It’s amazing to consider that Nyack once had a beautiful pristine brook with a rocky bed and deep gullies that flowed year-round. Nyack Brook, once called Mill Brook, was a main artery of early Nyack complete with a sawmill and a grist mill. Near its source, an ice pond was created for ice harvesting. Beginning in the 1870s, Nyack Brook has been built over, enclosed, and altered over most of its winding journey to the Hudson River, so much so that most don’t know the brook exists or where it starts and ends.
Why was it covered over? There is a virtual encyclopedia of floods caused by heavy rainstorms since it was covered over. Have engineering solutions solved, or abetted flooding? What would our village look like today with an exposed brook? To help contemplate these questions here are five locations where the brook can be seen today. Some are small and some difficult to find but they reveal a deeper underground history to Nyack.
Walgreens Parking Lot
Combine a pharmacy with a tiny view of the brook at the northwest corner of the Walgreens parking lot. A historic marker about the Underground Railroad can be found nearby. The exposed section drops some 6 feet from the neighboring car wash. In summer, the banks are lined with Japanese knotweed. The area is fenced off.
The Ice Pond
just above was once an ice pond built in the 1870s that extended from this point to approximately where the West Gate Motel is now located. Large storage sheds were built along this side of the pond that bordered Route 59. The pond was sourced by springs in the area that flowed west to the Hackensack River. Once the pond was created, it was directed to the ‘natural’ bed of Nyack Brook that originated from springs near the northeast corner of Route 9W and upper Main Street, later itself becoming a village reservoir.
The historic sign raises the possibility that Nyack Brook was used as a marker on the Underground Railroad. The truth of this and Nyack’s participation as a way station in the Underground Railroad is a complex story and requires a lengthier discussion than this article permits.
A story is told that Tobias Justrich who lived nearby operated a sluice gate near here to control the flow from the pond helping to mitigate flooding during storms. After he died in the 1930s, the gate was forgotten, and flooding resulted. The pond was known as the skating pond after ice harvesting eased in the 1920s. The land was purchased by the McDermott Brothers Milk Company, drained, and filled for development. The Thruway passes through and over this area and the West Gate Motel was built on part of the filled-in pond in 1961.
A Lunch Stop at the Old Sawmill
Combine lunch at nearby True Food or Patisserie Didier Dumas before or after walking a gorgeous stretch of the brook along Main St. at the T-junction with Mill Street. Again, a historical plaque describing that the brook was a marker for the Underground Railroad is positioned here. The brook is crossed by bridges at either end of this short stretch that has steep banks and a cement base in spots. Still, it is a lovely stretch before it dives under the retail buildings that include True Foods, Communal Kitchen, Paws on Main, and DK Barbers.
The Tallman family who owned much of downtown Nyack in the early days built a sawmill here giving rise to the name Mill Street. Streams similar in size to Nyack Brook are ideal for mills. The Tallman mill lasted until at least the 1870s as a functioning mill, largely selling kindling during its final days.
Around 1845, a summer resort called the Pavilion was built on a hill just above the mill by Abram P. Smith. Wealthy folks from New York City would turn out and be seen along the street. The hotel had a wide veranda where guests loved to sit to contemplate the Hudson River, the ducks on the mill pond, and the flowing brook. The hotel became a not so successful boarding house, the mill closed, and both disappeared by the early 20th century.
The area was revitalized in the 1960s when Nyack became an antiques center. Leonard Castelluccio established Gaslight antiques in a building at 176 Main. This landscaping of the space remains one of the sweetest spots in downtown Nyack.
Nyack Community Garden
Have your art framed at the Corner Frame Shop or visit X House Nyack Center at 46 S. Franklin , offering brunch and a comedy club while you take a brief stroll behind Nyack Community Gardens. Nyack Brook is open for the block from Depew to Hudson bordered by a grass strip and Nyack Plaza Community Housing. Surrounded by a formidable, tall chain fence, the stream runs well below grade along a rocky bottom. In summer birds frequent it as a watering spot.
