Category Archives: Park Projects

Propelling History At New York State Parks

At this summer’s grand opening for the revamped Pier 76 in Manhattan, most visitors likely noticed a massive ship propeller on display near the entrance. At 18 feet in diameter and weighing more than 30 tons, it is certainly hard to miss.

State Parks oversaw the propeller’s installation from the nearby Intrepid museum as part of its $31 million construction and renovation project to remake Pier 76 into the newest public recreational and cultural space in the city’s Hudson River Park. But another part of State Parks’ mission is preserving and documenting history, such as this massive nautical object and the story behind it.

Workers lower the massive propeller into place at Pier 76.

It is a story of a bygone era of luxury transatlantic travel aboard the SS United States, a liner launched during the Korean War whose passengers included such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, and a former king of England, as well as four U.S. Presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton, who crossed the ocean as a college student on his way to Oxford University in England. After iconic animator and filmmaker Walt Disney traveled to Europe aboard, he used it as the setting for one of his family-friendly comedy movies of the 1960s. The ship featured prominently in the advertising of the 1950s and 1960s as an epitome of style and casual elegance.

The bronze-manganese propeller at Pier 76 was one of four that allowed the SS United States – a ship longer and heavier than the ill-fated RMS Titanic – to have blazing speed. Able to go faster in reverse than the RMS Titanic could go forward, the “Big U” set a speed record for passenger liners using only two-thirds of its power on its July 1952 maiden voyage from New York City to Europe. That record still stands today, decades after jet aircraft became the preferred way for people to cross the ocean.

The SS United States set a speed record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1952 that still stands. (Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons)
The SS United States shown in her homeport of New York City harbor in the 1950s.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the SS United States being launched and christened, with 2022 as the 70th anniversary of that record-setting maiden voyage. After its brief but illustrious 17-year career, the ship was permanently withdrawn from service in 1969, the victim of changing travel habits, increasing fuel costs, and loss of government support. Since then, numerous attempts to repurpose the vessel have fallen through.

Now docked in Philadelphia while a national not-for-profit group, the SS United States Conservancy, seeks to preserve it, the SS United States is one of the world’s last surviving examples of ocean-going luxury.

When the ship was completed, it cost approximately $78 million, with about two-thirds of that cost covered by the U.S. Navy, which wanted to create the world’s fastest ship for military use. That was equivalent to about $800 million today, enough to cover the expense of two modern Boeing 777 passenger jetliners. At the time, many details of the vessel’s construction were a military secret, since the Navy wanted a liner that could be converted quickly into a troop ship in the event of war. The SS United States was capable of carrying up to 14,000 troops, 1,444 crew, and a 400-bed hospital for 10,000 miles without refueling.

In addition to speed and military adaptability, the liner also had modern, distinctly American stylings setting it apart from the more traditional luxury vessels of earlier days. Designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs of Gibbs & Cox (designer of 5,400 World War II vessels, including the famed “Liberty Ships”) and constructed in Newport News, Va., the ship was marketed as a vacation in itself. Advertising campaigns during the 1960s emphasized that ocean voyages, even for business, could be a pleasure – you would arrive faster on an airplane, but you would arrive happier on an ocean liner!

An advertising poster touts the speed of the SS United States, and its sister ship, the SS America.

To further emphasize this vision, designers Dorothy Marckwald and Anne Urquhart worked for three years with a dozen assistants to design the interior decoration of the ship’s public spaces and hundreds of passenger staterooms. Discarding the stuffy old-world style previously found on American ships, the SS United States had a contemporary look that emphasized simplicity over the palatial, and restrained elegance over glitz. The ship’s modern interiors were soothingly homelike.

Gibbs also was concerned with fire risks and mandated that no flammable materials could be used in the ship including construction materials and interior décor. Aluminum was used extensively in the structure, making the ship lighter (and thus faster) while also fireproof. The only wood found in the ship was the kitchen’s butcher blocks and the mahogany Steinway pianos.

Marckwald and Urquhart’s decorating included several commissioned works of American-themed art for public spaces from Hildreth Meière, Louis Ross, Peter Ostuni, Charles Lin Tissot, William King, Charles Gilbert, Raymond Wendell, Nathaniel Choate, Austin M. Purves Jr., and Gwen Lux. Marckwald humorously noted of the interior : “One thing we don’t do on a ship is use color that is at all yellowish green—you know, anything that will remind a traveler of the condition of his stomach.”

