Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Of Rivers, Creeks and Brooks: A Catalog of Watercourses


To understand today's stream patterns in Westchester, we must travel back in time. Let us rewind the geological tape about 75,000 years and look down from above. Topographically the entire area east of the Alleghenies will be seen as an almost featureless plain. The climate has started to grow colder. Up in Labrador and elsewhere in the Arctic the first glaciers are forming and starting to move southward, slowly and inexorably.

Next, fast-forward in time to 50,000 years ago. A thousand-foot-thick sheet of ice now lies on the land, its southern edge at Manhattan Island. The tremendous weight of the ice and its continuous bulldozer action as it moves forward have literally scraped away formations that took five hundred million years to accumulate, exposing the ancient bedrock of North America.

To the trained eye, the exposed rocks today exhibit the gouges and scratches that marked the glacier's passage, showing the direction in which it moved. So much of the planet's water was trapped in this and other tremendous continental ice sheets draping themselves across the top of the world that the sea level has fallen as much as 300 feet. The Atlantic Ocean has retreated about a hundred miles, leaving a broad expanse of beach.

Then, about 17,000 years ago, the climate of the northern hemisphere began to turn warmer, causing the thick ice sheet to melt and retreat. As a reminder of its southernmost extent, it left us a terminal moraine of glacial debris, part of which we now call Long Island. Dammed by the terminal moraine, melt water from the retreating ice began to collect in huge broad lakes that drowned the area for thousands of years. Eventually, the trapped waters broke through a gap in the moraine, leaving a bright new landscape of fjords, gorges, rivers, coves and inlets, tidal estuaries and tidal marshes--the northeastern United States we know today.

The Mighty Hudson
The logical starting place for any survey of the rivers and streams in Westchester is the county's principal river, often called "the mighty Hudson." There was every reason for early travelers who came under its spell to describe it that way. Its importance in our nation's history cannot be overstated, for it was the only navigable waterway that penetrated the formidable barrier to westward migration of the Appalachian Mountains.

From its source at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks to the Atlantic Ocean, the Hudson is 315 miles long. For about half that length the Hudson is a wild, impetuous stream, making its way over foamy rocky rapids and plunging down steep waterfalls before reaching the vicinity of Troy. Here it becomes a totally different river, a tidal river.

As if exhausted by its frenetic activity, it next presents itself as a calm and serene series of expansive lakelike bodies of tidal water as it moves over the lower half of its course. In the first half of its journey it had rapidly dropped from great heights; in the final leg of its journey, the difference between its elevation at Albany and its mouth at the ocean is only two feet.

The outpouring water from its sources in the Adirondacks meets and is challenged at Troy by relentless incoming tides. No wonder the Indians graphically called the Hudson, "the stream that flows both ways." As anyone who has tasted Hudson River water at various points along its length can attest, the "sweet" mountain water of the upper Hudson gradually becomes brackish and eventually almost as saline as the ocean's undrinkable waters.

The final stretch of the Hudson is actually what geologists call a fjord, partially filled with sediment that is lower than the contiguous bed of the ocean at its mouth. The river's depth at West Point is an astonishing 216 feet. Oceanographers have discovered that the bed of an earlier Hudson River continues far out to sea in the form of a submerged valley cutting deeply across the continental shelf in a southeasterly direction--further evidence that the sea level was once much lower.

Discovering the River
The Hudson River had many names before it acquired the name by which we know it today. The Indians had several descriptive designations for it, almost all now lost to history. As for who discovered it, there is evidence that adventurous European cod fishermen may have been the first to see and to have wintered along the lower Delaware or the Hudson during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

French King Francis I commissioned Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine navigator, to sail from Le Havre and scour the coast of the western Atlantic to find a northwest route to China and Japan. The hope was to supply France's silk trade centered at the city of Lyons. Sailing in the royal 100-ton ship La Dauphine north from what is now Cape Fear in North Carolina, Verrazzano spotted the inviting mouth of the Hudson. On April 17, 1523, he dropped anchor in the Narrows between present-day Brooklyn and Staten Island. He called the river La Grande Riviere, also descriptively naming it the River of Steep Hills.

Members of the crew rowed the ship's longboat into "a very beautiful lake" (Upper New York Bay). Verrazzano named it Santa Margarita, in honor of the French king's sister. Unfortunately, a sudden squall forced Verrazzano to put out to sea, causing him to decide to continue searching farther to the north, "much to our regret," for he had found the country to be "hospitable and attractive. He added, "and, we think, not without things of value." In 1964, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority opened a bridge spanning Verrazzano's initial anchorage and appropriately gave it the explorer's name. For reasons known only to them, they chose to spell Verrazzano's name with one z rather than two.

