Willow Lake, Queens

Tune out the two highways on either side of this 47-acre lake, and perhaps then this wildlife sanctuary can be appreciated by visitors. Located at the southern tip of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, it is an ideal place for social distancing during this difficult time.


The setting is naturalistic, the result of the master plan for the 1939 World’s Fair that set aside a portion of Flushing Meadows that would be left alone.

Where it Flows

Taken from an airplane window looking south, we see Willow Lake as an “island of life” ringed by the city, as described by artist Amy M. Youngs for her augmented reality project titled Becoming Biodiversity. With an app on one’s smartphone screen, images of wildlife appear along with a narrator’s voice. The lake is part of Flushing Creek, whose source is historically known as Head of The Vleigh, for the Dutch word for meadow. The water flows out of Willow Lake under the Jewel Avenue Bridge and then widens again as Meadow Lake.

Formation of Willow Lake

1936 willow

Formerly a salt marsh that penetrated deep into the center of Queens, Flushing Meadows predates the last ice when it may have been the course of the Hudson River flowing here before the glaciers created the terminal moraine to block the course. The great river then carved itself a new course at New York Harbor and Lower New York Bay. Glacial deposits then filled in the former course and as the sea level rose, it became a salt marsh.

In 1936, city photographer Percy Loomis Sperr stood at the Grand Central Parkway service road, documenting steam shovels carving Willow Lake out of the salt marsh. In the scene above we see the altered course of Flushing Creek next to the highway flowing into the newly-created lake. On the hilltop is the clubhouse for Arrowbrook Golf Club.

1941 willow

The same scene from nearly the same viewpoint in 1941 shows the head of Willow Lake with a playground in the meadow. Perhaps on account of its distance from the Forest Hills neighborhood this playground was abandoned by the 1960s. Getting to its slides and seesaws involved a lengthy walk around the Grand Central Parkway by footbridges at 72 Avenue or at 78 Avenue.

Willow Glen

At the Head of the Vleigh where Flushing Creek emerged from the earth, there was a farmhouse dating at least to the 1750s that gave Willow Lake its name.

Purchased by William Furman before the Revolution, it was occupied by the British during the war, when most trees on the property were chopped down for firewood. In 1820, Timothy Jackson purchased the 77-acre Willow Glen farm and used it to breed and train horses. In his century, Queens had racecourses in Corona, Woodhaven, South Jamaica, and Ozone Park. Behind the old farmhouse, the property had a half-mile oval for the horses, with a small pond inside that drained into Flushing Creek.

1894 willow

A story from 1894 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on a 12-year-old daughter of the proprietor, known as “Little Miss Jackson,” who could deliver three horses abreast from Willow Glen to Roslyn, a 20-mile distance without assistance. The story notes that she also liked to rowboat in the small pond at the center of the horse training oval. At the turn of the 20th century, developer Cord Meyer purchased this horse farm and it functioned as a riding school into the 1920s. Its location at the Head of the Vleigh doomed it, as it would become the location of the Kew Gardens Interchange where the Interborough, Grand Central parkways, Union Turnpike, and Van Wyck Expressway cross paths, with a tangle of ramps connecting them. The old house was demolished in 1929. A portion of the horse farm that was not destroyed by highways was developed as a subway train storage yard.

Carving Willow Lake

1934 willow

A 1934 aerial survey of the planned Willow Lake shows Union Turnpike running along the bottom fourth of the photo with Queens Boulevard on the lower left. The Willow Glen house is gone with excavation underway for the highway ramps that will be built there. A pumping station with a smokestack is seen at the head of the valley. On the right side of the photo are the Queens Valley and Arrowbrook golf clubs that would be developed as the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood by the end of this decade.

1940 willow

The 1940 aerial survey of the same location shows Willow Lake in its present shape, Grand Central Parkway on its left bank, and Kew Gardens Hills to its east. To the south of the headwaters, Queens Borough Hall is under construction, to serve as the administrative center of the county. For one year, subway passenger service traveled through the Jamaica Yard and past Willow Lake to the temporary World’s Fair terminal. The route of this line was repurposed in 1961 for the extension of Van Wyck Expressway.

What’s There Today


There are two entrances to the Willow Lake Preserve: 72nd Avenue in Forest Hills, and Park Drive East at 73rd Terrace in Kew Gardens Hills. The latter has a recently-updated Al Mauro Playground that awaits reopening once this pandemic dissipates.


The main trail through the preserve is the Pat Dolan Trail, named after a beloved Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood activist and advocate for Willow Lake. She also has a monument in her honor on 73rd Avenue at Main Street, street sign outside the Kew Gardens Hills library, and a plaque inside the library. The FMCP Conservancy provided informative signs on the trail describing the flora and fauna of the Willow Lake Preserve.


