AURORA GAREISS AND THE FOUNDING OF
THE UDALLS COVE PRESERVATION COMMITTEE
Developers’ Dreams & “The Swamp Lady”
Excerpted from This Salubrious Spot: The First 100 Years at Douglas Manor
1906-2006, copyright 2006 by Douglas Manor Association, Inc., pages 59-60
(copied by permission).
By the 1950's Long Island had changed dramatically. Older suburbs – places like Douglas Manor – were largely forsaken for tonier post-World War II developments farther out on Long Island where the vast Gold Coast estates of the turn-of-the-century robber barons were being split up into two-acre lots.
Despite the exodus out east, the Manor remained desirable and never slipped into a wholesale decline like other older City neighborhoods.
Developers began eyeing the wetlands flanking the Manor anew, reviving plans to build housing there that dated back to the 1920's. The filling of the wetlands began in earnest in the late 1950's and new developments were started in Little Neck and Douglaston. The pressure increased to fill in all the remaining wetlands.
By the mid-1960's, most of the remaining wetlands on the east side of the Manor between Little Neck and the Manor, north to Memorial Field, were purchased by several different developers, and each had his own plan. If the developers had their way, the winding creek at Udalls Cove [Gabler’s Creek] would have long ago been filled in and replaced by proposals ranging from single-family houses, to apartments, to a marina, to a marina and apartments.
In 1967, Carl Papa, a Manor resident and developer, began filling in an eight-acre parcel he owned with a partner south of Memorial Field between Warwick Avenue and Richmond Road for a single-family housing development. For a year straight, huge dump trucks came to the site every day, roaring down Manor streets and dumping dirt, concrete and enormous tree trunks into the wetlands and a tidal pond that was there. This quickly created a mini ecological disaster, with mud waves mushrooming out from the landfill and closing down the creek.
At the same time, Great Neck Estates started filling in its wetlands at Udalls Cove for a golf course and for a commuter parking lot near the Long Island Railroad station at Little Neck. A constant stream of dump trucks with unending loads of debris became a daily sight on the edges of Udalls Cove, in Great Neck, Little Neck and in the Manor. A handful of Manor residents were outraged about the landfills and the loss of wildlife, but it seemed that little could be done.
Until Aurora Gareiss came along. She and her husband Herbert had lived at 31-07 Douglas Road, a small Tudor cottage on more than an acre between Douglas Road and the creek, since 1939. An upside-down boat rudder stuck into the garden outside their front door marked the address of their house and the name they gave it – “Bit o’ Bay” – signaling their love for this unique spot.
Their property was a quarter mile south of the Papa site, and also faced the wetlands in Great Neck estates where the golf course was being built. Soon, the sixty-ish Gareiss was out every day with binoculars taking license-plate numbers of trucks dumping fill in Great Neck and confronting truck drivers in the Manor, trying to trace where the fill was coming from.
With her silver-white hair tied into a bun, colorful, artfully-placed scarves, outsize jewelry and perfect theater diction, Gareiss cut a striking figure rapping on truck drivers’ doors with a hand-carved cane, demanding information. So armed, she started filing complaints against the dumpers, and also began calling every politician she knew, as well as the State conservation agencies. But her efforts had little effect.
Soon she took another tack. She enlisted the aid of other incensed Manor residents, gathering them at her house for meetings. She shared with them reams of articles and information on the value of salt marshes, and also on the dumpers and the developers.
Having build a consensus among her neighbors about saving the wetlands on both sides of the Nassau-Queens County line, she and this core group formed the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee in 1969. It was the year before the first Earth Day.
The Committee decided to take to the streets – literally – to blockade the dumping, and went to the press. Hundreds of protesters showed up for an arms-linked blockade in the path of the bulldozers and garnered substantial TV and newspaper publicity.