After Walt Disney traveled aboard the SS United States, he was so impressed that he decide to use the ship – its exterior colors were patriotically red, white and blue – as a setting for his 1962 comedy film “Bon Voyage!” about an American family’s European vacation.

This publicity still for Bon Voyage! shows stars Jane Wyman, Fred MacMurray, and Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran throwing paper streamers over the railings as the SS United States set sail. (Photo Courtesy of SS United States Conservancy)

What gave the vessel its speed was a propulsion system of eight boilers and four 1,000-psi steam turbines that provided more than 240,000 horsepower (more than four times that of the RMS Titanic) to four independent propellers, two with four blades and two with five blades. These designs reduced both cavitation – the formation of partial vacuums in a liquid by a swiftly moving solid body such as a propeller – and resulting ship-wide vibration.

Despite the enormous fuel consumption, the ship could carry enough fuel and supplies to travel non-stop up to 10,000 miles at a cruising speed of 34 knots and a top speed of 38.32 knots (about 44 miles per hour). This incredible combination of weight, power, and speed allowed the ship to make its 1952 maiden crossing at an average of 34.51 knots (or nearly 40 miles an hour).

This earned the Big U the Blue Riband – an unofficial accolade given to the fastest transatlantic passenger liner.

A worker checking one of the four-bladed propellers of the SS United States prior to its 1951 launch. (Photo Credit – Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Pioneering marine engineer Elaine Kaplan was responsible for overseeing the design of the ship’s unique propeller configurations. She began working at Gibbs & Cox during the early 1940s while attending Hunter College in New York City and pursuing a mathematics degree. Kaplan’s efforts were noted by the firm’s chief marine engineer Walter Bachman as well as William Francis and Frederic Gibbs.  As a result of her intelligence and meticulous work, she was ultimately assigned to design the propulsion system for the SS United States.

Another aspect of the design that aided performance was the underside of the hull, especially the bow, which used an unusual bulbous shape instead of the traditional knife-edge. This improved high-speed performance and reduced water resistance and friction. For many years, this and other below-water details were classified information, and no public drawings or photos below the waterline were available. Display models of this sleek and modernistic liner showed a flat bottom and no details!

Intensely proud of his vision, Gibbs said of his ship: “You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her.”

Despite all this, the SS United States was retired from active service in 1969 due to increasing pressure from affordable trans-Atlantic airline flights, increased operating and fuel costs, and the U.S. government’s decision to end its operating subsidies after determining the vessel would never be used as a troop ship. By 1980 the vessel was considered obsolete for military use and subsequently sold off to a successive series of private entities.

In 1999, the ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The preservation group SS United States Conservancy, headed by Gibbs’ granddaughter Susan, purchased the ship in 2011 and has been raising funds and promoting redevelopment plans to save it from being dismantled. Now striped of much of its interiors and its trademark funnels faded, the vessel is currently berthed in Philadelphia, Pa., where it has been since 1996. It is not currently open for public tours.

“We appreciate New York State providing such a prominent location for one of the ship’s iconic propellers. It is awe-inspiring to see this sculptural component of the ship on proud display back in her homeport of New York,” said Susan Gibbs, President of the SS United States Conservancy.

“For the past decade the Conservancy has kept the SS United States safely afloat,” she said. “Although “America’s Flagship” remains endangered, this iconic symbol has enormous potential to once again welcome and inspire millions of visitors as a thriving mixed-use destination and dynamic museum on the waterfront. We are working every day, along with our partners and supporters from across the country and around the world, to save the United States.”

Two other SS United States propellers also are displayed in New York State. One is at the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in The Bronx, and the other is at the American Merchant Marine Museum at Kings Point, in Nassau County on the North Shore of Long Island. An additional propeller on public display is located at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.

A historic postcard of the SS United States.
The propeller against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Pier 76 served as a freighter terminal for New York City-based United States Lines, owners of the SS United States. The company vacated the pier in the 1970s.

Cover shot – SS United States propeller on display at Pier 76. Images from NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Daniel Bagrow, historic preservation program analyst NYS Parks, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks.

RESOURCES

Watch this video of the SS United States by Bright Sun Films.

A look at the ship’s role in the Disney film BonVoyage!

SS United States Conservancy Facebook Page

SS United States Conservancy Conservancy web page

Learn about the SS United States Conservancy’s plans to redevelop the ship

Technical details about the SS United States’ propellers

Empire State Native Pollinator Survey – You Can Help!

