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Exploring the wilds of the Bronx’s Hutchinson River

A hike along the Hutchinson River is a study in contrasts

The river was there—just hidden away. It was down at the edges of the toxic landfill, and out under the train tracks, by the dead end road. It was off of the abandoned trail, near the sewage overflow, and deep into the muddy marshlands. Its water was mostly fenced off, but it had not always been so remote.

The Hutchinson River is one of the longest aboveground waterways flowing through the neighborhoods of New York City. It travels roughly 10 miles from its headwaters in Scarsdale to its mouth in Eastchester Bay, and is second in length only to the nearby Bronx River, which also originates in Westchester County. And yet, as it passes through the Bronx along three miles of shoreline, much of the river is hidden from view and blocked off from the community.

There are only about a dozen places in the Bronx where the public could, if it wanted to, reach the banks of the Hutchinson River. Most of these access points involve pushing through a hole in a fence, or bushwhacking down overgrown paths, or trekking through flooded salt marshes. Perhaps because of its isolation, the Hutchinson River is now facing several existential threats.

Sea level rise and silt are changing its water levels, while over 300 million gallons of contaminated sewage overflow gushes into its waters every year during rainstorms. Meanwhile, two enormous new projects that are quietly being developed by the government could completely change its landscape: a chlorine disinfection facility planned by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and an massive storm surge gate proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). If you’d like to see the river in its current state, now is a good time to visit.

Like most urban waterways, a hike along the Hutchinson River is a study in contrasts. As it flows through the Bronx, its eastern shoreline is covered by an ancient marshland in Pelham Bay Park, home to hidden creeks, wild turkeys, coyotes, and deer. Along its western shoreline, the marshlands have been almost completely filled in with scrap yards, parking lots, and the residential towers of Co-op City, closing off access to miles of shoreline.

Near the mouth of the river sits the decommissioned Pelham Bay Landfill, where 1.1 million gallons of toxic waste were illegally dumped in the 1960s and ’70s, poisoning a generation of children. Although the landfill closed in 1979 and was approved for use as a public park in 2011, it remains fenced off and lined with warning signs from the DEP reading “Danger Inactive Hazardous Waste Site.”

To the north of the landfill is the sprawling 320-acre campus of Co-op City, an enormous residential complex that was built on top of former wetlands in the 1960s and ’70s. Buried underneath these apartment towers are several lost waterways, including Black Dog Brook and Rattlesnake Brook. Although many residents have expansive views of the Hutchinson River from their windows, their entire shoreline is almost completely off limits, with dozens of threatening signs posted: “Attention Persons Found Tampering With This Fence Will Be Arrested And Prosecuted To The Fullest Extent Of The Law.”

North of Co-op City, the Hutchinson RIver is isolated behind a variety of municipal facilities and industrial businesses. These include the Department of Sanitation District 12 Bronx Garage, a hulking facility with a forgotten grove of trees hidden behind its brick walls, and the MTA’s Eastchester Bus Depot, a 27-acre parking lot once described as “the place where NYC Transit buses come to die.”

Along this entire three -mile stretch of coastline, on the western shores of the Hutchinson River, there is just one relatively easy public access point water at the end of a flooded dirt road, and underneath an active Amtrak line.

By contrast, the eastern shore of the Hutchinson River is home to the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary, a 371-acre green space that encompasses the largest salt marsh habitat in the Bronx. The marshlands here include Goose Creek, one of the last remaining aboveground tributaries of the Hutchinson River. The protected coastline here is also mostly inaccessible to visitors to Pelham Bay Park, except by boat.

This past September, the Hutchinson River Restoration Project, a community group dedicated to preserving and restoring the river and its salt marshes, completed its ninth annual clean up in the wildlife sanctuary. Using canoes, volunteers removed a dozen bags of garbage from the sanctuary, launching out from a sandy shoreline near the Pelham Bridge to reach the remote wetlands.

More than 80 percent of New York City’s historic salt marshes have been filled in over the past 200 years by human development. The portions that remain are vitally important, and not just as habitats for endangered species. In 2017, a study published in The Holocene traced the last 1,500 years of history by using core samples taken from Pelham Bay Park’s ancient salt marshes. It revealed that sea levels “are now rising faster than at any other time in 15 centuries.”

During two days of hiking around the river, just a handful of other species were observed, including herons, egrets, and gulls. But before its marshlands were paved over and its tributaries buried, the Hutchinson River was a much livelier place, with an impressive amount of wild species calling the river home.

“East Chester was especially noted for the abundance of wild ducks that swarmed in the flats along what is now known as Hutchinson’s River in the Pelham Bay district. Deer and bear were also plentiful, as well as other smaller game, so that the settler could readily fill his larder,” wrote the New York Times in 1925, describing life along the river in the 1600s, when it was first colonized by European settlers. “But there were drawbacks. Nature had impartially provided an ample supply of wolves and rattlesnakes.”

By the early 1900s, much of this biodiversity had been hunted down and extinguished. After years of eradication efforts, including wolf pits and snake hunts, the last rattlesnake near the Hutchinson River was killed in 1775. The last wolves vanished from the state in the early 1900s, according to Adirondack Explorer, “as a result of habitat destruction and unregulated hunting.”

“The wildlife of New York … can boast but few survivors of the abundance which the early settlers found 300 years ago,” the New York Times noted in 1925. Today, Pelham Bay Park serves as a vital refuge for a much smaller population of animals, including coyotes, deer, skunks, harbor seals, wild turkeys, great horned owls, and American Kestrel.

In the coming decades, the coastline of the Hutchinson River may be reshaped yet again. The USACE is now working on the New York/New Jersey Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study, which seeks to address the threat of storm surges in the New York region. This study includes five proposals for projects the USACE could build, and four of these proposals include erecting a 1.75-mile storm surge barrier through the heart of Pelham Bay Park, blocking off the mouth of the Hutchinson River and disrupting its tidal flow.

