One of the most important roads in southern Nassau County is Peninsula Boulevard, running in a southeast direction from Hempstead to the Five Towns. These are the upscale south shore suburbs of New York City where creeks can be found flowing behind backyards, beneath streets and in this case, on the median of Peninsula Boulevard.
In the community of Hewlett, the ditch that is the eastern branch of Motts Creek doubles as a route for power lines, demonstrating that as it is with highways, the easiest right-of-way for utilities is along waterways.
Where it Flows
The most detailed map showing the sources of Motts Creek is the 1906 Belcher-Hyde Atlas where I highlighted (from right to left) Mill River and Schodack Brook in dark blue, Pine Stream in purple, Motts Creek in light blue, Valley Stream in blue, and Simonson Creek in purple. Motts Creek had its furthest headwaters in the community of Franklin Square at what is today Rath Park. It flowed south as the border between the villages of Malverne and Valley Stream, turning west at Gibson, and then widening into an inlet at North Woodmere, where it merged with Hook Creek and emptied into Jamaica Bay.
By 1939 the landscape of tract houses on a predetermined grid of street was nearly complete in Malverne and Valley Stream. On this 1939 Dolph & Stewart Atlas of Nassau County, a portion of the Malverne–Valley Stream border appears as a squiggly line running mid-block on a grid. This border runs along Motts Creek. Two state parks appear on this map: Valley Stream State Park on the left, and Hempstead Lake State Park on the right. In contrast, Motts Creek did not receive any sizable state, county, town, or village parks.
Malverne received its name in 1913 after a village in England. It was incorporated as a village in 1921. On the above map we see a handful of farms north of Southern State Parkway. They will be developed into residences in the 1950s. The last working farm in Malverne today, Crossroads Farm at Grossman’s is marked with a diamond. To its north in a green circle is Halls Pond, the first waterway that I’ve documented in Nassau County.
South of Sunrise Highway the creek forms part of the Hewlett-Valley Stream border. On a parcel known as Lord’s Woods, the Long Island Water Company had its pumping station, next to the Westwood golf club. North Woodmere did not yet exist. It was an expanse of salt marsh known at the time as Hungry Harbor.
The final map that I have on Motts Creek is from the Governor’s Storm Recovery office, published in 2013. The Rising Community Reconstruction Program sought to repair damage caused a year earlier by Hurricane Sandy in South Valley Stream and implement resiliency measures to prevent further damage by storm surges.
On this map of Jamaica Bay’s Head of Bay watershed, we see the catchment area extending north to the glacial terminal moraine at Northern State Parkway. Water that is deposited here flows underground, emerging to the surface roughly south of Hempstead Turnpike where it is carried by creeks in a southwest direction towards the bay. The southern extent of this watershed is the LIRR Far Rockaway Branch, which was built atop a low-lying ridge, sparing the tracks from flooding in a storm event.
At the Source
Used by residents of Franklin Square and West Hempstead, Rath Park is administered by the Town of Hempstead, to which these two communities belong. The park was the last holdout in the postwar years against tract housing. Recognizing the need for parkland, John Rath donated his farm to the town and it opened to the public in 1959. The above aerial image from that year appears in the book Franklin Square by Arcadia Publishing. It is the definitive source on the history of this unincorporated village. The creek here was always a trickle, and so park architect Herbert D. Philips simply had it covered in favor of sports fields and a pool.
I am a great fan of Kevin Walsh, and he is a great admirer of streetlight aficionado Jeff Saltzman. For these two urban dorks, I found an ad online of the original light design for Rath Park, by the Newark-based Pfaff & Kendall foundry. At the southern side of Rath Park on Naple Avenue, Motts Creek begins its course in a ditch flowing behind single-family homes. The banks of the ditch are maintained by Nassau County, fenced-off from the public.
Along the Course
The Franklin Square section of the stream could have been developed into residences but the county recognizes that the ideal way to manage storm water is by natural means. As of 2009, it has 3720 storm water outfalls, 1000 storm water recharge basins, and nearly 57 miles of open stream corridors, including Motts Creek. They’re all part of the county’s policy of erosion and sedimentation control. Keeping these stream corridors clean involves fences and “no trespassing” signs.
In some sections of the creek, as seen here at Shelburne Drive, there is a service path following the stream that could be designated as a bike path, and have informational signs to tell the story of the creek, but for now this public-owned space is not open to the public. As with Pine Stream, for much of the year the stream bed of Motts Creek is dry as most of its drainage basin has been developed. Its top source of water is runoff from streets that parallel and cross the stream.
