The Tibetans say that the present time is a degenerate era; evidence abounds and ignorance pervades to the point where we may even begin to doubt the validity of that whole notion as a form of relief. Ray asked me if I thought there was ever a time that things were better and we laughed.
Growing up in the sixties I remember one Friday afternoon in third grade when we learned JFK was shot dead. Within five years, I would hear of the shooting deaths of Malcolm-X, MLK and RFK. Kent State got my attention too. I wonder how many other kids growing up during this era quickly came to the conclusion that politics was nothing that they wanted to get too involved with. Having lived far from any major cities since I left New York at 18, I have never attended a political demonstration or town hall meeting, although I vote every chance I get and nudge my spacey friends to register. I even sign petitions and know far more than I ever wanted to about current events.
For years, I was able to ignore most of it by not owning a television and not reading newspapers. The Gulf War had been over for months but I didn't know who General Schwarzkopf was until I saw his book for sale in the grocery store. All that changed one morning in September 2001. I was sitting on my cushion in silent meditation when my wife came in the room and said that a jet had flown directly into the World Trade Center. Like many others at that point, I began following the news religiously. I'm still jonesing.
For better or worse, we have the system we deserve and while the way out of this labyrinth is endlessly discussed, there is no clear path of remedial action which can be effectively communicated and widely established. It is not that I don't care; its just that in my own case, I don't see any way to make much of a difference about what is happening in the world by those means. There are plenty of folks who believe otherwise. Instead, over the past three decades, my tendency has been to focus on cultural education, informed by compassion and commitment to personal spiritual evolution in the context of small, human communities. In a recent biography of Aldous Huxley, the author quotes a letter wherein Huxley expresses his belief that anyone with 'a gift for the knowledge of ultimate reality' could do far more good 'by sticking to his curious activites on the margin of society than by going to the centre and trying to improve matters there.' (Murray, 2002, p. 332)
A little more than a decade ago, I had a desire to travel to some of the power spots on Turtle Island, in particular, to places I had never been before. Such locations are often secret because while they are unique in their ability to absorb and re-emit spiritual influences, they are only akin to batteries or capacitors and do not of themselves generate blissful or meditative experiences. They must be regularly frequented by good people who truly contribute something essential to the accumulation of spirit energy in these places. A certain quality becomes available to the entire world in a non-local way when a site is properly empowered and repeatedly imbued with the effulgent samadhi of non-dual wisdom. A site that is neglected too long or contaminated with an excess of arbitrary impressions begins amplifying the resonances of mundane interests and the mood of separate self, effectively obscuring the extraordinary nature of such a site to draw one in. Beyond neutralizing a potential wellspring of spiritual healing and knowledge, negative effects may also manifest as social and political turmoil, natural disasters and disease.
This clogging of the visionary channels with the conventional sludge of self-concern and impulsive dogmas of endless consumption has accelerated our slide into an unecessary war. The open line to infintiy is plugged with the dregs of ego-clinging. The wisdom channel is blocked and we are caught in a satanic loop. Still, the contemporary form of community in the west has no place for the shaman. This lack of understanding and support for shamanic activity is only one aspect of our current troubles which is not likely to be discussed except in small groups of initiates.
Having visited many of the famous national parks, I was looking for isolated settings that were natural and somewhat off the beaten track, the kind of places that magnetize the heart, to bear witness, to play, pray and observe. So I began to listen closer and seek out locations where I could be completely undistrubed by the presence and artifacts of other human beings. This would obviously require travelling a good ways from roads and power lines.
Attention was initially attracted to the rarefied atmosphere of the mountains. On a road trip from California to Texas we passed by a lone volcanic peak in western New Mexico. The afternoon sun lit up its majestic slopes and seemed to say I Am Here; all the time you are running around trying to accomplish this or that, hoping your plans work out and fearing unforeseen obstacles, trying to acquire this and avoid that, all the while you sleep or struggle, argue and augment, whether rain, snow or night falls, still I Am Here...
Oddly enough, this sort of presencing appears to have very little to do with the size or physical mass of a thing as I came upon this same deep feeling of unqualified being seemingly communicated by sectors of empty space six miles above the Atlantic Ocean one golden afternoon. But unlike a rock, sky does not afford us the convenience of a clearly defined position. As embodied beings, composite objects may invite a return visit for more intimate and prolonged communion; ordinarily this merely describes our bondage.
