Fascinating “Van Cortlandt Swamp” Photos

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    • #2716

      When the NYC Parks was recently doing work to improve the area by the Van Cortlandt Stadium along Broadway, I talked the construction workers into handing me some of the bottles that they were digging up.  They appeared to be from the late 1800s or early 1900s.  It all makes sense in light of these photos that Tom Casey recently shared with me courtesy of eBay:

      I could hardly believe that label when I saw it but it is accurate.  Zooming in, you can see the Van Cortlandt House Museum just to the right of center on the horizon.  Here’s another (the view is looking towards Broadway from inside the park from the area north of the stadium):

      They are using city trash for “Filling in swamp”–hence the bottles dug up by the construction workers recently.  Another view:

      Here’s one that took me a minute to understand below.  This appears to be the view looking to the west on W. 240th Street.  Notice the sloped street in the distance.  That seems like the paved path that goes from W. 240th and Irwin Avenue to Waldo Avenue today (the one that runs between the train yard and the Manhattan College student center).  Over 100 years ago it was a mapped city street.

      This is that same view today with Gaelic Park on the right (can you imagine fishing here?!):

      Other photos in the series make it clear that city trash was being used as fill in various parks at the time:

      If you went back in time and told the people in these photos that the City is now talking about daylighting Tibbetts Brook, they would probably laugh at you–after all the work to make the area dry!

    • #2717

      These pictures remind me that as a teenager in the late 1950s I remember finding a bone that was encased in rock? dried mud? south of the Van Cortlandt Putnam RR station and thought I had found some prehistoric creature. My high school biology teacher looked at it and said it was likely a chicken bone thus ending my career as a paleontologist. It was likely part of the garbage dump you describe.

    • #2718

      The last photo seems different from the others, all of which are close to the deep south of the current Van Cortlandt Park,three on the east side of Broadway and two on the west side. But the last photo has no hills or obvious landmarks, and it is simply labelled “Filling in with city refuse. Rodman Drake Park Bronx.” Where is or was Rodman Drake Park, and who was Rodman Drake?

    • #2719

      Answering some of the questions that I just posed, I googled Rodman Drake Park and found that it’s located in Hunts Point. Here are the details listed by the NYC Parks Department.
      Joseph Rodman Drake Park & Enslaved African Burial Ground Oak Pt. Ave. bet. Hunts Pt. Ave. and Longfellow Ave., Bronx: This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.
      The property of Joseph Rodman Drake Park in the Hunts Point area of the Bronx is located in what was once a Weckquaesgeek Indian settlement. In the late 17th century Thomas Hunt–for whom the neighborhood is named–acquired a large estate that encompassed this modest site, and built his stone residence, “the Grange”, down by the shoreline point.

      So, this photo isn’t part of the Van Cortlandt and Tibbetts Brook group, but there are some interesting coincidences in relation to Native American Heritage, colonial estates, and the use of garbage and rubble for landfilling.

    • #2720

      Yes, that is correct that the last photo was not local to Van Cortlandt as the other ones were.  I included it in the series because of its label, which explicitly states that “city refuse” was the material being used for fill.  And to your point, there are some striking similarities between the history of Rodman-Drake Park and Van Cortlandt–both have colonial cemeteries in addition to adjacent cemeteries for enslaved people.

      Another part of Van Cortlandt where trash was used as fill is in the area east of Broadway between Mosholu Ave and 260th Street.  As a result, the soil is not stable and trees are often uprooted in storms.  When they do, you can often find bottles, lumps of coal, and coal ash under the tree roots.  No ancient artifacts by any means, but simply interesting trash.  Here are a few items from that area that were shown to me:

      The plastic bottle caps seem to indicate that this stuff is not all that old, I would think.  A related fact that I came across in the papers of Harry Emery (a local history enthusiast that grew up in the area in the early 20th century): That this part of the park north of Mosholu Ave is where Israel Russell lived.  He was an African American man, who “raised pigs” there and was the “1st garbageman in Riverdale.”  I wonder, could he have been collecting trash and dumping it in the park?

    • #2722

      All of these photos are really wonderful!  With regard to the image of the bottles, the plastic caps are probably older than you’d think.  They were first introduced in the late 1920s.  Many of the bottles in the picture are medicinal bottles, including the brown one and the super skinny one, and probably a few others.  The opaque white jars were for cold cream or the like.  The small wide-mouthed clear bottle was for milk.  Thanks for sharing, Nick.

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