Next, Audubon Magazine published a cover-story article on the salt marshes and their value. A Manor resident offered to buy 1,200 copies of the magazine, drove into New York, went to Audubon and packed them into her Peugeot station wagon. She and other volunteers hand-delivered them to all the residents of Great Neck Estates with a letter urging resident to vote “no” on the proposed golf-course referendum that was coming up.
The golf course would have filled all of Great Neck’s wetlands up to the Belgrave sewage plant’s pipeline, totaling about 50 acres in Nassau County. The golf course was handily defeated.
On the first Earth Day in 1970, 300 volunteers showed up at the Back Road for a clean-up organized by the Committee. With the New York City Sanitation Department assisting, 17 abandoned cars were removed, along with 20 dumpsters of garbage and debris. The volunteers built a fence of telephone poles donated by Con Edison, to keep out the dumpers.
While these events were great successes, the battle for the Papa site and the remaining parcels in Udalls Cove continued – for decades. It took Gareiss and her cohort, Virginia Dent, who lived a few houses away from her farther up the creek, along with the unstinting efforts of the dedicated members of the Committee, a full 22 years before New York City would buy the Papa land and acquire other parcels in Udalls Cove for a 33-acre public park. The Udalls Cove Park and Preserve was finally dedicated in 1990, and includes the wetlands on both sides of the Queens-Nassau County line, and parts of the ravine between the LIRR tracks and Northern Boulevard.
It is clear that without the preservation of the Cove and this wildlife area, the Manor would be a very different place. In the 1990's, the pond at the Back Road was named Aurora Pond for Gareiss who died in 2000; at the same time Virginia Point, which overlooks the Cove at the end of Little Neck Parkway, was named for Dent, who died in 2005.
The following historical information is from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation:
UDALLS COVE PARK PRESERVE
According to local Native American lore, there once lived on the shores of Long Island Sound two tribes of giants. When they were at war with each other, the tribe on the Connecticut side would break off pieces of their mountains and hurl them at the giants on Long Island. The Long Island giants, because they had no mountains, would reciprocate by hurling boulders—a strategy that proved successful. The Long Island tribe’s victory explains why Connecticut is strewn with boulders for many miles inland, while Long Island has boulders along its northern shore.
Geologists however, offer a different explanation. At various times over the past million years, global cooling caused massive glaciers to form over much of the northern United States. These ice sheets surged southward from Hudson Bay in Canada, collecting boulders, cobbles, gravel, and soil on the way. As temperatures began to rise 15,000 years ago, the last glacier receded from Long Island. As the ice melted, the debris was deposited throughout the landscape. On Long Island, it created the range of hills along the North Shore called the Harbor Hill Terminal Moraine. North of these hills other flat-topped hills formed that now project into the Long Island Sound. These are the peninsulas of Great Neck, Bayside, and Douglaston that flank the river valley of Little Neck Bay and Udalls Cove. As the glacier continued to melt, runoff formed streams that cut into the landscape, creating ravines.
Here at Udalls Cove, the streams carried sand and silt, which formed shallow intertidal flats that now collect water from throughout the area. The first plants to colonize these flats were a species of salt-tolerant grass called saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Where the grass thrived, the current slowed, causing more sedimentary accumulation. The cove’s bottom continued to rise, and more plant species were able to take hold.
The earliest human inhabitants of this area probably arrived about 4,000 years ago, when a deciduous forest first appeared here. The people came during the warmer months, hunting whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and game birds such as wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) that lived in the forest. Later visitors came to harvest the water’s clams and oysters that came once the salt marsh and stabilized. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano (1480-1528) made contact and established trade with these Long Island natives. Over the next century and a half, the Native Americans built more permanent settlements throughout the island, and Europeans acquired more land for themselves. In 1645, the Dutch established the town of Flushing, and land in Little Neck was granted to settlers such as Thomas Hicks and Richard Cornell. The Mattinecock Indians, led by Chief Tackapousha (d. 1694) disputed these claims, and brought the issue before Governor Thomas Dongan (1634-1715). Tackapousha was at first able to delay white settlement, but after a few years, Thomas Hicks led a force of Europeans in a raid against the Indian settlement, and forcibly took the land. Thus began the decline of Queens’s native population.
