by Gregory Bresiger
This article was written some two years ago by a former Kew Gardens resident, who left New York because increasing crime on the subways frightened his family.
Our beloved Forest Park, which is just outside my home on Metropolitan Avenue in Kew Gardens, is a park with a remarkable history. It goes from central Queens, where I live, several miles to the Brooklyn/Queens border. This gorgeous woodland, which turned 126 this summer, has a long and storied history.
The park was the dream of the city of Brooklyn officials who wanted to provide relief to their overstressed big city residents, but they were not New Yorkers. The park was planned by people in a long-gone city, the city of Brooklyn. They’re forgotten, but the gift they gave us continues and should never be forgotten.
There is no monument in Forest Park to Frank Squier, the Brooklyn park commissioner of 1894-1895, or to other Brooklyn officials who pushed for the park project, such as James S.T. Stranahan, but there should be. In his first year, Squier began buying woodland for what would become Forest Park.
The dream of Squier and others was to achieve a wooded oasis for a metropolitan region with an exploding population. The debt to those people of foresight goes on to this day as we see increasing traffic, development and noise on Metropolitan Avenue, Union Turnpike and Park Lane South.
Some car drivers exiting a nearby highway drive as though they were still on the highway. There is a great need to find some shelter from city traffic madness. Almost all of us want a place of peace, somewhere to find a bit nature, a reminder of what this area once was.
A Brooklyn Park report in 1896 enthused about the coming “Brooklyn Forest Park,” the original name of our park. The report came some two years before Brooklyn and the Western part of Queens County joined “a consolidated” city, Greater New York City.
But before the city of Brooklyn destroyed itself and joined New York City, Brooklyn officials in the 1890s started to look East. They looked beyond their eastern wards for a natural place to build another big park.
The City of Brooklyn needed more open spaces because its population more than doubled in the 19th century. Its leaders decided to buy hundreds of acres beyond its Eastern border for a new park in the relatively undeveloped Queens County. In 1892, the New York State Legislature approved the park search and on August 9, 1895, “Brooklyn Forest Park” was opened, according to a New York City Parks Department history.
A Brooklyn official, Brooklyn Parks Board Commissioner James S.T. Stranahan—a former Congressman who had been one of the founders of Prospect Park and who does have a statute in that renowned Brooklyn park—had a dream that the city might use this Forest Park as a part of a larger project that would span two counties. It would be a magnificent greenspace.
He “envisioned a series of connecting parks, a greenbelt extending eastward to Jamaica, Queens and westward to Park Slope, Brooklyn,” according to a New York Parks Department history. But the rapid development of the city made it impossible because land prices were skyrocketing as both New York City and the city of Brooklyn grew. The largest remnants of Stranahan’s dream are Prospect and Forest parks.
Queens was a logical place for Brooklyn officials to look. At the end of the 19th century, it was an almost rural county compared to the great city of Brooklyn. The latter had swallowed up the other municipalities of Kings County, including the city of Williamsburg and the fishing village of Sheepshead’s Bay, among others.
A Gift from “Kings”
The impetus for the creation of Forest Park was the result of the overcrowding in eastern part of the city of Brooklyn. It led city officials to look seek relief for the many citizens who couldn’t travel long distances to connect with the region’s disappearing wildlife.
Brooklyn Forest Park’s planners envisioned a park that would eventually encompass 538 acres. 413 of them wooded. However, some 30 acres of the park were lost in the 1930s owing to a new highway, the Interboro Parkway.
Squier and his associates found about 500 acres just beyond the Brooklyn city line. To this day a section of the Cypress Hills neighborhood, that borders Queens, is known as “City Line.” That’s because in the 19th century that’s where one part of the big city of Brooklyn ended. Here the wilds of then mostly undeveloped Queens Country began. It would be a place of relief for overstressed big city Brooklynites.
A Poor Man’s Park; a Handsome Park
The huge park was to be a wooded area that Brooklyn officials believed would be perfect.
