I am also a history buff and especially a New York City history buff, and I realize a place like Central Park, besides being a major PART of New York's History, is also a repository, or a living museum if you will, for bits and pieces of history, which in other parts of Manhattan would have long been lost or obliterated. So join me and we'll search out a few artifacts of our city's colorful history. There's still a good bit of it waiting to be found. I never cease to surprise myself, after I thought I had seen everything to be seen and found everything to be found, when there I go and find something new. Like I did yesterday!
So let's enjoy this excursion INSIDE the park this one time and then we'll return to that vast land "Beyond Central Park".
To keep this shorter than War and Peace, I picked 4 historical events to focus on:
I believe New York City is one of the greatest city's in the world, and the last 3 on the list are each nothing less than stupendous accomplishments. To pull off any one of these would have made any other city estimable — and this in spite of the fact that the City's government was as corrupt and rife with political shenanigans then as now.
So let's get started ...
Moving north, Washington left a small regiment to defend McGowan's Pass on the Kingsbridge Road (located around 107th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues). Meanwhile other American troops were moving northward up the slower Bloomingdale Road to join Washington. If you look at the map on the left, you will see the swampy area on the east, McGowan's Pass in the middle (with the Kingsbridge Road heading north through the pass), and the Bloomigdale Road (now Broadway) to the west. By the night of September 15th, the British had taken McGowan's Pass, as well as the Bloomingdale Road to the west. The nearby McGowan's Tavern served as their "uptown headquarters", staffed by Hessians.
Washington, with the bulk of his men, fled up to Yonkers, crossed the Hudson and ultimately the Delaware River to winter at Valley Forge. Manhattan stayed in Britich hands till the end of the war. At the cessation of hostilities, the Americans reentered and took possesion of the City, marching south through McGowan's Pass on August 25th 1783.
About 30 years later, in 1812, war broke out again between the two nations. In 1814, the American forces, fearing a Britsh attack from the north (via Long Island Sound), fortified the self-same McGowan's Pass and set up batteries on nearby prominant outcrops and also built the "Blockhouse" on a high point further west. The vintage picture on the right shows what these positions looked like. The vantage point for this view would be the shore on the south side of the Harlem Meer (which did not then exist), looking south.
The "Second War of Independence", so called, eventually fizzled out, and not a shot was ever fired in defence of McGowan's Pass.
By 1807, pressures for expansion caused the City Council to petition the State to have the larger part of the island laid out in streets. A commission was appointed by the state and in 1811, the plan (commonly known as the Commissioners' Plan) was submitted. It designated the street grid which is just what we have today: streets from 1 to 155, and Avenues 1 - 12 plus Avenues A, B, C and D. The width and spacing were all specified: blocks 200 feet wide, north-south Avenues 100 feet wide, and all streets 60 feet wide, except certain ones (you know: 14, 23, 34, 42, etc.) which were 100 feet wide. The map on the right is from a digitized version of the Commisioners map of 1811 in the New York Public Library. The larger version linked below is still small — the original was almost 8 feet long (65.5 cm x 234 cm).
The plan was roundly criticized as being bizarre, arbitrary, etc. but it was a plan, and the real estate interests saw a gold mine in the opening new streets, demolishing buildings in the wrong place, filling streams, leveling heights, etc. — as someone once said, "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plane." If you think this is an exageration, look at the early photo to the left. One commentator in 1818 said, "These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome."
A surveyor, one John Randel, was tasked with erecting marble monuments (or an iron bolt where there was exposed bedrock) at each future street
intersection, mostly at the northeast corner. As streets were opened and as buildings were built, these monuments (called Randel Monuments),
having served their purpose, disappeared. By the turn of the 20th century, every street laid out in 1811 on paper had been built, and every lot
occupied. I would say that today, nearly 200 years after they were set, it's a good bet that not one Randel Monument survives —
except perhaps in a public park that got established before the streets within were opened and developed.
Look at the maps to the left, which I set to scroll slowly. They show the route of the Croton Aqueduct down through Manhattan starting at High Bridge where it crosses the Harlem River, down to 85th Street where it jogs over to the Park and terminates at the Croton Reveiving Reservoir. From there, cast iron pipes under Fifth Avenue took the water down to the Croton Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street (where the library now stands).
The Croton Water system is credited, along with the Commisioners' Plan, with being one of the single most important advance for this or any city. It was the largest public works project anywhere in the USA at that time, and brought 80 million gallons a day of clean water for drinking and to fight the "twin scourges of disease and fire." It consisted of the large dam on the Croton River in Westchester, 41 miles of Aqueducts, and the two reservoirs in New York City.
