Looking for traces of Sunfish Pond in Kips Bay

Imagine Manhattan Island in the late 1700s. Before it was divided into farms and estates, and before those farms and estates were bricked in and paved over by the end of the 19th century, it was mostly a place of untamed beauty—with woods, swamps, meadows, and streams.

Sunfish Pond illustration, via Patch

Tompkins Square Park was swampland, for example; Collect Pond near City Hall provided drinking water. A trout-filled brook called Minetta flowed through the Village until development diverted it underground. (Evidence of the brook can be seen beneath the lobby of the apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue.)

And at today’s Park Avenue South and 31st Street was a blob-shaped body of water called Sunfish Pond, which older New Yorkers recalled in turn-of-the-century memoirs.

Sunfish Pond, lower right, on an 1867 map of the Ogden Farm

Sunfish Pond was “bounded by 31st and 33rd Streets and Madison and Lexington Avenues, fed by a stream rising between Sixth and Seventh Avenues at 44th Street, and flowing into the East River between 33rd and 34th Streets,” wrote Charles Haynes Haswell in his 1896 book, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian.

Haswell noted that Sunfish Pond “was a favorite resort for skating,” well beyond the boundaries of the city when he was a boy in the early 19th century.

The stream from Kip’s Bay that fed Sunfish Pond in an 1840 map

Rufus Rockwell, author New York, Old and New, published in 1902, quotes a source who described Sunfish Pond as “famous for its eels, as well as sunfish and flounder.”

The source added that “the brook which fed it was almost dry in summer, but in times of freshet overflowed its banks and spread from the northern line of the present Madison Square to Murray Hill, more than once compelling those who lived along its lower course to resort to boats as the only means of reaching the avenue.”

Inclenberg, aka the Murray Estate

Sunfish Pond would have been located near Inclenberg, the estate owned by Robert Murray and Mary Lindley Murray (whose name now graces the neighborhood of Murray Hill). When the British invaded Manhattan at Kip’s Bay, soldiers may have stopped to drink from this spring-fed pond.

And when the road to the east, Eastern Post Road, became a route for stages running in and out of the city, travelers were known to break here for a rest, wrote Sergey Kadinsky in his 2016 book, Hidden Waters of New York City.

Peter Cooper, namesake of Cooper Union, Peter Cooper Village, and Cooper Square

The beginning of the end of Sunfish Pond was sparked by industry. Peter Cooper, who lived nearby, opened a glue factory on the edge of the pond, “amid clover fields and buttonwood trees,” according to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.

Cooper was a brilliant innovator and inventor in mid-19th century New York. “He also became a pioneer polluter: his factory so fouled the pond’s waters that it had to be drained and filled in 1839,” states Gotham. After that, it was a storage site for streetcars before becoming valuable real estate in an elite neighborhood.

Looking down Park Avenue toward what would have been Sunfish Pond two centuries ago.

Today, no trace of Sunfish Pond exists anywhere in Manhattan…except in century-old books published by memoirists and historians. But that shouldn’t stop you from standing at Park Avenue South and 31st Street and imaging skaters, fishers, farmers, travelers, and boats ferrying flooded New Yorkers across what was once a placid and peaceful body of water.

[Top image: via Patch; second image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Wikipedia]

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15 Responses to “Looking for traces of Sunfish Pond in Kips Bay”

  1. Mark Says:

    What an ABSURD beard mr. Cooper had…

  2. Tom B Says:

    A very nice clean crisp picture of Park Ave South. No litter or traffic.
    Its hard to imagine how they transformed this Island from a scenic landscape.

  3. Ted Leather Says:

    that photograph is from 36th Street and Park Avenue, five blocks north of where the pond was.

  4. Veritas1010 Says:

    Thank you for your excellent photos and background!

  5. Kiwiwriter Says:

    There’s an apartment building in the neighborhood that bears a plaque saying that Secretary of War, State, and War (again) Henry L. Stimson lived there.

    The British assault on Kip’s Bay is also commemorated by a plaque on a stone in a divider on Park Avenue, which says the site is that of Mary Murray’s farmhouse. She and her daughters apparently delayed British General Howe with tea (and other feminine charms), so that George Washington could make one of his many retreats and escapes, this one to Fort Washington.

    My rellies were in this invasion, one of them, I believe named Will Jordan, a paymaster in the 29th Regiment of Foot, then the Royal Marines, but then and now the Royal Anglians. Being a Yiddle, he spoke enough German to handle the pay paperwork for some of the Hessian regiments as well.

    The Germans of the period were eager to either show the Krazy Kolonials how to wage der Blitzkrieg War or find a convenient way to desert their contract with the Hessian Prince or British King and stay in America. There were plenty of opportunities for them to start a new life, with single women of German descent, freed slave women, runaway single slave women, or single Native American women. In point of fact, the Hessians never won a battle unless British troops were present.

    The British Army that fought in the American War of Independence was one of the WORST the crown sent overseas. First problem: officers could purchase commissions, regardless of military skill. You wanted to be a colonel? You forked over the money. Forget about training. Second, the Crown would give you a contract to form the regiment. Your business to find the troops. Many of the British soldier who went over were press-ganged off the streets, from the jails, or even “took the king’s shilling” when they’d get drunk in a pub and the recruiting sergeant dropped the coin in their beer. They were also paid less than sedan-chair carriers and chimney sweeps. No professionalism or morale, except in a few Scottish regiments, like the Black Watch, or the Royal Marines. Moreover, many of the British troops, from privates to generals, were annoyed at having to fight their American brethren.

    Strange war.

    • Ted Says:

      120 East 36th Street is Stimson House and the plaque is there

      • Kiwiwriter Says:

        I could NOT remember where the plaque was…only that I saw it and remarked that Stimson’s service under Taft was in bigger type than his more important service under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

        THANKS FOR CLEARING THAT UP!!!!!

  6. countrypaul Says:

    Considering that Inwood Hill Park is a likely representation of what Manhattan must have looked like in the time of the Lenape, it had to have been a beautiful place with lots of natural streams, inlets, hills and forests. Of course, it was that desirability that led to its development. Still, I used to have dreams that the NY metro was as it is (or was 20 years ago, when these dreams were frequent) but Manhattan had been left in its natural state. Thank you for bringing stories of those more natural times to us.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I love imagining what a specific part of Manhattan must have looked like 300 or 400 years earlier, and Inwood Park is a good place for inspiration. I was looking for a memoir from the 19th century last night that I remember reading a while back where the author recalled all the wild animals of his Manhattan boyhood: bears, wolves, all kinds of birds. Imagine coming across a bear on 14th Street today!

    • Kiwiwriter Says:

      I’m pretty sure I’ve commented here on Inwood Hill Park when my father grew up across the street from it.

  7. A rich merchant’s wife becomes a Revolutionary War heroine | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] to womeninhistoryblog.com. Nine years later they rented 29 acres far from the city center and built a mansion on an estate they called Inclenberg, Dutch for “beautiful hill,” seen below surrounded by trees on […]

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