On the Malverne-Valley Stream border the creek interrupts the street grid for vehicles, but the sidewalks run over the stream on footbridges where there is ample foliage in an area of otherwise neat lawns. After crossing Southern State Parkway, the stream runs below some homes, and between others. At Argyle Street it goes underground, reemerging to the surface a half mile downstream at Brookville Avenue and Brush Drive, a block south of Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream.
Here the stream receives respect with a park-like median running to Gibson Boulevard. It then flows under the tracks of the Far Rockaway Branch, and enters Woodmere. Where streets cross the creek could be ideal spots for informative signs and benches, but again this stream was not intended to serve as a linear park.
At South Drive and Mill Road the creek disappears into a thick forest that surrounds a water pumping station at Starfire Court.
It is the last remnant of Lord’s Woods, named after a long-ago property owner. Prior to the arrival of tract housing, the forest was much larger and was a favorite for local youths, who explored its terrain and streams. There are a couple of large parks in the Five Towns, North Woodmere Park and Grant Park, but they were designed around sports rather than natural preservation. In contrast, Lord’s Woods had the appearance of Prospect Park or Forest Park, places for hiking more than football and baseball.
It was here that local resident Robert Arbib wrote the book Lord’s Woods: The Passing of an American Woodland in 1971, providing a detailed map of the terrain that enveloped the Water Works. He can be called the Henry David Thoreau of Five Towns. The Duffy’s Creek blog summarizes the history of Lord’s Woods and what remains of the once-sizable virgin forest.
Beyond the pumping station, Motts Creek receives water from its tributary which I’m describing as the creek’s eastern branch. It then widens into a basin ringed by tract mansions but there isn’t a single boat or dock here. The shoreline and the waterway belong to the county. At Branch Boulevard the water passes through a tidal gate, descending to sea level. Here the county has Doxy Brook Fishing Park, really a small parking lot with a few benches overlooking the basin.
The park preserves one of many other names used for this section of Motts Creek. The name which I’m using recalls a colonial landowning family in the area, also the namesakes of Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway. Beyond this park, Motts Creek flows through a salt marsh, merging with Hook Creek and widening into the Head of Bay, which is part of Jamaica Bay.
Returning to the image in our title card, the eastern branch of Motts Creek makes its appearance in an unnamed park in Lynbrook where Peninsula Boulevard intersects Sunrise Highway. The unnamed park has a generic-looking fountain and one bench. In a village where most residents have their own backyards, a public park seems like an afterthought, designed more as a display for passing motorists than for pedestrian use. The 1906 atlas shows that the natural headwaters of this branch were nearly a mile to the north, near the crossing of Franklin Avenue and the West Hempstead Branch tracks.
A block to the south of the unnamed park the stream goes underground but its former course is preserved as a meandering open space that interrupts the grid. Where its course was “privatized” into backyards, a squiggly property line on otherwise rectilinear blocks indicates the former course.
On Google Maps one can play detective by zooming in on the property lines to trace the eastern branch of Motts Creek. Adding to the obscurity, this branch in turn was fed by an even smaller tributary originating at Scranton Avenue, between Reyan Road and Freer Street, zigzagging between homes in a concrete channel.
This concrete channel can be seen above on Tottenham Road in a section of Lynbrook with distinctly English names such as Westminster, Charing Cross, Northumberland, Trafalgar, and Coventry. We declared our independence for this?! As is the case with Kensington and Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn, the names are supposed to lend “an air of sophistication.” Lynbrook received its name in 1894, in recognition that many of its residents originated from Brooklyn.
The official zoning map for Lynbrook shows the traces of Motts Creek. I circled the unnamed park in green, and the undeveloped former course in brown. The blue circle is within Hewlett, where the stream emerges to the surface.
But it is on Peninsula Boulevard that the eastern branch of Motts Creek is most visible to the public. Prior to the 1970s, Nassau County had its own County Route numbering system, with orange hexagonal markings. Based on its length, Peninsula Boulevard was Nassau County Route 2. But in 1973 the Federal Highway Administration required all of the nation’s counties to adopt a uniform blue pentagon with yellow letters. The Nassau County legislature balked at the cost of replacing signs and eliminated the numbering system altogether. I usually associate county routes with rural places, and by 1973 most of Nassau County was covered by residential sprawl.
Sources on Streams
Every stream has its tributaries, and every book has its cited sources of information. I relied on the books above to get the history of the hamlets and villages along the course of Motts Creek. Hardworking local historians who believe in what they do.
In 2011, I served as editor of The Jewish Star, whose printing press was in Garden City but most its stories took place in the Five Towns. I frequently traveled down Peninsula Boulevard for work, past the ditch in the median that carries Motts Creek. Ideally, I would like to return to Nassau County and work in its local government as it relates to infrastructure and water management.