The Croton Receiving Reservoir in Central Park, which held 150 million gallons, became obsolete due to the much larger current reservoir which holds 1 billion gallons. It was eventually given over to the Parks Department and filled in during the 1930s to create the Great Lawn. The Croton Aqueduct was likewise decommisioned — in 1955 — having been made obsolete by the New Croton Aqueduct (which still supplies about 10% of the City's water). And finally, the Central Park Reservoir ("our" reservoir — the JKO) was also decommisioned — in 1993 — but thank goodness, never filled in.
The maps are from Viele's 1865 map showing all waterways and topology in Manhattan with the street grid superimposed.
Click here for full size map.
By the 1840s, there was increasing concern that the city needed a major place for recreation. There were political fights about where, how big, and what it should look like. The models available were the grand formal estates in Europe (think Versailles) which were more retreats for the wealthy than anything the common people might enjoy, and the more rustic Bristish parks (think Hyde Park). By the 1850s sentiment had swung towards the latter and in 1853 a competition was announced. Ohlmstead and Vaux's Greensward Plan won, but at the insistence of some of the city council, bridle paths were added and the system of bridges and arches which sepatated the carriage riders from the equestrians, and both from the pedestrians, were put into the plan. What was a not-so-subtle play to keep the hoy-polloy separate from the gentry, actually became one of the stunning innovations of the design.
Construction began in 1858, and in 1863 the 12 blocks between 106th Street and 110th Street were added. The existence of the 1842 Croton Receiving Reservoir, and the already planned new reservoir constrained the design, but as we now know, it was all for the better.
And as we like to say "The rest is history."
Knowing that, I had no problem finding the path down the hill with its rock outcrops on either side and the high outcrops beyond on the right and
left which were fortified in the War of 1812. You can see the series of pictures showing the changes over time.
he tavern is also well documented, but unfortunately there are no pictures or paintings of the original road house. The property was bought by the McGowans in 1759, and it stayed in their family until 1845 when it passed to the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. They enlarged the house, creating a convent and school for young women, and renamed it "Mount Saint Vincent". The Sisters sold the property and moved to Riverdale when Central Park was created, but during the Civil War it was used as a hospital and rehab facility for wounded soldiers. Look at the large version of the 1875 Central Park map above, and you'll see this site clearly marked. The Mount Saint Vincent buildings burned in 1881, but soon thereafter another tavern was built which eventually received the name "McGowan's Pass Tavern". Thus, the pass took its name from the tavern and then passed it back to the new tavern. There is a good photo of Mount Saint Vincent and of the later reincarnation of the tavern, but the only artifact I could find is the retaining wall up behind the Conservatory Garden which probably dates from the 1840s or 50s when the Sisters took over the property, and what looks like a corner of a building behind a huge mulch pile, possibly from the Tavern built in the 1880s
A nice tradition kept by the latter day version of the tavern for most of the time of its existence (it was torn down in 1917), was that they awarded a good bottle of wine to the first sleigh that reached it each season. Now that's an idea we could go for!
The site is now known as "The Mount" (from Mount Saint Vincent) and you all know it as the mulching and composting area of the Park around
104th Street, east of the East Drive.
he Blockhouse in unambiguously there to see. No mysteries here. The foundations were apparently built by the British in 1776, and the rest was built by the Americans in 1814 (although some accounts claim the top 3 feet were built later).
The other fortifiications are a little trickier to identify. Fort Clinton is up to the right of the pass. Just go up the hill to a circular fenced in area. There is a big granite block that used to hold a commerative plaque, and hiding behind it is a gun emplacement. No, this is not an 1814 artifact — it seems a couple of cannons were laying around on the ground for 90 odd years, and in 1905 the Parks Department rehabilitated the site, mounted the cannons and put up the plaque. It's a shame the cannons could last most of the 19th century but didn't do as well in the 20th.
On the other side of the pass is another small area on a high rocky outcrop. This was where "Nutter's Battery" was. There are no markings or
artifacts — sorry.
he Croton Receiving Reservoir of 1842 should be easy to find. It's clearly shown on maps, and there are even photos of it easily available on the internet. And all they did was fill it in, they didn't dig it up. So you would expect some piece of the wall would stick out here or there. But it was basically turned into ball fields, so pieces of wall sticking up would not be a good idea. I believe they dismantled the top portion of the wall so it would be a few feet below ground when the filling was done. What you will notice is that the Great Lawn is very flat and slopes down on all sides, except for the rocks that go up to Belvedere Castle. But it turns out there are a few rocks that stick out on the west side around 80th Street — a sign appeared there a few years back stating that the rocks were in fact remnants of the old reservoir wall. It's just opposite the entrance to the ladies room in the southwest corner of the area (near the Delacorte Theater) and you can check it out next time you go by there.