“It will make one of the handsomest parks in the country,” the Brooklyn Eagle wrote on September 26, 1895 in reviewing plans for the park. Squier’s achievement, along with other dedicated Brooklyn officials, is realized every day when we enjoy Forest Park’s hundreds of acres of nature. They are a buffer of sanity. Forest Park also has many other marvelous features. For example, its topography.
“The Wisconsin glacier molded this land 20,000 years ago and left the Harbor Hill Moraine, a series of small hills known as knob and kettle terrain,” according to a small history of the Park by the New York City Parks Department history. “The woods were once inhabited by Lenape, Rockaway and Delaware Native Americans.”
A Treasure of Nature for the Person Without Geld
The hope was the park would be “a treasure” of nature, municipal officials said.
Squier explained his dream for this park: “I want to say that Brooklyn Forest Park at Richmond Hill is not intended for the rich. It is intended for the poor man.” I live in Kew Gardens, which was once part of Richmond Hill, an incorporated that village that, along with much of the rest of Queens County, opted to join New York City at the end of the 19th century.
Forest Park, he wrote, would be for the average person, someone who couldn’t afford to go to a swank vacation spot; someone who needed a nearby place to be in touch with nature in a city that was becoming crowded by the late 19th century.
“This tract of ground is a fine piece of natural woodland, lying along Long Island ridge in one of its most picturesque spots,” wrote Brooklyn officials in 1896 in the Department of Parks of the City of Brooklyn report: “The contour is generally rolling. From the ridge the prospect is very fine, embracing views over Jamaica Bay to Atlantic Ocean.” The Brooklyn heritage of a view of the great bodies of water from the high reaches of the park continues today.
Let’s Take a Walk
Walk on Forest Park Drive from Kew Gardens going west and cross Woodhaven Blvd.—be careful crossing that roadway, which is virtually an autobahn—and continue on Forest Park Drive for about a half mile, skirting the neighborhoods of Glendale, Richmond Hill and Woodhaven. Stay on the left. Get on one of the hills and look down south. There is an incredible view of Jamaica Bay. Here was one of the goals of those gone but not forgotten Brooklyn officials of the last century.
By the way, go across the border to the hills of Brooklyn’s nearby Highland Park in Cypress Hills. One can see similarly spectacular views of Jamaica Bay. These are views that can relax anyone at any age or in any era.
Why did Squier, Stranahan and other Brooklyn officials work for years to create this dream of nature in the middle of a big city?
Forest Park was desperately needed at the end of the 19th century. In 1890 Brooklyn had an exploding population of 833,000. It had increased by some 40 percent in the previous decade. What became a big city was once a sleepy hamlet in the 1830s. It was one of a collection of small municipalities for most of the 19th century before it started swallowing its neighbors.
By the middle of the century, the city of Brooklyn started to grow. It was the third largest city in the United States for most of the 19th century, it was just behind New York City and Chicago.
The Great City Builds Parks
Brooklyn was once an important American city. It was both a port and manufacturing center. It was a big city that had major league baseball and big city newspapers. And it was also a city that could afford a major park system. The system included Prospect Park and Ridgewood/Highland Park, among others. Brooklyn had a considerable city park system that it was creating and improving right up to the end of its Brooklyn Park controversial demise in 1898.
Brooklyn was part of a city that would be “consolidated” with New York City in 1898 after a referendum was narrowly approved in the spring of 1896. Brooklyn became a part of “Greater New York. Here was a controversial loss of independence that some still debate today. Some embittered Brooklyn residents would call it “the crime of 98.”
It was the same debate that took place east of Brooklyn in Queens County, where some towns voted to give up their independence and join New York City. Others did not.
I live in Kew Gardens. (Please see sidebar, “A Little Brooklyn and a Little Queens”). But the city of Brooklyn, before it committed hari-kari, had accomplished great things.
Indeed, in 1896, a Brooklyn Parks Commission also enthused about the parks that were planned. It singled out the project that was not quite in Brooklyn:
“The greatest of these parks is Brooklyn Forest Park, the magnificent natural forest stretching along the ridge of hills from Cypress Hills east to Richmond Hill. It is easy of access from all parts of the city, and is destined to be the most attractive pleasure ground in all the greater New York,” according to Brooklyn officials.
