In the heart of Midtown the New York Public Library’s main branch is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Prior to its construction in 1900 the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir stood on the site of the library. For 19th century New Yorkers the Egyptian Revival walls of the reservoir also appeared in contemporary guidebooks, attracting tourist crowds.
Between 1842 and 1900, the four-acre reservoir held 20 million gallons of water for the growing island metropolis. Its previous sources at Collect Pond and various springs across town were running dry and becoming polluted from urbanization. Water contained at Murray Hill originated from Croton Reservoir in Westchester County.
Last month the Parks Department and Central Park Conservancy announced a $150 reconstruction plan for Lasker Rink in Central Park. Described by the AIA Guide to NYC as the park’s most “disastrous” improvement for a modernist design that clashes with the Victorian appearance of the park.
Part of this ambitious reconstruction plan is the daylighting of a section of Montayne’s Rivulet that was covered by the pool in 1966. The rendering above looking north from Huddlestone Arch restores the view that Olmsted envisioned of the creek flowing into Harlem Meer.
The oldest active bridge in New York City isn’t Brooklyn Bridge. It is the Roman-inspired High Bridge that connects western Bronx to the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Further north there was a much older bridge that connected Manhattan to the mainland. King’s Bridge crossed over Spuyten Duyvil Creek that passed by the northern tip of Manhattan.
In the above 1906 photo of King’s Bridge, the crossing appears virtually unchanged from its appearance in 1766 when it opened as part of Albany Post Road. The creek was buried and rerouted in 1914, but are there any traces remaining of the city’s first bridge?
At the northern tip of Manhattan the 196-acre Inwood Hill Park offers a variety of natural elements- cliffs, caves, forest, and the curvy shoreline of Spuyten Duyvil Creek straightened into the Harlem River Ship Canal. Being in this park gives one a hint of the Hudson Valley further to the north.
At low tide the cove in the park appears tempting to cross, but the mud here is as soft as quicksand. In the background the Henry Hudson Bridge frames the Harlem River’s confluence with the Hudson, with the New Jersey Palisades on the horizon. The peninsula on the right used to be in the Bronx prior to the 1930s.
In the heart of Central Park is The Ramble, a 38-acre woodland where the park’s trimmed lawns give way to an Adirondack terrain of thick forest, boulders, and The Gill, an artificial brook that flows through The Ramble, emptying into The Lake.
At its widest point, The Gill flows through Azalea Pond, the smallest named waterway in Central Park. The maze-like paths deep inside this section of Central Park serve as a sanctuary for birds, a refuge for illicit activities, but at its most basic, a place to forget that one is in the middle of Manhattan.
The northernmost of Central Park’s lakes shares its name with the neighborhood to its immediate north. Harlem Meer occupies the former confluence of Montayne’s Rivulet and Harlem Creek, a point where these two freshwater streams widened into a brackish estuary on their way towards the East River.
In the initial allocation of land for Central Park, the site of Harlem Meer would have been excluded from the park, its untouched terrain would likely have been buried beneath urban development. In 1863, the park was expanded north to 110th Street, encompassing the North Woods, a set of abandoned fortifications from the War of 1812 and the marsh where the creeks met.
I’ve been reluctant to write too much online about Manhattan’s Minetta Creek as it is certainly the least forgotten of the city’s hidden waterways. It flows entirely under the surface these days from source to mouth, but above the surface there are many items that keep its memory alive.
The all-but-invisible Minetta Brook was flowing in the city’s public consciousness nearly as soon as it was buried, appearing in local folklore, books, poems, magazines, and street names. Earlier this week I stumbled on a walking tour of Minetta Street where the guide allowed me to say a few words about its namesake stream.
At the northern tip of Manhattan island, the scenery is reminiscent of the Hudson River Valley at Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill parks. Thick forests, steep hills, and views of the Palisades across the Hudson River. The east side of Inwood on the Harlem River receives fewer visitors, but has a rich natural and human history of its own.
Sherman Creek and Swindler Cove offer a connection to the water’s edge, serving as examples of a waterfront restored to its natural appearance. Continue reading
Among the most helpful Twitter accounts that relates to New York City history is @Discovering_NYC, run by a local tour guide who shares old photos, maps, and illustrations of the city’s past. Over the weekend, it posted a map of Lispenard’s Meadow, the long-forgotten wetland in what is now the Tribeca neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
At the turn of the 19th century, the meadow was on the northern periphery of New York City. Above is an 1800 illustration of the meadow by Alexander Anderson, looking towards the Hudson River. It contained three creeks within it, occluding one that drained from Collect Pond. That creek became the route of Canal Street.
It has been a few months since I’ve had the Photo of the Week feature relating to the waterways of the city. With a little over a week left before the show ends, I stopped to see the photography exhibit My Father’s Son at the Arsenal parks headquarters in Central Park.
The exhibit showcases works by Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP and his late father Irwin Silver. The father’s black and white works show life in 1950s New York, while the son’s photos show the natural beauty of the city’s parks.