Douglas Brinkley’s recent biography of Theodore Roosevelt is a veritable brick of a book. I can only enjoy it when I am sitting up and feeling strong. I am still in the early chapters devoted to Roosevelt’s childhood passion for birds and the natural world. Like many children who have been privately educated, his enthusiasm and commitment produced a remarkable early expertise as an ornithologist and outdoorsman.
Brinkley, referring to Roosevelt’s love of the wilderness and particularly the Adirondacks, makes the comment that “wilderness is nothing more or less than a state of mind.” My attention slipped from the weighty tome to memories of Forest Park, the wilderness in my own backyard. How fortunate we were to have that wonderful natural resource so close by as we grew up!
The story begins badly, a tendency of Edenic tales. Wrapped in the misty vapors of early childhood memories floats the episode of crossing Park Lane South to visit the park. I have to accept full responsibility for an act of primal disobedience that must have occurred around 1949 shortly after Easter and long before we had reached the age of reason. John, Mary Alanah and myself were involved in a clandestine attempt to cross the forbidden road. My memory cells tell me that a neighbor squealed on us, and perhaps we even failed to cross the Satanic road, but were nabbed in the act. The punishment was swift and irrevocable. We had received bunnies (two, three?) as surprise Easter gifts. I think they lived in the garage. They disappeared in an instant.
Later, John was my companion in “the woods.” We were both keen Boy Scouts as Dad had become involved as a Cub Scout leader in the early fifties. We were probably nine or ten when we were first permitted to cross Park Lane South and enter the park alone. On a Saturday in early spring or autumn, we would be off up the hill, across Park Lane South, for a few hours of wilderness wandering.
As we entered the forest, we passed on our right a deep depression, too steep to explore comfortably, particularly since dead trees, broken branches, and even some debris created a forbidding barrier. This “kettle” was typical of the “knob and kettle” topography of Forest Park formed during the Wisconsin glaciation period. Forest Park Drive wound gracefully from Metropolitan Avenue to Woodhaven Boulevard and the golf course thanks to the design of Frederick Law Olmstead in 1896. The actual contours of the terrain were more unpredictable, and trail markings in our day were rare. Following the horse trails gave a better feel for the twisting and rugged terrain beneath the thick canopy of oak trees.
The idea for what was initially named Brooklyn Forest Park goes back to the developer of Prospect Park, James Stranahan, who had envisioned a broad band of urban forest stretching from Park Slope to Jamaica. However, when Prospect Park opened in 1867, he did not pursue his larger plan. Years later, following approval by Albany of a plan to purchase land for a new park, the Brooklyn Parks Department purchased the first parcel of land in August 1895. Because urban development was already well underway in the area, 124 additional parcels had to be purchased during the coming months and years. The initial investment was $1,150,000. In 1898, when the five boroughs were “consolidated” into Greater New York, Forest Park became the responsibility of the New York Parks Department.
I have only been able to identify a few of the early property owners who lived within the park’s eventual boundaries. David Leggett owned the Oak Ridge mansion that became the clubhouse for the golf course. Abram S. Hewitt, one time mayor of Brooklyn, owned Forest Park Lodge on Myrtle Avenue that served as his country home. Within a few years, the remaining land had been purchased and construction of the park began.
Forest Park comprises 540 acres of land including the 110-acre golf course. The park can be roughly divided into three unequal sectors—the main belly of the park that is divided be the railway line, the administrative section on the North side of Metropolitan, and the golf course. Our area of the park was the central rectangle boarded by Myrtle Avenue to the South, Woodhaven Boulevard to the West, and the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which runs through the park’s northern boundary for about two miles. The Interboro Parkway, as the road was known until 1997, was first proposed in 1901 but had a prolonged, politically difficult, gestation. Our “Over the River and through the Wood” road was conceived to connect Eastern Parkway with Forest Parkway, but repeated delays in Albany and local conflicts over financing delayed its opening until 1935.
To return to our wilderness, John and I had some Scout “gear.” Knives, a compass, a flashlight, and a whistle, in case we lost our way. Our first full-blown sortie provided Mother with ample amusement. We had attained the tipping age when she felt that she could allow us to go off for a day of exploring and adventure. We now had a knapsack, some cooking gear, a can of ravioli, a tube of mustard, and a few hotdogs and rolls. We loaded up. We waved goodbye. We were off.
I can no longer remember how far we “hiked” into the woods, but it could not have been much more than a mile. Important areas of the park, such as the “Gully” and the “Horseshoe” in the northern corner, remained terra incognita. Mother would have demanded Boy Scout honor pledges to not cross the train tracks. Nonetheless, we had morphed into Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, or the Long Ranger and Tonto. We tried to walk lightly, and we whispered. Young Teddy Roosevelt would have approved. On the rare occasion, our hike was interrupted by a passing horseback rider, always a bit intimidating and unexpected. Soon, we were ravenous.
