Highland Park: a reservoir ran through it

“It was considered part of one’s civic duty in 1860 to visit the Ridgewood Reservoir to see where Brooklyn’s wonderful water supply came from.”

–1916 Brooklyn Eagle retrospective

Brooklyn gets most of its water these days from the Catskills, and it can be difficult to imagine a time when that was not the case. I remember reading a long time ago about giant mounds they had in the middle of Manhattan to collect and hold water from various sources. It was similar for our borough, although Brooklyn’s geography lent a hand.

1874 George Brainard photograph of Ridgewood Reservoir. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

A reservoir opened in 1856 in Mount Prospect Park, the same park where the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is located today. Planners knew it would need to be supplemented, so on July 31 of that same year, with “elaborate ceremonies”, the Snediker family cornfield in Cypress Hills began its transformation into the Ridgewood Reservoir. The original phase was completed in 1858.

19th-century Cypress Hills was a town full of roadhouses and gambling-establishments thanks to a racetrack just across the border in Queens. Union Course hosted two of the premier North-vs.-South battles in horseracing history: the 1823 victory of American Eclipse (North) over Sir Henry, and the 1845 triumph of Peytona (South) against Fashion. John Snediker’s roadhouse was one of the most popular joints in town. (More on this when it’s time for Cypress Hills.)

Currier & Ives print of the 1845 contest between Peytona (of Alabama) and Fashion (of New Jersey).

Its first phase completed in 1858, the reservoir eventually consisted of three basins. The reservoir could hold up to 154.4 million gallons, enough to supply Brooklyn for ten days. Improvements to the tunnels from the Catskills made these basins redundant in the 1920s, and they were fully drained in the 1980s. Trees have since reclaimed much of the space. (More info and photos here.)

(Unfortunately for me, the reservoir space is now closed for renovation. Instead, you can check out this piece from THIRTEEN’s The City Concealed. It has an interview with Richard Gomes, who co-wrote one of my more-useful sources for this week.)

The area’s official name, Ridgewood Park, eventually became problematic. For one, it implied that the park was in Queens, when much of it was in Brooklyn; also, there was already a place in Queens called Ridgewood Park. The name “Highland Park” was adopted in 1892, both as a nod to its topography and because the term was generic.

The view offered by Highland Park is evident in this 1930s photo. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

The 31 acres unused by the reservoir became parkland (now called the Upper Park), and housing sprung up to the west. A few expansions in the nineteen-aughts brought the park to its present size of 101.28 acres. The enlarged space featured a music pavilion, a well-manicured flower garden, baseball fields, and tennis courts. Improvements courtesy of the WPA in the 1930s added handball courts, horseshoe pits, and a concrete wading pool.

One of the notable attractions in the Lower Park (that below Highland Avenue) is “Dawn of Glory” by Pietro Montana. This statue honors 144 area men who died in combat zones in World War I; their causes of death ranged from “killed in action” to “peritonitis (kicked by a horse)”. The bodybuilder Charles Atlas might have served as the model.

Photograph of Dawn of Glory shortly after its dedication.

While digging through the archives at the Brooklyn Collection, I came across this card registering the “Highland Park Property Owners Association”. It was postmarked July 12, 1963.

The association’s president, Vito P. Battista, was one of the more colorful characters in New York political history. A Republican member of the Assembly and a six-time candidate for mayor, he once marched a camel through lower Manhattan, claiming that another tax would be the straw that … well, you know.

The rough neighborhoods to the south have no green facilities of their own, so people there have long used Highland Park as a place to escape. A 1974 Daily News article tells of tensions between local residents and the “picnicking Hispanics from East New York” who would “build fires, gamble, drink beer, attract peddlers”. Of course, as a Parks official said, “Where else can these people go to have fun?”

Bound sources:

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

A history of New Lots, Brooklyn to 1887: including the villages of East New York, Cypress Hills, and Brownsville by Alter F. Landesman (Kennikat Press, 1977).

Brooklyn’s East New York and Cypress Hills communities by Brian Merlis and Riccardo Gomes (Gomerl Publishing, 2004).

History of the Memorial monument in Highland Park, and memoir of the soldier who served in the World War from the twenty second assembly district of Brooklyn, New York by Henry Oscar Rockefeller (self-published, 1924).

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2 Responses to Highland Park: a reservoir ran through it

  1. nic says:

    So interesting. I grew up on the Queens side of the Brooklyn-Queens border and I never knew that the north end of Cypress Hills was its own neighborhood. I am excited to see what you discover when you draw Cypress Hills from the pile. There’s a taxidermist on Jamaica Avenue that I’ve always been fascinated by.

    • Keith says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Some of my neighborhoods exist only in history, but Highland Park isn’t in that category.

      Stick around – you might get your wish soon.

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