In 1833, Richard Udall, for whom the cove is named, bought a mill formerly owned by the Allen family on the eastern side of the cove. The mill, now called the Saddle Rock Mill, remained in the Udall family until 1950, when it was donated to the Nassau County Historical Society. During the 1830s, a shellfishing community developed around the docks at Oldhouse Landing Road (now Little Neck Parkway) and Sand Hill Road. The industry thrived as the demand for oysters and Little Neck Clams (Venus mercenaria) grew. But by 1893, the local shellfishing industry was finished; overharvesting, poaching, and pollution had destroyed it. [Additional note from UCPC: starting in the first half of the 20th century and continuing until the late 1960's there were two boat yards at the north end of Little Neck Parkway, serving the recreational boating community of Little Neck Bay.] Today, the stanchions and bulkheads at the end of Little Neck Parkway are all that remain of the bygone era.
The Udalls Cove Preservation Committee initiated the acquisition of Udalls Park Preserve. The group of local residents organized in 1969 in order to prevent development of the land and promote public ownership. Udalls Cove was first mapped as a New York City park on December 7, 1972, but many subsequent additions have increased the size of the park.
NOTES FROM THE COVE
by Walter Mugdan
These articles were first published in 2008 - 2009 in the Newsletters of the Douglaston & Little Neck Historical Society
The Case of the Disappearing Wetlands
At the start of the 20th Century, the Douglaston peninsula – the “neck” in “Little Neck” – was still largely surrounded by a thriving tidal marsh, dominated by the salt grass known as Spartina. The Udalls Cove marshes on the east extended south to the Long Island Railroad tracks, and the Alley Pond marshes on the west extended south as far as the present day Long Island Expressway. As the suburbs and bedroom communities thrived and grew, the City government and most developers were united in their intentions to eliminate these “swamps” to the maximum extent possible. They were generally viewed as useless areas from which diseases sprang.
Looking south along Alley Creek
Since the Dutch first settled Manhattan and the surrounding lands, filling swamps was an almost universal objective that served several purposes. Filling created more land for the evolving urban center; real estate has been a commodity in limited supply and nearly unlimited demand from the earliest days of the city. In addition, filled land extended into deeper water, creating a well defined shoreline with bulkheads that provided better landings for boats and ships, the primary means of transportation for people and goods among the many islands of which our area is made up.
From the very beginning, the swamps were also considered to be the best places in which to dispose of the growing city’s growing quantity of refuse. First the swampy areas surrounding Manhattan were filled; in places, the island’s shoreline is literally hundreds of feet further into the water compared to 400 years ago. Then the swamps of the outer Boroughs were targeted. Hundreds of acres of wetlands were used for landfills. The vast, grass-covered hill just south of Co-Op City in the Bronx, visible from the Douglaston Point, was one such landfill. Both LaGuardia and Kennedy Airports are built on landfills. Other landfills surrounded much of Jamaica Bay. Two of the largest, the Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue Landfills, are visible as tall hills adjacent to the Belt Parkway west of JFK Airport. The world’s largest landfill, Fresh Kills (now closed), occupies many hundreds of acres on Staten Island and, at 400 feet high, is reputed to be the highest point on the eastern seaboard between Florida and Maine.
The extensive marshes of the Flushing Bay estuary – known as Flushing Meadows – extended south nearly as far as Union Turnpike. In the first several decades of the 20th century it, too, became a major garbage dumping ground. Unlike properly managed landfills today, these open dumps of the past routinely caught fire. During a time when most buildings were heated with coal, huge quantities of ash and cinders were dumped, often still hot. The garbage would catch fire and continue to burn for weeks, months or even years. Putrid, stinking smoke plumes rose from every corner. This hellish landscape in north central Queens serves as the setting for one of the most memorable scenes towards the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s immortal novel The Great Gatsby. In the late 1930's this huge dump was covered over with soil and became the site of the 1939 and later the 1964-65 World’s Fairs. Afterward the Fair buildings were demolished and the site was restored as Flushing Meadows Park ... but the marshes are irrevocably gone.
