Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Wild, but not quite pristine

Last week I wrote a bit about Inwood Hill's Forever Wild designation. And the park is undoubtedly wild, with dozens of different plant species and abundant fauna. Inwood Hill and its contiguous greenspaces are wild enough to hide certain critters that are officially "banned" from Manhattan by city policy, including white-tailed deer, the occasional coyote, and a pack of feral dogs. On the more remote hill-top paths, you're likely to see fewer people than one would see on most White Mountain trails in New Hampshire at the same time of year.

At the same time, the park is not as "pristine" or "untouched" as it may seem at first glance. In fact, evidence of human influence and habitation is extensive.

This map of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek in the 1890s, courtesy of Forgotten NY, shows Inwood Hill in the lower right corner, just south of where the creek/canal meets the Hudson River (the body of water on the map's left edge). Visible on this map are several buildings and a road where today there is only forest. During the 19th century, the hill was home to several country estates for wealthy Manhattan families, like the Lords of Lord and Taylor, and to a handful of institutions like a hospital and a "House of Mercy" for women. Most of these buildings were accessed by Bolton Road, which remains to this day as a park path.

The hill's extensive poison ivy has kept me from searching the woods for the old foundations, but a few masonry ruins are still visible from park paths (especially Bolton Road). It's much easier to find botanical evidence of the old mansions, which had extensive gardens that probably introduced many of the park's non-native species.

Anyone who is familiar with the park knows of a giant copper beech tree, its smooth bark carved extensively with initials. Since the tree seems to be well over 100 years old, and since this ornamental variety of a common beech is non-native with none like it anywhere nearby, it seems likely that this tree was planted for one of the estates. Garlic mustard, a biennial that is having a banner year on the western side of the hill, and the park's many daylilies are also likely descendants of pre-war garden plants.

People have also shaped this park in a very literal way. Compare the map above with this Revolutionary War map of northern Manhattan, from the Columbia Map Library. This one shows the original course of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which was modified after the Civil War when the federal government dug the first Ship Canal. The first Ship Canal eliminated the big oxbow bend near the mouth of the old creek, which subsequently silted up and became a marsh. The first canal also cut off Marble Hill from Manhattan. A modern satellite image shows the course of the second and current Ship Canal, dug in the late 1930s. The peninsula at the park's northeastern corner (where our nature center is located) is actually a piece of the Bronx that the second canal reattached to Manhattan with landfill. South and west of the peninsula is the old course of the first canal, which has since silted up and become our salt marsh; Columbia University accesses their boathouse on another section of the former canal to the east of the peninsula. The old course of Spuyten Duyvil Creek is also visible here as a crescent of green surrounding Marble Hill.

The ship canal and the old estates are only a few of the more recent instances of human influence at Inwood Hill Park. But the park also has several archaeological sites associated with the Revolutionary War, and Manhattan's oldest known human residence is also inside the park's boundaries. More about these on another occasion.


Anonymous said...

Thanks. Very informative. Has changed my perspective on our park.

Someone from Northern NYC

Edie said...

Don't know if you ever found Mercy House or not-if you'd still like to see it I can tell you where it is :)

I look forward to reading your blog-stumbled upon it today.

Glad to find another NYC history (esp. Northern Manhattan) geek!

-Former Junior Ranger in Central and Inwood Parks circa 1988-1992