With the help of a couple of experts, a reporter takes a journey of discovery
By Manny Grossman
Van Cortlandt Park is one of New York City's most heavily used parks with a striking variety of attractions and activities, from a Colonial museum to a vast series of athletic fields. But it's also full of secret spots, little "hidden gems," off the beaten path. They can be significant for their place in history, their geology or their natural beauty.
Recently, I was lucky enough to tour them with geologist Sidney Horenstein - or Sid, as he likes to be called - and Lloyd Ultan, the eminent Bronx historian, as my guides.
Sid is an Environmental Educator Emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History and the natural history consultant to the Bronx County Historical Society. Mr. Ultan has written several books on Bronx history including, Bronx Accent, The Beautiful Bronx and The Bronx in the Innocent Years.
We began our expedition at the Alfred H. Howell Grove, a hilly woodland landscape named in memory of a Riverdale banker, scholar and philanthropist who served as vice president of the locally-based Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation until his death in 1996.
The grove is located a short walk up a paved path behind the Van Cortlandt stables near Broadway and Mosholu Avenue. We drove to the stables' parking lot, but it is also accessible by Bx9 bus.
When we reached the Howell Grove plaque, we faced south, orienting ourselves toward the "John Muir Nature Trail" marker, and walked toward it. If you'd like to retrace our steps, just before you reach the bridge, you will see a trail veer off to the left. Follow that for about 40 feet and you will then see a small downhill trail on your left. Follow the right fork for about 100 feet and you will reach the first hidden gem, a steep stone staircase.
Climb up it for a good workout, or just sit on its steps with a friend and enjoy the silence and the sunlight filtering through the trees. Neither Sid nor Lloyd had any idea of the history of this broad, beautifully landscaped staircase, so we'll leave it to your imagination. We all surmised that it was probably built there as part of the trail design.
A rock outcrop
To reach the second gem, head back to Howell Grove. Take the trail just off to the right. Eventually you will reach a fork. Take the left path and walk about 200 feet. Look to your right at this point and you've reached a geological wonder, a high rock cliff.
It's an outcropping of rock, although as Sid explained, "they were not pushed up from the ground," as the name suggests, but rather the "ground around them eroded away," first by receding glaciers 21,000 years ago and then subsequent erosion, which is still very much in evidence today.
"Glaciers act like a plow," explained Sid. "They push rock in front of them. They act like a sled carrying rocks in it, and finally they act like sandpaper, smoothing out the surface as they move over rock."
Today, weather and human use are the main sources of erosion.
Along the trail, Sid noticed small "intrusions" within the rocks that contained clear quartz crystal and deep pink feldspar.
"Intrusions are formed when lava shoots up in between the layer of rock through cracks or fissures," he explained. But he was not done.
"There is a much bigger example of this, you know." He said
"Oh yeah, it's at the base of Vault Hill. These intrusions are not uncommon."
Vault Hill is a massive outcropping of rock visible from the Parade Ground along Broadway.
A bit of bushwhacking
At first, Sid had a hard time finding the intrusion, but after a bit of bushwhacking, he found it. A huge area of white quartz and pink feldspar greeted us. It was so big I could sit down inside of it.
Pointing out how certain sections were chipped away, Sid opined, "That could have been people quarrying for the quartz, or Native Americans using it for their arrowheads."
Vault Hill has historical significance, too. It is where the Van Cortlandt family established their burial ground in 1748, though their remains have since been removed to Woodlawn Cemetery.
At the onset of the American Revolution, City Clerk Augustus Van Cortlandt hid the city's records in the family vault to prevent them from falling into the hands of the British. The stone-walled structure still sits on the high outcropping with a commanding view of the Parade Ground and the city beyond.
We reached another hidden gem by taking the Putnam trail - a great hiking and biking trail that runs north-south through the park along the right-of-way of the now-defunct Putnam railway line. You can follow it north as far as Putnam County. It begins just to the west of the southern end of Van Cortlandt Lake, near the golf course parking area.
Walk north along the western shore of the lake until you come to its northern end and, off to the left, you will come across a line of stone slabs, each identical in size and shape.
"When Grand Central Station was in the design stages, New York Central wanted to try out different types of stone to see how they weathered. They put up several stone slabs next to the Putnam railway line," Lloyd explained. "Eventually they picked the cheapest one, but meanwhile we got our Stonehenge," he joked.
The last hidden gem on our tour was on the Old Croton Aqueduct trail. The aqueduct carried New York City's first water supply, and was built in the 1830s and 40s.
The gem, known as the Weir house, is a structure built to facilitate access to the water tunnel for maintenance and repairs. It sits atop an active stream, and is a great place to stop and ponder the civil engineering marvel that is the Old Croton Aqueduct, or just to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the site.
Of course, these are but a few of the hidden gems to be found in the park. I haven't even mentioned the site of what was once America's only ski slope accessible by subway.