Binghamton’s Buried Stream of the First Ward

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By J.T. Colfax

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The history of Binghamton’s First Ward leads many to stand in front of a given area and say things such as, “Here was once a great scale-making factory,” or “Here was a factory that sold Matthew Brady his supplies and went on to make the film used on the first moon landing.” These are gone now. But something was there then, which everyone knew, saw, worked with or around, that now hardly anyone knows is still there. Imprisoned in the 1920s, it still lives, and from time to time escapes into the streets. Unlike the Jones Scale Works, or the spot on Charles Street where Ansco employed tens of thousands of people, this forgotten entity spans the entire First Ward.

There is no spot in the First Ward from which one can say he is far away from Trout Brook, or Trout Creek. It was once a peaceful little brook, but it became a mosquito-ridden dumping ground as the ward grew. It was once loved, and then it was shunned. Much money was spent hiding it as a shameful nuisance. It is a natural spring, here before any settler, and it is here still.

“Trout Brook” is only known now to the very old timers, or to people in the water department. From a ravine in Glenwood Cemetery, it can be seen running freely. There is a mention of it on a plaque in St. Michael’s Cemetery next to Glendwood Cemetery. The only other visible mention is on a large sign at the creek’s far end (near McDonald Ave.), which gives warning with a phone number to call in case of flooding. Thus, the only two public notices of its existence bookend its whole length.

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Today, Trout Brook runs like this: … visible from the Glenwood Cemetery ravine it runs free, and then it runs in a large square tunnel under Route 17. It discharges from there on a series of cement steps next to the teacher’s parking area for Woodrow Wilson School. Hidden amongst the overgrowth there is a stone boulder plaque from the builders of the earthen dam on Mt. Prospect, which is now the major source of control for Trout Brook. On the grounds of Wilson School one can see the fenced-in area of Trout Brook running through its “screen chamber.” These iron bars are meant to catch debris before it flows into the tunnel.

I live a few blocks from there, and began researching this water system three years ago during the noted floods of 2006. I have a manhole cover in my yard, which is clearly noted: “TROUT BROOK, 1927.” I came home from work at 10 p.m. to find all my neighbors’ yards a lake, and my manhole cover ajar.

After the screen chamber near Wilson School playground, the water is not visible again unless one actually enters the tunnel. The tunnel goes under private residences on Baxter St., and makes an abrupt left turn on to Julian St. A manhole cover can be seen in the sidewalk on the north side of Julian St. about three housed in from Glenwood Ave. Just before this area one can see an odd-shaped piece of wood about the size of a door or table that apparently was a stop-gap repair job, or was once used for entry. It forms the ceiling of the tunnel for about 6 feet, and is not in keeping with the rest of the tunnel workmanship.

The tunnel, which in most areas is about 5 feet high, proceeds down Julian St., and has a manhole cover in the middle of the intersection where Julian meets Johnson St. Because that cover is a little loose, when cars hit it, the reverberation can be heard blocks away even above ground. The sound is deafening if one is anywhere near it inside the tunnel.

Another manhole is visible where the tunnel crosses Holland St. at Julian, clearly marked “Trout Brook.” As the tunnel crosses Holland and goes under a vacant lot, the workmanship changes. All this way the tunnel is made of reinforced concrete; these sections were made whole and installed in 1927. But there appears to have been some trauma here; some segments are made of indented plastic, and others of clay shingles.

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The tunnel heads briefly towards Clinton St. for about the space of five private yards on the West Side of Holland St., and then crosses Colfax Ave. near May St. Four manholes can be seen covering it in the area many old timers refer to as the “May Street Dump,” the raving below Berlin St. I found a rather large salamander clinging to the walls in this area, and later brought a professor from BU who specializes in such creatures, to rescue it. We could not find it again. (His name is Dylan Horvath, and when he saw Mt Prospected nearby he felt that it was no longer unusual that such creatures would make their way there from such terrain.