Filling of the swamps proceeded, like the growth of the City itself, outwards from Manhattan. Accordingly, when the Bayside, Douglaston and Little Neck areas were being developed the City prepared official maps that reflected the anticipated filling of the hundreds of acres of marsh on both sides of the Douglaston peninsula. Streets were mapped in a perfect grid starting just west of Douglaston Parkway and extending all the way to Bayside. The same was done on the Udalls Cove side of Douglaston to the east.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, a large coal-fired power plant was built on the east side of Alley Creek, between Northern Boulevard and the LIRR tracks. The plant provided power to the railroad. Wharves were built along the creek for unloading coal and other goods. The power plant is long gone, as is Kiddie City, the amusement park that operated there in the 1950s and early 60s. A mixture of woods and marshes have since reclaimed the area, but hints of the old wharves can still be seen in the stumps of wooden pilings along the sides of the creek.
1927: Looking north along Alley Creek towards the LIRR
Douglaston Manor was developed in the first decade of the 20th Century by the Rickert-Finlay Company. By that time a seawall had been built along the west side of the peninsula, exchanging a natural shoreline with its beaches and marshes for the tidier, more genteel waterfront we know today. On the east, a stretch of pristine marsh was used as a refuse dump. It was eventually covered over and became today’s Memorial Field. A few houses were built – at least partially on fill – on the east side of Douglas Road, along Gabler’s Creek. A small pond across from Memorial Field, at the corner of Douglas and Richmond Roads, was filled in for a new house in the late 1950's; the springs that fed that pond continue to run today, which is why there is a constant stream of water down the “300 block” of Richmond Road.
However, filling of the Douglaston/Little Neck swamps did not start in earnest until around 1960. On the west side, behind PS-98, a developer filled in a large tract of marshlands, laid out streets, and built a model home at the northwest corner of the site, the intersection of 38th Drive and 233rd Streets south of Parson’s Point (which was itself developed a few years later). A family named Guidice – a couple with three children – moved into the model home. Alas, the weight of the structure on the unstable fill caused the house to settle. One tragic night the gas line serving the house consequently cracked. The house exploded. Two members of the family died and the other three were severely injured. (I was 9 years old at the time, and though I did not know the family this news affected me deeply. A friend and I did some chores for neighbors and we contributed our earnings – just under $10 – to the Guidice Fund.)
The tragedy halted development for a few years, but in due course a new developer completed the build-out of the area, now named Doug-Bay. The homes were all electric, with no gas service. The foundations were properly built, and the houses remained where they were built. So did the sewer line installed by the City. The land surrounding the houses, however, continued to settle and sink from the weight of the fill placed on the soft marsh soil. That is why the houses of Doug-Bay all lie higher than the surrounding yards, sidewalks and roads. And that is also why, until a major road reconstruction a few years ago, a number of the streets had a pronounced hump running down their middle. The hump was where the correctly built sewer line was located (which had not settled), while the street around the sewer pipe kept sinking.
At the southern end of Alley Creek, construction of the Long Island Expressway eliminated the last remnants of Alley Pond. (A good deal of the waste concrete rubble from the removal of the LIE’s predecessor, Horace Harding Boulevard, was dumped into the Udalls Cove Ravine opposite St. Anastasia’s Church on Northern Boulevard. The Udalls Cove Preservation Committee removed about 1.5 million pounds of that concrete between 2003 and 2006.)
On the east side of Douglaston, a development of single- and multiple-family homes was built to the north of the Little Neck Railroad Station, along streets laid out on either side of what was originally called Old House Landing Road and which was later renamed Little Neck Parkway.