Summer is in full swing, with flowers blooming and bees buzzing. Our native pollinators, which also include flies, butterflies, and beetles, are an important part of New York’s ecosystems. They work hard to pollinate our trees, wildflowers, gardens, and crops. Some of these native pollinators appear to be declining. To learn more, scientists have been evaluating the populations of pollinators throughout New York as part of the four year Empire State Native Pollinator Survey (ESNPS).

The ESNPS is a project that aims to determine the distribution and conservation status of target pollinator species in New York. This project is made possible through work by both scientists conducting statewide surveys and community members submitting pollinator pictures and specimens they have observed.

In the last few years, zoologists with New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) have visited more than 60 State Parks throughout New York State searching for a variety of target pollinator species. Community scientists have also been contributing their finds with photos added to the ESNPS iNaturalist project page.

More than 21,000 observations had been submitted to this multi-year project byMarch 2021, with the project constantly growing. These observations have been submitted by over 600 people and represent over 1,400 species. The Empire State Native Pollinator Survey is accepting photo submissions through September 2021 and you can help!

Be A Community Scientist

Do you want to help contribute to pollinator survey efforts? The project is accepting photo submissions through September 2021! Photographs can be submitted through the ESNPS iNaturalist project page or through the iNaturalist app after joining the project online. This can be a fun activity to do solo or with friends and family the next time you visit a State Park. Pollinators can be found in a variety of habitats – keep an eye out for wildflowers on warm and sunny days to see what you can find.  If you are able to snap some good pictures and upload them to iNaturalist, experts can help you identify the species you have found. It is a great way to learn, too.

What to Look For

Below are some pictures of the target species for this project that have been found in New York State Parks. New York’s pollinators have so much variety! These are just a few examples of what to look for and photograph.

Cuckoo Bee


One of the interesting bumble bees we have in New York is Fernald’s Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus flavidus=fernaldae). Cuckoo bumble bees are a group of parasitic bees that are unable to collect pollen or raise young. These bees will take over the already established nests of other bumble bees by invading and incapacitating or killing the queen. The Cuckoo bumble bee then forces the workers to raise its young.

Fernald’s Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus flavidus=fernaldae) Photo Kevin Hemeon

Bee Mimics

Look closely at the Bare-eyed Bee-mimic Fly (Mallota bautias) and Eastern Hornet Fly (Spilomyia longicornis); these are flies that are called bee mimics. Bee mimics can look very similar to bees, hornets, or wasps. Imitating insects with stingers is a defense mechanism for these harmless flies. 

Bare-eyed Bee-mimic Fly (Mallota bautias) Photo Paweł Pieluszyński
Eastern Hornet Fly (Spilomyia longicornis) Photo Laura Shappell
Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) Photo Alan Wells

Longhorn Beetles

The project is also interested in information on the 100 species of longhorn beetles. These beetles generally have very long antennae and come in a wide variation of colors and patterns. They too are pollinators.

Strangalepta Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalepta abbreviata) Photo Alan Wells
Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinus) Photo Alan Wells

Where Should I Look?

You can find native pollinators all over. State Parks have a great variety of natural habitats where you can find interesting pollinators. Sunny days with not too much wind are ideal. Some of the counties that would benefit from additional surveys are Chenango, Cortland, Fulton, Lewis, Montgomery, Orleans, Tioga, and Yates.

Look for flowers along trails through fields, meadows, dunes, forests, or even in marshes and stream sides if you kayak or canoe. Stop and look for a bit to see if any pollinators settle down on the flowers. Photograph from a distance first and then try to move in for some close-ups. The insects are often so intent on feeding that they don’t fly away.

If you can help, sign up for the Empire Pollinator Survey ESNPS iNaturalist project page and submit your photos on that project page or the APP before Sept. 30, 2021. The results from the project are anticipated to be available in spring 2022.

Post by Ashley Ballou, Zoologist, NY Natural Heritage Program  www.nynhp.org

Resources

Read more about State Parks and our efforts with pollinators in previous posts in the NYS Parks Blog.

Protecting Pollinators

Across New York, State Parks staff is working hard to help support the diverse populations of pollinators from bees to butterflies, beetles, wasps, and more.  Here’s a sample of the pollinator protection projects going on this year in State Parks. Rockefeller State Park Preserve Wild Bees Photo Exhibit Working from their photographs from both Rockefeller … Continue reading Protecting Pollinators

Ninham’s Journey: Hard Tale and a Mountain Trail in the Hudson Valley

One of the most popular hikes in the Hudson Valley, the Breakneck Ridge Trail at Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve offers spectacular views of the historic river valley from its 1,200-foot summit. The trail is often listed among the best hikes in the region.