Closer to the Forest Hills side of the lake the trail crosses Flushing Creek. Looking upstream is the Forest Hills Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood, where I once worked.


Returning to the Kew Gardens Hills side there’s a trail with tire tracks that branches off from the Pat Dolan Trail. The scenery here is reminiscent of my old country, if one tunes out the nearby highway noise. The trees here are young. Prior to 1976, there were five baseball fields on the east side of Willow Lake, but they kept flooding and the city decided to allow nature to reclaim this area.


The unnamed trail with the tire tracks ends abruptly at the train yard. Constructed in 1934, it serves as the storage facility for trains on the Queens Boulevard Line. The trains are parked on land where Willow Glen’s horses used to run.

The happy return.

In contrast to Meadow Lake which offers paddleboat rentals, canoeing and the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, Willow Lake was not intended for public use. In April 2014, the nonprofit HarborLAB, led by Erik Baard, secured the permit for a canoe tour of Willow Lake where participants learned about restoration efforts of this sizable but hidden waterway.

What Could Have Been

1972 willow

The construction of a railyard buried some of the headwaters of Flushing Creek and a sizable portion of the wetlands, but it could have turned out much worse. In 1972, architect Charles Brickbauer was commissioned by developer Samuel J. LeFrak to design Willow Lake Village, a high-rise air rights development above the yard. This city has many examples of communities built atop railyards: Grand Central Terminal, Concourse Village, Barclays Center, Hudson Yards

Estimated to cost $250 million, it would have contained mixed income high-rises, 3 public schools, stores, playgrounds, and housing for the elderly. The building footprint would have likely required tearing up the rail yard to build a “bathtub wall” similar to the World Trade Center, to keep the building foundations dry. With only two roads leading into the proposed development, local streets would have been overwhelmed and the plan did not mention whether Jamaica Yard would include a new station to serve this community. 

meadow 2012

At the turn of the millennium, proponents of bringing the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to New York City sought to redesign Meadow and Willow lakes to accommodate long-distance boat racing.

The Olympic requirement of 2,000 meters would have meant the elimination of the isthmus separating Meadow and Willow Lakes, with Jewel Avenue given a dramatic arch bridge across the merged lake. The depth would need to be dredged to 3.5 meters, again in line with Olympic standards. As with the Grand Prix proposal at Meadow Lake, the Olympic plan envisioned environmental benefits for the lake with a naturalistic wetland carved at its southern tip and a cleanup that would have dredged its bottom from decades of pollutants. Here too, civic opposition killed the plan and the games were awarded to London.

In the News:

Erik Baard writes in the New Yorker about the side effects of Coronavirus prevention: people dumping their disposable gloves everywhere and then they end up in waterways.

Star-Tribune reports on the restoration of the meanders on Lambert Creek in Ramsey County, Minnesota.

Roanoke Times reports on the restoration of Lick Run in Roanoke, NC.

7 thoughts on “Willow Lake, Queens

  1. Tom Padilla May 11, 2020 / 10:49 pm

    My 4th great-grandparents, William and Alice Easston, lived on Horse Brook circa 1849. Sometimes I find the name “Easton” on property maps. Their neighbors were Suydams, Howards, and Mannwaring.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex Reynolds June 16, 2020 / 2:44 am

    There is a large solid cement platform alongside the trail in one spot with two steps leading up to it. Does anyone know what that used to be? I’m so curious about it

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sergey Kadinsky June 16, 2020 / 11:52 am

      No idea. Perhaps an electrical substation or a pumping station.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael January 3, 2021 / 3:42 am

    I saw in OpenStreetMap that there is a culvert that drained from the southernmost point of Willow Lake all the way down to Spring Creek. It seemed like an underground pipeline of some sort. I visited the point in the lake and saw what looked like a portal, and some pictures of Spring Creek show what might be the other end. Would you have any information about this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sergey Kadinsky January 13, 2021 / 1:48 pm

      This is news to me. The only Spring Creek that I know is the one in Brooklyn.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Frank June 6, 2021 / 1:42 am

    Went on the Pat Dolan Trail recently. The Parks Department apparently reclaimed the old trail and cleared the part of the old path that was overgrown. Followed it to the remains of the old playground. Not much left, but you can see patches of asphalt here and there. Really interesting. Guess technically since the path was never decommissioned, it still sits there, waiting to have new life breathed into it.


    • zack zane January 18, 2022 / 9:38 pm

      The path is still there as of 1/18/2022


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