‘Silent Spring’ and the Environmental Decade
By the latter half of the 1960s, the great environmental awakening catalyzed by the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring had given rise to a fundamentally different understanding of “swamps” than had ever before been held by our society. The emerging science of “ecology” – the study of how living organisms interact with each other and their environment – explained that wetlands are one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, and are vital to the health of aquatic habitats.
An unprecedented spate of national and state legislation followed during “the Environmental Decade” – a 12-year span from 1969 through 1980 that saw the enactment of essentially all of our major environmental laws. Among these were the federal Clean Water Act (1972), in which Congress for the first time gave protection to wetlands; and two New York State laws giving protection to tidal wetlands (1972) and freshwater wetlands (1975).
The rising wave of environmental activism in our own area brought then Mayor John Lindsay to the northeast corner of Queens for his famous “Walk in the Alley.” Accompanied by hundreds of citizens who demanded that what little of nature was left to us should be saved, Lindsay toured the Alley Creek area (south of the present day Alley Pond Environmental Center) and concluded that it should be preserved as a northerly extension of Alley Pond Park.
Formation of the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee
Meanwhile, from “Bit `O Bay” – her house on Douglas Road – a middle-aged woman named Aurora Gareiss watched as the Little Neck marshes east of Gabler’s Creek were filled and scores of homes were built. Just beyond her backyard, the large salt marsh of some 100 acres straddling the Queens/Nassau County border still thrived. But then, in 1969, the Village of Great Neck Estates announced plans to fill in most of that marsh for an 18-hole golf course.
Aurora Gareiss cried, “Enough!” When she expressed her deep concerns about the loss of the wetlands to her neighbor Ralph Kamhi, he replied that the voices of a few disgruntled individuals would never make a difference. What was needed, he said, was an organization that would be better able to gain the attention of government officials. Aurora agreed, and so the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee (UCPC) was born on October 20, 1969. In February, 1970 some 350 supporters of the nascent organization and a like-minded group in Great Neck Estates came out to march in protest of the golf course plan. A few months later, on April 22, 1970 – the nation’s first Earth Day – UCPC held a cleanup of the trash-ridden swamp that bordered Sandhill Road (known locally as the Back Road), including the pond that would later be named for Aurora. Some 17 car wrecks were pulled out, along with tons of rubbish ... and a tradition was born: May 2, 2009 marks UCPC’s 40th annual wetlands cleanup. The cleanups no longer yield the heavy refuse loads of first few years; today, the volunteers mostly collect quantities of plastic bottles, bags and other debris. Many of these “floatables” are dropped as litter on our streets, then get washed by rainwater into storm drains that lead to the Bay, and end up on our shorelines.
UCPC’s efforts to secure preservation of the remaining undeveloped areas between Douglaston, Little Neck and Great Neck were ultimately successful. On the Queens side of the county line, the City in December, 1972 designated the corridor north of the LIRR as the Udalls Cove Park and Preserve; and six years later added park designation for the Ravine that lies between the LIRR and Northern Boulevard. On the Nassau side of the county line, the Village of Great Neck Estates dropped its plans to build a golf course and also protected the area as a park. However, acquisition of the privately held properties that made up the designated park did not take place all at once; rather, it occurred in fits and starts over the intervening years. Time after time, UCPC rallied community support and got crucial help from local elected officials to stave off threats of destruction for one parcel or another. Today, more than 95% of the area is publicly owned, but a few acres in the Ravine still remain to be acquired. Completion of that long process remains UCPC’s primary goal.
The Geography of Udalls Cove
Udalls Cove is the eastern arm of Little Neck Bay – the body of water that lies between the Douglaston peninsula and the Village of Great Neck Estates. The cove is named for Richard Udall, who in 1833 bought a mill formerly owned by the Allen family on the western shore of the Great Neck peninsula. The Udall family owned the mill – now called the Saddle Rock Mill – until 1950, when it was donated to the Nassau County Historical Society. Ironically, the mill sits in a separate, small cove off Little Neck Bay that is nearly a mile north of the mouth of what is today called Udalls Cove.