But this 4.4-mile trail, boulder-strewn, narrow, and steep, is also physically demanding for even the most experienced hikers. Not advised for the inexperienced or those used to flat trails, this challenging terrain has occasionally led to injured or lost hikers in areas where rescue can be difficult.

In July 2021, a new trail connecting to Breakneck was opened to provide an alternative, allowing hikers unwilling or unable to continue the arduous ascent to instead make a shorter, gentler, and safer return loop down to Route 9D.

A trail guide on the new Ninham Trail at the intersection of Breakneck Ridge Trail. (Photo Credit- NYS Parks)

Formed with hundreds of hand-set stone steps, the new half-mile Ninham Trail was made possible by Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail Inc., a new not-for-profit affiliate of the environmental group Scenic Hudson, which raised the funds to pay for it. The Fjord team includes Hudson Highlands Land Trust, NY-NJ Trail Conference, Open Space Institute, The Lenape Center, and Riverkeeper; four state agencies: Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Conservation, and Department of State; four municipalities: Village of Cold Spring, Town of Philipstown, Town of Fishkill and City of Beacon; two New York metro-area agencies: Metro-North Railroad and New York City Department of Environmental Protection; and three community-based non-profits: Friends of Fahnestock and Hudson Highlands State Parks, Little Stony Point Citizens’ Association, and the Philipstown Greenway Committee.

Hudson Highlands Park Preserve Manager Evan Thompson said the Ninham trail will make hiking Breakneck safer for everyone, since hikers who want a short return no longer will go against the flow of hikers coming up. The new trail also provides hikers a slightly less vertical way to reach Breakneck Ridge. And just as importantly, the trail will also make it easier and quicker for rescue crews to respond to emergencies further up the trail.

Breakneck Ridge as seen from the south at Little Stony Point on the Hudson River.

Ninham Trail is a source of two compelling tales – first, the story of its rugged construction along the face of the ridge, including more than 540 stone steps handcrafted from the mountain’s own stone, and second, the history behind its namesake Daniel Ninham, who was the last chief of the Wappinger tribe that once lived in the rocky Hudson Highlands of Westchester, Dutchess, and Putnam counties. (His last name has also been spelled Nimham, based on the historical record, but the preferred spelling is Ninham.) Ninham and other Wappingers lost their lives fighting on the patriot side during the American Revolution, but despite that the tribe was ultimately pressured several decades later to relocate out of New York and eventually wound up halfway across the continent.

The native granite of the Hudson Highlands where Ninham once roamed forms the spine of the Ninham Trail, which traverses the face of a ridge to connect Breakneck Trail with the Wilkinson Memorial Trail originating on a Route 9D trailhead. Starting in summer 2020 and continuing to completion in June 2021, crews from the firm Tahawus Trails LLC, of Accord, Ulster County, and the volunteer group Jolly Rovers Trail Crew, of Poughkeepsie, worked to carve out the trail and lay in stone steps and bridges where needed.

With each stone step weighing an average of about 500 pounds, that’s more than a quarter-million pounds of stone, cut in place from boulders near the trail, and moved through muscle power aided by block and tackle, come-alongs and highlines, and set into place, with much of the work done by hand. The steps are a legacy as durable as the mountain itself.

Above, a new bridge on the Ninham Trail, constructed by Tahawus Trails LLC. Below, members of the Jolly Rovers crew work on stone steps, with a crew banner marking the volunteer group’s work site.

State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid, left, examines completed stone steps with a member of the Jolly Rovers trail crew.

The rugged trail honors the enduring legacy of Daniel Ninham, who was born in the Hudson Valley near Fishkill in the mid-1720s as Dutch and later English colonists were extending their control over Wappinger and other native lands. By the 1740s, Ninham’s Wappingers and a patchwork of members of other dispossessed tribes in that region had gathered in western Massachusetts, in what today is Stockbridge, Berkshire County. Forming a European-style town named after a place in England, the native inhabitants converted to Christianity and were known then as “Stockbridge Indians.”

The Stockbridge community, which also included English settlers, was mixture of Wappingers, Mahicans/Mohicans, and Munsee (also known as the Lenape or the Delaware), such as the Esopus and Catskills, as well as other Native peoples.