One year after Verrazzano's hasty visit, Estevan Gomez, a black Portuguese pilot who had sailed with Magellan, discovered the river again and named it Rio San Antonio. Concluding that it didn't lead to China, he headed his ship farther north, where he found "things of value." Gomez made captives of 57 New England Indians and carried them back in chains to be sold in the Lisbon slave market. Indian inhabitants of coastal regions quickly came to fear raids by Spanish and English ship captains inspired by Gomez's example. There is no evidence that Gomez had penetrated deeply into the Hudson. Other Spaniards, writing of the river, later referred to it as the Rio de Gomez or Rio de Guamas.

On Sept. 2, 1609, the Halve Maen, an 80-ton, three-masted carrack commanded by Henry Hudson, an English navigator and explorer in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, dropped anchor off Sandy Hook. He, too, was seeking a route to the Far East and had already searched the coast from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras when he reached what a contemporary report called "as fine a river as can be found, wide and deep with good anchoring ground on both sides." A tentative reconnaissance convinced him that this river was connected to the fabled Northwest Passage.

Unlike previous "discoverers" of this waterway, Hudson spent four weeks exploring the river that bears his name and trading with the Indians. "The land is the finest for cultivation that I have ever in my life set foot upon," he noted. "and it abounds in trees of every description. The natives are very good people; for when they saw that I would not remain, they supposed that I was afraid of their bows, and taking the arrows, they broke them in pieces, and threw them in the fire."

Robert Juet, Hudson's mate, wrote that the land was "as pleasant with Grasse and Flowers, and Goodly Trees, as ever they had seene, and very sweet smells came from them." Others would remark repeatedly on the sweet smell of the lower Hudson valley. Hudson navigated the shallow-draft Halve Maen upriver 150 miles to a point below what is now the city of Albany. Here the changed character of the river made him realize that it would not bring him to the Pacific.

Nevertheless, he called it the Great River of the Mountains. He also named it the Manhattes, after the Indians he found encountered. A year later, the Dutch who had sent him here, officially named the river the Prince Maurice, or the Mauritius, after their Stadtholder, Prince Maurice of Orange.

Traders and settlers who came here in the years that followed called it variously the Groote Rivier, Manhattan Rivier, Nassau Rivier, Noordt Rivier, Montaigne Rivier and Mauritz Rivier. Not until the English finally established political control over the lower Hudson did they officially name the river for the Englishman who had discovered it in the service of the Dutch. Even so, Noordt Rivier, the former Dutch name, persisted as the North River in English until the 20th century, especially along the docks on the west side of Manhattan.

Interestingly, the term North River originated in the political geography of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, which extended from the Hudson south to the Delaware River. Since two rivers, the Hudson and the Delaware, constituted the northern and southern boundaries of the colony they became the North River and the South River,

The reaction of the first Europeans who arrived in the lower Hudson valley was ecstatic. "O, this is Eden," exclaimed Dutch poet Jacob Steen dam, first poet of New Netherlands. "A terrestrial Canaan where the land flowed with milk and honey," wrote English essayist Daniel Drayton.

From the beginning, it was "the sweetness of the Air," that captivated early travelers. Yonkers lawyer Adrian van der Donck called it, "dry, sweet and healthy." "Sweet and fresh," recorded Jasper Danckaerts, a Dutch Labadist missionary, in his journal as his ship sailed past Sandy Hook in 1679. The Rev. Jacob Miller judged it to be "much like the best parts of France." He attributed its unusual qualities to the "hilly, wooded Country, full of Lakes and great Vallies, which receptacles are the Nurseries, Forges and Bellows of the Air."

To a man, early arrivals were astonished at the prodigiousness of the area. They found meadows with grass "as high as a man's middle," forests with impressive stands of hardwoods; orchards bearing abundant crops of apples and pears. The harbor was inhabited by schools of whales, porpoises and seals that playfully accompanied boats plying its waters. Stories of oysters a foot long are common; lobsters measuring up to six feet were not unusual. The forests teemed with animals: deer, wolves, bears, foxes, raccoons, partridge, quail, doves, and wild turkeys weighing up to 40 pounds.

In addition to the Hudson, three other major pristine waterways in Westchester tapped equally rich areas. These were the Saw Mill, Bronx and Hutchinson rivers. The north-south orientation of alternating ridges and valleys was dictated by the area's rugged topography bequeathed by the glaciers.

