Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Alley Pond

In the process of sleuthing through old maps and verbal descriptions of the area, I realized that although I was raised less than a block from Alley Pond Park, I had no idea where the actual pond is located. The 'Alley' originally referred to the steep ravines encountered on the northern and eastern slopes of Rocky Hill, a broad mound of glacial debris which formed the island, deposited about 22,000 years ago. Rocky Hill occupies the area currently bordered by Hillside Avenue to the south, Winchester Blvd. to the east, Horace Harding (& the LIE) to the north and the Clearview Expressway to the west. The kettle hole topography found on the northeastern quadrant of the hill would eventually become known as Alley Pond Park.

Apparently, the original catch of water and namesake was not that stagnant and polluted body occupying a kettle hole next to Grand Central Parkway in the upper park. Far from the old tires and empty bleach jugs, off the mound to the north, not far from the junction of Horace Harding, Winchester and Douglaston Parkway, is a low lying area with a little pond which has always been hidden from the road behind thick blue-green reeds and cattails so that you can't even see even the water. McCormack and I fought our way in one afternoon, just to take a peek. That little swampy spot is what is left of Alley Pond.

From here, all three roads lead uphill; west through Bayside, south to 'Little Plains' (Queens Village) and northeast to Little Neck. Alley Road (Winchester) climbed out of the ravine to the south before descending the southern slope of the terminal moraine along the western border of the Creed Farm until it merged with Springfield Blvd. Horace Harding, once called West Alley Road climbs the hill to the west. Originally a man-made mill pond central to a small settlement with a general store and post office which served the nearby community for almost a century, the pond lay at the junction of two ravines in a meadow opening at the extreme northern end of the park. Today those narrow valleys serve as roadbeds for the Long Island Expressway and Cross Island Parkway.

The first settler in the area was Thomas Foster who obtained a grant of 600 acres from the English King in 1637. Foster built a stone house by the pond with one window to defend against possible Indian attacks. His family remained in the area for seven generations. From here, Alley Creek still flows north into Little Neck Bay. The location provides easy access to pasture, springs, saltwater marshes and the bay. Oysters and other shellfish supplied plenty of food and the shells were profitably worked into beads and woven into wampum belts, highly value by natives throughout the region. The interaction of tides, marshes and freshwater springs supported a wide variety of marine species and waterfowl. The abundance of birds and sealife in the area is what originally attracted the Mattinecock Indians to settle here. The Algonquian word Sewanhacky -- which roughly translates as 'Place of Shells' -- appears in Dutch records of land purchases in western Long Island.

One of thirteen Algonquin speaking tribes living on the island when white settlers arrived, the Mattinecocks were decimated by small pox which swept across the island in the 1630's as the Dutch began negotiating for Brooklyn while the English worked the east end. A Dutch account written in 1650 estimates that two thirds of the Algonquin people living on Long Island had died from the epidemic. Some of the settlers saw the Hand of Providence in all this. Daniel Denton, attempting to encourage English settlement, authored a pamphlet entitled A Brief Description of New York (1670) wherein he states "it hath been generally observed that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them, by removing or cutting off the Indians either by Wars one with the other, or by some raging mortal Disease.

In 1764, a concerned member of the tribe dictated a plea to the Lieutenant Governor of New York stating that his people were gradually wasting away and that they are exposed to, and suffer great Inconveniences from the Contempt shewn to the Indian Tribes by their English Neighbors. Even as small, marginal communities, the settlers tried to prevent the Indians from gathering firewood and they continually incroach upon their occupations, by fencing more and more of the Indian's Lands, under Pretence of Sales made by their Ancestors. That your petitioner and his Associates are in Danger of being crowded out of all their ancient Inheritance, and of being rendered Vagabonds upon the Face of the Earth . . .

In 1789, the Flushing Courthouse burnt down, destroying all records of transactions or land claims with the tribe. Northern Boulevard cuts through an old Mattinecock graveyard and the Zion Cemetery in Douglaston contains a monument which reads Here lie the last of the Matinecoc.

To make their way to Flushing, residents of Little Neck had to descend Douglaston Parkway, travel south of Alley Pond and then climb a steep hill to the west to travel along West Alley Road. There is a historical sign on this hill commemorating a visit by Washington in April of 1790. He wanted to check out the suitablity of agriculture in Queens and toured in a fancy, off-white coach, drawn by four large gray horses.

Good agricultural practices were a serious concern of Washington. He wrote to his own farm manager, "I shall begrudge no reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement & neatness of my Farms, for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order, and every thing trim, handsome, & thriving about them; nor nothing hurts me more than to find them otherwise." The General took time to eat well, stopping to visit with and thank people who had been part of the spy network on Long Island during the eight years of British occupation. The trip was low-key, and uneventful; the countryside, still largely unoccupied and quiet. Meadows and woodlands were gradually giving way to farms and pasture. Most people living on the island were either working directly in agriculture or fishing or in supportive industries such as blacksmithing and ship-building.

The first major commercial nursery in the country was founded by Robert Prince in Flushing in 1737. The president had visited here the previous spring with John Adams and wrote, "These gardens, except in the number of young fruit trees, did not answer my expectations. The shrubs were trifling and the flowers not numerous.'' Apparently, George was not impressed with the soils of Long Island either, which were poor and unproductive. Crop rotation was still a novelty and fertilizer use was just catching on.

In 1824 a blacksmith named Thomas Brush settled on the edge of the common pasture which would one day become Queens Village. The same year a road was completed across the marshes to the north (Northern Boulevard), directly linking Little Neck and Flushing and making the long detour around Alley Pond and the steep ascent up the north-eastern slope of Rocky Hill unnecessary. In 1826, the post office was moved to Flushing.

When the railroads came to the north shore of Long Island in the 1830's, the community around the pond became a backwater. In 1955 the pond was truncated to provide a solid footing for the $1.9 million dollar stone bridge supporting the Horace Harding roadway as it passed over the Cross Island Parkway.

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