At the same time, the DEP is moving forward on its plans to address the citywide problem of billions of gallons of raw sewage overflowing into New York’s waterways during rainstorms. Along the Hutchinson River, they have devised a Long Term Control Plan to treat tainted stormwater with chlorine, before letting it flow into the river as usual, as opposed to focusing on reducing the amount of sewage overflows. Environmental advocates are highly skeptical of this plan, according to the New York Times, partially because chlorine would not affect all of the toxins running in to the water, and also because “residual chlorine can devastate marine life.”

The DEP’s disinfection facility was approved in 2017, and is not expected to be completed until 2030, while the USACE’s plans may take decades to complete. In the meantime, sea levels are continuing their inexorable rise, and slowly transforming the river.

At the southern end of the Hutchinson River, where it flows out to the Eastchester Bay, the landscape of Pelham Bay Park appears to be almost natural and devoid of human intervention.

South of the Pelham Bridge, the striking contrast between the more natural side of the river and the developed side is highlighted. This rocky outcropping looks out onto the Pelham Bay Landfill, a remediated toxic waste dump.

The outcropping is a destination for fisherman, despite its proximity to water flowing out from underneath the landfill. When viewed from a particular angle, it almost appears to be a rural landscape.

The high mound of the Pelham Bay Landfill looms over the river. More than a million gallons of waste was dumped here in the 1960s and ’70s, when “mob-connected companies began hauling in truckloads of highly toxic chemicals,” according to the New York Post, including ethylbenzene, dioctylphthalate, and xylene.

A footpath has been worn into the narrow strip of ground between the landfill and the river outside of the fenced off area. In 2011, the landfill was deemed safe for recreational use, after being capped and closed.

The path leads out to a rocky slope that offers a wide vista of the mouth of the Hutchinson River, where it empties into Eastchester Bay.

To the north of the landfill and the Pelham Bridge, a broad marshy area is criss-crossed by small rivulets, some appearing to flow out from the landfill. In the distance are the southernmost buildings of Co-op City.

The mudflats here are filled with abandoned boats and cars, including this sunken barge. The area is a popular destination for fishermen.

Looking across the mudflats toward the Pelham Bay Landfill, across an upside-down car encrusted in mussels and rusting into the water. At high tide, the rivulets here are submerged by brackish water.

The mudflats and abandoned barges can be reached via a dead-end dirt road on Erskine Place, squeezed between a Co-op City basketball court and an active Amtrak line at the Pelham Bay Bridge. This is actually one of the easiest places for the public to access the Hutchinson River.

The beach here looks out onto Goose Island, a forgotten landmark with a colorful history. “Canoeists and fishermen on the Hutchinson River have used this islet since the 17th century,” according to the New York Times.

Goose Island was once home to Abigail Tice, aka Mammy Goose, who lived on the island for 42 years in the 1800s. “The island became a favorite resort for fishing parties. ‘Mammy Goose’ was an adept at broiling clams and kept a good brew of beer always on tap,” according to the New York Times.

To the north of Goose Island, 2.5 miles of the Hutchinson River shoreline is now inaccessible, all the way to the northern edge of the Bronx. Access the river can only be found in informal holes cut through the fences.

The barricades are also amplified by a series of overpasses and highways, which make access to the river even more difficult. There were no canoeists or fishermen to be seen along the coast here.

Two views of the river from the Hutchinson River Parkway, revealing its hidden western shoreline adjacent to Co-op City, and the wetlands along its eastern bank in the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary.

One of the only trails into the sanctuary is this footpath, hidden off of a looping bike route. The trail is unmarked, and appears to be unofficial.

From the trail, an expansive view of the ancient salt marsh and of Co-op City’s power plant, the first tri-generation power plant in the city.

The trail ends at a mudflat in the middle of the Hutchinson River, where its tributary Goose Creek flows out from the Goose Creek Marsh.

Accessing most of the salt marsh in the sanctuary is nearly impossible without a boat. The next available access point to the river is near the northwest edge of Pelham Bay Park, along the Split Rock trail.

The trail to Split Rock is no longer maintained, and is completely overgrown with invasive species. The historic rock itself is situated in a traffic island where the Hutchinson River Parkway meets the New England Thruway.

Down at the water’s edge below the trail, near a stormwater outflow, a small clearing provides one of the only access points to this isolated salt marsh.

Further north, past the New England Thruway, another small access point can be found along Eastchester Place as the river begins to head into an industrial zone.

The river here passes by Pascap Co., Inc, a large scrap yard with a long line of scrappers parked out front. Loose scrap is loaded into barges waiting along the shoreline, to be floated down the river.

A small “beach” is located near a combined sewer overflow discharge point here, providing one of the only access points to the water’s edge.

Looking south down the river from the bridge on Boston Road. The city plans to build its disinfection plant along the west side of the river here.

To the north of Boston Road, the river continues through several blocks of industry, including scrap yards and concrete plants which are served by barges.

The busy streets here are crowded with scrap yards and autobody shops, in an industrial and municipal landscape similar to parts of the Newtown Creek.

A parking lot for Good Humor trucks backed up along an asphalt plant. The dead end roads here are pockmarked by flooded potholes, and access to the creek is nearly impossible.

The banks of the river are lined by crumbling, abandoned bulkheads, where old industrial facilities have given up on using the water. Silt has filled in much of the northern reaches of the Hutchinson.

As it leaves the the Bronx, a rerouted oil pipeline travels high over the river’s barges, marking the border of the city and Westchester County. It is a fitting monument to the river’s long history of development and pollution.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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