This mountain was considered sacred to four tribes of Native Americans living around its base. The Dineh (Navajo) view it as one of four directional peaks, physical manifestations of spiritual awareness radiant with life force, defining the pattern of the Dineh cosmos. After learning the significance of these mountains, I felt a deep affinity with all ancient traditions which recognize the part such entities play in connecting the upper and lower worlds, the inner and outer dimensions of our existence. In the language of the Dineh, this understanding is an essential aspect of the Beauty Way.
Having long ago been introduced to the mandala principle through Vajrayana Buddhism, I had an appreciation for these arcane crosses as intuitive maps of the living world. Mandalas reflect an internal compass, a means of tuning into a deeper sense of place and purpose, a portal to central intelligence from anywhere in the four quarters of the world, a cache of meaningful reference points to navigate the dark sea of experience.
I soon learned that this same mountain was also heavily mined for uranium, an operation which shortened the lives of many indigenous miners and created mounds of tailings which have contaminated local springs. That a sacred mountain should be the scene of such a conflict was hardly surprising and only heightened my desire to make a pilgrimage.
Human beings have always sought out high places to pray, to gain another perspective, to recalibrate and reconsider their habitual approach in a clearer light. The journey to the summit becomes a means of focusing breath and attention, purifying intention and gradually harmonizing the powers of heaven and earth in a singular quest. From the initial planning and preparation to full execution, pilgrimage is an opportunity to take account of the present, to magnify a simple spirit of gratitude and generosity, to make pure offerings and strengthen the bond between the timeless, ineffable reality beyond change and this impermanent world of fleeting appearances. By such efforts, the adept consecrate all forms and aspects of everyday activity. The goal is to have a spontaneous awareness imbued with real compassion. Conscious regard of persons and situations releases a shower of blessings, as the heart becomes fully engaged, blissful in its central place as a conduit for essential humor and liberating truth, two primary elements in the great conversation.
There is a natural exchange involved in such journeys. One may be inspired or energized and takes home something of the place in the form of relics like memories, photos, perhaps a little rock or feather, but at the same time, the interaction is not complete unless one gives something of themselves. A respectful motive has likely fueled efforts to arrive but the activity is not complete without leaving something of value; a dorje, a piece of turquoise or a small crystal to accompany new resolutions or re-commitments made at the site itself. Expressions of heartfelt devotion recharge the place with the power of sincere prayer and transcendent awareness. I wanted to contribute my mite in the spirit of protecting and honoring a sacred view of these mountains and the rest of the natural world. With the intention to benefit all beings by these efforts, I decided to ascend the four peaks of Dinetah in the southwestern United States.
So I did that, accompanied by a few sangha members (1994-1996). You can read about a few of those trips in other parts of the website.
Then more recently, while working on an autobiography, I realized that I had been raised at the foot of an imposing yet unsung hill which is traversed daily by tens of thousands. Once upon a time, it even had a name.
Like so many others who have been drawn to travel, I am also beginning to appreciate the fact that I was raised in a very special and unique place. I am not merely referring to the geology and natural history of the area, but to the fact that it served as a setting for a prolonged exposure to formative influences. In specific, I refer to a natural elevation in western Long Island which occupies an area of about four square miles. Although no one ever referred to it as a named hill when I was growing up, I now realize I lived, slept and played on the slopes of natural feature once known as Rocky Hill for the better part of eighteen years. Evidence for the name comes from century old maps and railroad literature. There is still one Rocky Hill Road somewhere in Bayside but little more in the current area to suggest that the name was ever used locally much less applied to the entire mound. The toponym has been long forgotten but the extent of my discoveries in this place are incalculable and stay with me.
Our little brick house was built in the years before WW2 and sat third from the corner upon the outwash plain on the southeast apron, nestled half a block from Alley Pond Park and one street away from the gates of Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital. Unlike blocks further up the slope, we were able to play ball out front of the house although the mild angle still influenced the best way to lay out the bases. The hillock also determined which way rainwater flowed in the gutter, provided great downhill stretches to glide along on a bicycle, and in the winter, the park afforded a choice of long slopes to sleigh down with open grassy fields to safely receive you at the bottom.
