Over three times the size of Central Park, along thirteen waterfront miles at its northeast edge, lies New York City’s largest park. With a rich history over geological time, Pelham Bay Park was John Mullaly’s favorite. The Father of Bronx Parks called it the “Newport of New York’s Toilers.” Robert Moses reimagined the park with his Great Depression reconstruction that added playgrounds, athletic facilities, horse stables, and Orchard Beach. An $87 million reconstruction of the Orchard Beach pavilion, currently underway, is the latest upgrade for 1.6 million annual visitors to enjoy.
Bordered on three sides by the waters of Long Island Sound and the Hutchinson River, all types of people and animals frequent the park. Nature and history enthusiasts, athletes playing over a dozen sports, picnickers, bicyclists and beachgoers share almost 2,800 acres with hundreds of other animal species.
Proximity to I95 and the Hutchinson River Parkway lets motorists take advantage of three spacious parking areas, while several bus routes and the 6 train make it accessible to everyone.
Touched Through History
The park’s history stretches back to the Wisconsin Glacier, the last of the glacial advances that reached New York City 20,000 years ago. Sitting on the southern edge of a bedrock complex reaching up to Maine, striations and furrows in the rocks exhibit the glacier’s flow.
More recently, the park played an important role in US history after George Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn. With British Gen. William Howe seeking to cut off his escape from Manhattan, a brigade of Massachusetts mariners under the command of Col. John Glover engaged the British forces on October 18, 1776.
The Battle of Pell’s Point lasted long enough for Washington to reach safety in White Plains. Hiding behind old stone walls, the outnumbered Americans inflicted massive casualties on the British forces while only losing a few of their own. Two months later, Glover’s mariners assisted Washington in his iconic Christmas crossing of the Delaware River.
In the next century, John Mullaly became famous for inciting draft riots in protest against the Civil War. He was a newspaper reporter and editor who went into city government under the Tammany Hall machine. He would be better known today if not for his ardent racism.
Serving as Health Commissioner, Mullaly considered parks to be a requirement for the wellbeing of the citizenry. He called open spaces the “lungs of the metropolis” and used the power of Tammany Hall to acquire land for his park system.
His efforts culminated in the 1884 New Parks Act which established Bronx Park (now The Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden) at the center of Van Cortlandt, Crotona, and Pelham Bay Parks, all connected by the Mosholu, Pelham and Crotona Parkways. Claremont and St. Mary’s Parks were also established under the same law.
The Bronx Riviera
In the years after Pelham Bay Park opened, it was so popular that overuse and overcrowding were the biggest problems. People were drawn to the golf course that was less crowded than Van Cortlandt, and the only public beach in The Bronx.
By the 1920’s, a beachfront tent colony had grown into a shanty town with designated lots occupied mostly by city officials. It was in front of the orchards that once belonged to a line of mansions dating back to the Bartow and Pell families, who purchased the east Bronx from the Siwanoy natives. That’s why it’s called Orchard Beach. Throughout the roaring twenties, it became a bustling neighborhood with merchants and entertainment from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Then, the Great Depression took the fun out of that.
Pelham Bay Park was important enough to be chosen as the site for one of New York City’s most impressive monuments. The Bronx Victory Memorial honors the 947 Bronx soldiers who perished in service during World War I. Towering over surrounding trees, the seventy foot monument topped by a gold “Lady of Victory” was designed by a World War I infantry captain. The project also provided needed jobs leading up to its dedication in 1933.
A lot more jobs were created by Robert Moses and his enormous power wielding government funds to fight the Great Depression. His reconstruction of the park added another 18-hole golf course, playgrounds, horse stables, dozens of ball fields and courts, and today’s Orchard Beach.
He removed everything he found in the park, including several dilapidated mansions and the Orchard Beach shantytown. The Bartow-Pell mansion only remained because it was under lease to the organization maintaining it as a museum. A successor organization continues to run the museum today.
Moses envisioned Orchard Beach as a smaller version of his Jones Beach masterpiece. He added 115 acres of new beach with fine white sand from the Rockaways to form the crescent shaped beach that attracts thousands on a typical summer day.