The Nassau/Queens County line runs down the middle of Udalls Cove. The concrete blockhouse visible from Memorial Field and Douglas Road (painted many years ago with large daisies or sunflowers) sits just on the Nassau side of the border. It is part of the outfall pipeline that carries treated water from the Belgrave Sewage Treatment Plant.
Two freshwater streams flow into Udalls Cove. These streams carry groundwater and surface runoff from the hills to the south of Little Neck Bay, hills that are themselves the remnants of the terminal moraine of the continental glacier that covered the entire area during the last ice age, ending about 10,000 years ago. Known as the Harbor Hill Terminal Moraine, this line of hills stretches along the northern shore of Long Island. Streams pouring down these hills carved deep valleys, into which the ocean eventually encroached as it rose when the glaciers melted. This is why the north shore of Long Island is crenelated with a series of deep embayments between long, hilly peninsulas like Douglaston itself.
The westerly stream is Gabler’s Creek. Today it runs largely underground from the heights of Little Neck Hills (near present-day Middle School 67). The pipe carrying the creek crosses under Northern Boulevard near the low point between Douglaston and Little Neck, just west of where the 7-11 store is located. It continues underground a few hundred feet further until if finally emerges into the bottom of the Udalls Cove Ravine. The Ravine is a deep gorge with steep sides; it runs along where 246th Street would be if it had been built as originally laid out on the official City map. Gabler’s Creek runs north until it reaches the Long Island Railroad embankment. Just before that, at around the latitude of Depew Avenue, the creek spreads out and meanders through a somewhat wider flood plain, depositing its typically heavy load of silt and sand. In that swampy area there grow a number of very large black willow trees, and generations of kids have established forts and hideouts.
When it reaches the railroad, Gabler’s Creek enters a stone-lined channel built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression era. The channel takes a dogleg east, then north again through a culvert under the railroad. Until recently, the built channel continued straight north, under Sandhill Road (the “Back Road”), and on out to join the Cove near Memorial Field. In 2006 the path of the creek was adjusted again. Now, on the north side of the railroad embankment, the channel takes a further 90° turn to the west, and flows into the restored Aurora Pond (more about that below). Near the Pond overlook there is a small weir or dam that maintains the water elevation in the pond. The water flows over the weir, and back into another channel that returns it to its former bed on its way to the Cove.
The second freshwater creek that feeds Udalls Cove enters at the east side. This creek drains Lake Success; in some places it runs above ground as a natural stream; in other places it runs underground through a pipe, much as does Gabler’s Creek south of Northern Boulevard. This Lake Success stream can best be seen on the south side of Northern Boulevard opposite the Leonard’s of Great Neck catering hall. (On an old map of the area dating to the 19th century this stream is indicated as having fine trout fishing at around the present-day location of Leonard’s.) The creek runs along the western edge of the Leonard’s parking lot, and soon disappears into a culvert. It finally emerges on the south side of the LIRR tracks, opposite the Great Neck water supply well field and pump station located on Watermill Lane. It runs alongside the tracks for a few hundred yards, then crosses under the railroad through a culvert. On the north side of the tracks it opens up into a rather bucolic, natural stream that wends its way through the marshland until it joins Gabler’s Creek at the head of the Cove, just north of Virginia Point. (Named for Virginia Dent, Aurora Gareiss’ primary collaborator for many years, Virginia Point is located just north of the northern terminus of Little Neck Parkway.)
The two freshwater streams that feed the Cove are critically important to its ecology. They are, of course, the modern remnants of the roaring streams that wore down the glacial moraine and shaped the valley that became the Cove. For aeons their fast moving water has carried silt from the wooded uplands down to the bay. There, the water slows down and drops its load, creating the large, flat, bottom lands that became the tidal marshes – among the most productive ecosystems in nature. These marshlands are dominated by a typical succession of plants ranging from willow, poplar, and silver (or “swamp”) maple trees on the upland side to the south; to the common reed Phragmites, tall and dense; and finally down to the ecologically invaluable marsh grass Spartina at the edge of the open water. The marshlands filter silt and pollutants from the streams, and provide crucial habitat and nutrients for the wide variety of wildlife, large and tiny, that live there during all or part of their life cycle. For this reason the tidal or salt marsh is a vital link in the system supporting the animals that live in and depend on the open water – fish, birds, crustaceans, mollusks and, of course, people.
