West Farms Rapids
The glad spring gushing from the rock’s bare bosom
Sweet sights, sweet sounds, all sights, all sounds excelling
Oh! ‘twas a ravishing spot formed for a poet’s dwelling.
So said Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820) in his 1817 poem Bronx. Drake, a physician and pharmacist by trade, but a poet by passion, spent much of his free time rowing the waters of the Bronx River and writing of the bucolic pleasures he found here and in the surrounding countryside. He came from a prominent Westchester family, but when he died of consumption at age 25, relatives honored his request not to be buried in the family vault. Instead, the “Poet of the Bronx” was laid to rest in a Hunt’s Point cemetery, near his beloved river.
The river’s story began more than 150 million years ago when a waterway, whose origins lie in present day Westchester County, began carving a channel for itself through the bedrock on its way towards the Bronx. Geologists believe that the Bronx River once emptied into the Hudson River, which lay to the east of its present location. A huge ice mass blocked the Bronx River’s flow during the last Ice Age and forced it to cut a new channel. As the Bronx River meandered on its way, it created a deep gorge before finally emptying out into the East River and Long Island Sound. This striking gorge, most visible as the river travels past the New York Botanical Gardens, inspired the Native Americans who lived along the river to name it Aquehung or “River of High Bluffs.”
These local Native Americans, the Weckquasgeek and Siwanoy, were Algonquin speaking people whose lives had intertwined with the river for centuries. The river held spiritual significance for them, and they used its water for annual ritual baths. On a more daily basis they drank its water, fished along its banks, and hunted in the thick woods beyond its shoreline. Game was very plentiful, and the particularly large presence of dam-building beavers in the surrounding area led the Siwanoy to call the river valley “Laaphawachking” or “Place of Stringing Lakes.”
It was the river’s beavers and other economic opportunities, not its lyrical qualities that originally lured Europeans to these shores. Indeed the first shipment of pelts the Dutch trappers sent home in the early 17th century included over 7,000 beaver skins. But the European demand for the pelts of beavers, otters, mink, and wildcats soon outpaced the supply and the early settlers searched for other financial opportunities along the river.
In 1639, a wealthy Swedish businessman and former sea captain named Jonas Bronck (1600-1643) became one of the first Europeans to settle in the area when he purchased and bartered 500 acres of land along the river’s southern end from the Native Americans. Bronck farmed the land and soon European settlement spread northward along the waterway that had come to be known as “Bronck’s River.” The first mills in the area started operating in 1680 and by the mid-18th century there were over a dozen being powered by the river, manufacturing everything from barrels and bleach, to ironwork and snuff.
Improved rail access and increasing prosperity along the river brought increased pollution. By the early 1900s, the river that only 60 years earlier had been considered a source of pure drinking water for the City was being described as an “open sewer” forcing the first efforts toward its conservation. Cycles of renewal and neglect continued for the next 50 years, and the construction of the Bronx River Parkway in the 1950s further threatened the river.
In 1974, a group of local residents founded the Bronx River Restoration, an organization dedicated to permanently reclaiming and protecting the river and surrounding parkland. The work of its members as well as the efforts of a variety of other non-profit groups, governmental agencies, and hundreds of local residents and schoolchildren have been an important part of the Bronx River’s latest renaissance. Commissioner Stern declared 1999 the “Year of the Bronx River,” and Parks focused increased attention in restoring this beautiful natural resource. Due to these projects, generations of poets should continue to find plenty of inspiration along the banks of this green and gentle waterway.