Natural & Social History
Although no one can be certain about the geological origin of the Bronx River, many believe that prior to the Pleistocene Period, the Bronx River was a pre-glacial stream that wound its way from its source in present-day upstate New York to the present Long Island Sound. When a glacier came through the Bronx, approximately 240,000 years ago, it blocked part of the original path of the Bronx River and subsequently reshaped and modified the path of the River. Over the past 200 years the River’s course has been altered dramatically by human impact and industry.
Called Aquehung or “River of High Bluffs” by the Mohegan Indians who first lived and fished along it, the river attracted European traders in the early 1600s for the sleek, fat beaver that proliferated there. In 1639, a wealthy Swede, Jonas Bronck, purchased 500 acres from the Mohegans, and mills began to sprout up and down “Bronck’s River.” By the mid-1700s as many as 12 mills were manufacturing paper, flour, pottery, tapestries, barrels and snuff, powered by water from the stream. The River valley remained thickly forested well up into the 1800s. In his 1817 poem “Bronx,” Joseph Rodman Drake described “rocks” and “clefts” full of “loose ivy dangling” and “sumach of the liveliest green.” The water was considered so “pure and wholesome” that during the 1820s and 1830s the New York City Board of Alderman debated ways to tap into it to supply the growing city with drinking water. In 1898, when all five boroughs were integrated into New York City, the Bronx was chosen for the name of the Borough-after the Bronx River.
Bronx River Watershed
The completion of the Kensico Dam in 1915 diverted the upper reaches of the River into the reservoir near New Castle and cut off the River’s water supply by ¼ (one quarter). The construction of the New York Central Railroad in the 1840s turned the valley into an industrial corridor, and by the end of the 19th century the Bronx River had degenerated into what one official commission called an “open sewer.” The history of the river since the 1880s has been one of efforts to reclaim and protect it from the escalating forces of urbanization.
The consolidation of various properties to form the 662-acre Bronx Park in 1888 (718.1 in 2002) provided a buffer against development on either side of the river. The Bronx River Valley Sewer, initiated by Westchester County in 1905, began absorbing some of the worst sewage. The largest project was the Bronx River Parkway, completed in 1925. The 15.5-mile ribbon of parks, lakes and limited access roadway stretching from the Kensico Dam to Bronx Park provided a landscaped recreation zone and a pleasure drive for cars passing through at low speeds. However, the areas along the river south of the Bronx Zoo were left virtually untouched/restored.
During the era of Robert Moses, the Bronx fell into a period of urban decay. The quality of life, particularly in the South Bronx decreased dramatically. Neighborhoods were fragmented by the construction of numerous highways. In particular, the construction of the Sheridan and Cross-Bronx Expressways further distanced the Bronx River communities from each other and from the River itself.
In 1974, local residents became fed up with the dismal conditions of the Bronx River and formed Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc., with Ruth Anderberg as its first director. Bronx River Restoration succeeded in removing a plethora of debris, including refrigerators, tires, and even a wine press along the shoreline in the 180th Street/West Farms area. In 2001, the Bronx River Alliance was created to build on the 27-year history of restoration work started by Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc. in 1974; strengthened in 1996 with the Bronx Riverkeeper program developed in partnership with City of New York/Parks & Recreation and Con Edison; and fortified in 1997 with the formation of the Bronx River Working Group. The Bronx River Working Group, coordinated by Partnerships for Parks and Waterways & Trailways, expanded the effort to include over 60 community groups, government agencies, schools and businesses. The Bronx River Alliance is the next step in the effort to restore and protect the Bronx River.
Today, hundreds of thousands of commuters speed across the Bronx River and dozens of industries flourish on its banks. But underneath the highways and elevated tracks, behind the warehouse and guardrails and fences, the river still rushes along, providing a necessary slice of nature for ducks and bike riders, turtles and toddlers, perch, tuliptrees, great blue heron, and fathers and daughters with fishing poles. As the 21st century moves on, people are returning to the Bronx River, drawn back to a place that has remained true to itself in a region where much else has changed.