The areas outlined in white, spanning the Hudson Valley in New York, as well portions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, were the original territory of the Mohican people, which inclueded the Wappinger tribe. (Courtesy of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians)

As Stockbridge chief (known as a “sachem”), Ninham was fluent in English and tried unsuccessfully to use Colonial courts to regain massive tracts of the lost Hudson Valley lands, claiming deeds had been fraudulently obtained. He later traveled to London in 1766 to make an unsuccessful appeal of the case to British royal officials, who asked the Colonial government to reexamine the case, which was upheld despite disputed and contrary evidence

During the Revolution, Ninham and his warriors, known as the Stockbridge Militia, angered by what they considered these earlier British betrayals after having supported Britain in the French and Indian War and other conflicts, sided with George Washington and the Continental Army, believing that fairer treatment might be obtained from a new government. Militia members served with patriot forces at battles including Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Valcour Bay, Saratoga, and Valley Forge.

A drawing of a Stockbridge Militia soldier from the diary of Revolutionary War Hessian soldier Johann Von Ewald (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

In August 1778 during fighting around New York City, Daniel Ninham, his son, Abraham, and more than a dozen soldiers of the Stockbridge Militia were killed by British and Hessian forces during a battle in what is now Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx. A stone monument to the Battle of Kingsbridge by the Daughters of the American marks the spot today as one of the reminders of Ninham in New York State.

In the town of Fishkill, at the intersection of routes 52 and 82, the state installed a monument to Ninham in 1937. A memorial to Ninham is in Putnam County Veterans Memorial Park in Kent. Also found in Putnam County is the 1,054-acre Nimham Mountain Multiple Use Area, operated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

An oil painting entitled “Ninham’s Last Stand,” by military artist Don Troiani.

However, the Stockbridge Militia’s sacrifice did little to stop encroachment on their Berkshire County land even during the war, and the tribe, weakened by its manpower losses and pressured by former colonists who had taken some of the land and wanted the rest, moved westward to Oneida County south of what is now Syracuse. As part of that move in 1783 as the war ended, the tribe received a personal letter from George Washington thanking them for their service during the Revolution, calling them “friends and brothers” who “fought and bled by our side.” Washington urged that the Stockbridge “not be molested in any manner” during their journey west. As a gesture to his allies, according to some accounts, Washington also paid for the tribe to have an ox roast at Stockbridge before they left, something that current tribal officials conducted an archeological investigation into in 2019

After moving onto lands provided by the Oneida tribe, the Stockbridge again faced pressure in coming years to move, as land speculators and squatters desired that property as well. Some members attempted to move to Indiana in 1818, but were blocked when the Delaware and Miami tribes, which had agreed to take in the Stockbridge, lost control of the land to approaching colonists. In 1822 after reaching a sales agreement with New York State, the remaining Stockbridge left the state entirely, and moved to Wisconsin, where members currently have recognition as the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.

Numbering about 1,600 members, the group has a 24,000-acre reservation in Shawano County, west of the city of Green Bay. According to the tribal website, there are only “seven or eight” people alive who can still speak the native Mohican language, a consequence of colonization. Tribal efforts are ongoing to keep the language alive by introducing it to this generation.

So, the story of Ninham is a hard tale befitting a hard path for his people, but also a story of a people who have endured despite such extreme hardship. On its website, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band describes itself as a “long suffering proud and determined people (who) … were pushed from the eastern seaboard across half a continent, forced to uproot and move many times to our present land.” As a modern logo, the band uses a stylized representation of “many trails” to symbolize the many trails the people took to reach this present day.

When walking the Ninham Trail, imagine the muscle and sweat it took to build, and also recall its namesake, a man who once walked those hills, lost his homeland as he tried to navigate a perilous path among powerful forces, and who ultimately lost his life and that of his son as his community gave its support to the cause of founding the United States, believing it could give his people just treatment.

The monument to Ninham and his Stockbridge warriors at Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx. (Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons)

Cover shot – The roadside marker to Ninham and the Wappinger in the town of Fishkill, Dutchess County, at the intersection of routes 52 and 82 . (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons) All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Parks.