Saw Mill River. Its name is a translation of the Dutch name, Die Zaag Kil, named for Adriaen van der Donck’s sawmill near its mouth. It begins near Kipp and Douglas streets in Chappaqua, and flows through Hawthorne, Elmsford and Yonkers to reach the Hudson.

Bronx River. Its headwaters lie north of Heaptauqua Lake in New Castle, and its dammed to form Kensico Reservoir. It forms the geographic boundaries between Mount Pleasant/North Castle, Greenburgh/White Plains, Greenburgh/Scarsdale, Yonkers/Eastchester, and Yonkers/Mount Vernon. The Bronx River empties into the East River in the Bronx between Hunts Point and Clason Point. It takes it name from that of Jonas Bronck, who bought the 500 acres north of the Harlem River from the Indians.

Hutchinson River. Named for Anne Hutchinson, who came from Rhode Island in 1642 to escape religious persecution and settled on the west bank of the river that would bear her name, north of the present Coop City. She was murdered the following year. The Hutchinson River forms the geographic boundary between Scarsdale/New Rochelle, New Rochelle/Eastchester, and Mount Vernon/Pelham before entering The Bronx and emptying into Eastchester Creek.

Naming the Land
In order to describe how to get from point to point without maps to guide them, Indians named every natural feature. There still exist streams whose Indian or Colonial names have not survived. A notable example of this is the brook that parallels Brook Street in Croton-on-Hudson. Ordinarily, a negligible stream occupies its bed. Yet in a heavy rain it can quickly become a raging torrent. During so-called Tropical Storm Floyd in 1991, this nameless brook swept away cars, trucks and a portion of a building along its banks.

The term for a small, fast-flowing stream varies throughout the United States. Early speakers in New York and Pennsylvania called such a stream a kill (a borrowing from the Dutch word kil). That suffix persists to this day in the names of many river communities situated at the juncture of tributaries to the Hudson. Peekskill, Fishkill and Catskill are examples of this.

In Colonial times, following British terminology, a creek was a small inlet in the tidal portion of a stream extending farther inland than a cove. Along the tidewater portion of the Potomac, for example, its many tidal inlets are called creeks. But along 150 miles of the tidewater Hudson, there were few tidal inlets to warrant using the word creek, and so the term was applied to some of the river's freshwater tributaries. In many parts of the United States, when the word “creek” is used it is often pronounced, "crick."

Speakers in the eastern part of the mid-Atlantic states, including Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, used the word “run,” as in Bull Run. Southerners referred to a small stream as a branch. Eventually, brook became the favored term for a watercourse in the Northeast. A measure of its popularity can be seen in its predominance in the following informal inventory of the rivers, kills, creeks and brooks in our area. Where possible, information is given on the derivation of their names.

