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Lloyd Ultan's History of the Bronx River

History of the Bronx River
Dr. Lloyd Ultan, The Bronx Borough Historian
Notes by Maarten de Kadt, November 16, 2002

Dr. Ultan was at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School on November 5, 2002 where he gave 2 1/2 half-hour talk about the history of the Bronx River. The following is a rough transcription of the notes I took during his talk.

The first thing Ultan told me after he heard that my students and I were studying Robert Moses was “Robert Moses is a permanent resident of the Bronx as is he is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery overlooking the 233 Street entrance to and from the Major Degan Expressway -- a road he built.”

Ultan began his discussion by telling us that the Bronx River is the only true River in New York City. All the other rivers are “drowned” rivers as they are part of the Hudson River estuary. The Bronx River goes through the New York botanical gardens where there is a forest that is the only remaining original forest in New York City.

We know a little about the area’s first inhabitants as a result of archeological works. There were two Indian villages at the mouth of the Bronx River -- one on the Soundview side the other on the Hunt’s Point Side. These original inhabitants lived in wigwams. More than one family shared a wigwam. The wigwam was constructed from bent over twigs. The men fished. The women gathered and planted. The mainstay of their diet was shellfish. There may have been another village near Bronxville Avenue before 1600 on a tributary of the Bronx River. Other peoples may have lived around the periphery of Bronx, as trails crisscrossed the Bronx. At Gun Hill Road, Fordham Road, West Farms Square, trails went across the Bronx River.

Jonas Bronck, born in Sweden and lived in the Netherlands, was married Niew Kerke in 1638. He settled in what has become to be known as the Bronx in 1639. He lived on his farm located between 151st Street, Harlem River and the Bronx River.

1643 at age 43 Bronck died. Bronck’s River became the Bronx River.

1664 saw the first settlement on the Bronx River. By 1654 English people from Connecticut had settled in Westchester Square. They moved west to West Farms in 1664. Jessup and Richerdson set up a sawmill and a gristmill at 180th Street. (The 180th Street dam was built for that mill?mdk) The mill existed until early in the 20th century from sometime in the 1660’s. The flow of the River was much greater than it is now. For farmers the first activity was livestock: pigs, horses, cattle. Farmers then turned to growing wheat and sold it to the West Indies. Orchards were established containing apples, teaches, and pears. Apples were the most frequent fruit. They were dried and pressed into cider. The crop was sold to buyers on the tip of Manhattan. There were also smaller family plots of peas and beans.

Water came from wells -- not the Bronx River because wells were closer to home. There was commercial transportation. Docks were built. The boundary lines of property were shown in deeds but were badly defined. “This was the frontier.” Disagreements were solved by fistfights and in courts.

By 1660 most people living east of the Bronx River were in the town of Westchester. North of that was East Chester, including what is now East Chester in Westchester County. Gun Hill Road was a “long reach” north of the settlements. The Dutch Reformed Church owned property in the Manner of Fordham. The area west of the Bronx River was called Philipsborough and covered the area east of the Bronx River to the Hudson River and north to the Croton.

1683 the Bronx was originally part of Westchester County named from the county seat, which was the town of Westchester at what is now Westchester Square.

1755 the Dutch Reform Church sold the land so they could reinvest their money in New York City.

1730s/1740s the son of James Delancey, Peter took possession of the mills in the Bronx. Peter and his wife Elizabeth raised seven kids and used slaves on their farm and in their mills. Elizabeth was in charge of slave health and in fact ran the entire operation while her husband acted as a colonial assemblyman. During the January thaw the Bronx River often overflowed. A story supporting the flood is about a shed with apples and slaves inside that was torn from its structure at 167 Street and Southern Boulevard.

About that time the Hunt family established Hunt’s Tavern. It had a small number of rooms and was a meeting space with newspapers. Official government business was carried on in the Tavern through to the 20th century. Farmers along the river were forced to build the Boston Post Road, used to transport mail between New York City and Boston. William’s Bridge, on the Boston Post Road, became known as Williamsbridge.

During the 1770s the American Revolution had its effect on the Bronx. The grandson of James Delancey was a Tory. He headed a troupe called the Loyal Westchester Refugees. There were more Tories in the area and there were Patriots. Oliver Delancey turned out to be a closet Americans spy. Forts were built in West Farms and South Woodlawn.

