The Ostahanoc River

If you examine an aerial photo of the city’s East Side you’ll spy a narrow line resembling an inverted question mark running from northeast to southwest. It doesn’t follow any street, although in places there are streets running alongside it, and it is clearly different from the trace left some miles to the west by the former route of the DM & Widenour railroad line, whose tracks have long been absent – except where they pass through the cobblestone section of the old Belgian Quarter. Its continuity is nearly undetectable from street level and even its aerial profile has slightly dimmed over the years as it’s been subsumed by flora and pavement. But if you examine its path carefully, you’ll see the last remnants of the north branch of the Ostahanoc River, a stream that once flowed through a bustling 19th century town of only a few thousand residents. This small tributary, watershed for a 20-square mile section of land now entirely incorporated within the city limits, was long the dumping ground for effluence ranging from human waste and benzene from household detergents, to the many and various corrosive elements disgorged by the industrial revolution.

In the late 1800s, parts of the stream were dammed, bridged or diverted for public use, until finally in 1928 construction of the Deacon & Sons Bicycle Works reversed its flow entirely, and sent sewage pouring into the basements and cellars of thousands of East Side homes. By 1930, Deacon & Sons was bankrupt, and the building was abandoned. After standing empty until 1948, it was finally demolished during the first economic upturn after WWII. Though grass and trees eventually reclaimed the area, the waters of the central Ostahanoc never returned.

By the 1970s, the toxic nature of the soil – due to years of unsupervised dumping – had become apparent in the peculiar nature of the plants and animals found on the former bicycle factory site. A concerted effort was made to clean up the area, until lead and mercury levels were found to be too high to be economically eliminated. The section once occupied by D & S is now the northwest corner of the city’s largest municipal parking lot, (No. 35, the Ostahanoc Riverside Lot) and most of the remainder of the former waterway – though only a few yards wide – is completely undeveloped, save the intermittent cross-hatch of east-west streets. Until such time as a pressing need for real estate ten feet wide and five miles long is discovered, the last trace of the North Ostahanoc River will remain a fading historical footnote – as well as a faint aerial landmark – of our city.
– D. Andrews

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