The kettle hole topography in the northeast quarter of Rocky Hill eventually led to the area being set aside as Alley Pond Park, the second largest in Queens. Bordered by ravines too steep to be used for development, the area had come to be known as 'The Alley' over 300 years ago. A few months before the great stock market crash in 1929, the park was acquired by the city for 1.3 million dollars. Mayor Jimmy Walker said, 'This is an attractive offer and parks must be anticipated for the good of the increasing populations. There is no better site in Queens.' Good move. In 1935, Mayor LaGuardia and Parks Commisioner Robert Moses attended a ceremony opening a bird sanctuary in the mature woods of the upper park.
The Old Motor Parkway (OMP), designed for auto-racing at the beginning of the 20th century by the Vanderbilts, provided banked turns, no traffic or crossroads and a steep gradient as it descended the east side of the hill. A second good run, even longer, is an old narrow asphalt path which parallels the Cross Island Parkway, descending through the woods into the ravine along the eastern edge of the park as it heads north to the junction of Horace Harding and Cross Island. McCormack and I tripped down here one summer day and got eaten up by mosquitoes from the nearby swamps.
At 206 feet above sea level, Rocky Hill is the second highest point in Queens. Bordered on the east by Cross Island Parkway, on the north by the Long Island Expressway, on the west by the Clearview Expressway, and to the south by Hillside Avenue. Due to the suburbanization of the area, it is rarely conceived of as a hill even by those who live upon it or drive over its slopes regularly, but there is no question about it. The effects of topography are undeniable. Before the sewer system was improved in the late sixties, it was not uncommon for there to be waist--high flooding on various stretches of the low-lying borders after prolonged rains.
The Grand Central Parkway (GCP) cuts through the southern portion of this 2X2 mile square, riding along the crest of the moraine, less than half a mile northwest from the family house, a continuous swish, roar and purr of steel on rubber. Being designated a parkway, it was originally supposed to include 'ribbon parks' for walking and biking along its edges. By the time I was a teen, that plan had been so scaled back that it appeared as if they had merely decided to run a large, noisy roadway through a sequence of existing parks, compromising the reserves while providing no green 'ribbons' in-between. While I am recounting trivial details, there is an interesting manmade feature unique to the area, just north of GCP. Running from the overpass above the OMP in the park to the brushy area just west of Springfield, is a large drainage tunnel featuring a walkway and iron railing passing under both Union Turnpike and Springfield, directing rain water into natural depressions at both ends; Pea Pond to the west and what I used to think was Alley Pond to the east. (...it ain't; see Alley Pond below)
A huge silver-blue water tower stands just south of the GCP near the summit of Rocky Hill on Springfield. This steel tank can be seen from miles away on the southern outwash plains and was very likely the source of our household water. The quality was exceptional and the pressure always sufficient.
Not far from the crest was Redeemer Lutheran, the church-school I attended for eight years. Our pastor as well as many of the major patrons of the congregation lived in the immediate neighborhood. Pastor's son Mark was a rebel with sideburns, a leather jacket and Beatle boots. When his father stepped out one evening, Mark played Dylan's I'm Only Bleeding LOUD on the Church's big sound system as David and I, serving as acolytes, readied the altar for Advent services. A few minutes down the street was the Catholic school whose coach let me play third base; our school didn't have a team at the time. Try-outs were held in the open lot on the corner of Bell and Union where big tents blossomed and mechanical rides rotated during the annual bazaar which my folks would not allow me attend. The whole thing was a bit too pagan and degenerate, something Jesus would have chased out of the temple no doubt; at least that's what Pastor thought. The White Elephant sales held by the ladies of our church auxiliary commitee were another thing altogether; no games of chance.
American Martyrs Roman Catholic church was eventually built on the corner sandlot and stirred up some controversy as its non-traditional circular design resembles a Greek Orthodox temple. Across Bell Boulevard was the little library where I first obtained my own card, walking there alone after school and then riding a city bus home. Two of my first selections were a well-illustrated editions of Dickens' Magic Fishbone and Sandburg's Windsong.
Most of my friends, a few relatives, and my godparents lived here upon this knoll. The kids I played with after school everyday were from middle class Irish or Italian Catholic families on 236th or nearby streets. The southern slope east of Springfield was covered in acres of those horrid little two story projects which tended to be populated with Jews. Similar housing is found between 73rd Ave and the OMP where Nonnie lived. The hell isn't only of the upstairs/downstairs variety; when cousin Daryl would try to play his drums on Saturday morning, the guy on the other side of the wall would start banging and yelling about how he worked nights and wanted to sleep.