1776 George Washington moved through the Bronx. During the American Revolution the Bronx stayed behind British lines. There was a neutral ground (a no man’s land) that nobody controlled. There were raids and counter raids. The Bronx River became the corridor for the raids. In June of 1781 George Washington moved to retake New York City. He tried to use the back door but needed: 1 more men and 2 a navy. With regard to the second point the alliance with the French helped. Washington organized a “grand reconnaissance.” 5000 American and French came down from Dobbs Ferry to check the British defenses. They wanted to come down to about Mott Haven. Andrew Carsaw, at the time 17, became a guide. This information comes from Carsaw’s dictations which he made when he was 80 years old. At that time using the Bronx River, Washington marched in front of where the school now is.

After the war all Tory land was sold including the Delancey mills. James Delancey wound up in Nova Scotia. The Bronx needed reconstruction.

Louis Morris of Morrisania built the third Avenue Bridge then known as the Harlem Bridge to connect with the Boston Post Road.

1798-- New York City needed water. Joseph Brown suggested using Bronx River water and proposed a damn in what is now Bronx Park. A ditch would have carried the water to Manhattan. Aaron Burr in opposition to the Bank of New York owned by Alexander Hamilton chartered the Manhattan Company in 1799. The Bronx River plan was abandoned. The water used for Manhattan came from a collection north of what was then City Hall in an area known as The Five Corners. Phillip Leidigs became an owner of the mills.

Ultan talked about the Bronx River entering into literature. He read from poet Joseph Radman Drake whose more serious poetry was not published in his lifetime (not until 1830). He wrote a poem called “Bronx” about the Bronx River. Drake died young of tuberculosis. He is buried at Oak Point and Hunt’s Point Road where there is a Cemetery.

Early in the 19th-century there were attempts to connect the Bronx with New York. The Westchester Avenue was a Turnpike. After Westchester Avenue Bridge there was a pole (a “pike”) to which was attached the bar hanging over the road. The poll was turned to open the Road, thus the term turnpike.

Manufacturers opened in West Farms in the 1811 period. Included were paint, glass, and pottery. Ezra Cornell worked in the pottery manufactory. He later founded Cornell University. There was a West Farms newspaper called “Westchester Patriot.” Its editor and publisher was “M. Lopez.” A single issue of his paper remains. Ultan uses its information.

After the 1812 war the manufacturers, which had prospered, began to die following the British dumping of manufactured goods.

During the 1820s the Erie Canal opened. Wheat began to come from the Midwest. Wheat production in the Bronx ended. Truck farming began.

1832 there is a cholera epidemic. The Bronx River was again looked to as a supply of New York City water. The Croton is also considered and is chosen to become a New York City reservoir supplying the city via the Croton aqueduct.

1841 the New York and Harlem River Railroad is built through the Bronx. It uses the Bronx River Valley. Stations were built and development grew around each station. This led to population shifts and by 1846 there was a shift in from Westchester to the town of West Farms.

1855 Morrisania -- south of Highbridge to the Bronx River

Edgar Allan Poe -- Kingsbridge and Grand Concourse -- wrote descriptions of the Bronx.

Domain of Arnheim – describes the gorge of the Bronx River in Bronx Park.

Benjamin Whitlock built a massive mansion. He died in the 19th-century. His mansion was built on the Bronx River in Hunt’s Point.

The Lauralard family built snuff mill in the Botanical Garden. They produced Old Gold. The good James Holton (Bolton?) Bleached cotton cloths on the Boston Post Road in the Bronx River near the village of Bronxdale.

1870s people began to move out of New York City.

1874 the territory west of the Bronx River becomes part of New York City -- West Farms, Kingsbridge, and Morrisania. They depended on the funding that they could get from New York City. New York City helped them with municipal finances.

The Bronx River became the border between New York City and Westchester County. In general the area is still relatively empty.

John Malallely: New York City should purchase empty land for parks. The state legislature forces New York City to point to commission to study the issue of parks. And in

1888 New York City purchases: Van Cortlandt Park, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx Park, Crotona Park, Claremont Park, and St. Mary’s Park. It also purchases Mosholu Parkway, Pelham Parkway, and Crotona Parkway.

1895 New York City takes over the territory east of the Bronx River. The effective date was when the governor signed the bill as the bill contained no date.

1898 Brooklyn, Queens, and in Staten Island become part of the greater New York City. The “annexed district” or “the north side” became the Bronx -- the Borough of the Bronx River!

1882 to the Third Avenue El. came into the Bronx. By 1920 it reached Gun Hill Road.

