WHEN the first European settlers arrived in lower Westchester in the 17th century, they had to have been impressed with the opportunities they found. Among the region’s hills and valleys was a network of waterways that could provide bountiful hunting grounds for fur-bearing animals, and countless sources of water power to develop the agricultural and lumbering needs of the European colonial economies.
To be sure, none of the interior waterways of lower Westchester matched the mighty Hudson in terms of its breadth and volume. And calling such tributaries as the Saw Mill, Bronx, Hutchinson and Mamaroneck rivers was really stretching a point – where I grew up in southern Pennsylvania we called bodies of water much larger than the Bronx River creeks.
Nevertheless, Westchester’s bodies of water were quickly put to use for mills, reservoirs and waste disposal. The waterways provided the template for the patterns of human development up through the early 20th century. Roads and development followed streambeds geography.
As I traverse the roadways of lower Westchester in the 1980’s, however, I feel that the days when waterways were treasured are over. Now they are more likely to be seen as nuisances to be hidden away, to make room for more highways, more housing and more office-park projects.
A look at the Mamaroneck River – Westchester’s largest watershed system emptying into Long Island Sound – provides a good example of how early development was dependent upon the coexistence with the watershed. And how we are now in the process of ”disappearing” it.
The Mamaroneck River’s numerous branches drain an area of more than 21 square miles, from upper New Rochelle and northern Purchase to the Sound at Mamaroneck Harbor. Its main tributaries are the Sheldrake River, and the East and West Branches of the Mamaroneck, which join together at Saxon Woods.
The Sheldrake begins in the highlands by the Scarsdale-White Plains border, where Garden Road becomes Hartsdale Avenue. From there it flows south through the Fenway Golf Club, by Scarsdale Junior High School, Heathcote, Carpenter Pond, the Hutchinson Parkway, Pine Brook Boulevard, Sheldrake Lake, Weaver Street, I-95, Washingtonville, then joins with the main branch in Columbus Park by the train station.
The West Branch begins near Ridgeway, by Seeger Drive, then flows along Saxon Woods Road until it meets the East Branch. The latter has several smaller tributaries, originating at the Westchester Hills Country Club, Manhattanville College, the Century Country Club and the highlands between the White Plains Reservoir and Rye Lake. The main section is from Silver Lake, along I-287 to the Hutchinson Parkway, through the Maple Moor Golf Course, then along the ”Hutch” to where it joins the West Branch.
In earlier times at least 12 mills were established along the river’s course – starting with one just a few hundred yards in from the harbor that was powered by the changing tides. Carpenter Pond on the Sheldrake, in New Rochelle, and Silver Lake, on the East Branch in White Plains/Harrison, were two of the most prominent mill sites and lasted until late in the 19th century.
Ponds were also created for fishing, ice-making and recreational purposes. Ten golf courses – from the Brae Burn to the Winged Foot – were developed in the 20th century, using portions of the watershed for their attractive obstacle-course system. The county’s Saxon Woods Park, and the campus sites of New York Hospital and Manhattanville College incorporated watershed streams as part of their landscape design.
Although it now seems hard to believe, in earlier times the Mamaroneck River was very important in providing water for drinking and commercial uses. Two reservoirs were constructed along the Shelldrake, and the Mamaroneck Reservoir was established along the main river near lower Saxon Woods.
Finally, the watershed provided an attractive setting for residential sites. From the elegant mansions of the 19th century in Purchase and White Plains to the charming, more modest homes near the Mamaroneck Reservoir, homeowners took advantage of the gently flowing stream to enhance the beauty of their property.
In the late 19th century it became apparent that the use of the Mamaroneck River for both drinking water and as a receptacle for sewage was inappropriate. So the sanitary sewage system was developed. Pollution problems continued, but at least the values of the water to human needs were being asserted.
By the mid-20th century, all these valuable uses of the Mamaroneck Now a watershed is likely to be seen as a nuisance. River basin were on the way out. Water power was a thing of the past, and only a few foundation stones remind us of the waterway’s mills. The river’s use as a source of drinking water was phased out, with the reservoir waterworks being converted to pumping stations for New York City’s Catskill water system.
Ponds were drained to provide more land for housing. Riverbeds had been squeezed into ever-smaller channels along the ever-widening roadways – the Hutchinson Parkway, the Cross Westchester Expressway and the New England Thruway.
Although the river was never navigable, at least in earlier times it was possible to walk along its main branches, enjoying the flora and fauna. Now one has to negotiate highways, culverts and storm sewers even to follow its course. Just finding it on a map can be difficult, because it goes underground in so many places to accommodate development.
