Friday, May 23, 2008
Owl's Head Park Greenery
music by the Martin Hand Quartet
27 acres-Theories abound as to the origin of the name Owl's Head Park. The geographic explanation is that the land was once shaped like the head of an owl. Some insist that owls formerly lived here, but there is no survey or record to confirm this. A local journalist remembers a swank hotel of the same name on the corner of Third Avenue and 69th Street. The last theory derives from the fact that the estate which once nestled into the hillside had a pair of stone owls framing its entrance gate. Despite its uncertain source, the name has withstood the test of time.
Canarsie Indians, who were part of the Mohegan Nation and spoke Algonquin, lived in and around present-day Owl's Head Park. They fished in the Hudson River and New York Harbor, collected oysters on the shore, and farmed the fertile outwash plain. The first Europeans to settle this land were of Dutch descent. They established Yellow Hook, an agricultural community named for the yellow clay which leached from the shore into the water. Among these farmers, Swaen Janse, a freed slave, purchased land that included what is now part of the park.
In 1853 a group of citizens, concerned that Yellow Hook reminded people of the yellow fever epidemic, renamed the community Bay Ridge for the prominent geographic features of the area. Owl's Head Park is located on a terminal moraine that extends from New Jersey to the end of Long Island. A moraine marks the place where a glacier (in this case the 10,000-year-old Wisconsin glacier) deposited boulders, rocks, soil, and debris.
A native of Brooklyn, Henry C. Murphy (1810-1882) built his estate along the glacial ridge. The son of Irish immigrants, Murphy's political career included terms as Mayor of Brooklyn, U.S. Representative, U.S. Minister to the Hague, and New York State Senator. As Senator, Murphy drafted the bill which authorized the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and in 1866 he signed the bill at his mansion. He also founded The Brooklyn Eagle and was one of its first editors. Considered a founding father of Brooklyn, Murphy translated colonial sources and documented Brooklyn's Dutch heritage. Senator Street, which begins at the park, was named in his honor.
The Murphy estate was purchased in 1866 by Eliphalet W. Bliss (1836-1903). This wealthy manufacturer made his fortune by introducing and implementing techniques of mass production to the pressed metal industry. Bliss refurbished the mansion and built a horse stable and observatory tower from which one could view the bay, Staten Island, and the Orange Mountains of New Jersey. In his will, Bliss offered his million-dollar property to New York City for $835,000 with the stipulation that it would be used solely for parkland. In 1928 the land was designated a park upon acquisition of the remaining corners of the site. Although quite impressive at the time, Owl's Head Park fell into neglect, and the mansion, stables, and tower were demolished by 1940.
Owl's Head Park is now one of the premier parks in Brooklyn. Families picnic at the park in the summer, and children sled down its hill in the winter. The vista remains unmatched for watching ships enter and leave New York Harbor. Owl's Head Park also boasts an extensive collection of trees, including pines, locusts, oaks, maples, corks, beeches, and one S-shaped tulip poplar that defies gravity. In 1994, Borough President Golden and Council Member Sal Albanese, funded a $396,690 restoration which provided new playground equipment, landscaping and paved paths. What was once only the preserve of wealthy families, Owl's Head Park is now available for all visitors to enjoy.