The storm drain then crosses Charles St. near the steep curve, and crosses under the land where the Ansco plant used to be for so many decades. The path of its course is surrounded by chain link fence on the Ansco side, and the wrought iron fence of Spring Forest Cemetery. It passes under Spring Forest Cemetery, and at Mygatt St., there is a dramatic change in workmanship. From Mygatt to Wilson School the work is generally plain even cement piping. But from Mygatt to the Chenango River outfall, near the old Cutler Ice House, the tunnel is made of beautiful stone work with a large keystone where the stone portion begins.

The tunnel makes its way down Lydia to Gaines, and then under Winding Way, which owes its winding shape to the course of the brook.

The stone portion was built about 1924-25 by a contractor named Fitzgerald. While work-in on the drain, one of his vehicles backfired in such a way as to start a Lydia St. house on fire. A change in patent laws regarding concrete during this time made it cheaper than stone work when another contractor named Clarence Rose got the contract to build the segment from Mygatt to Prospect St.

Mr. Rose stood on the hill in Glenwood Cemetery for his mother’s funeral with the Trout Brook running freely nearby while the work was going on down below. Mr. Rose was an avid hunter, and once slightly wounded himself with a gun. He was swindled out of several thousand dollars by a con man from Los Angeles in the 1930s. Involved in politics in the Chenango Forks, he left an estate of $750,000 when he passed away in 1958. His retirement party a few years before that was held at the IBM Country Club with over 800 guests attending. Someone left flowers on his grave in Katellville Cemetery during the Christmas season of 2008.

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A careless typographer at the Binghamton Press on Sep 19, 2927 marred much of the meaning in an article headlined: “Trout Brook Sewer Is Two Thirds Finished,” but this detail can be made out: “Clarence W. Rose has completed the Trout Brook sewer to a point west of Colfax Avenue near Holland Street.” Other articles of this period show Rose to be working on the screen chamber at Wilson School and on the pump houses, which are still visible in a state of decay on the Ansco property on Charles St. Interestingly, on the same day a New York Times article tells of the death of a former Binghamton mayor’s wife.

Mayor George E. Green, during the 1890s had to deal with a large group of angry First Warders who blamed the City for flooding their basements during water main installation work. They claimed that the city had destroyed ancient wooden storm drains put in place by Daniel S. Dickinson as he drained the “swamp” and developed the land for parcel selling. Mayor Green took the position that the people were after “Free improvements” to their lands .The First Warders petitioned Governor Levi P. Morton, who had to spend months investigating the complaint. (The whole saga is captured in word for word letters on Google Books viewable by searching for “Wolcott Street Swamp Nuisance.”)

Gov. Morton, though forgotten today, was previously a Vice President of the United States under President Arthur. Before that he was Minister to France, where he accepted the Statue of Liberty for the United States. Much loved in France, he was given the honor of driving the first rivet into the statue (in a big toe).

The wooden storm drain in question drained spots of swampy water into Trout Brook. The incident became known as the Wolcott Street Nuisance, but we know Wolcott St. today as St. Cyril Ave., a one-block street just below Spring Forest Cemetery running to Starr Ave. where the Jones Scale Works once Operated.

When he died in 1910 Mayor Green was buried in Spring Forest Cemetery. Just as Contractor Rose was busy burying Trout Brook under Spring Forest Cemetery in September 1927, working on 20-foot-deep pumping houses just next door at the Ansco site, the former Mayor’s wife came home from Albany, where she lived, and as she tended to the family plot she dropped dead on her husband’s grave.

“As she was turning away from the plot, employes (sic) in the cemetery saw her collapse. Physicians said that the death was caused by heart disease.” (New York Times, Sep. 19, 1927). The widow Green was probably not happy with the way the main lawn of the cemetery looked at that time. She was buried beside her husband.

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From 1904 to 1927 there was a peaceful little pond using Trout Brook water in the main lawn, reported to be part of the improvement work going on in 1904 when Architect Issac G. Perry (of State Hospital “Castle” fame) designed the cemetery gates as his last job, and then promptly died becoming the first body brought through the gates. That local history story is fairly well known, but those articles also mention the intent to use Trout Brook to create a lake.

No one knew Trout Brook more fondly than Senator Daniel Dickinson. He built his home so as to look upon it, and picked his child’s, and thence, his own burial spot so as to be near it.

