The only water to be found on Manhattan today is the Hudson, East and Harlem rivers, plus the lakes in Central Park, fountains in front of buildings, sprinklers in parks and rain-filled potholes. But, Manhattan once had plenty of natural ponds and streams, and one of them was the picturesque Sunfish Pond.
At the corner of the current Park Avenue and 31st Street, stage coaches would stop to allow riders to stretch their legs before traveling on to Harlem and points north and for horses to nuzzle the cool waters of Sunfish Pond. Boys and their fathers also ventured here for fishing and to find muskrats. During the winter, Sunfish Pond became a natural ice rink.
The pond was fed by springs and a brook. The overflow was carried to the East River at Kip’s Bay, now the name of a neighborhood but once a cove of the East River. The brook, during Dutch times, was known as “t’Oude Wrack from an early Dutch ship wrecked in the bay.
During the Revolutionary War, British scouts and advance patrols marched through the area after landing in Kip’s Bay following their victory on the heights of Brooklyn. The objective was to try to catch George Washington’s army. Many soldiers are believed to have made use of the pond on September 15, 1776 to refresh after securing their beachhead.
According to an eye witness, the army crossed the East River in open flat boats filled with soldiers standing erect with arms glittering in the sun. They approached the British fleet in Kip’s Bay in the form of a crescent caused by the force of the tide.
Murray Ladies Help Washington
While the soldiers rested, their commander, General William Howe, and his staff were entertained at Inclenberg, the farm of wealthy Quaker merchant Robert Murray. As the story is told, Mary Murray provided the hospitality of herself and her beautiful daughters to delay the British. This allowed Washington to secure his wavering troops in the fields near the present Bryant Park and then escape to higher ground in Harlem Heights.
Only a few days earlier, Washington also had been a guest at the homestead, which was located on the high ground now known as Murray Hill and near the north side of Sunfish Pond. The house was built before 1764 and it was destroyed by fire during 1834.
As for Sunfish Pond, part of the bed became the site of the Harlem Railroad stables and then the 33rd Street trolley car barns before today’s skyscrapers appeared on the scene.