Hiking Hudson Highlands and the Ninham Trail

We strongly recommend following proper hiking safety guidelines and having knowledge of the conditions you will be facing before your planned hike. For best practice:

● Please stay on marked trails. Walking off trail damages the surrounding ecosystem and is the main cause of lost hikers and injuries.
● Wear proper footwear (such as hiking boots or sturdy shoes) and clothing to match the weather forecast.
● Bring enough water with you, carry a paper or digital trail map, and make sure to leave enough time to complete your hike. The park is open from sunrise to sunset.
● Please note that overnight camping and fires are prohibited throughout the park.

● Find maps of hiking trails in Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve here and here (this second map link shows the Ninham trail, which is designated by the letters NH). Learn about other staff-recommended hikes here.

Scenic Hudson President Ned Sullivan, left, points out aspects of the Ninham Trail guide while on a recent hike. (Photo credit- NYS Parks)
Some of the stone steps along the Ninham Trail, with a wooden fence for added safety due to the steepness of the terrain.

Resources

Learn more about today’s Stockbridge-Munsee by clicking here.

The Road to Kingsbridge: Daniel Nimham and the Stockbridge Indian Company in the American Revolution, American Indian Magazine, Fall 2017

‘It’s Been Erased’: Stockbridge Mohicans Retell, Reclaim Their Story In Berkshires, WBUR-TV, January 16, 2021

Death in The Bronx: The Stockbridge Indian Massacre
August, 1778, by Richard S. Walling, Americanrevolution.org

George Washington’s Proclamation on behalf of the military service of the Stockbridge Indians, July 8, 1783

The Stockbridge-Mohican Community, 1775-1783, Journal of the American Revolution, Feb 3. 2016.

The Mohican News, Aug. 1, 2019.

Land Heist in the Highlands: Chief Daniel Nimham and the Wappinger Fight for Homeland, by Peter Cutul, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

Mohicans, forced from their ancestral lands, still connect to their heritage here, Altamont Enterprise, Sept. 27, 2018

State Parks Strengthens Niagara River Island Ecosystem

Just upriver in Erie County from Niagara Falls State Park lies New York State’s third largest island. Home to more than 20,000 people and split by Interstate-190, Grand Island is 28 square miles and divides the Niagara River into east and west branches.

Industry and commerce dominated this river and its shoreline for more than a century, leaving a legacy of water pollution, fish unsafe to eat, and loss of wildlife habitat so extreme that in 1987 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the entire 36-mile river an Area of Concern.

That federal listing set the stage for years of remediation efforts by New York State to clean up the river and shoreline. And now, it has led to State Parks, working with several partners, to begin the next chapter in healing the river – the restoration of several wetland areas of habitat along Grand Island critical for many fish and bird species that rely on the river for survival.

Grand Island is in the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

These projects focus on two State Parks on the island – the 895-acre Buckhorn Island State Park on the northern tip, a nature preserve which has some of the island’s best remaining marshland wildlife habitat, and the more-developed, 950-acre Beaver Island State Park on the southern tip.

With funding support from the EPA under a plan finalized in 2018, Parks staff have finished two habitat restoration projects at Grand Island and two more are under way this season.

At Beaver Island in the south, offshore rocky reefs have been added in the river to an area called East River Marsh to protect the shoreline from further erosion caused by boat wakes and wind. Thousands of native plants have been planted by hand to provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife.

In the north, Buckhorn Island has one of the largest remaining cattail marshes on the Niagara River. At a place called Burnt Ship Creek, contractors hired by Parks have created open water channels and “potholes” in the marsh to provide pathways needed for fish such as Northern Pike to feed and spawn. The new open spaces also allow sheltered nesting sites for such secretive marsh birds as the threatened Least Bittern, which prompted the conservation group Ducks Unlimited to partner with State Parks for this restoration project.

Habitat restoration projects on Grand Island by New York State Parks and other entities are shown on this map. Buckhorn Island State Park is at the northern tip of the island, and Beaver Island State Park is at the southern tip.
Completed habitat restoration project at Burnt Ship Creek at the northern tip of Grand island near Buckhorn Island State Park.

This season, parks crews are working at a place called Grass Island, which is not actually an island at all, but rather an area of shallow water filled with cattails and other aquatic plants, both above the water and submerged. Sometimes also called Sunken Island, Grass Island is just east of Buckhorn Island State Park across from the city of Niagara Falls.

In addition to cattails and other plants visible above the water, Grass Island is also made up of many acres of submerged plants, predominantly a species known as water celery or American eel grass. This plant provides food and cover for several types of fish, including the Muskellunge, the state’s largest freshwater sportfish, which spawns among the eel grass each spring. The Upper Niagara River is one of state’s most important habitats for this fish.

