2005-07-20 / Features

The East River Flows From Prehistoric Times To Today

The East River , by The Greater Astoria Historical Society, with Erik Baard, Thomas Jackson and Richard Melnick, Images of America series, Arcadia Publishing, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, $19.99, 128 pp., softcover.

It’s not really a river, but the tidal strait that separates Manhattan and Long Island is still famous the world over as New York City’s premier waterway. Now the latest addition to the Arcadia Publishing Images of America series, relates the history of The East River from the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier 11,000 years ago and advancing Atlantic Ocean that first created the river to today’s efforts at reversing years of industrial pollution, mismanagement and misuse. Along the way, the book relates, the river gave rise to communities from Brooklyn to Harlem along its banks, fostered industries that sent American enterprise around the world and drew countless waves of immigrants who became part of the American nation that spread across the continent from the East River shore.

In its Introduction, The East River notes that tides and the river’s naturally narrow channel have caused problems for generations of sailors. The largest non-atomic explosion caused by man cleared the reefs of the Hell Gate passage in 1885, but the river still poses challenges. Its swift current served to keep the city’s unwanted out of sight and out of collective civic consciousness on several islands—Welfare Island, today Roosevelt Island, still holds Coler-Goldwater Hospital as well as modern housing complexes and North Brother Island was home to Typhoid Mary Mallon until her death in order to prevent her from carrying the dreaded disease throughout the city.

There have been man-made as well as natural disasters on the river: the General Slocum fire 1904 was the greatest loss of civilian life in a single incident to occur in the United States until the World Trade Center terrorist attack of 9/11. During the Revolutionary War hundreds of captured American soldiers died on British prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay. For years after the War of Independence ended, their bleached bones were washed ashore in Brooklyn on retreating tides.

However, the 16 miles of the East River that border four of the five boroughs are a source of life, the book declares. “Its rich fish stocks and salt grasses once fed Native Americans, European settlers and their cattle, and its tidal energy swept through marshes to turn mills on Dutch colonial farms. Piers bristled with tall ships as the port became a center of world trade and shipbuilding,” declares the Introduction. While the river fell into ecological disrepute in the late 20th century, brought on by years of unrestricted dumping and discharge of industrial waste, today concerted cleanup efforts have succeeded in bringing back some of the once abundant wildlife and recreational boaters are once more to be found on the waterway.

The titles of the nine chapters, “Natural Features”, “Early History to 1815”, “Living On the River”, “Transportation”, “From Agriculture to Industry”, “Shipping and Shipbuilding”, Institutions”, “Recreation” and “Perspectives” are self-descriptive. As is the case with many other Images of America publications, there are more photographs—some 200—than text, although each chapter begins with a one-page essay summarizing the subject matter. Captions are detailed and explicit, many providing further explanations and descriptions of chapter essay material.

Two of the authors of The East River , Thomas Jackson and Richard Melnick, have collaborated on Long Island City , another book in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. For their effort on The East River they were joined by Erik Baard, an award-winning freelance writer and founder of the Long Island City Boathouse. Jackson is a self-employed consultant who publishes bimonthly articles on the history of Queens for this newspaper and is treasurer and a trustee of the Bowne House Historical Society in Flushing and a member of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, which furnished many of the photographs found in this book. Melnick also writes for a local newspaper and is also a Greater Astoria Historical Society member. The trio has produced a volume rich in historic lore that painlessly imparts facts and inspires readers to do more research on their own. That all proceeds from sales of The East River will benefit the Greater Astoria Historical Society, known throughout New York for its vigorous efforts in community preservation, imaginative programming and numerous articles on local history, alone makes the book a worthwhile investment. In its 128 pages, however, The East River offers a fascinating glimpse into the history and development of a waterway without which New York City would never have existed. Its overview of the river’s history and its place in the lives of New Yorkers past and present make it a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in natural and political or simply in a good read.

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