The Rise and Fall of Aurora Pond
In the heart of the Udalls Cove Park and Preserve, near the boundary between the wooded uplands to the south and the tidal salt marsh to the north, next to the bend in Sandhill Road (known locally as the “Back Road”), lies Aurora Pond. The Pond is named for Aurora Gareiss, the legendary Douglaston conservationist who founded the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee in 1969, and whose perseverance and personal style of lobbying is most responsible for the fact that the Udalls Cove Park exists at all.
Anyone who lived in Douglaston or Little Neck in the 1980's or earlier will remember the pond as a place where frogs and toads sang their springtime mating songs and children played ice hockey and went skating in the winter. They might be tempted to believe that the pond of their memories had been there since time immemorial, another remnant of the last ice age. But a few local residents would be able to correct them and explain that the pond is actually of relatively recent vintage.
Prior to the 1930's, there was no pond. The low-lying area on the north side of the Long Island Railroad embankment, nestled at the mouth of the valley between the steep hills of Douglaston and Little Neck, was a freshwater wetland with a number of springs from which water steadily trickled. Nearby flowed Gabler’s Creek, the natural stream that had cut the valley.
At that time, the “Back Road” was an unpaved dirt track. It was first paved in the early 1930's, when fill was brought in to raise the road bed a little above the surrounding marsh. At about the same time, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the stone-lined channel through which Gabler’s Creek has since flowed on either side of Sandhill Road. These construction activities changed the local hydrology and blocked the flow of water from the springs. The CCC laid pipes to drain this water towards the creek, but some of the water stayed behind. The result was the formation of a pond, which – though it varied in shape over the subsequent decades – was generally about an acre in size. Although the pond did not get its water from the creek, a clay pipe laid under the road allowed excess pond water to drain to the creek. Turtles, eels and kilifish used this passageway to enter the pond from the stream.
In addition to water from the springs, the pond also received rainwater and snow melt from Cherry Street, Little Neck Road and Hillside Avenue – steep hills to the immediate west. But while this runoff provided a significant supply of freshwater to the pond, it carried with it the seeds of the pond’s destruction. Pouring down the paved streets the water picked up considerable speed, and also a load of silt. Below the foot of Hillside Avenue, the rushing rainwater cut its way into the sandy soil of the steep slope immediately above the pond. By the time I started playing there in the late 1950's, the resulting gully was already six or eight feet deep, and twice as wide. By the late 1980's, it was over ten feet deep and commensurately wider. Where did all that soil go? Into the pond. As a consequence, the pond became much shallower and held much less water. During the summers it often became stagnant and covered with algae or duckweed; and sometimes the pond would actually dry out entirely, leaving nothing but a large expanse of baked, cracked mud.
The Restoration(s) of Aurora Pond
Meanwhile, UCPC had worked for 20 years to protect the last remnants of undeveloped land in the area as a nature preserve. The volunteer group organized annual cleanups to remove decades worth of dumped rubbish, installed along the Back Road a railing hand-made from old telephone poles to discourage further dumping, and took other steps to begin to restore the surrounding area. With so much invested effort and emotional attachment to the pond, UCPC in the 1980's made its restoration one of its two highest priorities. (The other was completion of the Park through acquisition of the remaining wetlands and forested uplands between the Cove and Northern Boulevard.)
The New York City Parks Department responded with a plan to dredge the pond in order to remove much of the accumulated silt and deepen its basin so it would once again hold more water. This relatively inexpensive project was completed over a few weeks in 1992. A nicely shaped basin six or more feet deep was carved out, but ... it never filled up with water. Where the pond had previously lapped at the very edge of the Back Road (and indeed often overflowed, leaving major ice floes across the road in the wintertime), the pond was now little more than a puddle, with its surface about five feet below the level of the street. Soon, even that puddle was entirely obscured from view by a dense growth of tall Phragmites reeds.
