In a ravine on the edge of Queensborough Community College in Bayside is a natural lake whose history is closely tied to the neighboring campus. Oakland Lake received its water from a natural spring and a feeder stream that originated at 223rd Place and Long Island Expressway, flowing in a ravine that widened into the lake. An outflow stream took excess water from the lake east towards Alley Creek, which emptied into Little Neck Bay.
The frozen appearance of this pond in winter conceals its depth as a glacial kettle pond. The pond serves an aesthetic purpose as a park centerpiece and functional as a storm water outlet.
Among the hidden waterways of New York City, Flushing Creek is my favorite as I continue to find more historical photos, maps, and stories along its course. Among the photos from a century ago is one of Wahnetah Boat Club, which stood on the west bank of Flushing Creek next to Flushing Bridge.
On the 1906 image above from Jason Antos’ book on Flushing, the scene would be unrecognizable today. Taken from the Northern Boulevard Bridge, we see a rowboat heading towards the Whitestone Branch trestle, with the Lawrence family’s Willow Bank estate in the background. The family’s roots here date to 1643, but they knew their ancestry going back to the Crusades and the Roman period!
When one finds a lake atop a mountain, it can either be a crater lake or in an urban setting, a reservoir designed to have water flow down the slopes to the people. Between 1858 and 1959 the Ridgewood Reservoir received water from smaller reservoirs on Long Island’s south shore, which was then distributed across the city of Brooklyn. Following Brooklyn’s annexation by New York City, the reservoir was demoted to backup storage until its abandonment in 1990.
From that point, nature took over and the reservoir eventually received the status of a freshwater wetland, a rarity within New York City. Left to its own devices, the stagnant pool of water turned into a wetland and habitat for 137 birds, as recorded by the National Audubon Society. Around its perimeter plants colonized the site, hiding the brickwork beneath thick vegetation. In 1990, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection decommissioned the reservoir and it was assigned to Parks in 2004.
The visual centerpiece and namesake of Brookville Park in the Rosedale neighborhood of Queens is the stream flowing through the park. It widens into two ponds before flowing out into the marshes of Idlewild. The larger one is Conselyea’s Pond, which has a long history going back to the American Revolution.
The pond’s namesake is the Conselyea family, descendants of Dutch settlers who owned a gristmill at this pond in the 19th century. The ponds of Brookville Park are part of the much longer Simonson Creek that originates in Elmont, follows the eastern border of Queens, and discharges into Jamaica Bay.
As its name suggests, Springfield Boulevard in southern Queens used to run past a field with a spring from which a stream originated. That stream is Thurston Creek, which its had its source near Springfield Boulevard and 121st Avenue, across from Montefiore Cemetery in the neighborhood of Springfield Gardens. It flowed south along Springfield Boulevard for nearly three miles, emptying into Jamaica Bay.
The creek emerges to the surface in Springfield Park, a 24-acre green space where the creek flows through a brick channel, widening into Cornell’s Pond before continuing south into the Idlewild marshes.
On the northeast tip of Queens is a 249-acre peninsula that was the last military base in the borough prior to its closing in 1995. A favorite haunt of urban explorers, Fort Totten Park may not receive as many tourists as Governors Island, but the story of this base-turned-park has been documented by many writers. For the purposes of my book, I’ve focused on the two ponds separating the fort from mainland Queens.
They are nearly impossible to access, as the larger pond is on the part of Fort Totten that has been retained by the army for its reserves, and the other is enveloped by marshes off the shoulder of Cross Island Parkway. Continue reading
The radiating boulevards of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park have been a defining feature of the park since they were proposed in 1937 by Gilmore Clarke and Charles Rapuano as part of the great transformation of a former ash dump into a thousand-acre World’s Fair site and park. At the time, the flat and barren terrain gave Flushing Meadows the look of a blank slate, open to any ideas that would shape its future as a park.
From the Cornell University archives, a 1936 Fairchild Aerial survey shows Meadow Lake beginning to take its form. The core of the park to the north of the lake is the subject of this essay. Had the Versailles-inspired boulevards not been selected, what would have been the park’s appearance?
In the hilly terrain separating Douglaston and Little Neck neighborhoods, Gabler’s Creek runs through a ravine on its way to Little Neck Bay at Udalls Cove. The marsh at the stream’s mouth straddles the city line. Thanks to determined local residents, the stream runs undisturbed within the Udalls Cove Park Preserve.
Although the history of Udall’s Cove since 1969 appears to be a success story, it is not resolved. With 15 privately owned lots remaining within the ravine, development remains a threat to the cohesion of the preserve. Over the past half century, the city and state have acquired private parcels in a piecemeal manner.
In the 80-year history of Meadow Lake, there have been plans for the waterway that did not go beyond the planning phase. Having examined designs for a never-built mid-lake bridge, I will now look at the 1980s plan to install a racetrack around its shores.
From the 1983 map by Wilson Racing, the outline of the lake appears unchanged, but can one imagine the impact on the park if the Grand Prix proposal had happened?
The city’s largest freshwater lake offers enough details in its design and history to allow for multiple posts. Having previously focused on the Aquacade that stood at Meadow Lake, and the history of Jewel Avenue Bridge, I turn to its northwest corner, where Horse Brook had its confluence with Flushing Creek.
On the above image, the red triangle shows the location of my parents’ home, which will be built atop the filled Horse Brook stream bed in 1950.
In the time between this 1937 photo and the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair, the transformation of the wetlands along Flushing Creek into Flushing Meadows is one of the most unrecognizable landscape alterations in the city in the past century. Around Meadow Lake, it includes a few rejected proposals worth remembering.