Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
Around twenty thousand years ago, New York was buried beneath massive glaciers. When the ice receded, it left behind the characteristic sketch of Van Cortlandt Park—steep ridges, smooth hillsides, and open flats—and exposed its three major rock components: Fordham Gneiss, Inwood Dolomite, and Manhattan Schist. It took about seven thousand years for Paleo-Indians to arrive in this area, following mastodon, giant beaver, and caribou across North America. By 1000 AD, Woodland Indians known as the Lenape began permanent settlements from lower New York State through Delaware. The Wiechquaskeck Lenapes occupied this site when, in 1639, the Dutch East India Company brought the first Europeans to settle in the Bronx. In 1646, Dutchman Adriaen Van Der Donck (1620-1655) became the first single owner of what is now Van Cortlandt Park. His vast estate “de Jonkeerslandt” gave Yonkers its name. The land passed through several families, each gradually developing it into viable farmland and a working plantation. During the 1690s, the 16-acre lake was created when Tibbetts Brook was dammed to power a gristmill.
The Van Cortlandt name was first associated with the tract of land bounded by modern Yonkers City Line between Broadway, Jerome Avenue, and Van Cortlandt Park East in 1694, when Jacobus Van Cortlandt bought the property. The Van Cortlandt Mansion was built in 1748 by his son, Frederick Van Cortlandt, whose family occupied the land until the 1880s. Frederick also established the family burial plot on Vault Hill where, at the onset of the American Revolution, City Clerk Augustus Van Cortlandt hid the city records from the British Army.
The 41-mile-long Croton Aqueduct was the first public work built on the site in 1837, bringing water from Westchester County to the site currently occupied by the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. In the 1880s, two railroad lines were laid across the parkland. The Putnam Railroad Line established service to Brewster and points north. A spur of this line provided a quick trip northwest through the park to Yonkers’ Getty Square.
The City of New York acquired this parkland in 1888, but it did not name it in honor of its long-time residents until 1913. The first municipal golf course in the country opened here in 1895; a second golf course, the Mosholu Golf Course, opened in 1914. By a special act of the New York State Legislature, the Van Cortlandt Mansion was leased by City of New York to the Society of Colonial Dames and the historic house opened as a museum in 1897. The Parade Ground was created in 1901, and National Guard used it for training exercises until the end of World War I. In 1906, The Bronx Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a cairn of stones as a memorial to Chief Daniel Nimham, his son Captain Abraham Nimham, and as many as 14 other Stockbridge Indians who were slain there during the Revolutionary War.
In 1913, the Cross-Country Running Course opened, featuring both 5-mile and 3-mile loops. Van Cortlandt Stadium opened in 1939, and three years later the Getty Square spur of the New York Central Railroad was removed and the property given back as parkland. The horse stables and adjoining bridle path opened in 1955. Two nature trails added in the 1980s offer hikers the opportunity to explore the wetlands and forests in this park. The Cass Gallagher Nature Trail (1984) is dedicated to a longtime Bronx resident and environmental activist, and the John Kieran Nature Trail (1988) commemorates a famed naturalist and newspaperman. In 1997, the first east-west connector trail was established and named for renowned naturalist John Muir.
A series of fiscal crises in the municipal government during the 1970s inspired the local community to join Parks in preserving this park. The Administrator’s Office was established in 1983 to oversee all operations, maintenance and management. In 1992, a group of Bronx residents formed the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park to protect, promote, and preserve this invaluable greenspace. In addition to fund-raising for renovations and planning public events in the park, each summer the Friends administers a program for local youth that work on preserving the park’s natural resources. With facilities for football, baseball, softball, soccer, cricket, tennis, golf, swimming, horseback riding, running, and hiking constantly improving, the future of New York City’s third largest park looks greener than ever.
- Westchester County Line, Van Cortlandt Park South
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