He was robbed of the above ground appearance of this brook next to his grave fifty years after his death, but it still runs at about the same level under Spring Forest Cemetery as he is in his grave. Mr. Dickinson built his home, “the Orchard,” on the West Bank of the Chenango River near the Erie Railroad Bridge. When his body was brought home from NYC, thousands followed the hearse from the depot to his home where present day McDonald Ave. is located (and where one can see a Trout Brook flood control sign). Maps show his home to have been between Trout Brook and the rail bridge. One map of the 1800s actually signifies the brook as “Dickinson Creek,” but it apparently didn’t take.

In a “Testimonial of Respect of the Bar of New York” (viewable on Google Books), it is stated that the Statesman’s “body was laid in the Northwest parlor and the vast concourse that thronged to take a last look, entered from the south, passed around the coffin, and was permitted to leave from the East entrance.”

Upwards of 6,000 people escorted the casket to Spring Forest Cemetery from The Orchard. All of them had to have stepped on little bridges over the creek, not only on the Dickinson property where it would have been visible from that parlor window, but all along the route to Spring Forest.

Dickinson often visited his child’s grave and sat there writing poetry. He chose the family grave plot next to Trout Brook. In its coverage of the funeral, The New York Times referred to the stream as “insolent.” Let’s end with the coverage from the Testimonial of Respect.

“How sweet the grave wherein he (Dickinson) lies entombed. A little mound, shaded by an adjoining hill was the spot selected for the final resting place of this great and goodly man. A little fretful brook, whose wandering course leads along the base of the mound, sings gentle dirges on its rippling surface, as if to soothe the calm sleeper who rests so near its borders.”

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55 comments on “Binghamton’s Buried Stream of the First Ward

  1. Thomas J Seidel on said:

    Many that worked at Ansco/GAF in the 1970′s knew about toxic chemicals being hosed down the storm drain at the end of shifts during cleanup. It was convenient and less costly to wash them down and I suspect environmental awareness wasn’t as keen as it is now. I suspect if you were to dredge the Chenango near the outlets you would find tons of heavy metals if they haven’t been washed away downstream with the flooding through the course of time. As kids we used to speculate about going down the manholes to explore trout brook but the older kids would strongly advise against it due to the threat of river rats, spiders and the possibility of sewer gases in the air. The biggest threat was possibly being exposed to the chemicals and metals being washed down the drains from Ansco/GAF. I would imagine the EPA would not want to even begin to touch this or investigate it due to the costs of cleanup if any.

  2. Very interested in all of this if you are still out there and available for a tour. Family came from first ward. Father was Sharkeys 1st cousin. Was confusing having my father, Sharkey, and a third Joseph Z. running around Clinton St circa 1910 with same names except for middle names. Let me know if your out tyhere. Thanks!

  3. Barbara Sikora on said:

    Came upon this great story while investigating a relative who lived at the west end of Dickinson, near Starr Ave….I believe his house was demolished to make way for the Osgood Scales Company complex, which is also mentioned in your account. I believe the 1800′s map to which you refer is in the front of the 1871 Boyd’s Binghamton City and Susquehanna Railroad Directory. It clearly shows the path of DICKINSON CREEK from Colfax (now Union?) to the Chenango River. The path of the Creek also shows in the 1901 City of Binghamton Map (though in this case it shows where two smaller creeks from the west meet up at Julian Street, and it continues to the Chenango. Although it shows a small creek on Mt. Prospect, it doesn’t show it coming down the rise connecting to the creek running along Julian, however. In any case. apparently the stream was diverted in many areas to the cement/stone tunnel BENEATH the streets….that seems like it must have been a big job to take a stream out of it’s natural course and direct it to the path of a man made conduit. Congratulations on your work. Now that I read about the Ansco chemical dump above, I only hope you have not been afflicted by the toxins! Thanks!

  4. Tammy on said:

    Tom Z are you referring to Sharkey of Sharkey’s bar and grill on Glenwood Ave?

  5. Tom Zikuski on said:

    Tammy, No I am not. Sharkey’s bar and grill has nothing to do with Jack Sharkey or my family. The bar was owned by the Sharak family. I apologize if their name is spelled wrong. Thanks!

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