These comments were from the Brooklyn’s annual Parks Department report of 1896. The access mentioned was recent. The New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Railroad, a vacation railroad built in the 1880s and later taken over by the Long Island Railroad, had a stop nearby as Forest Park was completed. It had been there for about a decade.
Take the Train to the Park
The small independent railroad was taken over by the Long Island Railroad. The station was originally called Glendale. But it was later changed to Parkside, according to a history of the Long Island Railroad, “Steels Rise to the Sunrise” by Ron Ziel and George H. Foster.
The Parkside station, which hooked up with the main line of the Long Island Railroad at White Pot (Forest Hills) Junction near Rego Park, is gone. The Rego Park stop was discontinued in the summer of 1962 (By the way, the LIRR’s main line to New York was originally supposed to go through Brooklyn’s Atlantic Ave. That branch, in the 19th century and early 20th century, had stops almost every half mile from Jamaica to downtown Brooklyn along Atlantic Avenue. But the extension to New York was torpedoed by complaints from residents about virtual 24-hour train traffic along Atlantic Avenue. The LIRR later put the Main Line through the middle of Queens. And it put the Atlantic Avenue trains underground and reduced branch service to a few stops. The Woodhaven stop, for example, was ended about 50 years ago, although it has been the dream of several Queens officials over the last few years that it be restored since downtown Brooklyn, in the last thirty years, has become a hub).
The Parkside station was located on Metropolitan Avenue just east of Woodhaven Blvd. Where the stop once was is today near the car wash and Trader Joe’s. Train service ended in the summer of 1962 along with the first four stops of the Rockaway branch and Rego Park. The other stops, the southern part of the branch, became part of the New York City subways in the 1950s.
There were many reasons to come to the new Forest Park in the 1890s, especially for those who liked riding. “At one point there were nine stables in the area next to the park,” according to local historian Jeff Gottlieb.
“See the Birdie?”
Forest Park is a natural treasure for many reasons. It is also a bird watchers’ paradise.
“In the spring, Forest Park is visited by as many as 100 species of migratory birds. Mid May mark the Warbler Wave,” writes Josephine A. Scalia of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department. Scalia also wrote that the park is “filled with songbirds.” I’ve also heard a few woodpeckers who are drawn to the park for the same reason most of us are: Its wonderful trees.
A Waterhole in the Neighborhood
Strack Pond, located in a valley in the Woodhaven part of the park near Woodhaven Blvd, is a remarkable place. Chipmunks are there in the spring. They are accompanied by squirrels, raccoons, and skunks. Turtles use the Strack Pond when the weather is warm, according to the Parks Department history.
Cicada song fills the area and surrounding neighborhoods. Toads also can be heard croaking in the evenings. In mid-summer, hatching butterflies begin to gravitate to the Joe Pye Weed, dogbane, milkweed, thistle, and other native plants.
The Parks Department also says that in the fall there is a plethora of colors as varieties of trees prepare to drop their leaves. Several species of hawks pass through. Occasional tracks of small mammals are there in the winter.
The Biggest Forest in the Area
The park contains 165 acres of trees, including the largest continuous oak forest in Queens. Some trees are more than a century and a half old. It is a haven for native plants and wildlife in the park’s large full-time bird population. Migratory birds pass through in the spring and fall.
Several trails are available for area residents and urban day hikers. Other facilities include playgrounds, a carousel, a running track at Victory Field, two dog runs, tennis courts, basketball courts, baseball fields, and a golf course.
The park directly or indirectly touches many neighborhoods with its playgrounds, benches, woods, tracks and ballfields. These neighborhoods include parts of Glendale, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. I grew up in Woodhaven and Richmond Hill in the 1960s and 1970s. Forest Park was our friendly backyard.
