Guest column

History hidden in plain sight: water

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Before and after photos of Cornell's Pond, now known as Valley Stream Pond, circa 1874 and today.
LEFT: Before and after photos of Cornell's Pond, now known as Valley Stream Pond, circa 1874 and today.
Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library
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Courtesy Amy Kassak Bentley
It is probable that this photo, above, circa 1874, is the oldest image we have of Valley Stream. The image was taken at Cornell’s Pond, the original name of the Valley Stream Pond, located in modern-day Arthur J. Hendrickson Park. The Cornells, Wrights and Fowlers owned grist and saw mills along the eastern edge of the pond and the land and streams north of it. The gristmills passed out of existence before the Civil War, while the sawmills lasted a few years longer. Corona Avenue was once named Mill Road.
By the early 1850s, Brooklyn needed water. The city could not sink wells into the aquifer because it contained grains and other solid matter. In 1862, the initial phase of the Brooklyn Waterworks was completed. The waterworks, a system of underground conduits (originally designed as open-air canals), brought the Island’s water to Brooklyn via reservoirs, ponds and driven wells. Cornell’s Pond, one of three in Valley Stream was tapped into service, the others: Clearstream Pond (Arlington Park) and Watts Pond (Mill Pond) completed the trio. “Cornell’s is a large expanse of water covering 80 acres, and is certainly the clearest and cleanest of the six ponds visited,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Oct. 16, 1867. “It has a bottom of beautiful white sand, and is perfectly free from any impurities.” George Bradford Brainerd (1845-1887) was a Connecticut-born civil engineer, photographer, writer, inventor and historian. He is best known for his photography of public works projects throughout New York state. In the mid-1870s, Brainerd traveled by horse-drawn wagon to Valley Stream to photograph the waterworks. He used the collodion silver glass wet-plate process of photography, a complicated technique that required the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within 15 minutes. Brainerd set up an outdoor darkroom (a tent) on site to develop the negatives. Brainerd took the photo from the east side of the pond where the playground stands today—looking south toward Merrick Road. The brick gatehouse protected the working gear of the sluice gate. An unidentified man stands on a timber footbridge that connects to an eight-foot embankment made of Connecticut granite. “Mr. Pearsall Cornell, an intelligent miller and farmer is living on the pond’s bank,” The Brooklyn Daily Union wrote on Feb. 16, 1871. “This gentleman corroborated the generally expressed opinion that the reservoirs were never so dry and so low before, and that if Cornell Pond was a criterion to go by, the people of Brooklyn had good cause to be alarmed for their water supply.” By 1896, Brooklyn’s thirst outstripped Long Island’s water and an alternate source was needed. In 1917, Brooklyn started receiving water from the Catskill Aqueduct and Cornell’s Pond was decommissioned. (Brooklyn eventually transitioned to the Delaware Aqueduct.) In 1924, The Long Island State Park Commission, or LISPC under the auspices of Robert Moses, began acquiring defunct waterworks. Two years later, Valley Stream State Park opened to the public. The pond was transformed into a chlorinated pool, complete with slides, diving boards, floats, docks, and a sandy “beach.” The influx of day-trippers visiting the park became a source of grief for Valley Stream residents. The crowds, traffic, garbage and noise put a huge strain on the local population and village infrastructure. In 1948, the pond and the southern portion of the park were shut down. In 1958, Valley Stream purchased the pond and surrounding land from the LISPC for $103,000. (The northern section of the park, north of Hendrickson Avenue, remains in the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.) In 1960, the Valley Stream Pool opened for Village of Valley Stream residents only. The park was renamed Arthur J. Hendrickson Park in honor of the former mayor and philanthropist. Brainerd’s image is a technological triumph. What elevates it to art, however, is the subject: water. The photo is visually and conceptually compelling, and historically relevant. The export and exploit of Valley Stream’s natural resource changed the area’s physical and cultural landscape forever. Farms began to fail, because there was not enough water to irrigate fields. The waterworks sounded the death knell for an agrarian way of life. Folks who care about the environment, history buffs, and those with an affectionate connection to Valley Stream will find the current water situation tragically ironic. Brainerd’s 1,900 glass plate negatives are archived at the Brooklyn Museum. Although his negatives were never turned into prints during his lifetime, you can view many of them online at brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/collections.