Column: Walk this way…through history, part I

LissaHalenMelville understood. He penned the phrase, “Meditation and water are wedded forever,” in his epic novel “Moby Dick.”

Along the usually gentle Bronx River, we can add history and pleasure to being forever wedded to water. From the Native Americans who cultivated its fertile banks and fished its plentiful waters to today’s bicycle Sundays, the river’s history is rich and lengthy. Follow its trail, along with the 350 years of the history of Eastchester, Tuckahoe and Bronxville. Experience its sleepy, rustic charm along with the countless joggers, walkers and cyclists who already take pleasure in its beauty. I am one of those and here I hope to entice you to become one also.

Our ramble through the river’s history begins with the Mohegans, who trapped and eventually sold its beaver pelts to the European traders. Our ramble along its banks begins near the 7.5 mile mark at Palmer Avenue in Bronxville. Here, a three-mile paved pathway parallels the river and straddles Tuckahoe, Bronxville and Eastchester on the east and Yonkers on the west.

Head north.

Pass alongside Lawrence Hospital, built by entrepreneurial and philanthropic William Van Duzer Lawrence in early 1900. He donated land and money when his son barely survived an appendicitis attack. Legend mentions the only hospital was in New York City and the only transportation was the baggage car of a passing train. The frantic ride into the city saved his son but Lawrence saw a need. He fulfilled this need by building a medical center which still sits on the river.

History sits at the West Pondfield Avenue crossing, where the River House complex replaced the previous Swain Mill. Across the street was the Kraft Tannery, which manufactured leather gloves and probably polluted the river with its tanning chemicals long before the word “pollution” entered the lexicon. No vestiges of the tannery remain, but the mill’s remnants can be seen near the foundation of the now cooperative apartments.

First owned by the Underhill family, the mill turned grist into flour as one of five or so cottages along the river in the early 1800s. A local then wrote of the “three-pound trout” and other fish when the stream was so clear one “could count the red spots” on their backs.

As time marched on, the mill also produced screws and axles, and later cutlery, before it was demolished in the late 1940s.

Back on the pathway, picturesque Bronxville Lake comes into view. Its tumbling waterfall and rustic bridge gives one pause to reflect Melville’s ideal of wedding “meditation and water.” It was once one of the many public bathing areas along the river in summer and a popular skating locale in winter. Documents indicate about 69,000 bathers swam in the river in 1918. The natural “pools” became too crowded and the bathhouses were eventually demolished.

Next, a once grand Spanish-style structure comes into view. It was a popular overnight venue for Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his travels to Hyde Park. The building’s name has had many variations as its uses including being a Prohibition-era speakeasy. As Broderick’s and Murray’s, it was a home for big bands and local luncheons and galas. As Parkway Casino, it was a catering hall. Now a medical center and apartments, even the interior has lost its panache. Famous murals once graced its walls, but they have disappointedly been painted over and its grand ballroom was partitioned to make offices.

As the path crosses Scarsdale Road, consider a minor side trip either east or west. Historic Asbury Church, one of the oldest churches in the United States, is to the west. A small chapel was first built nearby in 1797 and moved to this location later. Its namesake and first minister, Francis Asbury, has a statue in Washington, D.C. honoring his dedication to freedom during the American Revolution. Its cemetery is a walk through history with the earliest grave dating to 1800.

A side trip heading east brings you to Tuckahoe, where restaurants and coffee shops abound within an easy half mile walk. If it’s before lunchtime, head to Bentley’s Café with its yellow brick turret; a local coffee shop since the 1920s. If it’s lunchtime or later, another establishment brings you farther back in time while you whet your palette.

Industry was an important aspect of colonial life and up to 12 mills bordered the river. Two picturesque ones remain today, one in the Bronx Botanical Gardens and Tuckahoe’s Olde Stone Mill. The former has been resurrected as a popular wedding venue and the latter a popular restaurant.

Snuff was the stuff of the Lorillard Mill in the Bronx. First cotton and later raincoats were manufactured at the Tuckahoe site and you can peruse its historic photo collection as you eat. The restaurant obviously no longer produces raincoats, but the company survives today in Massachusetts.

We’ve traveled merely half of our itinerary so steeped in history. We’ll pause to digest some of this history and bucolic charm. Check back later in the month when we’ll resume our trek.

Melville would understand my penchant for meditation and pleasure on the river’s banks.

 

JUST THE FACTS

Bronx River Reservation
from Bronxville to Eastchester

Daylight 7 days a week, 365
days a year, but it technically
never closesFree parking near
parkway exits 1, 3, 4, 6, 8
northbound and meters near
the railroad stations.

_____________________________

Lissa Halen is a resident of Eastchester of more
than 35 years and a member of the Eastchester
Historical Society Board. She also contributed to
the upcoming book “Out of the Wilderness:
The emergence of Eastchester, Tuckahoe
and Bronxville, 1664-2014”