One end of Park Lane South, which parallels the park on the park’s South border, ends at the Brooklyn border at Cypress Hills Cemetery. The other end of the park finishes at Union Turnpike near the highway, which would cut through part of the part in the 1930s. Despite the car incursions, most of the park retains its original feeling of a big forest, a rural environment that can temporarily make one feel as though he or she is living in another part of the country.
But mostly the park is exactly as promised by the Brooklynite leaders of years ago. It is what Squier, the Brooklyn Eagle and others had wanted. It is a glorious urban anomaly: Hundreds of acres of forest in the middle of one of the most crowded cities in the world. Some of this was by design. Some of it was accidental.
The park has many unique features, one of them accidential. For instance, Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, was indirectly involved in the park’s development. His firm worked on Forest Park, but the elderly, ailing, Olmsted actually did little work on it, according to a writer who studied his life.
That was significant in how the park developed in the 1890s, according to Olmsted’s biographer, Justin Martin, of Forest Hills Gardens.“Frederick Law Olmsted,” Martin said, “would have been in full health decline during the pertinent years; his son, Frederick Law Olmsted. was running the firm.”
That had a decided effect on the park; an effect that we enjoy today at a time of urban crowding. It meant the park would be less developed, according to Martin.”The other distinction I made is that Forest Park is not very landscaped, as parks go,” added Martin. “It’s not full of design features a la Central or Prospect Park. Lots of it is simply woodland.”
Very Few Know Its Name
There’s another distinctive park characteristic besides its easy on the landscaping approach; its decided pastoral flavor. Forest Park, unlike other major, often famous, New York City parks such as Central Park or Flushing Meadow or Prospect parks, is little known. It is not only mainly woods; it is virtually in the backwoods of the city in Central Queens County. It is a place millions of New Yorkers know little about and some of whom spurn as kind of place populated by Yahoos or Archie Bunkers.
Ergo, few tourists visit this part of the Big Apple because it is not in the center of the city.
The park’s relative inaccessibility is possibly one of the reasons it retains its pastoral quality.
Consequently, since it has no worldwide reputation and no train connection, Forest Park, unlike some other city parks, is not overtaxed. Forest Park’s visitor numbers, compared to other major city parks, are rather small. Forest Park, according to the City Parks Department, only has about 900,000 visitors a year. Central Park and Prospect Park respectively have some 25 million and 10 million visitors annually. Inadequate public transit and promotion seem part of the reason. Indeed, train access has actually decreased over the past 60 years.
The Long Island Railroad and Forest Park
Forest Park has buses on its periphery and in the middle. It has one non-passenger railroad line going through the middle of the park through Myrtle Avenue, but it has no direct subway or train connection. LIRR railroad passenger access ended about 60 years ago.
Austin Corbin, was a late 19th century president of the Long Island Railroad. It was a railroad that was originally supposed to link with New England through a Long Island Sound connection. It was a connection that required congressional approval but Corbin died before it could be obtained. Corbin is one of the heroes in the building of Forest Park. He co-operated in its development, ensuring the railroad and its bridges didn’t hinter its development.
“He (Corbin) was much interested in the natural beauties of the park, and offered to aid in its development in every way that was possible,” according to Brooklyn officials.
A second Long Island Railroad line went through middle of the park. This was the Lake Montauk branch going to Long Island City. It ceased passenger operations about a decade ago, but for many years before its termination there was hardly any significant passenger traffic since the line didn’t connect to Manhattan.
However, the Lake Montauk line still has active freight service. The line never went directly to the city. Actually, if the city and state, which have run mass transit systems into the ground with their Amtrak-like mismanagement, could provide a New York City linkup by restoring Lake Montauk service to the East River and putting in a ferry connection at Long Island City. It could go back to the past.
The LIRR’s main line, until the early part of the 20th century, terminated at Long Island City. That’s where, riders would take ferries for the last leg of the commute to Manhattan. The LIRR later sold its independence to the Pennsylvania Railroad to pay for the Manhattan connection.
Corbin’s and others’ support for the natural marvels of Forest Park is enjoyed by many to this day.