I dare anyone to walk from Silver Lake to North Street along the river without suffering at least a moderate degree of stress from the high-speed automotive mayhem of I-287, I-684 and the ”Hutch.”
After leaving the parkland of Silver Lake and Delfino Park, the river has been relegated to the ”no man’s land” between interstate highways and Westchester Avenue eastbound. Instead of paths and scenic views, the riverbed is walled in by relocated rocks, cement channels and thick growths of the various species of hardy weed plants, shrubs and trees that have been able to adapt to such a hostile setting. Poison Ivy is, of course, plentiful, as is the debris of modern life.
As a result of all the upstream disruptions to the river’s ability to absorb rainfall, and uncontrolled development of the flood-plain areas, downstream flooding has caused extensive property damage. Now the Army Corps of Engineers is proposing a $60 million project to build an underground channel to take the Sheldrake directly to the Sound and to realign the main channel from Columbus Park to the harbor. Such a solution does nothing to help restore the river’s ecological value.
Of course, all has not yet been lost. The river still has more tranquil settings, such as when it flows through part of the Maple Moor golf course, along Saxon Woods Road and between the Mamaroneck Reservoir and I-95. And a major positive step was taken when the Larchmont Reservoir along the Sheldrake branch was set aside as a nature-study area. Some efforts were taken in the widening of the Hutch to restore the riverbed to a more natural format.
What worries me is that, in the planning process that determines whether roads are widened and office buildings or homes are built, no one seems to consider the importance of protecting the waterway’s integrity. By this I mean its integrity as a functioning part of the region’s ecosystem – providing for the needs of the wildlife. These include service as a spawning ground for fish, reptiles and amphibians; a source of food and shelter for all the other animals native to this area; and a resource to help provide for the human needs of food, water and recreation. How can we put a value on the impact that widening I-287 or the Hutch will have on the Mamaroneck River?
A good example of this is the current problem concerning ”Larchmont Gardens Lake,” a man-made pond on a Sheldrake branch of the river in the Town of Mamaroneck. When town officials went to dredge the pond, they learned that the sediments contained unsafe levels of hydrocarbons. Now it appears it will cost about $500,000 to transport the dredged materials to a site licensed for ”industrial waste.” The source of these? The State Department of Environmental Conservation said they probably came from nearby I-95. The pond is one of the watershed’s most scenic and accessible sites.
Several years ago, when we were suffering from the kind of drought conditions now widespread in the Middle West, we had to resort to drawing water from the Hudson – a reminder of the importance of our local resources.
Perhaps what is needed is the equivalent of the Hudson River’s Riverkeeper – a watchdog position supported by nonprofit interests. Maybe each interior river doesn’t warrant its own keeper, but at least there could be one to watch over the largest in lower Westchester – the Mamaroneck, Bronx, Saw Mill and Hutchinson. No one is regularly monitoring water quality, herbicide and pesticide runoff or illegal dumping. Just recently there have been several incidents of large fish kills, attributed to low oxygen levels.
While the government ”studies” the problems of the Sound and its tributaries, development and streambed degradation continue apace. We teach our children about nature and ecology, but we don’t apply these concepts to the very things that are going on right in our backyards. How can we save the earth if we lose the Mamaroneck River?
What I can determine about the Mamaroneck River from the few sources I have found is that its watershed covers over 17 sq. miles. In White Plains, it covers most of the City. It covers the eastern side in the north but all of the southern half. The Bronx River has a smaller watershed and this is in the northwest part but the watersheds overlap. The two watersheds overlap.
The river begins in wetlands north of Silver Lake in West Harrison. The river was dammed to create the lake known today as Silver Lake around 1721. As the river goes south much of the water is in underground pipes. There are some tributaries that branch off and into the river. An eastern branch comes into river from areas in Purchase. The river also served as a boundary between West Harrison and Purchase. The Expressway Cross Westchester 287 goes along the river boundary area. A stream comes into river at Maple Moor Golf Course and water comes down into the area north from Gedney Farms Neighborhood where two golf courses were created. One golf course north of Ridgeway was purchased and the owners want to develop land into a school. The opposition to the school from the City and community has put the project in limbo for over five years.
The West Branch starts in wetlands behind Archbishop Stepinac High School extends down through neighborhoods south above and below ground into Saxon Woods as it meets the main part of the river. This tributary served as a boundary line in 1721 Royal Patent. The river is northeast of Mamaroneck and and can be viewed above ground at different