From its source at Kensico Reservoir south to the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx River flows nearly in a straight line direction alongside the parkway that shares its name. But there is one section of the river where it takes a brief turn east before returning to its linear course.
Here the river runs under six overpasses carrying Bronx River Parkway, Bronx Boulevard, and Gun Hill Road. There has been a bridge here since colonial times, lending its name to the Williamsbridge neighborhood.
Where It Flows
On this 1905 planning map the mostly undeveloped terrain of Williamsbridge is broken up by a grid of proposed streets. Highlighted here are Gun Hill Road, Bronx Boulevard, and White Plains Road. The knob of land at the river bend appears empty here but it has been the site of a bridge as far back as the colonial period.
Industry at Gun Hill Road
The 1913 atlas of the river’s east bank shows the river bend as a manufacturing hub with J. Marcus Woodworking and Baumgarten Gobelin Tapestry Works as the most visible factories on the map. The latter was established here in 1893, on account of its proximity to the French-speaking community in Olinville and the river. William Baumgarten hired specialists from France to work in his factory. The production method and technique resembles that of the Gobelin factory outside Paris, which relied on the Bievre stream for its dyeing operation. The Public Place on the right is Williamsbridge Square, which will be cloaked in the shadow of elevated subways beginning in 1917. The Marcus and Gobelin factories would be gone by the end of this decade, razed in favor of a linear park along the Bronx River.
Bronx River Parkway Reservation
In 1918 architect Charles W. Stroughton designed a 15.5-mile park along the river’s banks stretching from the Kensico Dam south to Burke Avenue, where it connected with Bronx Park. The Olmstedian landscape offered a naturalistic reprieve from urban encroachment. On the map above I point out Twin Lakes, which I recently documented on my Hidden Waters of NYBG essay.
The leading voice for the park’s creation was Assemblyman William White Niles, an attorney, founder of the New York Park Association, member of the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences and the Bronx Board of Trade, vice-president of the Citizens Union and the Tree Planting Association, and a member of the City Planning Commission. In 1907 he became vice president of the Bronx River Parkway Commission which promoted support for protecting the river. He also sat on the Taconic State Park Commission, which made plans for a parkway stretching from New York’s northern suburbs north to the capital region. Niles died in 1935 at age 74 and was buried in his hometown borough.
Gun Hill Road Bridge
On the site of the historic Williams’ Bridge, Stroughton designed the bridge for Gun Hill Road with its distinctive bricks, columns and arches.
It was the southernmost bridge on the Bronx River Parkway Reservation, with more than a dozen other unique crossings as one travels upstream. Each bridge has the initials BRPR on them, the park’s acronym. Its appearance is reminiscent of Central Park and Forest Park, whose bridges are all each unique in their appearance.
In 1920 the bridge received a second deck carrying the Third Avenue Elevated line towards White Plains Road. This extension of Manhattan’s historic transit line served Bronx commuters along Third Avenue and Webster Avenue. In 1973 it was abandoned and demolished by the city, citing its high maintenance costs and low ridership.
At the time, Mayor John V. Lindsay argued that it was unsightly and antiquated, but in truth this extension was the most recent elevated line in the borough. Its removal left a sizable chunk of central Bronx without subway service. Now that the population is growing again, it would have been nice had this line remained in use, but our leaders don’t always have long-term vision.
On the knob of land between the river and the tracks was Newell Street. This obscure road was compromised in 1946 when the Bronx River Parkway was expanded and relocated to run closer to the river. A sign for Newell Street marks the southbound entrance ramp from Gun Hill Road to the parkway. In the above 1938 photo of Newell Street from Municipal Archives we see the homes and businesses condemned for the parkway’s extension, which ran from Gun Hill Road towards Soundview Park. In the foreground is the Williams Bridge station on the Metro North railway.
A Straightened Course
The widening and extension of Bronx River Parkway also included landscaping along the Bronx River as seen in this 1946 photo looking upstream. The highway would run on the left side of the photo while the old highway route on the right side became a park path.
Although the Bronx River ran through a narrow ravine, its natural course had meanders with small wetlands that enabled sediment to settle and for wildlife to thrive. On the Bronx River Alliance’s map of the stream’s alignment we see the change resulting from the widening of the Bronx River Parkway which runs atop the original course. The knob at Gun Hill Road remains unchanged. Also visible on the map is the tributary stream flowing in from Woodlawn Lake.
The river has a naturalistic appearance and is navigable by canoe. Although Bronx Park’s southern point is at 180th Street, as a result of William Niles, the entire course upstream from Bronx Park is enveloped in parkland. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the nonprofit Bronx River Alliance spearheaded efforts to designate the rest of the river as parkland. Its accomplishments include post-millennial beauties Concrete Plant Park, Starlight Park, did Hunts Point Riverside Park.
The stretch of shoreline park between Gun Hill Road and 233rd Streets is known as Shoelace Park, its name likely derived from its slim appearance on the map and role in connecting Bronx Park to the city line where the park continues within Westchester County. On the master plan shared by the Bronx River Alliance, we see wildlife viewing platforms, lawns, and a rain garden planned for the park.
Another city agency involved in the restoration of Shoelace Park is the Department of Environmental Protection which constructed street runoff channels in the park to reduce the burden on the sewer system. Water from catch basins flows into containment basins where plants filter out pollutants. The flows then continues towards the Bronx River. It is a miniature system functioning in the same manner as the Staten Island Bluebelt.
Fort Knox, Bronx
Approaching the end of this photo essay, the twin arches of Bronx Boulevard give the river bend an appearance of curiosity and history.
Inside the river bend is the model race car course, the only one in a city-operated park. The conditions depend on how often the course is maintained and it is up to the RC community to advocate for its upkeep the same way that dog owners do with dog parks and gardeners with community gardens. The real mystery here is that on maps of the park the river bend is labeled as Fort Knox. None of the books on Bronx River explain why this spot shares its name with the famed gold bullion depository in Kentucky. Somehow the name stuck and it appears on the master plan for the park.
Across the city park system, one can find a variety of sports such as an adventure course in Alley Pond Park, archery range in Willowbrook Park, curling in Prospect Park, mini golf in Flushing Meadows, model airplanes in Marine Park, and surfing in the Rockaways. Racing enthusiasts have this knob of land at Bronx River for their sport.
In the News:
Star-Tribune reports on the effort to restore the Native name Bde Maka Ska to a waterway in Minneapolis, known for the past century as Lake Calhoun.
WHSV News reports on stream restoration efforts in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Tryon Daily Bulletin reports on the restoration of Pacolet River in Tryon, North Carolina.