Forests of Van Cortlandt Park
With approximately 650 acres of natural woodland, Van Cortlandt Park supports one of the largest tracts of natural forest in the city. A varied topography of high, rocky ridges alternating with low, moist valleys provides the base for diverse forest flora and fauna. Van Cortlandt woods are estimated to have 80,000 trees with a diameter at breast height of 6 inches or more.
The northern part of the park, where most of the forest is concentrated, consists to a significant extent of hilly undulating terrain generally of higher elevation than much of the city and presenting many examples of outstanding rock outcrops which give a glimpse of the geology underlying the forest. The woodland, which is divided into the Northeast Forest, the Croton Woods, and the Northwest Forest, contains many different forest types, with large oak, hickory, tulip, sweetgum, and sugar maple trees forming the canopy cover. Some of the largest and oldest trees in the city are located in the park.
The forest serves as a huge catchment area collecting rain and snowfall, then draining into a 75–acre freshwater wetland that further adds to the landscape and living diversity. This wetland of Tibbetts Brook serves as an important and unique habitat for herons, egrets, and other waterfowl. The living diversity of the Van Cortlandt forest [Natural Resources Group 1990] comprises over 10 fish, 6 reptile and amphibian, 12 mammal, and 108 bird species. Over 50 tree, 37 shrub, 167 herbaceous, 37 grass and sedge, 16 fern and other non–flowering plant, and 49 fungi native species inhabit the park.
As an urban forest, it functions as a major part of the lungs of the city, helping to regulate air quality and remove greenhouse gases. The Van Cortlandt forest is a major component contributing to the many goals of the city’s PlaNYC sustainable development template. Its natural, multi–story plant communities are of key heritage value to the city as they are remnants of previous forests that historically covered the city prior to the impact of human development. The stratified forest structure provides strength in helping to combat many of the stresses faced by urban forest fragments arising from high human populations, pollutants, and stormwater runoff, among others.
Croton Woods and Aqueduct
Croton Woods is named for the Old Croton Aqueduct that initially brought transported water through Van Cortlandt Park. A clean water supply is critical to all living communities, and in 1833, New York City’s supply was not. Faced with fires, disease and a growing population, the State Legislature created the New York State Water Commission to help the City respond to these challenges. John B. Jervis’s Croton Aqueduct design was approved by referendum in 1835 and opened on July 4, 1842 at a construction cost of $11.5 million.
The 41–mile aqueduct ran from the Croton River in Westchester County, down through Van Cortlandt Park and the Bronx to the High Bridge, then across the Harlem River into Manhattan reservoirs in today’s Central Park and Bryant Park. As New York City’s population continued to grow, a new Croton Aqueduct was authorized in 1883 and opened in 1893. The Old Croton Aqueduct served New York City until 1897.
The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, designated a Scenic and Historic Corridor by the State Legislature in 1976, runs 26 miles from Northern Westchester County into the Croton Woods of Van Cortlandt Park. The trail combines natural beauty with historic artifact. Along the route, hikers can view parts of the Aqueduct’s underground tunnel, historic houses, and remains of the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad set in a landscape of bedrock and Fordham gneiss, one of the oldest rock formations in the world dating back 1.1 billion years. The woods around the trail are home to pheasant, raccoon, and fox. Near the Bronx–Westchester County line in Van Cortlandt Park, the forest is full of tulip, oak, and maple trees. The Van Cortlandt Golf Course, the Major Deegan Expressway and the Mosholu Parkway make up the boundaries of the Croton Woods.