by Mike Hays
Mostly hidden from view, Nyack Brook runs along Main Street, Franklin, and Hudson Street, under the village’s downtown, and emerges near Memorial Park. The brook has played a big role in the history in the village, from powering mills to guiding escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. It has also been a source of flooding which put the nail in the coffin of Riverspace, as well as the hopes of building a “superblock” in downtown Nyack six years ago.
Imagine for a moment, a pristine mountain stream surrounded by trees that runs down the hillside from a small, spring-fed, swampy pond to the Hudson River. In the rainy season, the brook gushes through its rocky bed, creating small waterfalls. In dry season, it barely flows. In some places, it cuts deep ravines and hollows into sandstone bedrock. Bird and animal life thrive nearby. The water is drinkable. Native Americans frequent the brook.
Idyllic? Yes. And this was how Nyack Brook must have appeared before the Dutch settlers arrived.
The brook has been greatly altered from the very beginning. Well-intentioned changes over time have added to frequent downtown floods. The sudden afternoon cloudburst on June 23, 2011 flooded many businesses and restaurants along the brook, including the Nyack Plaza Mall and Riverspace Arts. Seven feet of water flooded the performance space which has been shuttered since that event.
Development started when land owners changed the flow to power mills. A westward flowing stream was damned to force more water into the eastward flowing Nyack Brook.
The growth of Nyack’s business district sent the brook below ground, beginning in the late 19th century. In 1903, an attempt was made to eliminate the bend in the river at Bridge Street. The WPA created new culverts at the bend in the 1930s, redirecting its flow along Franklin Street. Culverts were expanded again during urban renewal in the 1960s. But when it rained, it seemed to pour, resulting in more intense floods downtown.
Nyack Brook has a place in both local and national history. Two historical markers along the stream note that the brook was typical of the waterways, large and small, that were used in the mid-1800s to guide African American slaves escaping along the Underground Railroad.
Today we can conceive of the brook as possible parkland and aesthetic green space; back then, rivers and streams were used as open sewers and places for waste dumping. So it makes sense that the brook was slowly covered and hidden from view.
A list of interesting places and historical occurrences in or near the brook yields plenty of surprises. Among them:
- The skating pond that is now the site of West Gate Inn
- Greenhouses for commercial roses at Memorial Park
- Grist and saw mills
- The first Nyack resort hotel near Mill and Main Street
- Underground Railroad stop
- The Nyack water reservoir
- Community gardens
- A quarry
- A sulfur match factory
- An Opera House
- A School
- A railroad
Nyack People and Places will take a close look at each of these unique places in detail in future columns tracing the Nyack Brook.
- Nyack Sketch Log: A Bench By The Underground Railroad, 5/19/2015
- Nyack Sketch Log: Scholar Puts Local History on the Map, 3/5/2013
- Main Street’s History of Floods, 5/30/2013
- Flash Floods on Thurs; Nyack HS Graduation Moved to Friday, 6/23/2011
- Nyack Brook Revisited, 5/19/2010
- Saving Nyack Brook, 4/28/2010
Photo Credit: Mike Hays. Map photo courtesy of The Nyack Library
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.