Jerome Park is located next to the Jerome Park Reservoir and between the Bronx High School of Science and Lehman College, two of the Bronx’s most important educational institutions. This park is named after Leonard W. Jerome (1817-1891), a prominent and wealthy Brooklyn citizen. He was a successful stock speculator, making and losing several fortunes and, in the process, earning the nickname “King of Wall Street.” He was also the principal owner of The New York Times for several years, the founder of the American Academy of Music, and the maternal grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill.
Jerome was an avid sportsman and enjoyed yachting and horse racing. He helped found the American Jockey Club, and he built the Jerome Park Racetrack in the Bronx, in conjunction with his brothers and the financier August Belmont (1816-1890). The track opened on September 25, 1866, and it marked the return of thoroughbred racing to the metropolitan area after a hiatus during the Civil War. The appointments were lavish, with a large dining room, a magnificent ballroom, and clubhouse accommodations comparable to a luxury hotel. In 1867, the Belmont Stakes, one of the three major horse races that constitute the Triple Crown, was held at Jerome Park, and it remained there until 1890. Jerome Park’s urbane attractions came to an end in 1890, when the city condemned the property to build the Jerome Park Reservoir.
The Jerome Park Reservoir was built to hold water conducted to the city by the New Croton Aqueduct, which replaced the Old Croton Aqueduct, built in the 1830s and 1840s to supply New York City with fresh water from the newly constructed Croton Reservoir in Westchester. At first the old aqueduct provided the city with enough clean water to allow it to combat the fires and epidemics that had plagued the city. However, the demand created by a growing population outstripped the supply of clean water, and in the 1880s plans were laid for the New Croton Aqueduct. The new aqueduct tunneled through rock, terminating at the Jerome Park Reservoir. Later, the city built aqueducts to obtain water from the Catskill Mountains and the Delaware River. Today, the city receives about 10 percent of its water from the Croton system and 90 percent from the Delaware and Catskill systems.
The Jerome Park Reservoir was designed to have four separate basins divided by two roadways, one running north-south and the other east-west. With the city’s incorporation of the Catskill waters, the reservoir did not need to be as large as originally planned. The city built only the western half of the original plan and eliminated the two roadways. The reservoir held 773 million gallons of water when it was filled in 1905. It covers 94 acres and has a circumference of two miles, bordered by a series of elegantly crafted stone walls.
The City of New York acquired Jerome Park, which surrounds the reservoir, on June 3, 1895 and officially opened it as a park on April 4, 1940. It is dominated by grass, shrubs, and trees, and the peaceful scene is often punctuated with the sounds of birds. Nearby Jerome Avenue serves as one more reminder of the racetrack and the man who built it. The road was originally laid out in 1874 as a plank road named Central Avenue, which connected the Central Bridge (now the Macomb’s Dam Bridge) with the Jerome Park Racetrack. In 1888, it was paved and converted into a tree-lined boulevard, and the Board of Aldermen planned to name it after an alderman. Leonard Jerome’s widow, Kate Hall Jerome, became outraged upon hearing this. With her own money, she had expensive bronze street signs cast, bearing the name “Jerome Avenue,” and hired workmen to install them. The Board of Aldermen quietly dropped the matter, leaving the unknown alderman’s name to slip between the cracks of history.