Italian immigrants needed for gardening in the zoo moved into the Bronx. The Irish were hired by the Botanical Gardens.

1904 the Inter Borough Rapid Transit Company begins building its multiple lines in the Bronx. Construction is completed in 1920. The Bronx begins to be transformed from suburban to urban.

1930 Eastern European Jews make up 49 percent of Bronx population (a similar percent to the Hispanic make up in the Bronx today). The Eastern European Jews have moved to the Bronx from the Lower East Side. The Grand Concourse is built up in the 1930s. The urbanization is also associated with the construction of the “D” train (the Independent Transit Company).

1930s Michael Gold writes Jews Without Money.

Early part of the 20th-century -- the Bronx River has become polluted. The sources are from restaurants, farms, manufacture, and railroads.

W.N.Niles forms the Bronx River Parkway commission. In 1915 and the first limited access roadway is constructed -- the Bronx River Parkway. It is established with the Park on either side of the River to help eliminate pollution.

Railroads when they were constructed ended in amusement parks. In 1918 a world’s fair was opened on John Jacob Astor’s land -- Bronx International Exposition. But it was built during World War I and closed by 1919. It was reinvented as an amusement park -- Starlight Park -- at 177 Street and De Voe Avenue.

1930s the amusement park had a pool with waves but by then the rides had dissipated.

1942 the amusement park was closed when the government took it over as a truck facility. After the war there was a fire that destroyed the property. The cross Bronx Expressway now goes through that property. A bus terminal is now being built where the amusement park once stood.

The Bronx River Parkway Commission was taken over by Robert Moses. The road was straightened and extended in the mid-1950s. After World War II blacks and Hispanics moved into the Bronx. The Bronx River was still a dumping ground and remained polluted.

The 1960s the Hunt’s Point Food Market opened. The Cross Bronx Expressway was completed. The Sheridan Expressway straightened the southern part of the Bronx River and it too is “completed.” The Bronx River Restoration began work to cleanup the Bronx River. 1996 Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School moved into the building on the Sheraton Expressway where 215 years before George Washington had ridden. By 2001 the Bronx River Alliance formed representing more than 75 schools, business, city, state and federal agencies, and community groups that have been working to cleanup the Bronx River. Lehman College in current fauna studies of the southern reaches of the river find species that indicate that the river is actually quite healthy, in some respects.

Notes for further work

There are four different elements in this history that might be analyzed separately.
First, Ultan tells the story of population growth and movement. Original inhabitants appear to have villages at the mouth of the Bronx River. The River is believed to have provided both food and transportation. The first European settlers also use the Bronx River. Population is established around the railroads and roads, which are built through the Bronx. In the 20th-century population explodes around the building of the IRT. This is a story about transportation and movement in the Bronx during the last 400 years in the Bronx. Transportation is facilitated by the River itself, by the building of roads, and by the building of railroads. The story here is reminiscent of what Sam Bass Werner tells in Street Car Suburbs.

Second, there is a story of the development of farming and manufacture in the Bronx and how the enterprise is affected by the dumping the British goods, the building of the Erie Canal, and the marginalization of the Bronx in the 20th-century.

Third, there is a story about the shifting political entities in the Bronx. First there is the establishment of Westchester and Westchester County on Eastern side of the Bronx River. Then there is the movement toward West Farms on the Bronx River itself. The establishment of Philipsborough and its annexation to New York City in the 1874 is another part of the story. This is followed by the annexation to New York City of the territory west of the Bronx River into New York City and 1895. And finally the Bronx is consolidated into greater New York City in 1898 and is renamed the borough of the Bronx River for the Bronx. Behind these political annexations are the population movements, the transportation buildup, and changing political strengths of the municipalities.

Fourth, the result of population movements, transportation, the buildup manufacture, and political consolidation has its effect on the environment of the Bronx River itself. By the beginning of the 20th-century the Bronx River is polluted. Remediating that pollution has become the focus of current day community activities.

Finally, there is the story of how all this information is being gathered by Fannie Lou Hamer teachers and students because they are using the Bronx River in the Bronx River community as a classroom outside of their school.


Additional notes:
Some stuff was happening in 1919 (a ‘worlds fair’) north of the cement plant site. The Bronx River (I suspect) still had a relatively strong flow; while an earlier earthen dam had been built in 1885, the present Kensico Dam was begun 1913 and completed about 1917. My guess is that the Bronx River water flow decreased then and further as water use from the reservoir increased over time.