The wealthiest neighborhoods on the hill are found in the vicinity of the Lutheran church, between GCP and Union Turnpike. Large, well-landscaped brick homes, many with tudor designs, blue slate roofs, attractive stone work and even a few castle turrets are to be found amidst an abundance of azaelas, rhododendrons, maples and evergreens on the very top of the hill. This was a largely German neighborhood, and come December, this is where we would cruise to see some of the more elaborate Christmas light and lawn displays. It is unlikely that any black folk were living anywhere on Rocky Hill. Although there were never any Jim Crow laws (de jure) in New York, Queens racism a la Archie Bunkerwas rampant, de facto. Black neighborhoods were literally on 'the other side of the tracks'; the rails being the property of the Long Island Railroad on a raised bed south of Jamaica Avenue.
On this little patch of earth I learned to walk and talk, to read and write, discovered turtles, took my clothes off and ran naked in the street, would spin in circles in the living room till dizzy and then hold onto the piano leg and wonder if the world was really rocking or was it in my head, learned about Jesus and how to ride a bike, and that Aunt Marion would have said goodbye had she known and that even little kids can die, and that kites need a tail, learned to watch birds because they are beautiful and might be as wild as it gets in the city, saw sunspots and craters on the moon, visited my grandmother, peeked inside a Catholic church for the first time, rode the city bus alone, walked outside the day after a snowstorm on a path shovelled through drifts a yard over my head, went house to house collecting newspapers in a wagon, trick-or-treating or selling packets of seeds, experienced my first kiss, learned to play guitar, was introduced to all kinds of music, took strong psychedelics, smoked lots of dope, walked in the woods, wrote poetry, became a vegetarian, prayed, got laid, got enlightened, threw the I Ching, read Hesse, Huxley, Dostoevsky, Bradbury, Clarke, Zelazny, Whitman, Sandburg, Ginsberg, Leary, Watts, DT Suzuki, Lao-Tzu, RH Blyth, the Gita, the Upanisads, Eckhart, Merton, and the Bardo Thodrol.....
One fine day in the winter of 1973, on the southern apron of Rocky Hill, on the first day of a mythology class being taught in a second story classroom of Martin Van Buren High School by one Mr. Vincent Seyfried, Lord of Queens Historians, I took my seat in the back of the room, by the windows. Having been expelled from the small private academy I'd attended for the past three years in Hollis, I was now a senior in a large public institution just a few blocks from home and welcomed the anonymity. In Paris, only days before, North and South Vietnam had finally been able to agree on the shape of tables, and the United States had signed a treaty to withdraw all US forces within three months. Mr. Seyfried was a very animated and expressive teacher whose enthusiasm for the material was contagious. His presentation of the Egyptian myth of Osiris and interesting parallels with the Christ resonated with the perennial philosophy I was already immersed in. In hindsight, opting to attend this mythology class was one of the most important choices I ever made in my life; this is where I met Tenkar, my wife of 33+ years, a few months before graduation.
In the process of sleuthing through old maps and verbal descriptions of the area, I realized that although I was raised less than a block from Alley Pond Park, I had no idea where the actual pond is located. The 'Alley' originally referred to the steep ravines encountered on the northern and eastern slopes of Rocky Hill, a broad mound of glacial debris which formed the island, deposited about 22,000 years ago. Rocky Hill occupies the area currently bordered by Hillside Avenue to the south, Winchester Blvd. to the east, Horace Harding (& the LIE) to the north and the Clearview Expressway to the west. The kettle hole topography found on the northeastern quadrant of the hill would eventually become known as Alley Pond Park.
Apparently, the original catch of water and namesake was not that stagnant and polluted body occupying a kettle hole next to Grand Central Parkway in the upper park. Far from the old tires and empty bleach jugs, off the mound to the north, not far from the junction of Horace Harding, Winchester and Douglaston Parkway, is a low lying area with a little pond which has always been hidden from the road behind thick blue-green reeds and cattails so that you can't even see even the water. McCormack and I fought our way in one afternoon, just to take a peek; that little swampy spot is what is left of Alley Pond.
