Source of Westchester Creek, Bronx

Westchester Creek is a head-scratcher for travelers as it is named after the county north of The Bronx, but doesn’t flow anywhere near it and never did. Prior to 1895, eastern Bronx was part of Westchester County and the neighborhood near this stream is named Westchester Square. This explains the stream’s name.

vernalhutch

The present Westchester Creek is a tidal inlet of the East River with its head at East Tremont Avenue. Prior to the 1950s, the creek flowed further inland where the Bronx Psychiatric Center and the Hutchinson Metro Center stand today. When there’s enough rainfall, a vernal pond next to this office complex hints at the phantom stream that flowed here.

Where it Flowed

Westchester 2

A map provided by the state Department of Environmental Conservation shows the historic course of Westchester Creek as nearly twice its present length.

The source was near Pelham Parkway which runs atop a ridge at its source. To its north were the wetlands of Givans Creek that flowed into the Hutchinson River at today’s Co-op City.

In the event of a 100-year flood, the tidal wetlands of Westchester Creek and Givans Creek would unite and transform Throgs Neck into an island.

There is nearly no tidal wetland remaining along the creek today, with its upper reach covered by development and its present course carved out into a channel with docks on one side and a highway on the other.

The Highway and the Creek

hutch small

Looking at this 1940 Parks Department report on the extension of the Hutchinson River Parkway, we see the broken line of the highway’s route touching the creek. The stream on top of this photo is Hutchinson River, with the Givans Creek wetland on its side. Continuing south we see Pelham Parkway separating the wetlands, and then the open space where Westchester Creek originates. Westchester Avenue and the elevated Pelham Bay line serve as a dam for the upper reach of Westchester Creek.

Eastern Boulevard on the bottom of this photo would later be upgraded as Bruckner Expressway and the city’s biggest traffic circle would be obscured by a tangle of exist ramps connecting Bruckner Expressway, Cross Bronx Expressway, Whitestone Expressway, and Hutchinson River Parkway.

Present Head of the Creek

lehamn hs 1940

From the Municipal Archives collection, a 1940 aerial survey of the parkway’s route shows us the present head of the creek at East Tremont Avenue. The highway will be constructed on the left bank of the creek. Two triangular parks appear next to the Westchester Square station. They would later be combined into a more sizable park. The building inside this park is the Owen Dolen Recreation Center. At that time it was a public library. The head of the creek in this photo served as the Town Dock from the colonial period into the late 19th century, connecting the Town of Westchester with other points on the East River.

A tombstone-like marker in a fast food parking lot near East Tremont Avenue and Westchester Avenue tells the story of a Revolutionary War skirmish here.

On  Oct. 12th, 1776 a band of 25 patriot riflemen kept dismantled the planks of the bridge on East Tremont Avenue, preventing the British from landing. It only delayed them by a few hours, but enabled General Washington to continue his retreat north,  so that he could continue the war for American independence. Kevin Walsh walked around this neighborhood in 2010, providing lots of details on its history and architecture.

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Looking at a 1903 photo of the town dock, it is a bucolic scene of a town recently absorbed into New York City, not yet connected to Manhattan by the 6 train. The NYPD flag has 24 stars for the former municipalities annexed by NYC. Each one that had a shoreline had its Town Dock. Previously I’ve written about the one in Flushing, today a cement manufacturer. The former Town of Westchester is today the neighborhood of Westchester Square and its former dock is an oil storage terminal.

tremont

This scene from 1912 shows East Tremont Avenue crossing Westchester Creek. Today this scene would be nearly unrecognizable. On one side of the road is today the football field for Lehman High School, and on the other side are a car wash and gas station. This was the bridge where local patriots delayed the invading redcoats in the autumn of 1776. More than a century earlier in 1654 this was the landing spot for Thomas Pell of New Haven, who received Dutch permission to build Oostdorp here, or East Village. But the English colonists preferred the name Westchester and that’s the name that stuck over the centuries.

head today

I use Google Earth because I do not have a license to fly a helicopter, or the desire to make unnecessary noise for the people below. Looking in the same direction as the 1940 aerial survey, we see a train storage yard occupying the buried wetland. The baseball fields here are known as Samuel H. Young Park. No, not the Illinois Congressman, but a local World War One veteran whose name also appears on a nearby American Legion post. The historic Town Dock is a fuel dock today handling 5 million gallons of oil.

lehamn up

Herbert Lehman High School was completed at the head of the creek in 1970 with a modernist style very similar to my alma mater, LaGuardia High School.

