by: John Patrick Schutz, Nyack Village Historian
So this week it happened again, torrents of water came rushing down Nyack’s East/West Streets and Avenues gathering speed and strength as several inches of rain overwhelmed storm sewers, picking up sidewalks and pavement while filling basements and even first floors from Franklin Street to the River. It may seem to some residents that downtown has been flooding several times a year just in recent years; however the downtown area has had issues with flooding for over a century. The frequency of the flooding does seem to be on the rise, but it is likely that Nyack’s original water issues are being exacerbated by three additional stressors: Blocked Culverts, Loss of Tree Cover due to development Upslope, and worldwide climactic change.
Mayor Jen Laird-White has been actively seeking abatement solutions to our flooding issues since well before this last storm, and in fact, requested that I write about the history of flooding in Nyack the very day she swore me in as Village Historian. So far, real solutions come with large price tags in the $15 million or more range. Of the three additional factors mentioned above, obviously Nyack can only actively work on the first and regulate the second, the third can only be addressed by higher levels of government (if at all). Nonetheless, we have inherited an issue that is long standing and these additional stressors are only showing up the problems in our water management.
The culprit is a culvert. Though that is actually an oversimplification, it really does get to the crux of the matter. There is a running body of water known as the Nyack Brook that runs from the hills of Central Nyack right down through Nyack’s downtown and out into the Hudson near Memorial Park. Its course is basically parallel to Main Street but you can only SEE it in a few select locations, as it has been covered over and confined to culverts since the late 1800s. It runs north of Main Street from the area near the northbound Thruway entrance near High Avenue past the new Walgreens and the Catherine Street Firehouse. For several blocks it runs between Main Street and Catherine Street, and you can see it above ground and cross it with a footbridge by the Tappan Zee Florist at 176 Main Street. From there it once again dives beneath ground and runs under a number of buildings while heading for Franklin Street. When I was a teenager in the early 1980’s I had several friends who worked at the Coven Café (now Café Barcel) who delighted in pulling up a trap door in the floor of the restaurant to show me the Nyack Brook flowing by between the two segments of the building’s basement! Originally, the Brook meandered south around Bridge Street where there was, no big surprise, a bridge spanning it. If you look at some of the older published maps of Nyack (like the one at Village Hall) you’ll see that bridge at Main and Bridge Street. In the early 1900s someone decided that it would be a good idea to divert the brook before it got that far east and created a series of tunnels that turned it at Franklin Street. That would be planning mistake number one. One of Nyack’s first major flooding incidents occurred in 1903 just after this was done, no surprise there in hindsight.
Those temporary tunnels were replaced with concrete by the WPA during the Urban Renewal project of the 1960s that razed the business buildings on the east side of Franklin and the south side of Main Street to replace them with a parking lot, the Cinema East theater (now the defunct Riverspace) and the Nyack Plaza housing community. The brook flows beneath Main and Franklin, below the M&T Bank and the parking lot and pops up again briefly just west of Nyack Plaza south of DePew. It goes to ground again beneath parts of Nyack Plaza and surfaces for a while in the gorge that lies south of Hudson Street and west of Broadway. You can see the brook and the charming tree filled area around it by looking out the back window of the Strawberry Place. From there it goes below Broadway to emerge from under the east side of Piermont Avenue and then flows along the side of Memorial Park and into the Hudson. The brook is hemmed tightly in some sections and any kind of blockage by expected debris like broken branches; and unexpected like lumber, cinder blocks and unbelievably, shopping carts! There are many local business people who feel that the really severe flooding downtown experienced in 2011 was exacerbated by construction materials and the like that were blocking the culverts. It has yet to be determined if those objects added significantly or not to the damage; although the timing of the storm brought the floodwaters just when the downtown curbs and sidewalks were being replaced meaning there was very little to funnel or channel water that wound up above ground and flowing down the surface of Main Street.
The Nyack Brook may also have a special place in history – it may have been one of the “signposts” on the Underground Railroad, as the home of Nyack’s station keepers, Cynthia Hesdra and her husband, was located on the Brook near what is now the corner of Highland Avenue (9W) and Main Street (see my article about Cynthia Hesdra and the Underground Railroad on my At Home In Nyack blog: http://bit.ly/Z5CRMX ). If this is true, it is a shame that there are so few places where we can actually see with our own eyes a geological feature that was part of such a dangerous and needful endeavor. In addition to powering several mill wheels over the centuries, the Nyack Brook had for many, many years collected in a pond created by the Lydecker family for their ice business near where the Best Western motel now stands. There are still Nyack residents who recall happy winter afternoons on what was for so long called “the skating pond”, an annual wintertime joy for many residents. That pond and another no longer existent smaller pond just east of the main pond were outfitted with floodgates by the Nyack Water Company in 1891. According to Jim Leiner, our local expert on Nyack’s residents, Tobias Justrich who lived between the two ponds was the volunteer who raised and lowered the gates during storms to prevent the flooding further down the hill – Jim states that when Tobias passed away around 1930 no one took over the job and much more flooding occurred downtown as a result – planning mistake number two. A July storm in 1948 raised the brook by 9 feet in one afternoon! The construction of the Thruway in the 1950s filled in the Skating Pond, which became planning mistake number three.
Village History shows an uptick in downtown flooding during the 30’s after the floodgates were no longer operated, and more so after the construction of the Thruway. Without the skating pond, there was nowhere for water to collect along the slope from 9W to the river with one exception – the level area in the center of downtown between Franklin Street and Broadway, where there was already an issue due to the forced migration of the stream into the tunnels that turned it prematurely south. Note that all the water that collected in this last storm was in that section, the same being true for the flooding event in 2011 that filled the Riverspace Theater with water up to the stage and above the seats.
Nyack’s location on the tidal section of the Hudson River can be a crap game when it comes to an East Coast Hurricane – even if a storm is only labeled a “Tropical Storm” rather than a “Hurricane” when it reaches us, if it strikes during high tide, the results can be devastating – Superstorm Sandy was just the latest of the named storms that have caused us issues – 1954 brought two storms within a month of each other, Hurricanes Edna and Hazel brought severe flooding to downtown and destroyed several riverfront businesses. Hurricane Donna in 1960, Agnes in 1972, T.S. David in 1979, Gloria in 1985 and T.S. Floyd in 1999 all brought their special form of misery, flooding downtown and eliminating marinas, docks, and other riverfront businesses. And of course, in a reflection of 1954, the year 2011 brought us two major events – the flash flood in June followed by Hurricane Irene later in the summer, culminating with Sandy last year.
The frequency does appear to be increasing (other smaller events have happened throughout the 2000s – one in 2007 being most significant). Locally there’s not much we can do regarding the increased strength of storm events as our climate changes, they are not in our control. However increased vigilance would likely help in keeping the culverts of the brook as clear as possible and in assessing the effect of development in the area in regards to water drainage issues. When Oak Hill Cemetery clear cut a large swath of its property along Highland Avenue (9W) a few years ago, there were no longer trees to catch runoff and as a result Nyack Hospital now has flooding issues it did not have before and more runoff heads downhill to downtown. Housing developments above 9W in South Nyack/Upper Grandview and just below 9W in Upper Nyack clear-cut their trees as well with the result of increased flooding in the neighborhoods below them. These were likely unexpected consequences that no one doing the development considered, and in the future, we must make sure that any similar development is done in a more sustainable manner without full clear-cutting.
In the end, there is some flooding we simply can’t avoid – we are a River Village on a very large tidal fjord, and our one tributary stream to the Hudson is by necessity culverted. Diligence and intelligent planning will aid in lessening the blows of flash flooding, but can never eliminate them completely.