From here, all three roads lead uphill; west through Bayside, south to 'Little Plains' (Queens Village) and northeast to Little Neck. Alley Road (Winchester) climbed out of the ravine to the south before descending the southern slope of the terminal moraine along the western border of the Creed Farm until it merged with Springfield Blvd. Horace Harding, (once called West Alley Road) climbs the hill to the west. Originally a man-made mill pond central to a small settlement with a general store and post office which served the nearby community for almost a century, the pond lay at the junction of two ravines in a meadow opening at the extreme north-eastern corner of the park. Today those narrow valleys serve as roadbeds for the Long Island Expressway and Cross Island Parkway.
The interaction of tides, marshes and freshwater springs supported a wide variety of marine species and waterfowl. The abundance of birds and sealife in the area is what originally attracted the Mattinecock Indians to settle here. The Algonquian word Sewanhacky -- which roughly translates as 'Place of Shells' -- appears in Dutch records of land purchases in western Long Island. The first white settler in the area was Thomas Foster who obtained a grant of 600 acres from the English King in 1637. Foster built a stone house by the pond with one window to defend against possible Indian attacks. His family remained in the area for seven generations. From here, Alley Creek still flows north into Little Neck Bay. The location provided easy access to pasture, springs, saltwater marshes and the bay. Oysters and other shellfish were plentiful and the shells were profitably worked into beads and woven into wampum belts, highly value by natives throughout the region.
One of thirteen Algonquin speaking tribes living on the island when white settlers arrived, the Mattinecocks were decimated by small pox which swept across the island in the 1630's as the Dutch began negotiating for Brooklyn while the English worked the east end. A Dutch account written in 1650 estimates that two thirds of the Algonquin people living on Long Island had died from the epidemic. Some of the settlers saw the Hand of Providence in all this. Daniel Denton, attempting to encourage English settlement, authored a pamphlet entitled A Brief Description of New York (1670) wherein he states "it hath been generally observed that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them, by removing or cutting off the Indians either by Wars one with the other, or by some raging mortal Disease."
In 1764, a concerned member of the tribe dictated a plea to the Lieutenant Governor of New York stating that his people were gradually wasting away and that they are exposed to, and suffer great Inconveniences from the Contempt shewn to the Indian Tribes by their English Neighbors. Even as small, marginal communities, the settlers tried to prevent the Indians from gathering firewood and they continually incroach upon their occupations, by fencing more and more of the Indian's Lands, under Pretence of Sales made by their Ancestors. That your petitioner and his Associates are in Danger of being crowded out of all their ancient Inheritance, and of being rendered Vagabonds upon the Face of the Earth . . ."
In 1789, the Flushing Courthouse burnt down, destroying all records of transactions or land claims with the tribe. Northern Boulevard cuts through an old Mattinecock graveyard and the Zion Cemetery in Douglaston contains a monument which reads Here lie the last of the Matinecoc.
To make their way to Flushing, residents of Little Neck had to descend Douglaston Parkway, travel south of Alley Pond and then climb a steep hill to the west to travel along West Alley Road. There is a historical sign on this hill commemorating a visit by Washington in April of 1790. He wanted to check out the suitablity of agriculture in Queens and toured in a fancy, off-white coach, drawn by four large gray horses.
Good agricultural practices were a serious concern of Washington. He wrote to his own farm manager, "I shall begrudge no reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement & neatness of my Farms, for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order, and every thing trim, handsome, & thriving about them; nor nothing hurts me more than to find them otherwise." The General took time to eat well, stopping to visit with and thank people who had been part of the spy network on Long Island during the eight years of British occupation. The trip was low-key, and uneventful; the countryside still largely unoccupied and quiet. Meadows and woodlands were gradually giving way to farms and pasture. Most people living on the island were either working directly in agriculture, fishing or in supportive industries such as blacksmithing and ship-building.
The first major commercial nursery in the country was founded by Robert Prince in Flushing in 1737. The president had visited here the previous spring with John Adams and wrote, "These gardens, except in the number of young fruit trees, did not answer my expectations. The shrubs were trifling and the flowers not numerous.'' Apparently, George was not impressed with the soils of Long Island either, which were poor and unproductive. Crop rotation was still a novelty and fertilizer use was just catching on.
In 1824 a blacksmith named Thomas Brush settled on the edge of the common pasture which would one day become Queens Village. The same year a road was completed across the marshes to the north (Northern Boulevard), directly linking Little Neck and Flushing and making the long detour around Alley Pond and the steep ascent up the north-eastern slope of Rocky Hill unnecessary. In 1826, the post office was moved to Flushing.