Cortlandt (town) and Croton (village)
Broccy Creek.
Brock was an early English word of Celtic origin used for badger and occasionally for beaver. On the Camp Smith reservation, this creek drains Broccy Reservoir into the Hudson.
Colabaugh Brook runs from Colabaugh Pond to a cove on the far west shore of the New Croton Reservoir, south of Route 129.
Croton River. Its original watershed has been submerged and incorporated into the New Croton Reservoir and the system of smaller reservoirs backing up the water to within a few miles of the Connecticut border. As a truncated river, it now runs southwest from the New Croton Dam for only three miles to empty into the Hudson south of Croton Point. Croton Point itself is a huge delta formed when the swift-running Croton River, carrying sands, gravels and clay in its glacial runoff, deposited these materials upon reaching the calmer waters of the Hudson.
Dickey Brook forms the southern boundary of Peekskill. It begins in the Blue Mountain Reservation and flows to the Hudson, entering it at Lents Cove, between Indian Point and Charles Point. The 1683 deed to Van Cortlandt used the Indian name for Dickey Brook, Tamoesis Creek. It also marked the southern boundary of Ryck's Patent. In 1685, Ryck Abrahamson and others, including Thouris and Samuel De Key, bought all the land between Dickey Brook and McGregory Brook. Later patented by them and never part of Van Cortlandt Manor, it was a self-governing town from 1770 to 1788.
Dixie Brook runs from Twin Lakes, south of Maple Avenue and west of Croton Avenue, to the New Croton Reservoir's north shore, entering it one-tenth of a mile from the intersection of Hunter Brook Road and Baptist Church Road.
Furnace Brook. Formerly called Jamawissa Creek and also the Old Mill Stream, Furnace Brook is fed by Dickerson Pond and flows through Furnace Brook Pond (also called Furnace Lake), emptying into the Hudson north of Oscawana Island. The "furnace" of the name was the Cortlandt Furnace, built before 1750, and the millrace of the pond supplied it with power. Because of the furnace's proximity to the Hudson, ore from mines in what is now Harriman State Park was transported across the river and smelted at the furnace. Costs turned out to be prohibitive, however, and the furnace was bankrupt by 1764. In its place a gristmill was built to take advantage of the available waterpower.
McGregory Brook. Stephanus Van Cortlandt bought a tract of land from Hugh Macgregor in 1685. The headwaters of McGregory Brook are near the present Westchester Mall. It flows through McGregory Pond and then through Peekskill in a culvert at Main Street, entering the Hudson at Peekskill Bay.
North Brook, a tributary of Putnam Brook, begins in the northeast corner of the Camp Smith reservation.
Peekskill Hollow Brook is the source of the water supply of the city of Peekskill. It forms in Putnam County and flows southeast into Annsville Creek near the intersection of the old Albany Post Road and Dogwood Road.
Purdy Brook. We know that Joshua Purdy lived in the area in 1760. Naumberg Pond forms the headwaters of Purdy Brook, which flows north into the New Croton Reservoir. Purdys came early to Westchester County. There's a Purdy Hill and Purdy Park in White Plains; Purdy Park in Mt. Vernon; Purdy Pond in Ossining; Purdy's Station, a hamlet in North Salem; Purdy's Corner on Mt. Airy in Croton-on-Hudson; and Purdy's Grove in Port Chester, the former name of the present Columbus Park. The Purdy name was originally a French name, Pardieu, the family immigrating to Westchester by way of England and Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Putnam Brook starts near the Putnam County border and flows through Dickiebusch Lake and into the Hudson near Roa Hook. The origin of the name Roa Hook is obscure. It is spelled on old maps as Roay, Roya, Royer, Red, and Rahway Hook. In the past it was pronounced "ro-ay."
Sprout Brook. This name may be a redundancy; in the 18th century, sprout meant a tributary to a larger river. Sprout Brook begins in Putnam County and flows south and southeast through Cortlandt Lake at the Putnam-Westchester border, then joins Peekskill Hollow Brook to flow into Annsville Creek.
Woody Brook flows down the slopes of Torment Hill into Furnace Brook Pond, draining an area occupied by Hessian mercenary troops from June to October in 1779.

Ossining (town and village)
Brandreth's Brook
starts near the Albany Post Road (Route 9) and flows west to the Hudson through the site of the Brandreth pill factory at the north end of Water Street.
Caney Brook in Briarcliff Manor runs south from the pool of the former Briarcliff Lodge, paralleling Sleepy Hollow Road, to Pocantico Lake.
Indian Brook. From headwaters just south of Teatown Lake, it flows southwest to the Croton River at Crotonville. In 1888, the Sing Sing Water Works dammed Indian Brook to create the reservoir at the North Castle line, north of Shady Farm Road and Route 9A.
Jordan Spring. When the interchange from Route 9A to Cedar Lane was built, it obliterated the hamlet here named for a spring on the Jordan family's lands.
Sing Sing Kill has the distinction of being the only watercourse in Westchester County that retains kil, the Dutch word for brook, in its name. Its course leads southwest from Purdy Pond to exit into the Hudson at the Ossining railroad station. Sing Sing Kill is also known as Kill Brook, a redundancy not unlike Rio Grande River or Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Sparta Brook. Taking its name from the little community whose white limestone hills reminded an early settler of Sparta in Greece, Sparta Brook circles to the north of the Arcadian shopping center to empty into the Hudson about 500 feet north of Kemey's Cove. The cove is named for William Kemys, who ground mustard seed in a mill on Sparta Brook for ore than a half century. The family name, originally De Camois became Kemys via mutations such as Camois and Camys.

Peekskill (city)
Annsville Creek
is both a tidal estuary in the original sense of the word, and a freshwater stream carrying the waters of Sprout Brook, Peekskill Hollow Brook and the outflow from Wallace Pond. The Indian name for Annsville Creek was Aquesinnick. In 1891, the F.W. Beers Atlas of the Hudson River applied the name Willow Brook to Annsville Creek.
Soldier's Spring. During the Revolution, while stopping to quench his thirst, a Continental soldier was struck in the thigh by a British cannonball at a spring at Division Street, north of its junction with Highland Avenue. He was transported to Fishkill, where he later died. For many years, the name of the spring at this location commemorated the event.

