By KATIE HOOS
Winding from the bottom of Westchester near the Bronx-Mount Vernon border up to the Kensico Dam in Valhalla, the Bronx River Pathway is not only a picturesque recreational retreat, but also a fixture steeped in county history.
Included in the Bronx River Reservation—a linear, 807-acre park that parallels the Bronx River Parkway and includes numerous wooden footbridges, ponds, waterfalls and hundreds of varieties of trees and shrubs—is the reservation’s most notable feature, the Bronx River Pathway. The pathway is a 10.6-mile paved trail extending along Southern Westchester that follows the curve of the Bronx River. It is broken up into three paved segments: a one mile loop near Oak Street in Mount Vernon, a 4.6-mile segment from Palmer Road in Bronxville to Crane Road in Scarsdale, and a 5-mile segment from Greenacres Avenue in Hartsdale to Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla. The pathway attracts hundreds of thousands of cyclists, runners, walkers and nature enthusiasts each year.
In addition to the pathway, the Bronx River Reservation touts a number of firsts and provides a glimpse into history.
Designated as Westchester County’s first official park, the reservation dates back to 1925, the same year the Bronx River Parkway was completed.
The Bronx River Parkway—a 20-mile roadway that currently extends from Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx to the Kensico Dam in Valhalla—was the first parkway designed entirely for automobile use. It was also the first highway to use a median strip to separate opposing lanes in the United States.
According to Suzanne Nolan, president of the Bronx River Reservation Conservancy—an advocacy group for the historic park—the roadway was essentially an afterthought in the efforts to clean up the extremely polluted Bronx River. The original intention, she said, was to develop parkland around the river to preserve water quality, and the idea to construct a parkway into Westchester came after.
“In fact, the first part of the [Bronx River Reservation] project had nothing to do with a parkway,” she said.
According to Nolan, several factories and housing developments used the river as a dumping ground in the late 19th century, creating a pollution problem that was compounded by springtime flooding.
“The river runs through the Bronx and passes through the Bronx Zoo property and onto the East River. The impetus for the whole thing was because animals in the zoo were dying from drinking the polluted river water,” Nolan said. “That’s how bad it was.”
The Bronx Parkway Commission was appointed in 1906 to reclaim the river and create a roadway connecting suburban Westchester to New York City, and included a staff of engineers, designers, landscape architects and laborers. The parkway’s construction, which began in 1907 and finished in 1925, pioneered the development of highways by combining modern automobile needs with scenic and natural elements, including a reduced number of intersections, limited access from surrounding streets, landscaped greenery and views of the Bronx River.
Following the success of the parkway—which saw more than 35,000 cars a day during summer weekends in 1927—and the growing number of visitors to the parkland, the Westchester County Parks Commission was created in 1922.
“It was basically our first park,” said Peter Tartaglia, commissioner of the Westchester County Parks Department. “And it was quite unique at the time.”
The Bronx River Reservation was the first of the county’s current expansive park system of more than 50 parks spanning nearly 18,000 acres.
The reservation is also the county’s first linear park—a park that is substantially longer than it is wide—as well as one of the first linear parks in the country.
Since the reservation’s creation, the county’s trail system has expanded to include the South County and North County trailways—which are paved pedestrian and bicycle paths that parallel the Saw Mill River Parkway from the Bronx-Yonkers border to the Putnam County line in Somers—and the Briarcliff-Peekskill Trailway, which runs from Ossining to Peekskill.
Today, the Bronx River Reservation is a popular destination visited year-round by nearly 200,000 visitors. The reservation also plays host to many popular activities, including Bicycle Sundays, during which a portion of the Bronx River Parkway is closed to vehicular traffic so bicyclists, joggers, walkers and skaters can travel on the roadway. The closed roadway runs from the Westchester County Center in White Plains to Scarsdale Road in Yonkers, creating a 13.1 mile roundtrip.
The Bicycle Sundays program has been ongoing since 1974 and attracts more than 3,000 to 5,000 visitors a week and 60,000 visitors annually. The program originally began as an all-day bicycle charity event in 1974, but since it was such a success, the parks department decided to adopt the program as a yearly event.
“It’s a great program,” Tartaglia said. “It allows people to do something different. You get to ride on the parkway and get another perspective of the Bronx River Reservation.”
The Bronx River Pathway also has an audio tour narrated by Dan Rather that highlights 26 historic and scenic stops along the trail. Some of the stops include The Rising, a memorial dedicated to the 111 Westchester residents who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; Battle Hill Monument, a reproduction of a British-manufactured field gun to commemorate the Oct. 28, 1776, Revolutionary War Battle of White Plains and remnants of the Haubold Gunpowder Mill, a stone mill dating back to 1840. The tour can be downloaded via mobile phone application or iPod, or accessed via telephone.
Both the Bicycle Sundays program and the audio tour are funded by the Friends of Westchester County Parks, a non-profit organization that advocates for the preservation, conservation and enjoyment of all Westchester County parks.
Now that the weather has warmed up, the Bronx River Pathway is seeing more and more visitors looking to get outdoors.
Lisa Ganzi of Scarsdale said she frequents the pathway in both the summer and winter months at least once a week.
“I live close by and it’s great exercise,” she said, noting she walks the trail and rides her bike on the parkway during Bicycle Sundays. “It’s a nice way to get out and enjoy nature.”
Jozef Cegielski, who just moved to Scarsdale from Poland, said he typically bicycles the South County Trailway, but decided to try something new. “This is my first ride,” he said while getting off his bike on the Bronx River Pathway. “So far it’s very nice.”