Above the water, many species of waterfowl and marsh birds use the island for nesting, feeding and nighttime cover. Pied-billed Grebes, a threatened species in New York, nest and raise chicks there in the summer. During the fall migration of Purple Martins, the birds will roost in the cattails by the thousands.

Grass island, as seen in a drone photograph. On the above map, Grass Island is at the top right of Grand Island.

Together, Grass Island forms a 20-acre ecosystem designated as a protected wetland by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). While Grass Island provides some of the most important habitat in the Niagara River above the falls, this area has been steadily shrinking in recent decades due to wave erosion caused by boat wakes or wind. Between 2007 to 2018, Grass Island shrank by more than a third, losing an estimated 1.5 acres of its above-water vegetation.

Use the slider bar to show the decreasing size of Grass Island. The left image is from September 2018, while the right image was taken in August 2007.

This season at Grass Island, Parks contractors are constructing underwater rock reefs similar to those successfully constructed at East River Marsh. Once the reefs are finished, crews will add submerged tree trunks with the roots still attached (called rootwads) to provide underwater structure needed for good fish habitat. Also, large numbers of native wetland plants will be planted behind the protective rock reefs to expand the area with dense vegetation.

Also this summer, similar rock reefs, rootwads, woody material, and native plantings will be installed along the shoreline at Buckhorn Island State Park to restore and protect coastal wetlands. And finally, another similar project is in the works for the shoreline along the new West River Shoreline Trail at Buckhorn.

These projects join other ongoing conservation efforts at Grand Island being done by DEC, and the Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper, a not-for-profit conservation group. Find a FAQ on the projects here.

Buckhorn Island State Park is also a listed Bird Conservation Area, with its marsh providing important nesting habitat for threatened species such as Least Bittern, Northern Harrier and Sedge Wren. The marsh serves as a feeding, resting and breeding area for ducks, coots, moorhens, and rails. Common Tern find suitable habitat for foraging here. Additional birds of interest include a variety of species of ducks, herons, coots, moorhens, and rails. Spring and fall migrations along the Niagara River corridor can bring large numbers of gulls to this site.

Some of the birds of Grand Island known to be in the Bird Conservation Area.

Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter

The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year. Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, … Continue reading Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter


Together, these wetland restoration projects at Grand Island aim to maintain and strengthen this urban island ecosystem in a river that fuels the spectacular waterfalls only a few miles away that draw millions of visitors each year.

If a visit to Niagara Falls is in the works, consider also making a trip to Buckhorn Island State Park and Beaver Island State Park, both of which have car-top boat launch sites, to see this part of Niagara River and witness some of the efforts to help restore it. Please remember that these are sensitive ecological areas and habitats for secretive wildlife, so be respectful and take care when visiting these special places.

As always, whenever hiking, or in this instance, more likely paddling, consider “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Learn more on how to practice “Leave No Trace” by clicking on this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Beaver Island State Park: This park has a half-mile sandy beach for swimming, adjacent 80-slip marina with both seasonal and transient boat slips, fishing access, car-top boat launch, multiple canoe/kayak launches, about four miles of bike and nature trails, nature center, playgrounds, picnic areas, athletic fields, horseshoe pits, an 18 hole championship disc golf course, an 18-hole championship golf course. In winter, visitors can snowmobile by permit, cross-country ski, snowshoe, sled or ice fish. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in-season by permit.

Also located in the park is the River Lea house and museum, home to the Grand Island Historical Society and built by William Cleveland Allen, cousin to Grover Cleveland who visited the family farm on several occasions.

Buckhorn Island State Park: For a wilder experience, try this less visited park, which is a nature preserve of marsh, meadows and woods that mark the last vestige of once vast marshlands and meadows that bordered the Niagara River. There are nearly two miles of nature trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing. The preserve includes two launches for kayaks and canoes. There is ongoing restoration to re-establish wetland cover and water levels and increase the diversity of native flora and fauna. This effort aims to increase public access with more non-intrusive trails, overlooks and bird watching blinds.


Cover shot: A work barge involved in habitat restoration at Grass Island. All photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Post by David Spiering, Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Coordinator, NYS Parks

Seek and You Might Find: Geocaching In NYS Parks

I am not stealthy. This is not new information, but I didn’t realize how sloppy I was at sneaking around until I tried geocaching—a worldwide game of locating some of millions of little hidden stashes.

