Van Cortlandt Park’s physical and human landscape has evolved over thousands of years. This 1146–acre park, the fourth largest in New York City, offers real connections to the region’s geologic and cultural history. Through the lens of Van Cortlandt Park, one can learn about the natural world while gaining insight into how infrastructure develops as a city grows and changes.
Early Land Formation
Around 20,000 years ago, New York was buried beneath massive glaciers. When the ice receded, it left behind the characteristic sketch of Van Cortlandt Park—steep ridges, gradual hills, and open flats—and exposed its three major rock components: Fordham Gneiss, Inwood Dolomite, and Manhattan Schist. It took about seven thousand years for Paleo–Indians to arrive in this area, following mastodon, giant beaver, and caribou across North America.
Communities Take Shape
By 1000 AD, Woodland Indians known as the Lenape began permanent settlements from lower New York State through Delaware. The Wiechquaskeck Lenapes occupied this site, settling into an agricultural lifestyle. They hunted in wooded uplands, fished in Tibbetts Brook, farmed on the Parade Ground and Indian Field and foraged through meadows and forests for nuts, fruits and other edible plants.
In 1639, the Dutch East India Company brought the first Europeans to settle in the Bronx, purchasing most of today’s Bronx County from the local Natives and, in 1646, sold it to Holland native Adriaen Van Der Donck, who became the first single owner of what is now Van Cortlandt Park. His vast estate “de Jonkeerslandt“ gave Yonkers its name. The land passed through several families, each gradually developing it into viable farmland and a working plantation.
Van Cortlandt Family
The Van Cortlandt name was first associated with the tract of land bounded by modern Yonkers City Line between Broadway, Jerome Avenue, and Van Cortlandt Park East in 1694, when Jacobus Van Cortlandt bought the property. During the 1690s, he dammed Tibbetts Brook to create the 16–acre lake to power a gristmill. The Van Cortlandt Mansion was built in 1748 by his son, Frederick Van Cortlandt, whose family occupied the land until the 1880s. Frederick also established the family burial plot on Vault Hill where, at the onset of the American Revolution, City Clerk Augustus Van Cortlandt hid the city records from the British Army.
New York City Infrastructure
The 19th century brought projects to the future parkland that reflected the city’s growth. The 41–mile–long Croton Aqueduct was the first public work built through the site in 1837, bringing water from Westchester County to the site currently occupied by the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street in Manhattan. The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail stretches for 1.1 miles atop the portion of the aqueduct in Van Cortlandt Park.
In the 1880s, two railroad lines were laid across the parkland. The Putnam Railroad Line established service to Brewster and points north. A spur of this line provided a quick trip northwest through the park to Yonkers’ Getty Square. The Park’s 1.5–mile section of the Putnam Trail enables hikers to experience sturdy bridges and tunnels traveled by trains when the rail lines were active.
During the 1940s and 50s, highway construction—another by–product of the region’s growth—cut through the park and resulted in loss of precious wetlands and increased difficulty in traversing the park.
In September 2004, following years of research, discussion and debate, the New York City Council allowed the City to construct a water filtration plant for the Croton Water Supply under the Mosholu Golf Course in Van Cortlandt Park. As part of the agreement, the Parks Department received more than $200 million from the Department of Environmental Protection for improvements to over 70 Bronx parks over five years. Creation of Sachkerah Woods Playground was one of the first Croton mitigation projects (PDF, 973 KB). completed in the borough, and the first in Van Cortlandt Park.
Building a Park
The City of New York acquired this parkland in 1888 but did not name it in honor of the Van Cortlandt family until 1913. Over time, it developed some sections, added play areas, made wild areas passable and upgraded existing features. The first municipal golf course in the country opened here in 1895; a second, the Mosholu Golf Course, opened in 1914. By a special act of the New York State Legislature, the Van Cortlandt Mansion was leased by the City to the Society of Colonial Dames and the historic house opened as a museum in 1897. The Parade Ground was created in 1901, and National Guard used it for training exercises until the end of World War I. In 1906, The Bronx Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a cairn of stones as a memorial to Chief Daniel Nimham, his son Captain Abraham Nimham, and 17 other Stockbridge Indians who were slain there during the Revolutionary War.
Sports and Nature
In 1913, the Cross–Country Running Course opened, featuring both 5–mile and 3–mile loops. Van Cortlandt Stadium opened in 1939, and three years later the Getty Square spur of the New York Central Railroad was removed and the property given back as parkland. The current horse stables and adjoining bridle path opened in 1955. Three nature trails added in the 1980s and 90s offer hikers the opportunity to explore the wetlands and forests in this park. The Cass Gallagher Nature Trail is dedicated to a longtime Bronx resident and environmental activist, and the John Kieran Nature Trail commemorates a famed naturalist and newspaperman. In 1997, the first east–west connector trail was established and named for renowned naturalist John Muir.
Disrepair and Rebirth
A series of fiscal crises in the municipal government during the 1970s inspired the local community to join Parks in preserving this park. The Administrator’s Office was established in 1983 to oversee all operations, maintenance and management. In 1992, a group of Bronx residents formed the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park which offers free environmental education, assists with trail maintenance, advocates for community needs and coordinates regular volunteer activities in the park. In 2009, the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy emerged as a public–private partnership to assist the Parks Department’s efforts in maintaining, preserving and programming Van Cortlandt Park through fundraising efforts as well as public outreach. There are many groups that have a special interest in the park, and the Conservancy brings them together in a Community Council that aims to enhance the ways that Van Cortlandt Park serves its users.
People make very personal connections to the park at different times in their lives and their oral history is an important part of our culture. Here, 92-year old Walter Perron tells stories of his experience in the park during the 1920s and 1930s. Email us about your experiences in the park way back when and we’ll compile them and post the text here.