The location of Nyack Community Garden was once the end of the line for the Northern Railroad. A turntable ran between Franklin and the Nyack Brook to turn engines around for a return trip south to Jersey City. Across Depew was the old Opera House and hotel that straddled the brook. The Opera House disappeared during urban renewal in the 1960s. Imagine if the village had rights to the land adjoining community gardens and the brook. It could make a great pocket part and a much-needed green space in downtown Nyack.
Pavion and Strawberry Place
Time for a coffee at Salonniere or breakfast at Strawberry Place? Then you have time to look at the newly restored exposed section of the brook in the Pavion apartment complex. This area was once a manufacturing area in Nyack from the days of the O. Wright Carriage shop that straddled the brook, to the days of shoe factories, and later the Wilcox and Gibbs sewing factory.
In 1983, Stanley Acker moved his cosmetics company Pavion into the old sewing machine factory. His purchase saved Nyack from having a chemical waste reclamation factory at the site by a group of NYC investors. Pavion, maker of Wet ‘n’ Wild cosmetics and Black Radiance, a line of cosmetics for Black women, was one of Nyack’s largest employers in the late 20th century. The Halloween parade began from their parking lot for many years. (They also had a large warehouse at 149 Burd St. that was closed in 1998). The Acker family sold the company in 1998. By 2002, the 4-acre plant was empty although the lot was still owned by Acker family. After many years the land was rezoned residential, and a 140-unit rental apartment complex was authorized under the name, Pavion.
As a part of the development agreement with the Village of Nyack, a section of the Nyack Brook was exposed as it turns southeast toward Broadway from Hudson. A semi-circular, lined, faux-rock bottom and sides speed the brook before it dives under Strawberry Place. It’s a neat engineering solution to opening the brook although a far cry from its natural bed. The brook may be seen by the public although a gate and fence that says for residents only blocks a close-up view.
While you are at Strawberry Place, head to the back window and you will see the brook flow under the building.
A perfect picnic with the kids at Memorial Park is a great time to contemplate the mouth of Nyack Brook. Located along the southern edge of the lower park, the brook emerges through the historic Arch Bridge that spans the brook at Piermont Ave.
A bridge over the brook was maintained by the Depew family, in the early 19th century if for no other reason than allowing them to get from one part of their property to another. (It became the main route to Piermont.) The bridge was washed away more than once. The substantial brick arch bridge dates to the 19th century. On the west side, falls can just be made out. The area was once the site of Depews Glen, half-hollow and mill pond. At the junction near the bridge on the north side was the Tallman Grist mill. Above it in Depews Glen, which once stretched back across what became Broadway, was the mill pond.
A manufacturer of sulfur matches was established at the old mill that once employed a dozen children. The Storms Tub and Pail Company moved their wooden ware factory to the site in the 1850. A steam engine was added in a new brick building. In 1856, the factory caught fire and the old grist mill burned down. A new factory was established that later became Grant’s Flock Mill where shoddy cloth was made. This business continued into the 20th century. The factory complex was removed when Memorial Park, until 1935 named Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Park, was established in 1920.
Lower Memorial Park
Once, only a small portion of the lower park was above ground. Land was filled in during construction of the New York State Thruway to form what is the lower park today along which the brook passes to the Hudson River. During high tide, flow enters the brook. After storms a huge amount of water flows under the bridge creating an explosive sound that resonates from the arch. Strangely, few visit the brook on the south side. Kids love it. It is a secret place as so much of the Nyack Brook is today.
Hidden Nyack Brook
Hidden Nyack Brook is among good company such as Minetta Brook in NYC, Sawmill River in Yonkers, River Fleet in London, and River Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, a 3.6-mile stretch of which some has recently been restored. All fell victim to industrial and human pollution and became in effect natural sewers. With few factories, stream monitoring, and modern sewers, Nyack Brook is less a source of pollution than it has been for the last six generations. You have to admit, these five views show what a pretty brook it once was.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays 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. Hays 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.