farms of Springfield to empty in Springfield Pond, which was formed by a milldam in the mid-18th century. Suburban development arrived following the completion of Penn Station in 1910, which enabled residents to reach Midtown Manhattan in a half hour. Springfield was renamed Springfield Gardens in 1927. Sections of the stream north of the pond were channeled into a sewer and the pond was buried in the following decade.
The pond’s site remained undeveloped and in 1959, the city acquired it for parkland. Montbellier Park is named after one of the leaders of the campaign for the park. Albert Montbellier was a civic activist and founder of the Springfield Gardens Taxpayers and Citizens Association. He died in 1963 and the park was named after him the following year. In the park there are no traces of the stream that flowed on what are today a playground and sports field.
As is common with urban waterways, large open spaces and superblock parcels on maps indicate where they flowed. A few blocks south of Montbellier Park, the athletic field of Springfield Gardens High School lies atop the buried stream. The stream then flows beneath Belt Parkway, Junior High School 231, and Public School 251, finally seeing daylight at 145th Road, where it flows into Springfield Park.
The stream winds through the park in a brick channel, widening into Cornell Pond. A century ago this pond was an ideal place for ice skating but winters have greatly warmed up since those days. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, son of the Central Park architect. The park is cared for by Eastern Queens Alliance, a neighborhood nonprofit that promotes educational programs in southern Queens parks. Every park deserves an advocacy group.
The brick channels that carry Thurston Creek through Springfield Park are unique in design among the city’s parks, reminiscent of the urban canals of European cities. The channel leaves the park at 147th Avenue.
Within Springfield Park and to its south, Thurston Creek flows through a Bluebelt, a water management program that uses wetlands to filter street runoff, mitigate storm surges, and restore natural habitat. The Bluebelt program first appeared on Staten Island, which has more streams and undeveloped land available for such projects.
Airport Land Reclamation
In 1942 the city acquired nearly 5,000 acres of land in Idlewild for an airport. The fishing shacks, bungalows, golf course, and wildlife habitat were instantly wiped from the map. In April 1942, a massive hydraulic fill operation covered up the tidelands. A small portion of the marshes remains on the north side of Rockaway Boulevard.
Thurston Creek and Cornell Creek were rerouted partially underground and around the airport’s eastern side into Jamaica Bay. The above 1947 photo comes from Fairchild Aerial Surveys. The highway in the above photo is Conduit Avenue, which continues further east as Sunrise Highway. Both are part of NYS Route 27, which runs from Brooklyn to Montauk Point.
If the airport hadn’t done enough to wipe away the wetlands, this 1956 map of the city by Shell Oil Company shows the grid running down to Rockaway Boulevard. Earlier maps predating the airport have the grid running even further south to the edge of Jamaica Bay with 163rd Avenue as the final number. If you’re interested in the “ultima thule” of unbuilt numbered streets, one map I’ve found had the grid extending to Broad Channel with the final avenue number exceeding 200.
Today, 147th Avenue is the southernmost east-west route connecting Springfield Gardens, Brookville, and Rosedale. It touches the southern edges of Springfield and Brookville parks. The highest numbered avenue here is 150th Drive. Looking at the official NYCity Map, the two gray stripes cutting through Idlewild Park signify the highway that was never built. These linear parcels belong to the state but for all intents and purposes, they are preserved as part of this wetland.
Thurston Creek goes underground again at Rockaway Boulevard, which also serves as the border of JFK Airport. This major road runs from the Brooklyn-Queens border in Cypress Hills through Ozone Park towards the Five Towns where it becomes Rockaway Turnpike. Between the 1940s and 1980, there were plans to upgrade this road into an expressway. This would have greatly impacted the Idlewild marshes, with most of the wetland having been filled in the 1940s for the airport.
On this 1970s Hagstrom map, we see the dotted line Nassau Expressway cutting through the marshes of Idlewild Park, marked here as part of Brookville Park. The highway was part of the ambitious plan to run Interstate 78 through NYC, from its current terminus at the Holland Tunnel, through lower Manhattan, across the Williamsburg Bridge, above Bushwick Avenue, and through Cypress Hills. In Queens the route would have followed Conduit Avenue and Rockaway Boulevard to the Five Towns, terminating at Atlantic Beach. The highway was only partially completed, with Idlewild Park as its missing segment. It appears on maps as NYS Route 878.
Springfield Park is visible on this map, but Thurston Creek isn’t. Upon reaching Rockaway Boulevard, it goes underground and emerges at sea level as Thurston Basin, which was carved around the airport’s eastern edge.
Following the storm surge damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in Oct. 2012, the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery issued a master plan for southern Queens that would expand on the DEP’s Bluebelt with additional preserved spaces, bioswales, and berms. An unexpected item in this plan is to designate an undeveloped shoulder of land between Rockaway Boulevard and Thurston Basin as a park, along with the development of oyster reefs in the basin.
Presently the basin is fenced-off as part of the airport. This site is far from the nearest residential areas, but it is contiguous with Idlewild Park, Brookville Park, Hook Creek Park, and Springfield Park. The site would be ideal for watching birds, plane, and for a bike path that would connect southeast Queens with the Five Towns and Far Rockaway. Although two of these five parks are inaccessible to the public as Forever Wild preserves, one can imagine a water trail for canoes here, or an elevated boardwalk in a Queens version of the Staten Island Greenbelt that connects parks with a trail.
Head of Bay
Thurston Basin makes a sharp turn to the south at Warnerville, an enclave of a couple dozen homes on two streets near the Queens-Nassau border. Together with Meadowmere and Meadowmere Park, this isolated community marks the end of Thurston Creek. The neighborhood received its sewers in 2007, long after the rest of the city was connected. Here, Thurston Basin merges with Hook Creek widening into the Head of Bay, an extension of Jamaica Bay. The wilderness across the inlet is part of the airport. As mentioned in previous posts, Hook Creek also carries the water of Simonson Creek and Valley Stream, along with Clear Stream, and Motts Creek.
In the News:
Watauga Democrat reports on plans to daylight a section of Boone Creek in Boone, North Carolina.
Standard Examiner is reporting on plans to restore the Weber River in west Ogden, Utah.
Sun Current reports on restoration plans for Minnehaha Creek within Arden Park in Edina, Minnesota.