Field Trip: Our Sunken Forest


We took our first trip to Highland Park and Ridgewood Reservoir last weekend. Straddling the Brooklyn/Queens border, the park and accidental nature preserve deserve to be better known outside of their surrounding neighborhoods.

More about our discoveries in Highland will be in my next post. But what’s all this about a Reservoir and accidental nature preserve?

Here’s the history, briefly. The last basin at Ridgewood Reservoir was drained in the late 1980s. Originally, the complex was part of the Brooklyn Water Works: two basins were full by 1858; a third was added soon after. As Brooklyn grew, its thirst extended further out into Long Island for water. The Reservoir, named after its source in Nassau Co.’s Ridgewood ponds, could not provide enough. Although this is often forgotten, one of the impetuses for the City of Brooklyn’s willed demotion to borough of Greater New York was water. Brooklyn was pushing its limit, so getting a piece of the mighty Croton system seemed to be the only way growth in Brooklyn could continue.

Sitting atop of the ridge — the Harbor Hill moraine (noted in such names as Ridgewood, Highland Park, Cypress Hills, etc.) — left by the glacial retreat, the Reservoir’s height meant gravity could be used to allow water to flow downhill into the City’s thirsty maw. Today, views from the Reservoir to the south reveal the glacial outwash plain, across the flatlands of East NY, New Lots, Spring Creek, and Jamaica Bay. When the glaciers ruled, the beach was 100 miles farther south than it is now.

Since being decommissioned and left abandoned, the Reservoir’s basins have turned into forest, wetlands, and pond (in basin two, fed by a natural spring). It’s like some some incredible science project left out in the sun (and rain!), the birth of young woodlands habitat.

In the southwest corner, a stand of birches reach for the sky.Because the path around the complex is well above the bottom of the basins, you look down steeply sloping sides into this sunken forest, and across the tree-top level with your eyes practically straight ahead. It’s amazing that its located in the heart of the city.

Several years ago, the city proposed opening the area up, adding ballfields and other additions, even though existing ballfields in neighboring Highland Park were (and remain!) in shitty condition. Around the Reservoir, every single light along the path has been destroyed. The fence is breached in numerous places, and, big surprise, all sorts of mixed-up stuff goes on in there. We came across a memorial cross for a teenager who died there last year. Save Ridgewood Reservoir has more details about the effort to protect and maintain the area as a natural preserve. My fellow birder, Rob Jett, The City Birder, has also been actively working on preserving this accidental bonanza of urban wildness.

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