By Pam Tice, BNHG Program Committee
Central Park stretches out from Eighth to Fifth Avenue to the east of the Bloomingdale neighborhood. On November 28, 2017, Sara Cedar Miller, Central Park’s Historian, came to speak to our group with a wonderful collection of images ---- photographs, old maps and pastel paintings ----- that pictured the land before the Park, and its rich New York history.
First we learned about the topography, a key factor in how land is used. Old maps show the many rock outcroppings, looking out over low, flat, marshes and Harlem Creek, now covered over but making the basements wet in East Harlem. The little stream we call the Loch today was part of a farm owned by the Montagne family on land acquired in 1637 where tobacco was one of the crops. The stream’s original name was Montagne’s Rivulet ---- and provided a refreshing stop for many on their way “uptown” --- even a metal dipper for a drink of water. An old dipper was found in a space between two rocks when Central Park Conservancy crews were working on the Loch.
The east side of the Park also served as the route for traffic headed north on the Kingsbridge Road, as it moved west and north to get over the Creek, and through a pass in the rocky terrain. Taverns were soon located, with McGowan’s Tavern located near the pass. This site later became the Convent of Mount Saint Vincent which took the tavern building and added others.
The rocky promontories served a military purpose during the Revolutionary War. Indeed, as the Park was under construction, Olmsted’s work crew found evidence of the remnants of the Hessian and British troops that were billeted there. The War of 1812 brought new military uses: as news of an impending British attack on Manhattan grew, citizens scrambled to build a string of fortifications across the high rocky land: Fort Fish, Nutter’s Battery and Fort Clinton, and the Blockhouse, sited on an older base left from the Revolutionary era. Today, these fort sites and their landscapes have been restored by the Central Park Conservancy.
For the avid historians in the audience, Sara related the tale of discovering, verifying, restoring and repositioning a cannon, now on display at Fort Clinton. The cannon was discovered to be from the wreck of the HMS Hussar, a British frigate that sank in the treacherous waters of Hell Gate in 1780. Further excitement ensued in 2013 when the restoration crew discovered black gunpowder stored in the cannon. The NYPD came to the rescue, stating later, “We silenced British cannon fire in 1776, and we don’t want to hear it again in Central Park.”
This wonderful landscape on our Bloomingdale doorstep is rich in American history and just a walk away.