Facing a shortage of open land, the school has three floors of classes spanning the highway, connecting to its auditorium, which has the look of a nuclear silo. Behind the school facing the creek is the school’s football field.

yard

The Westchester Yard serves the Pelham Bay trains on land where Westchester Creek once flowed. The yard was completed in 1920 and expanded in the 1940s. In a city where undeveloped flat land is at a premium, many train storage yards are situated atop former wetlands that were filled and flattened for the trains. Corona, Coney Island, and Jamaica yards are among such examples. In the photo above, the creek used to flow beneath the tracks leading into this yard.

Metro Hutch Campus

topo map

A topographical map designed after the school’s completion shows two superblocks north of the stream’s head. Bronx State Hospital was built atop the buried wetland in the 1950s, and across the train tracks are Einstein College and Jacobi Hospital.

This campus has a rich past as the site of Morris Park Racecourse from 1889 through 1904. It hosted the Belmont Stakes before this race relocated to its namesake park on Long Island. In 1905 the former horse track hosted an auto race won by car executive Louis Chevrolet. But the superblock where the creek flowed was still an undeveloped wetland at that time.

wchester creek source 1940

A 1940 aerial survey of this wetland from the Municipal Archives shows Pelham Parkway narrowing into Shore Road as it crosses the Northeast Corridor train line. Westchester Creek is seen meandering through the wetland. Some older maps refer to this stretch of Westchester Creek as Stony Brook. Notice the bulge of earth on the top right of the photo. The burial of this wetland has begun.

source today

Again with Google Earth, we are looking east at the former wetland that is divided between the Metro Hutch campus and Bronx Psychiatric Center. The red circle indicates the proposed Metro North station at Morris Park that would mean a half-hour commute to Midtown when it will be completed. The blue arrow on top indicates the vernal pond from the title photo and the other arrow indicates the flow direction of Westchester Creek.

Metro Hutch is formally known as the 42-acre Hutchinson Metro Center, surplus hospital land transferred by the state to a private developer who built offices, a hotel, baseball fields, and a Mercy College campus on the site. It is urban but has the feel of a suburban office park that is easily accessible by car with plenty of parking on site.

psy campus

A map of the psychiatric center shows plenty of open green space that could be carved into a pond. The calming effect of the water on patients would make it a worthwhile project. On the bottom of this map is a footpath that follows the Hutchinson River Parkway. During his administration as New York’s “master builder,” Robert Moses served as Parks Commissioner and highway coordinator. His highways have generous green shoulders with paths that serve today’s joggers and bikers.

Bike the Stream Course

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The bike path runs past the vernal pond in the title photo, perhaps offering an opportunity for a constructed brook in this green space that would receive runoff from the highway and approximate the course of Westchester Creek.

On the city’s official bike routes map, it is titled as the Hutchinson River Greenway, which connects Pelham Parkway and Pelham Bay Park with Ferry Point Park. Like the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway, the connected system of bike paths enables a traveler to walk or bike for nearly nine miles across the Bronx from Riverdale to City Island almost entirely without leaving parkland: Van Cortlandt Park to Mosholu Parkway to Bronx Park to Pelham Parkway to Pelham Bay Park.

In the News:

Newsday ran a lengthy essay with photos on Motts Creek, where I’m quoted extensively about the history and present conditions of this hidden waterway.

New York Times reports on efforts to remove old dams in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut.

Reading Eagle reports on the history of Rose Valley Creek in Reading, Penn.

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