One of the mysteries for western Queens residents is Fresh Pond Road. On its 1.5-mile run between Maspeth and Ridgewood there are no hints of its namesake waterway but we know that prior to development this was a knob-and-kettle terrain of multiple ponds shaped by the most recent ice age. That the road still has its name rather than assigned number also signifies its history.
When in doubt about the exact location of a former waterway, I usually find the nearest park as they often are designated on sites where water once flowed and building is more difficult. For Fresh Pond, the only park on this road is Reiff Playground, and the tiny Lang Triangle across the street. Could these provide clues to the location of the namesake pond?
Where it Flowed
When in doubt, I look at old maps for the answer. The 1872 Matthew Dripps map of Queens shows Fresh Pond Road closely running near its present route, extending south towards Brooklyn as Cypress Hills Street, with its northern end at Grand Avenue. The city of Brooklyn had its grid mapped out while Queens County was still a patchwork of towns and villages separated by farmland. The area also contained numerous cemeteries operated by religious organizations whose older graveyards were expelled from Manhattan.
On this map, a pond appears on the south side of Mount Olivet Crescent at Fresh Pond Road. On the far west are Maspeth Creek and Furman Island; with Ridgewood Reservoir on the lower right. The earlier 1852 Dripps map is identical with the pond’s location. Fresh Pond Road is a Native trail, known to Dutch settlers as Old Kills Path.
But the 1904 G. W. Bromley atlas keeps that site vacant and instead depicts a pond within the borders of Mount Olivet Cemetery. Sticking into the cemetery is the Alden Simpson Oil Cloth Factory, a major employer in the area. Nobody likes living next to a factory, and the dead can’t protest its location. This section of Maspeth was named Melvina, one of a handful of old neighborhood names no longer in use. Kevin Walsh knows most of them.
But the 1909 map by the same publisher omits the pond inside the cemetery. Instead we see a pond a few blocks to the west at Flushing Avenue. For convenience, I marked the locations of Reiff Playground and Lang Triangle, and the straight path taken by today’s Fresh Pond Road. I also highlighted this road and Mount Olivet Crescent that borders the cemetery.
The 1914 Sanborn property survey that shows the pond within the cemetery, next to the clothing factory, as seen in the 1904 Bromley map. On the far left next to the site of Reiff Playground were the homes of the factory’s owners managers, and workers in an arrangement known as Shirttail Row.
This “company town” development is similar to Steinway in northwest Queens, where the piano maker also built a library, park, and church for the workers. A few of the original Shirttail Row homes can be found on 59th Drive at 63rd Street, facing Reiff Playground. The only photo of these homes that I’ve found is from the NYPL collection, dating to 1922.
From the Air
By 1924, when the city’s first aerial survey was conducted, the factory was gone, as was the pond inside the cemetery, which I marked in blue. Fresh Pond Road had been straightened, and its old winding route was reassigned as 61st Street. Both are highlighted. Although Maspeth never had its own subway connection, the trolleys and buses of the early 20th century spurred urbanization that covered the former ponds and farming fields, leaving the cemeteries as the only visible places to see the rolling terrain that defined this neighborhood prior to development.
The last map that I have of this area showing the pond is the 1911 Rand McNally map where red lines indicate trolley routes. all three of the ponds which I’ve mentioned in this vicinity appear on this map. I may use this map again in a future post relating to English Kills, Newtown Creek, or Maspeth Creek. Note the proposed freight railroad that was to run next to Fresh Pond. It would be completed by 1917 a mile to the east, running from Hell Gate Bridge to Bay Ridge. The other passenger stations on this map were abandoned in 1998 for lack of ridership. There are proposals to reopen them but noting serious at this time.
The corner where Mount Oliver Crescent turns into 59th Drive is marked by a set of nondescript row houses and driveways, without any signs that there was a pond here.
The closest open public space to the pond’s site is Reiff Playground. The undeveloped site was acquired by the city in 1944, initially slated for a health center, and then a school. But local residents wanted a park.
Among the park’s advocates was Andrew J. Reiff, who died in 1963, a year before his dream became reality. Maspeth, Ridgewood, and Glendale are among the most civically active neighborhoods in the city. Residents here cherish the few open spaces available to them and many all of them carry the names of neighborhood activists: Frontera Park, Principe Park, Mafera Park, Maranzano Playground, and Rosemary’s Playground. Others carry the names of politicians, plants, and local war dead. Luke J. Lang, whose name is on the triangle on Fresh Pond Road and 61st Street, was a casualty of World War One.
In the News:
Berkshire Eagle reports on the restoration of Springside Pond in Pittsfield, Mass.
Akron Beacon Journal reports on the restoration of Pond Brook in Akron, Ohio.
WAPT reports on plans for redeveloping downtown Jackson, Mss. which includes daylighting Town Creek in the city center.