Yorktown (town)
Bailey Brook.
The name comes from that of a local family. It starts near the intersection of Spring Valley Road and Kitchawan Road and flows north to the west of Bald Mountain. Teatown Lake, constructed by Gerard Swope, also flows into Bailey Brook.
Barger Brook begins in Putnam County and joins Shrub Oak Brook in the community of that name. The brook's name is from the Barger family, former owners of the land through which it flows.
Hunter Brook. The Hunter family lived on Hunter Brook Road starting in the mid-1800s. The brook forms in Shrub Oak and flows south into the Mill Pond and then into the New Croton Reservoir at Baptist Church Road. The hamlet of Huntersville at the foot of Hunter Brook Road was inundated by the reservoir early in the 20th century.
Shrub Oak Brook runs from the hamlet of Shrub Oak to Peekskill Hollow Brook in Putnam County.

Mount Pleasant (town)
André Brook.
So named because it is near the site in Tarrytown where three American militiamen intercepted British Major John André and discovered that he was carrying plans for American stronghold at West Point. His capture led to the revelation that Gen. Benedict Arnold was a traitor. The brook forms the boundary between the towns of Mt. Pleasant and Greenburgh, and between the villages of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Formerly called Clark's Kill, it enters the Hudson eight-tenths of a mile below the Pocantico River.
Davis Brook. With headwaters on the Grasslands Reservation, it flows through Kensico Cemetery and along the Bronx River Parkway to join the Bronx River at Valhalla.
Fly Kill Brook. Except for brief traces, this redundantly named watercourse now lies under the Taconic Parkway. The "fly" in the name refers not to the insect, but derives from vly, the Dutch word for valley. It formerly began near Stevens Avenue and flowed north to the Saw Mill River in Hawthorne.
Gory Brook. Three theories are offered for this brook's name: (1) local bloody encounters during the Revolution; (2) hogs were once butchered nearby; (3) the name has been shortened from the name Gregory. Take your pick. Gory Brook runs south into the Pocantico River near Gory Brook Road, four-tenths of a mile from Route 9.
Pocantico River. The name is Indian and means "a stream between two hills." It appears in a 1681 deed to Frederick Philipse. It begins south of Route 133 at Echo Lake, formerly the site of Lawrence & Vail's Rockdale Mills. Until the early 19th century, the Pocantico River was called the Mill River because of the many water-driven mills along its banks. Dammed in the 1880s by the New Rochelle Water Company to form Pocantico Lake, lying between Sleepy Hollow and Old Sleepy Hollow roads, and to supply water to North Tarrytown (known as Beekmantown until its incorporation as the village of North Tarrytown in 1874, and now called Sleepy Hollow), the river flows through Kingsland Point State Park, north of the site of the former General Motors assembly plant, and empties into the Hudson.
Rockefeller Brook flows from a source in the Pocantico Hills through the ponds supplying water to the Rockefeller estate and on to the Pocantico River.
Sleepers Haven Kill. A name that has nothing to do with slumber, the Dutch name for the tidal portion of the Pocantico River was Slaper Haven, meaning "secondary harbor," an alternate to Tarrytown as a wheat-shipping point. The widely applied name Sleepy Hollow is merely a misinformed Anglicization of the original Dutch name.
Washburn Brook draws its water from Kinderogen and Hardscrabble lakes and flows to the Pocantico River. The Washburn family owned the land through which it runs.

New Castle (town)
Branch Brook,
also called Kisco Brook, drains Hubble's Pond, between the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Metro-North rail line, in the town of Bedford. It flows south into the Kisco River below Prospect Place. Branch Brook is also a redundant name; "branch" is another name for "brook."
Kisco River. It forms just above the headwaters of the Bronx River, near Whipporwill Road and Haight's Cross Road, and flows north through the village of Mt. Kisco (where it forms part of the New Castle/Mt. Kisco border), thence along Croton Dam Road to empty into the New Croton Reservoir near Stanwood, a hamlet developed in the 1940s by E.G. Stanton.
Roaring Brook. Also called Chappaqua Brook, it forms north of that community and flows into the Kisco River west of Oakwood Cemetery.
Tercia Brook. The brook west of King Street that runs into the Saw Mill River south of the Chappaqua station was dammed by the New Castle Water Company and named Tercia Pond (from tertius, Latin for third) because it was the third lake created by them. The name was then applied to the brook.

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