When the railroads came to the north shore of Long Island in the 1830's, the community around the pond became a backwater. In 1955, the year I was born, the pond was truncated to provide a solid footing for the $1.9 million dollar stone bridge supporting the Horace Harding roadway as it passed over the Cross Island Parkway.
My latest inquiries into the mysterious nexus of elemental and cultural forces comprising that little sector of the world where I was raised involved typing the words Winchester Boulevard into a search engine and then scanning for images. The first photo to get my attention appeared on a site about historical railroads on Long Island. The picture was shot across a swath of asphalt horizontally bisected by a double yellow highway line, the lens focusing on the butt end of a brick block of two-story apartments behind a small iron fence; nothing remarkable. I immediately recognized the place. Some developer had squeezed these units between the backyards of an unusually wide block west of Winchester Boulevard. This precise location was the halfway point between my family's house and the home of David Kershaw, a friend who lived on Springfield Boulevard.
When I first started taking psychedelics as an enthusiastic teen, after confirming a deal by phone, David and I would meet here, about a ten minute walk for both of us. Here in this suburban no-man's land, we would pause, share a few short words and make the exchange.
I read the caption above the large, color picture; LOOKING NORTH FROM WINCHESTER AVENUE, FORMERLY ALLEY ROAD.
Knowing that Winchester defines the eastern boundary of the park, I immediately associated the name Alley Road with Alley Pond. These apartments occupied the old right of way for the railroad bed. Further research revealed the existence of a mile long trestle landing a half mile from my house which ascended to the top of 'Rocky Hill', the local summit of the glacial moraine which runs the length of the island and at 206 feet, the second highest point in Queens. The old rails of a few spur lines embedded in the asphalt of some nearby streets were the only clue that trains had ever run through here, but I never had any idea of where they came from or went, what they carried or how long ago it was operable. Nobody ever talked about it.
The decade after the Civil War was a time of great investments in railroads. In 1872, the Long Island Central ran a line from Flushing to Floral Park with depots in Kissena, Frankiston (73rd Ave. in Bayside, formerly Black Stump Road), Hillside, Creedmoor and Floral Park. Agriculture and cattle dominated this part of Queens until after the second world war.
The Creedmoor property was obtained by the NRA in 1872 by a group of Union army vets who felt their troops were poor marksmen and needed a place to practice. Flat, open land in eastern Queens which had originally belonged to the Creed family farm had been acquired by Central and North Side Railroad. One can get an idea of the extent of their holdings by the location of the Creed family farmhouse (1780) on Springfield (once Creed Road) and 93rd Avenue. The railroad owners felt that a range on the rural outskirts of the city would stimulate business for their trains and sold the NRA a 70 acre parcel. An NRA officer commented that the grassy open plain was akin to the Scottish moors and the resultant name stuck. This acquisition marked the beginning of the National Rifle Association (NRA). General Ambrose Burnside of Fredricksburg infamy, served as the group's first president. At first, the range was exclusively used by the NY National Guard and trains full of reservists would arrive each summer to practice. Tournaments were held and a dramatic American victory over an Irish team in 1874 drew international attention.
Two hotels operated between the range and the Creedmore Depot. On the corner of Range Road, proprietor John Klein built the two-story Creedmoor Range Hotel in 1877, which promised 'refreshments of all kinds, ales, wines, liquors and cigars, kept constantly on hand.' Captain Klein was killed in the summer of 1879 after being thrown from a carriage. Mrs. Klein continued to run the business for nearly three more decades.
Accomodations were also available on the range at the Creedmoor Clubhouse and Pavilion. One of the 'prominent features' advertised was the 'handsomely furnished Ladies Parlour and Retiring Room, with proper attendance' which probably meant there was a black woman to help you dry your hands. Women were also granted exclusive access to the 'extensive Piazza running the whole length of the building' which offered an unobstructed view of the shooting range. Men dressed in formal attire could be observed firing at targets from 200 to 1000 yards away. Creedmoor was billed as a 'delightful and attractive resort to everybody taking an interest in the National Sport of Rifle Shooting.' Now that the war was over, gun manufacturers wanted to to find new avenues for sales. Remington Arms manufactured a Creedmoor black powder rifle.
The gun was a beautiful weapon, known as the long range "Creedmoor." It was a Remington, highly finished, and cost $125. It had a front sight, known as the wind-gauge, with the spirit-level, and with the vernier sight on the stock, which is raised from its flat position when the hunter wishes to shoot a long distance, and is graduated up to a thousand yards, carrying a 44 cartridge.
