The Highway Built To Protect A River

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Photo: DanTD/Wikimedia Commons

The reasons to love the urban freeway are few and far between, both as a driver and a nearby resident. Between gridlock and physically dividing cities, it’s easy to see why it has become one of America’s least liked infrastructure institutions. Though, there was once a time when this was the opposite. A time when the highway was viewed as uniquely utopic.


The original 15.5-mile portion of the Bronx River Parkway was completed in 1925 after a lengthy construction that began in 1907. One of the first limited-access roadways in the country roughly followed the course of the Bronx River from the river’s source at the Kensico Reservoir and Valhalla, NY in the north to transverse the Westchester County line to Bronx Park in the south within the limits of New York City.

The Bronx River was called the “Aquehung” by the native Weckquaesgeek tribes, who originally inhabited the area. The river’s current namesake is Jonas Bronck, a Scandinavian who was the first recorded European settler in that particular area of the then-Dutch colony in 1639. New Amsterdam, the capital settlement of New Netherland at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, would see massive growth over the next two centuries.

The municipality now known as the City of New York would subsume all the surrounding communities as the city expanded its borders. By the 1890s, New York City would annex the southern portion of Westchester County and the area would be renamed the Bronx after the river and Jonas Bronck. This administrative expansion was the final step of the city’s actual sprawl into the area. For example, a railroad line had already been built decades prior parallel to the Bronx River, operated by the New York Central Railroad’s Harlem Division.

The railroad had attracted industry to the river valley, and industrial operations began to dump waste into the Bronx River. Even after most of the industry left the area, burgeoning residential communities dumped their sewage into the river. Many were concerned over the state of the polluted waterway either due to the public health risks or the lost natural beauty. It quickly became the consensus opinion in the 1890s that the most affordable course of action would be to construct a roadway alongside the river within the bounds of a linear reservation.

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Alongside being a useful car thoroughfare, the Bronx River Parkway Reservation was able to preserve 1,155 acres of riverside property with large reforestation and locally-conscious landscaping efforts. Though, this story of early environmental protection wasn’t all roses.

Under the influence of Robert Moses, two major construction projects took place on the Bronx River Parkway in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The parkway was extended 5 miles further south into the city. A large portion of the parkway was completely reconstructed. The reconstruction involved straightening the route, widening the parkway from four lanes to six, as well as adding a center median. This was the first truly modern highway in the world, foreshadowing the Interstate Highway System.


Though to complete the reconstruction, the course of the river had to be altered. The Bronx River had to be straightened to not interfere with the highway’s new route. This signaled a shift in priority, where automobile traffic was valued over the state of the river. This shift as well as the influence of Robert Moses would eventually be felt in cities across the nation through the Interstate Highway System.

However at the start of the 21st century, a new wave of Bronx River protectionism began. In 2007, four of the largest river-adjacent communities in Westchester County (Yonkers, White Plains, Scarsdale and Greenburgh) reached agreements to stop dumping raw sewage into the Bronx River. Today, there still is a concerted effort by the Bronx River Alliance among others to keep the river as a clean waterway for local residents.

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