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The Streams & Kissing Bridges of Manhattan Island

An illustration of the Kissing Bridge at what is now modern-day 50th St and Second Avenue. (1860)

Before concrete was poured across the face of Manhattan, the island was marshy, meadowy, swampy, and foresty (indeed, about 77% of the island was covered with forest at the time of Hudson's arrival). A modest network of streams criss-crossed the land, a natural grid that preceded today's streets and boulevards. From the earliest days of its European settlement, colonialists made use of these streams, primarily as a transportation method to reach and retrieve one of their most prized resources - timber from the forests - for use in their burgeoning sawmill industry. Perhaps the earliest of these sawmills was Saw-kill, already noted in 1639 maps. The 13,710-meter long Saw-kill creek reached from what we would recognize today as east 74th street, into the depths of modern-day Central Park:

A rill flowing east from the rocky ridge overlooking Bloomingdale Village, which rose near Ninth Avenue and 85th Street, flowed in a southerly direction through Manhattan Square, where it spread into a little pond, and then turned east, crossing Central Park to Fifth Avenue, receiving three tributaries within its limits, two from the north and one from the south. At 75th Street near Third Avenue it was joined by another stream. Near this junction the oldBoston Post Road crossed it, and then from this point, the stream ran due east to its outlet near the foot of 75th Street.

-G. E. Hill and G. E. Waring Jr, "Old wells and watercourses on the isle of Manhattan, part I" in M. W. Goodwin et al., eds., 1897. Historic New York: Being the First Series of the Half Moon Papers

This 1639 map, the earliest depiction cartographic depcition of Manhattan, depicts the site of of the mill's "Quarters of the Blacks, the Company's Slaves."

It was at the point where the creek met the East River that the slaves of the mill kept their quarters. Although signficant - within a few decades, the Saw-kill Mill had achieved enough significance to have roads forged connecting it both to New Amsterdam and New Haarlem - Saw-kill was by no means the only mill on the island. For example, the Dutch built additional mills at Turtle Bay (near modern day 50th street) and Harlem Mill Creek (modern day east 108th). By the end of the 17th Century, the Saw-kill Mill was in decline, the stream having been reduced to a trickle, and the facilities converted to a leather mill. Before long, a culvert - a structure that allows water to flow under a road or trail - emerged, with the formerly-mighty stream, now known as Arch Brook, running below. This bridge was known from its earliest days as one of Manhattan's most popular "Kissing Bridges" - its location miles north of town, amidst the charming landscape, made it a favorite escape for young couples in search of some secluded privacy. Kissing bridges in fact emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, all over the island; The New York Times explained in 1900: “every gallant Knickerbocker was supposed to express his regard for the lady he met there in the manner indicated.”

A New York Times article from 1900 detailing a visit to the then-already lost Kissing Bridge on Park Row.

Other well-known ones at modern-day 50th Street and Second Avenue (pictured) and Park Row, by the nearby (now extinct) "Wreck Brook".

An excerpt from the 1866 Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (by the aptly named David T Valentine) detailing one of the southern Kissing Bridges.

Although long gone, together with the streams that have since dried up, these Kissing Bridges remain a charming and surprising feature of New York history.

Postscript: reports the demise of the Saw-kill waterway:

Although even Arch Brook has since disappeared, the waters of the Saw-kill are still present in Central Park. At the time of Central Park’s development in the mid-19th century, planners utilized the Saw-kill’s source waters, located approximately underneath the American Museum of Natural History, to create the 22-acre Lake enjoyed by New Yorkers today. Until the early 20th century a portion of the Saw-kill continued to flow into Ladies Pond. This small ice skating pond, consisting of two bays connected by the Saw-kill, was reserved for women’s private use to allow women to avoid the gaze of their male counterparts while changing their shoes. As standards changed, Ladies Pond fell out of use and in 1930 the Pond was filled in to serve as a pedestrian path. Thus the last active watercourse of the Saw-kill disappeared.

An illustration of the Kissing Bridge at what is now modern-day 50th St and Second Avenue. (1892)

Framed, retouched prints of these Kissing Bridge illustrations

- as well as other iconic romantic images from New York's archives -

are available for sale. See more here.

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