At that time, camp fires were permitted in the woods. So we worked our way through the rituals of gathering wood, clearing a circle, framing it with rocks, making a teepee of small twigs, and attempting ignition. What I recall from all such efforts was much smoke and stinging eyes, and only very gradually anything approaching a heat source. A boy’s hunger overcomes any obstacle. The ravioli can would be pried open with the scout knife, not without some frustration. Dump ravioli into pot, pot on fire. “Chill!” as we say now. Then, hot dogs were skewed onto long sharpened sticks, and set in the smoking fire that required regular fanning as well as additional, quick searches for more small twigs, preferably more or less dry. Wait. Stir the ravioli, turn the hot dogs.
We may have filled our canteens with Kool-Aid. So we were all set, and ate our lunch. We were suddenly done. The fire had gone out. We smelled smoky. Time to head back. When we got back home, Mother failed to suppress a giggle. It was ten after one.
Jackson Pond was another focus of park activity. My memory tells me that the pond and surrounding woods provided the favored setting for Easter family photographs featuring storybook Easter bonnets and Buster Brown collars! I have a vague memory of traipsing up to Park Lane South, walking toward Myrtle on the sidewalk so we would not dirty our Easter shoes. Dad would set up his camera tripod while Mother fussed over the bonnets and collars while we squirmed. The walk home was quickly done (lunch was waiting) and we would get to walk through the park back up to 112th Street.
The pond had been named after one Jarvis Jackson, about whom little is known other that he had served as the first superintendent of the park. I had always thought that Jackson Pond was man-made, probably because the Parks Department had completely refurbished the pond with a cement bottom and handsome stone rim in 1941. However, the pond was a natural, inverted dome in the earth that had provided fishing and model sailboat racing in the summer, and ice-skating in the winter. We would often go skating as the surface was cleared of snow by the Park service. I remembered the frozen winter pond years later as I skated with some ease and much delight on the frozen ice of Lake Champlain.
I guess that many were dismayed when the city administration decided to fill in Jackson’s Pond in 1966 for safety reasons. The playground and basketball courts were then built on the area. Like any decent wilderness, Forest Park contained two other bodies of water that I had never visited. “The Gully,” another glacial depression of some 93 acres renowned among bird lovers, is located in the North West sector of the park. Strack Pond, which is located just west of Woodhaven Boulevard, is a glacial kettle pond that remained unnamed until1969. If you are interested, the best nature guide to the park that I have found is available from New York City Audubon (http://www.nycaudubon.org/queens-birding/forest-park).
In our adult lives, we would walk with Mother in the park. When we were little, she was much too busy. After the Sunday family dinner was over, she would want to walk up to the park. We would head up 110th at a good pace to Myrtle, walk toward the Buddy monument and then walk along Freedom Drive toward Metropolitan. Once, she gave me a walking tour of our old 112th Street neighborhood. She was a great walker and talker.
Once, on an exceptionally clear day, we walked to the highest point on Park Lane South and looked southward to the Rockaways. I suddenly remembered that the original inhabitants of the forest were the Rockaway Native Americans.
The train tracks were the secret, “forbidden,” childhood attraction of the park. Georgie Sawyer, who lived right next to the tracks at 84th Avenue and 113 Street, knew the tracks well. We were friends for a while until Georgie picked a fight with John one day and that ended that. The tracks were part of the Montauk branch of the Long Island Railroad and were used for freight transport between Jamaica station and Long Island City. The trains passed very occasionally. The dare was to place a penny or a dime on the track and then to see how it got flattened. You had to wait, and often forgot the penny, but once or twice, we were rewarded with a penny ironed like one of Dad’s shirts. Then there were the guilty nightmares of a horrible crash with the train derailed by an errant penny and everyone slaughtered, even Georgie and his family because they were right there. In 1903, President Roosevelt passed through the park in his private train and stopped at the Jamaica Avenue station for a quick visit with his dear friend Jacob Riis who lived at 84-41 120th Street. After a few hours and a speech, the president continued on to his family estate in Oyster Bay.
In fact, a second railroad track passes through the western boarder of Forest Park. This track served the Rockaway Beach Branch that went out of service in 1962. When mother went to visit her parents at Rockaway Point, she would catch this train at the Brooklyn Manor station at 100th Street and Jamaica Avenue. When she got to Rockaway Park, she would take a bus to Ignatz. During the years that they travelled by train from Brooklyn to Rockaway Point for the summer holidays, Grandma and Grandpa McGinty also used the Rockaway Beach Branch during their early years at 271.
The remaining tracks of the RBB have become seriously overgrown, but “The QueensWay,” a local organization has been promoting the idea of a bicycle path between Rego Park and Ozone Park. Sounds like a appealing idea, and they have an impressive WWW site (http://thequeensway.org/) and support.
Teddy Roosevelt visited Richmond Hill several times before and during his presidency, but I have not read that he and Jacob Riis ever walked the six blocks to enjoy the “wilderness.” I’m quite confident that Roosevelt would have enjoyed Forest Park thoroughly, and I can hear him even now exclaiming, “What a bully park!”
These reflections emerged from my growing concerns regarding the future impacts of climate change on our grandchildren’s adult lives. I’m not feeling optimistic these days and wonder what can be done.
Each of you has stories related to Forest Park that I would enjoy hearing about. Maybe you can find some old pictures!