At the grand opening on July 25, 1936, with Mayor LaGuardia, Robert Moses and other dignitaries attending, George Mand of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce was the first to call Orchard Beach “The Riviera of New York City.”
Moses made sure the rules were strictly enforced. He even established an “Orchard Beach Court” where violations were adjudicated on the same day. That ended after a 2-year-old girl was forced to pay $50 or spend two days in jail for picking flowers at the mall.
Fun on the Fairways
Robert Moses realized that golf course construction was a “natural fit” for New Deal jobs programs, since so much of the total cost goes directly to labor. In 1936, he began refurbishing the Pell Golf Course, which he renamed Pelham Golf Course. He also built the clubhouse and adjoining Split Rock Golf Course.
The two courses comprise New York City’s only 36-hole golf facility. Pelham has a links style layout more accommodating to beginners, while shot makers enjoy Split Rock’s championship caliber fairways and greens that Bobby Jones called “splendid.”
If you need help with Pelham’s undulating greens or Split Rock’s bunkered holes, there are training and instruction areas in front of the clubhouse and at the nearby Turtle Cove driving range. The full-service facility has cart rentals, a pro shop stocked with top quality gear, premium club rentals, and a snack bar for the 19th hole.
After falling into disrepair in the 1970’s, Mayor Koch licensed control of the courses to American Golf Corp. who has been running it since 1983. Golfers from throughout the metropolitan area come for tee times and tournaments and the clubhouse is popular for weddings and banquets. It’s one of few area courses that are open year-round. PGA.com named it the #1 Golf Course in New York City.
Communing With Nature
For those who enjoy nature without chasing a little white ball, the golf courses are encircled by the Split Rock horse trail where hikers can also see Pelham Bay Park’s historic spots, and the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 1967. The trail goes by some of the stone walls that protected Glover’s mariners in the Battle of Pell’s Point, and the split rock where Anne Hutchinson’s daughter Susanna hid from her Siwanoy captors in 1643.
The Siwanoy Trail hugs the coastline, while the Kazimiroff Trail explores the Hunter Island Zoology and Geology Sanctuary. At low tide, you will see boulders left behind by the retreating Wisconsin Glacier.
For smoother rolling, several miles of paved bike trails cover Pelham Bay Park, but electric bikes and scooters are prohibited. Recreational wheels are also banned on the Orchard Beach Promenade.
Whether on horseback, wheels, or your own feet, you will likely see some unusual wildlife. More than 400 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects populate Pelham Bay Park. Most of the Ospreys have already migrated south for winter while other species are flying in. Snowy owls have been observed in winter around the pine meadow atop Hunter Island, and bald eagles have been visiting in recent years. The park is designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
Besides feathers and fins, many furry species call the park home too. Rabbits, racoons, and skunks are prevalent with other common rodents. Deer can be seen along the roads most evenings and coyotes are occasionally reported.
A Beautiful Place in the Neighborhood
This incredible resource is easily accessable from neighborhoods in Country Club, City Island, Pelham Bay, Co-Op City and Pelham Manor in Westchester County. These have some of The Bronx’s healthiest real estate markets suported by proximity to NYC’s largest park.
Neighborhoods around Country Club have mostly Silver and Gold level houses with some of The Bronx’s highest values. To get close to the park at a discount, check out our recent post on City Island. Pelham Bay apartments also command strong rents and resale values supported by good highway access, several bus routes, and the 6 train. Metro-North’s Bronx expansion will also reach surrounding neighborhoods.
Local commercial properties benefit from favorable demographics. Higher household incomes and lower crime than most areas of The Bronx attract retailers and other businesses. Better rents translate to higher sales values. For many reasons, this less dense area of The Bronx should see a focus on development in coming years. Pelham Bay Park is an important driver of the strong trends.
There’s no need to wait for the new Orchard Beach Pavilion to open in 2025. With autumn upon us, the park’s lush forests will soon burst into their stunning foliage. Park rangers and nature organizations provide regular tours and outings to enjoy Pelham Bay Park’s various attractions. All the ball fields and athletic facilities are open. The golf courses stay open all winter. However, no swimming until Memorial Day.
So, however you like to have fun, take a break from your toils and explore Pelham Bay Park.
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