Waterfalls? In New York City? Seton Falls Park beckoned, so I climbed on a No. 5 train and rode it to the last stop in the Bronx to investigate.
It was a long haul, especially on a weekend when the No. 5 was really the No. 2 and vice versa (or something). But after a frustrating 10-minute pause just before the final station at Eastchester-Dyre Ave., I climbed down from the platform onto East 233rd Street in Eastchester – the Bronx neighborhood, not the identically named town in Westchester County to the north.
Hiking west a few blocks, I reached the northeast corner of the park, where the entryway looked promising.
Seton Falls Park is a squarish 35-acre tract described by the Parks Department website as "a woodland, wetland, and bird sanctuary" that "derives its name from the prominent waterfalls built in the park by the Seton family." I wondered how "prominent" the waterfalls could be.
Heading in from the northeast, the paved path ends at a circle. Along the way I saw the first of numerous trail-marker boulders, which as far as I know are unique among NYC's parks.
I didn't see the two dirt paths that extend from the circle, they're so overgrown; I came back to find them later, after I'd studied the map.
You can see how I missed this path the first time.
I went back out to East 233rd Street and continued west to the park's northwest corner, which promised a playground (where, on this beautiful weekend afternoon, finding people seemed likely) and the famous falls.
At the moment, the playground was just as deserted as those nearly impassable trails I'd failed to spot.
I won't hold you in suspense. I give you: Seton Falls.
The best-known member of the Seton family is Saint Elizabeth Seton (1774-1821), founder of the American Sisters of Charity, and the first native-born American citizen to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Many people, though – or at least one person (me) – know the Seton name from Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution in New Jersey founded in 1856 by Elizabeth's nephew James Roosevelt Bayley, the Bishop of Newark. This cousin of Theodore Roosevelt named the school in honor of his sainted aunt.
Coincidentally (I think), another Roosevelt, also named James, once owned the property that now includes Seton Hall Park. Saint Elizabeth's son William married into the family that owned it next, one of whose projects was to dam Rattlesnake Creek, which ran through the tract, thus creating the modest waterfalls we see today.
In the early 20th century the city acquired much of the onetime estate, intending to build a hospital for patients with contagious diseases. Years of community opposition to that plan led to the birth of Seton Falls Park.
You may be wondering: Here we are at Rattlesnake Creek; what happened to the rattlesnakes?
Probably sometime around 1900, the last rattlesnake left town, joining the other former residents, the Siwanoy Indians, in exile or death. In an entry on Rattlesnake Brook, Forgotten New York cites Bronx historian John McNamara as explaining that Eastchester's original families "signed a pact devoted to the destruction of the rattlesnake, and hit upon an unusual method to carry this out. They would set their pigs on them. Pigs find snakes of all types a delicacy, and their thick hide and layers of fat make them largely immune to snakebite."
I'd sure like to get a look at that pact.
To go with its miniature waterfalls, the park has miniature cliffs and modestly varied terrain. There's information about the terrain and the vegetation on this fact sheet from the Metro Forest Council.
Naturally, I'm partial to the natural areas. But there are sports facilities too. No one was on the tennis courts, but the sprinkler was drawing a few fans.
At one edge of the park, masked avengers tended to the landscaping. At another, where wildflowers bloomed, the aptly named Wilder Avenue met its end.
A final note: A number of online sources say that a Revolutionary War battle took place on these grounds. The Parks Department website notes that as part of the military action in The Bronx and lower Westchester, "One battle occurred in what is now Seton Falls Park in 1781, as the British retreated under fire by the patriots." My admittedly fairly cursory Internet research hasn't turned up any details or corroboration. If you have any knowledge of this bit of history, please leave a comment below.
All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media