In preparation for an online lecture on the waterways of Central Park for the nonprofit Landmark West, I returned to the site of The Lily Pond in Central Park to follow the course of this dried-up stream.
The shortest of the park’s manmade streams, it descended a steep cascade with outlines of pools that can be seen today. Looking down at the dirt, one can ask how much water would be needed here to make the Lily Pond cascade flow again.
The most visible of Central Park’s waterways is The Pond, a 3.8-acre manmade waterway at the southeast corner of the park. Overshadowed by the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, next to a subway station, and near the great shops of Fifth Avenue, its story is rich with nature, rejected design proposals, and various uses since its completion in 1857.
Appearing on the map as a backward L, this waterway shelters a nature sanctuary within a few yards of Central Park South, the hard border between the dense city center and its designated greensward.
On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the natural contour of the island is evident in the valleys at 125th Street, 106th Street, and 96th Street. In the last one of these, Riverside Drive takes a viaduct above 96th Street and an eponymous neighborhood organization remembers the reason why West End Avenue here takes a dip on its way north and then rises again.
Another clue is William Rickaby Miller’s 1869 watercolor on paper titled Strykers Bay. In this painting we see an unnamed brook flowing towards the Hudson River with the Palisades of New Jersey in the background. This obscure stream is today’s West 96th Street.
In my search for images of Harlem Creek I had doubts whether any photos existed of a stream flowing through upper Manhattan on its way to the site of Harlem Meer and then to the East River. Prior to the stream’s disappearance it did not have enough fame to merit an uptown assignment for a photographer. At the turn of the 20th century the stream was wiped from the map as Harlem quickly urbanized.
Fortunately the NYPL Digital Collections has old photos of the city where one can search by address and location to take a look back in time. One such image is the 1893 Brown Brothers shot of 116th Street near Lenox Avenue. We see cows cooling off in a watering hole, but is this oversize puddle really Harlem Creek?
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.