I was also told some of the wall survives on the north end. I've prowled around there but never found anything. Then I got a hint from somewhere on the web and prowled around along the south side of the 86th Street Transverse. The police station is there, so I tried not to look suspicious, but I found a long section of the old wall just adjacent to and behind the two old brick buildings there. In fact, the brick buildings seem to be built practically into the old stonework. Look at the old Central Park map above and you'll see a building marked "Stables" and the other one "Work Shops" (use the link for large version). I have read that these buildings were built in 1870, one (the stables) for the Police Department and the other for the Parks Department. The last photo shows the NE corner of the wall next to the stables. You can see how it slopes up, and how the building is fitted right up to it. There was also a "Reservoir Keepers House" between them, built in 1866-67 and reportedly demolished when the old reservoir was filled in in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, we runners still run along the Old Croton Aqueduct, sometimes in Hastings-on-Hudson or in Van Cortlandt Park and sometimes in High Bridge Park. And of course we all run around the "New Croton Reservoir" aka the JKO. And I guess we listen to the New York Philharmonic IN the Croton Receiving Reservoir.
Speaking or "IN the Reservoir", I read a funny story from the Times from 1996 when I was researching this stuff. (see
here). It seems they did too good a job when they built that thing in 1842, so that whenever it rains, the water would drain through the Great
Lawn and just stay in the old reservoir. So the Great Lawn is sitting on a giant bath tub, which was literally full of water up to a level just
below the lawn. They had to spend a good chunk of money to dig some of it up and get the bath tub to drain. Read the article. It's pretty amusing.
Whenever there's a construction project, it's important that everything is built in the right place and at the right height. Surveyors and engineers
ensure that this happens by carefully measuring distances and elevations, and leaving marks or markers at well defined points. These are called bench
marks and it turns out any number of them set in the 19th century for the Croton Water project are still there. You can find them if you know
where to look. There are pictures of a few in the little slide show on the right.
I had searched on and off for 3 or 4 years, until late in 2006 I saw an article in a surveyor's magazine that one had been found in the park. They didn't say where (to keep "souvenir hunters" away) but it gave me the impetus to search more methodically. So one sunny day in January 2007 I went up to the park. The trees were without leaves, so with luck I could use the building lines of the adjacent streets and avenues to keep me "walking the line". I started at the edge of the park and went from one hypothetical street intersection to the next, to the next. Finally after working around some modern "refinements", I got back on line and voilą! There was a square bolt on an outcropping of bedrock. I could see in the distance the building lines and it seemed exactly on target. Furthermore, the bolt has a cross chiseled on it's top and was suitably rusted for a 200 year old bolt. I went home and rechecked the article in the magazine, and it was clear I had found the same one. In the many hours of searching since then, in spite of trying, I've never found another in the park. A few years later I talked to the surveyor who had written that little blurb in the magazine, and he says he has also searched (with better tools than mine) and not found another in the park. So this one looks like it's the one and only one —
Of course, there other parks in Manhattan. I've run and walked through just about all of them. Unfortunately it's rare to find a park that was established before the streets were opened up, and rarer still to find a park like Central Park, which contains many points which are on the grid (many parks have no intersecting grid lines within). I looked and looked and came up empty. Finally I made an effort to think of what I might have overooked and mentally revisited all the parks and all the possibilities.
And thus it happened that in March of 2009 I was enroute to meeting two friends for a long training run. I planned to meet them at a certain time and place part way through their run. Shortly before meeting them, I decided to check out an "interesting" spot in a nearby park. After about 10 minutes of careful walking and looking, I noticed a little hollow between a couple of bolders. And there, hidden in plain sight, was a square bolt with the characteristic chiseled cross on top. I had indeed found only the second Randel Monument known to still exist in Manhattan! And yes, it was exactly on line with the building line on the street visible through the trees.
I continued to the rendezvous and joined my friends a few minutes later. I excitedly told them of my find, but I think they may have just rolled their eyes !
I emailed the surveyor and he said he practically dropped his lap top when he saw the picture I sent him. No rolling eyes from him. A month or two later, I took him there and he measured things with his fancy-schmancy equipment and I knew that he, like myself, felt really happy that another small but very rare piece of New York City history was alive and well after nearly 200 years of (benign) neglect!
The original hand drawn maps of John Randel's survey (known as the Randel Farm Maps) done from 1811 to 1820 which show every building and road in Manhattan in the early 19th century, and which constitute the most complete map of any city from this era, have for years resided in the Manhattan Borough President's office. A few years ago these were digitzed and are now available online in one consolidated map. This is a wonderful resource for both the history buff and the professional surveyor. See the list of maps below for the link.