This outdoor activity relies on the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, where participants place caches of trinkets, also known as “hides,” in various places, and record locations with GPS coordinates to the website geocaching.com. Cache-seekers then use those coordinates with their own GPS devices to locate the caches, and can take some trinkets and leave some of their own for subsequent seekers to find.

And there are a lot of little hidden treasures out there. For example, the website above indicates there are more than 2,800 caches hidden around the Albany region.

On my first go at it, I found myself lifting low-lying tree limbs and creeping around bushes in search of tiny containers along a busy section of the Empire State Trail, the new 750-mile multi-use trail that connects New York City to the Canadian border, and Albany to Buffalo. While I was doing this, a woman in an SUV noticed me and I could tell I was acting a bit too suspicious for her taste. She stopped her car, watched me, and didn’t continue driving until I left that section of sidewalk.

After this inauspicious start, I was in awe of more experienced hobbyists, known as geocachers or cachers. After examining the map on the official geocaching app, it turned out there was a cache hidden close to my home. Strangers had been snooping around the area to try to find it and I hadn’t even noticed them! Luckily, the 2021 New York State Geocache Challenge is here this summer, so I will have plenty of time to hone my skills.

Volunteers and New York State Park workers have concealed more than 230 geocaches with items like stickers, toy cars, and figurines in 56 State Parks and Historic Sites in Central New York, the Saratoga-Capital Region, and the Hudson Valley. Adventurers who find at least 45 caches (at least 35 in a specific region, and up to 10 in either of the other two regions) will receive a geocache challenge geocoin representing the primary region.

The obverse of the geocoin for the Saratoga Capital Region.

The geocoins are trackables, each with a unique identifying number that can be activated online and then tracked as coins are located, reported and moved to new locations by subsequent geocachers.

So far, the geocoin that has traveled the furthest from a State Park is from the 2015  Saratoga-Capital District Region Geocache Challenge. Now settled outside Salt Lake City, Utah, the token (TB6Y60Y) has so far trekked 160,500 miles to such places as the Mediterranean island of Malta, Germany, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in India, Japan, Israel, and nearly three hundred other places.

Some geocachers are nearly as well-traveled. Larry Eaton is the Saratoga-Capital region’s geocache volunteer coordinator and during his two decades, he has logged about 17,500 caches, with about 1,500 of those found in State Parks. Though this seems like a daunting number to some, Larry knows cachers who have found hundreds of thousands of caches.

Eaton and his companion, Sadie, out on the trail.

But most geocachers start with smaller beginnings. David Brooks is the education manager at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site and serves as the park’s liaison for this year’s Saratoga-Capital District Regional Geocache Challenge. As more geocaches came to his site, he became more interested in the hobby. He decided to try it with his son after being inspired by a volunteer at his historic site named Barbara, who used the hobby to spend more time with her son.

When putting out caches in the historic site, Brooks likes mixing the environment and history of Schoharie Crossing, which focuses on the history of the Erie Canal. One year, he and Barbara put created an innovative cache that involved a small boat on a pulley system.

Some geocachers take pride in creating such clever hiding places. Eaton said once a geocacher in the Capital Region built a replica of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz out of an old furnace and hid a cache inside of it. There are also different kinds of caches for folks to get creative with, including puzzle caches and different types of challenge caches that require specific skills and tasks to obtain.

A cleverly disguised cache made from an owl decoy.

All the State Parks geocaches that are part of the challenges are free to find and access, though there may be fees to enter the parks. To participate, you can download the pick up a passport in person from a park or historic site or find it on their website.

For passports, click on the name each region involved to download a PDF, which outlines which Parks contain the geocaches: Central, Saratoga-Capital and Taconic.

To find the caches, download the Geocaching app or follow the coordinates of the caches listed on the Geocaching.com website. When you find a cache, stamp your passport with the stamp inside each cache the turn it in to the state park indicated on the passport. Remember to leave the stamp behind for others that come after you. The challenge runs through November 11, 2021.

Stay on or near trails, take care not to trample vegetation, put everything back as you found it.

And please, don’t set up your own geocaches without checking with your Park manager first. State Park rules require that any geocaches in State Parks must be approved beforehand and follow rules to protect sensitive environmental or historic areas and public safety. Keep it safe, keep it fun! Happy seeking!



Cover shot – The reverse side of the 2021 New York State Parks Geocache Challenge. All photos by NYS Parks.

Post by Jessica Andreone, Environmental Educator, Central Region of New York State Parks.