Forest Park still “provides a 508 acres oasis for wildlife and offers a wide range of recreational activities,” wrote Elizabeth Lynch in the Queens Chronicle in 1995, the centennial celebration of the opening of Forest Park.Indeed, over a century after its founding, the basic goals of the park haven’t changed.
“The greater park of Forest Park is natural woodland,” a Brooklyn official told “The Standard Union” in 1897,”and it is the intention to keep it woodland state for the use and enjoyment of the people. “These enlightened officials succeeded. Many of us are very grateful to the officials of a dead city.
Accomplishing a Lot
Frank Squier, one of the most important people in making our park a reality, only served two years as Brooklyn Commissioner. But, upon leaving his post, the Brooklyn Parks Department’s annual report, acknowledged his great work in expanding the Brooklyn Park system.
“In 1894 Commissioner Frank Squier entered upon the duties of Park Commissioner,” the report said, “and during his term of office, covering two years, accomplished a work for the Department equaling in extent all that his predecessors had done before him.” Brooklyn Forest Park was part of that work.
Sidebar: A Little Bit of Brooklyn and a Little Bit of Queens
Difficult choices were made in 1896 in our area. Should all or part of Queens join New York City? And should the great city of Brooklyn also give up its independence and become part of a bigger city?
In Queens County, the eastern part decided to retain its independence. But several western towns, villages—one of which where I reside—and a big city also opted to chuck their independence for the supposed benefits of a big city.
These included Long Island City, a city of considerable size and huge financial woes, the better run town of Flushing and the village of Richmond Hill. The village, which had won its independence of the Town of Jamaica in the 1890s, had its own police force and apparently was in good financial shape. Its bonds had a better credit rating than the United States government.
Richmond Hill contained a section of where many of us live. It had a golf course, part of which was located near our Long Island Railroad is today and included a lake. (The railroad had originally gone through the Maple Grove Cemetery. The stop had been called Kew).
This happened before a great city and several other towns destroyed themselves in 1898.
In Kings County, or Brooklyn, the name that honored its Dutch heritage, The Dutch West India Company established towns in the 17th century. Many of these towns were chartered by the city of Brooklyn in 1834.
The once great city of Brooklyn was swallowing up towns and villages from the town of Williamsburg to the fishing village of Sheepshead Bay before Brooklyn would eventually be swallowed by New York. This came after the narrow approval of the consolidation referendum, which called for Brooklyn to become a part of New York in 1898.
Consolidation was opposed by the Brooklyn Eagle. Many Brooklynites considered it the “mistake of 1898.” Given how distant city government is from most of Queens, maybe we should also consider historical crimes.
Not Quite the Original Brooklyn Forest Park
Some 30 acres of the original Forest Park were taken for the Interborough Parkway, which was built in 1935. You can see some of the damage if you walk out behind my apartment complex, Hampton Court (nee Kent Manor).
If you walk out on Forest Park Drive, going toward Queens Blvd, and look to the left toward the highway next to the forest, you see something interesting and odd. There is a walkway and a light post leading to the highway, yet no one uses it.
The original park was there, where the highway is. Now it is called the Jackie Robinson Parkway, in honor of another great Brooklynite. Before the highway, the neighborhoods of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens were linked by local streets and even had a magazine (Kew-Forest).
As in the countless projects of the controversial state and city government builder Robert Moses, as frequently detailed in Robert Caro’s fabulous book “Power Broker,” highways change neighborhoods forever; usually for the worst. But beautiful parks do the opposite. They are natural treasures that comfort us as long as they remain.
Major Dates in the History of Forest Park
1895: Brooklyn Forest Park opens in early August
1898: The city of Brooklyn and several Western Queens municipalities officially end their independence and became part of the city of New York. Some municipalities become part of Nassau County.
1913-1930: Jackson Pond in Richmond Hill becomes a famous spot for ice skating
1918: The Original Carousel in Forest Park was carved by artist Daniel Carl Muller
1927: Victory Field built
1995: Forest Park celebrates its centennial
2020: Forest Park turns 127 in August 2022