"That isn't of much account in this part of the world," said Sam Harper, passing the weapon back; "it's light enough, for I don't suppose it weighs more than six or seven pounds."
"It's just the thing for these woods," said Herbert, in his important manner, "for I calculate to bring down game a half mile away, if I happen to see it."
-Edward Ellis, Through Forest and Fire:
Wild-Woods Series No. 1 (1891)
Winchester, Springfield and many nearby streets are named after weapons and martial themes; Musket, Pistol, Saber, Range, Gettysburg, and Lyman (black powder guns). Some say Annie Oakley 'got her gun' here (although I have not come across anything more definitive about that). Still, the management was aware that not everyone in the weekend crowds arriving from the city was into spending the day amidst the smell of gunpowder. They made sure to provide 'croquet, archery, lawn tennis and other outdoor sports' for the ladies. And plenty of liquor to be sure.
Construction of the rail line from Flushing was rapid, the only difficulty being the descent off the glacial moraine, as primitive steam-shovels were employed to move tons of earth and a mile-long trestle was built on the southern slope of Rocky Hill, near the point where the Grand Central Parkway overpass presently crosses Springfield Boulevard (formerly Rocky Hill Road).
This portion of the Central Line ran for less than seven years. By 1879, new routes established by competitiors put an end to rail business between Flushing and Creedmoor. The Central Line was financed by two rich immigrants. A.P. Stewart came to America from Ireland and fathered the modern department store, pioneered mail-order and founded the town of Garden City. To provide rail service from his community on Long Island to Manhattan he invested in a line which became known as The Stewart Road (map c.1905). Long Island rubber tycoon Conrad Poppenhusen, a German immigrant already in the New York railroad business, was also involved and oversaw the operation after Stewart's death. Stewart died in 1876, the third richest man in America behind Vanderbilt and Astor. Poppenhusen, a name virtually unkown outside of College Point, went bankrupt in 1878 and never recovered his losses.
Public interest in marksmanship was waning and by 1890 the NRA became dormant. The shooting and tournaments continued until technical improvements provided longer range bullets, and complaints about drunk guardsmen and stray shots from surrounding residents led to the closing of the rifle range in 1910. In 1912, the land became a 'farm colony' for 32 patients from Brooklyn Psychiatric Hospital. The idea, prior to the current emphasis on pharmaceuticals, was to get people out into more natural environments involving manual labor to facilitate better healing and emotional integration. Before WW2, there were over seventy buildings on the grounds and the institution became known as Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.
When I was growing up, the name Creedmoor evoked the archetype of an underfunded, inhumane mental institution, a place of social isolation and unspeakable horrors. We always referred to it as' the nut house'. The window in my childhood bedroom faced east, the eye being drawn across the relative confinement of backyards toward the space between brick houses, across the pot-holes of Winchester Boulevard, beyond the iron and evergreen barrier no more than a hundred yards away, where a large American flag still flies on the grounds of Creedmoor. My brother and a few uncles were employed as janitors there at various times; a troubled teen named Lou Reed got electro-shock treatments here in 1959. On the upside, a little publicized program undertaken in the early sixties, provided daily doses of acid and psilocybin to boys in the children's units for months at a stretch. According to the report, nearly all of the children, many of them severely autistic and schizophrenic, "responded, became more straightforward, and here".
American folk-hero Wood Guthrie passed away here the day after I turned 12. Pete Seeger wrote, "About eight months before he died in 1967, I visited him once more, this time with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Woody was in a wheelchair. He couldn't walk anymore, so the hospital attendant wheeled him out onto a porch where it was warm. Sonny, Brownie and I played some music for Woody. We did "Rock Island Line", with Sonny blowing his harp, sending beautiful notes into the air. Woody must have liked what he heard because you could see how much he wanted to be part of our little group. He tried to get his arms going, but they were just flailing around like a windmill. It got to the point where it looked as though he might hurt himself, so the attendant said, 'You better quit playing that loud tune' and we played some quiet blues instead.
In the words of a former inmate, "Creedmoor Hospital was the most picturesque and traditionally gothic of the psych institutions in which I ever slept. Some of the more modern ones were worse in terms of their determination to establish complete control over the inmates, but for sheer creepiness, Creedmoor stands by itself."