It turns out that a layer of clay-like material in the ground below the pond had been responsible for keeping the water perched above during the previous six decades. The dredging project had punched through that layer; the small puddle that remained was where the excavated basin intersected the natural water table several feet underground.
Once again the restoration of Aurora Pond became UCPC’s top priority throughout the 1990's. In 1999, then City Councilman Mike Abel secured for this purpose an $800,000 line item in the City’s budget. Planning for the project began soon thereafter. UCPC submitted a formal proposal to the Parks Department in February, 2000. The Department commissioned a detailed geographical survey of the entire Park from its southernmost boundary at Northern Boulevard to its most northerly extent adjacent to Memorial Field – more than a mile from end to end. Working collaboratively with UCPC, the Parks Department prepared a design for the restoration that featured several important elements. In order to ensure a steady flow of water, Gabler’s Creek would be re-routed to pass through the pond. The deep gully on the slope west of the pond would be backfilled, and reshaped by large rocks configured into a series of “steps” filled with smaller stones. These steps protect the soil beneath from erosion, while slowing down the runoff water so that it drops much of its load of silt before reaching the pond.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, with the City in a fiscal crisis, the plans for the restoration of the pond were temporarily put on hold. When the job was finally put out to bid, the costs exceeded the budget. The project had to be trimmed a bit and re-bid. Finally, in August of 2004, ground was broken on the long-awaited restoration project. There were some unexpected snags along the way that raised the costs further; City Councilman Tony Avella provided critical additional funding. Finally, by early 2006 the newly constructed basin was ready to be filled. A layer of clay had been spread across the bottom of the basin to simulate the natural clay-like layer that had formerly held the water in the pond. Gabler’s Creek was diverted to flow into and then out of the pond, with a small weir or dam at the outlet to regulate the water level. By May, 2006 Aurora Pond had returned to widespread acclaim.
It will take a few years for vegetation to establish itself in the pond, and for it to become fully re-populated with animal life – invertebrates like tiny shrimp and insects, and vertebrates like fish and frogs. Already the pond is playing frequent host to ducks, herons, kingfishers and turtles.
UCPC Board member Arthur Kelley – a retired high school science teacher and UCPC Board member who has lived in Douglaston longer than most, and who remembers the time before there was a pond at all on the Back Road – has been taking regular measurements of water quality in the newly restored Aurora Pond since 2006. He measures several critical parameters: dissolved oxygen (necessary for any animal life), temperature, salinity and turbidity. The water quality has been generally good and occasionally excellent, which gives us great hope that a balanced flora and fauna can be established and maintained.
There are times during the warmest parts of the summer when the dissolved oxygen levels in the pond become very low. Excess quantities of “nutrients” – basically fertilizer – run into the pond from the suburban lawns that dominate the watershed. The nutrients enable excessive growth of algae, which eventually dies and decomposes, using up most of the oxygen in the water. Kilifish – small fish that grow to about 2" long – are among the few fish species that can tolerate the low dissolved oxygen levels during such times.
In 2006, a handsome and rugged new timber railing was installed by the Parks Department along the pond restoration site, replacing the old and decaying “phone pole fence” built by UCPC volunteers 30 years earlier. In 2007, UCPC installed a matching new guard rail along the rest of Sandhill Road, using grants received through State Senator Frank Padavan and City Councilman Tony Avella, along with funds raised by the organization itself.
At last, after more than twenty years of unflagging effort, the residents of Douglaston and Little Neck once again see a lovely and lively Aurora Pond in the heart of the Udalls Cove Park and Preserve. Next time you have a visitor from out of town, take him or her through the Back Road and point out that your guest is still in New York City ... I predict a stunned look of disbelief.