The old railroad bed between Flushing and Creedmoor is still traceable through the Kissena Corridor, a green strip obvious on any good map, crossing the Long Island Expressway southwest of St. Francis Prep (formerly Bishop Reilly High) School and disappearing into the woods on the east side of Francis Lewis Blvd., before reappearing as a dirt track in the woods northeast of the junction of Clearview Expressway (formerly Queens Road) and 73rd Ave (formerly Black Stump Road).
I originally came across this old right of way while exploring the woods northeast of the junction of 73rd and the Clearview with cousin Daryl, (who would also eventually get electro-shocked in Creedmoor) back in '67 when we were barely 12. Always on the lookout for the hidden doorway, we had wandered into the woods and soon came across the old right of way. While eager to see where it led, the road was sandy and hard to ride on so we decided to drop our bikes and sit down to talk for a minute. Things being what they are in this world, a man had followed us in and while standing about twenty yards away, exposed himself and commented on the process, "Excuse me," in what was probably a fake-British accent, "I just want to show you something. This will only take a minute..." as he briefly explained the process and brought himself to climax in about thirty seconds. He thanked us for watching, pulled up his pants and disappeared. Daryl and I, still pre-pubescent, had never seen anything like this. We laughed and shook our heads. What a world! We were quickly learning to beware.
The sandy bed rolled across the northern end of Cunningham Park, through the projects before sliding under a bridge on the Old Motor Parkway just west of Bell Boulevard. The right of way followed Stewart Road between the Roman Catholic church property and the public school where we used to hold our year-end recitals. Our church-school was just a few minutes further up the hill. Mr. Pittlekow was the principal at Redeemer, and lived in those very projects.
A few weeks before the above incident, I was standing upon the base of a lampost in the vicinity of 73rd and Clearview, hanging and rotating around the aluminum shaft by one arm when I saw the Pittlekows drive by in their robin's egg-blue Ford Galaxy. Old eagle-eyes saw me and and called my folks to let them know how far I was from home. We were on the northwestern edge of our range, although not really that far from Daryl's house. The bike path on the Old Motor Parkway ended nearby, providing easy access and the combination of a chaotic construction scene around the expressway and the lure of nearby woods which converged here was irresistible. Pittlekow was at least six foot nine with shocking white hair, huge, shiney black shoes, and usually favored baggy, ash-gray suits with cuffs on the pants. We were all terrified of this man. He had a piercing visage and what I would eventually come to recognize as a Calvinist temperament. While Mister made everyone uneasy, big-breasted Mrs. Pittlekow was all love and hugs. She wore those thick matron heels, ate cottage cheese and peaches with tea for lunch and taught first and second grade for years. Mr. Pittlekow taught seventh and eighth. I felt lucky that he had died the summer before I was to be in his class.
Rails crossed Hillside Avenue a block east of Braddock Avenue and followed street patterns across Winchester Boulevard behind P.S.18, where I had attended kindergarten. A spur line crossed Hillside between the school and the little league ballfields, leading on through the green iron gates of Creedmoor to deliver coal to a small power plant built there after WWI. Even as a child I knew about the rusty tracks running behind the playground but never saw a train rolling on them. There were some large concrete silos in the same neighborhood which used to hold coal once supplied by the freight trains. Along the edge of these tracks, near the abandoned silos, I touched pieces of coal for the first time. Service on this end of the line was virtually non-existent in the sixties and permanently discontinued by winter solstice of 1966.
At the place where the rails had crossed Union Turnpike, the block plans conformed to the gradient of the old railroad bed as it nears the summit of what was once called Rocky Hill Road, with streets running diagonal to the surrounding grid before descending (i imagine) upon a formidable structure of braced posts, a style perfected by Union army engineers during the Civil War.
I had always wondered why the section of Hillside Avenue between Martin Van Buren Highschool and Springfield Boulevard was so wide. On the south side of the road, they built the first supermarkets in the neighborhood. To the north, the slope is filled with two story apartments we called 'Little Israel'. Between the two sides of the road lay a stark asphalt median big enough to contain a few football fields, an unexplained open space which was always empty except for broken glass and bottlecaps. Now that I can picture a monstrous trestle and numerous side rails occupying that space, a mere century before I lived there, I wonder why no one ever told me and roused my curiosity about local development and changes in infrastructure. More than likely of course, it is because, outside of a few history teachers or railroad buffs, no one living was aware of it.