Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Indian Prayer Rock in Pelham Bay Park

Glacial erratics are part of the Pelham landscape.  Such erratics are giant boulders displaced, transported, and deposited by glaciers ages ago.  Examples of such erratics about which I have written before include Split Rock and Glover's Rock, among others.

One of the most impressive glacial erratics in today's Pelham Bay Park is known as "Indian Prayer Rock."  Its site is located in the southwestern section of Pelham Bay Park beyond Pelham Bridge and the reclaimed and rehabilitated Bronx-Pelham Landfill.  It is in a wooded area that can be entered from center field of the baseball diamond near the dog run.  Indian Prayer Rock has been referenced in many sources and materials as "Indian Rock."  Its proper name for longer than a century, however, has been "Indian Prayer Rock."

Indian Prayer Rock.  Photograph Taken by Jorge Santiago on
April 19, 2014 and Presented Through His Courtesy and with
His Permission.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Indian Prayer Rock.  Photograph Taken by Jorge Santiago in
2014 and Presented Through His Courtesy and With His
Permission.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Since creation of the park and even long before, the "Indian Prayer Rock" has been venerated.  According to tradition, local Native Americans treated the oddly-shaped glacial erratic as an important site, though it is unlikely it was treated as sacred or, indeed, as a place for prayer.  Native American artifacts have been found near and around the Indian Prayer Rock.  

Indeed, contractors working in the area recently unearthed Native American artifacts.  In 2015, archaeologists surveyed the area and discovered more than one hundred ancient artifacts including stone implements, pottery sherds, and projectile points.  Experts were able to date the artifacts to a period between 200 A.D. and 1000 A.D.  Archaeologists proclaimed the discovery "one of the most important archaeological finds in New York City history" and designated it for excavation and study.  See Calder, Rich, Waterfront Construction Unearths More than 100 Ancient Artifacts, N.Y. Post, Jul. 20, 2015 (visited May 6, 2017).  

For many, many years Indian Prayer Rock was believed to be a bedrock outcropping rather than a glacial erratic.  Like so many outcroppings in and around Pelham, the rock formation is believed to be amphibolite, a metamorphic rock composed mainly of amphibole and plagioclase, with primary minerals of black hornblende and white plagioclase feldspar.  More recent study of the the Indian Prayer Rock suggests, however, that it is not a bedrock outcropping but a glacial erratic, dropped by a melting glacier.  

In 1908 the Indian Prayer Rock gained additional prominence and fame when the Parks Commission opened a massive new athletic field at the site and placed a 500-seat grandstand immediately adjacent to the Indian Prayer Rock.  In fact, the grandstand was intentionally placed so close to the glacial erratic that spectators seated at the eastern end of the grandstand could reach out and touch the Indian Prayer Rock. 
In recognition of the thirtieth anniversary of the Bronx park initiative that led to the creation of Pelham Bay Park, on April 19, 1913, the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences presented the City of New York and its Parks Commissioner with seven bronze tablets commemorating creation of the parks in the Bronx.  Given the prominence and fame of the Indian Prayer Rock immediately adjacent to the new athletic field in Pelham Bay Park, the Parks Commission selected the glacial erratic as among the sites to display one of the bronze tablets.  Though today the tablet is long gone, early twentieth century photographs of Indian Prayer Rock show its tablet proudly displayed.

Early Twentieth Century Photograph of Indian Prayer Rock with
Bronze Tablet Prominently Affixed.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Photograph of Indian Prayer Rock Taken on May 29, 1928.
View is from the Side Opposite That To Which the Bronze
Tablet Once Was Affixed.  Source:  New York Public Library
Digital Collections.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

1904 Postcard Image of the Indian Prayer Rock, Entitled
"The Big Rock at the Athletic Field."  Image Courtesy of,
and Presented with the Permission of, Jorge Santiago.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Today, Indian Prayer Rock sits quietly in the southeastern part of Pelham Bay Park where it has sat for eons.  The bronze tablet is long gone.  Graffiti can be seen on parts of the rocks, though Parks employees are quick to clean or paint over such defacement of the silent sentinel.

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"A Rock Tour of Pelham Bay Park 
By Jane Rothman

Everyone knows that the Pilgrims had their Plymouth Rock and the British the Rock of Gibraltar.  But many are not aware that the residents of City Island can lay claim to landmark boulders and outcroppings throughout Pelham Bay Park as their very own 'Rocks of Ages.'

The Prayer Rock

The huge cluster of black rocks rising more than 25 feet in Pelham Bay Park west of the landfill is a striking sight.  As the New York Times reported in 1904, it is 'an imposing-looking rock, whose peculiar formation would attract attention anywhere, and stands about 250 yards from the shore.'

This outcropping, known as the Prayer Rock was named in remembrance of the earliest Siwanoy and Lenape people who frequented this site for religious exercises centuries before Pelham Bay Park was created.  According to several historic sources, the use of large rocks for ceremonies and sacred events was popular among the native woodland people.

Unlike Mayas and Incas, for example, the woodland tribes were unable to build huge stone temples and turned to outstanding rock formations as a place to gather for spiritual unity.  They believed that these boulders were given to them by 'The Maker' for thi purpose.

In 1904 a gala was held to celebrate the opening of an enormous athletic area and military parade site that had been constructed in the southern zone of Pelham Bay Park under the leadership of NYC Parks Commissioner William P. Schmitt.  Complete with pole-vaulting equipment, swinging rings, horizontal bars, running track and baseball diamonds, this area of the park was the modern-day equivalent of an Olympic training center.  Archery targets were placed in front of the Prayer Rock, which provided a backboard for stray arrows.

A grandstand built more than 20 years before the first Rice Stadium, held 500 people and was erected adjacent to Prayer Rock, so close, in fact, that a spectator could sit at one end of the grandstand and reach out to touch the rock.  According to the 1904 Times article, the commissioner specifically chose this site to be near Prayer Rock in order to establish a historical connection to the new athletic grandeur.  Today all that remains of that athletic complex is an empty, open mound that is used for baseball practice, behind which stands the everlasting, solid Prayer Rock.

I set out to find this historic landmark along with my husband, Jack, and Dr. Robert DeCandido, an ecologist who has done research throughout Pelham Bay Park.  From the Rice Stadium parking lot, we walked to the dog run, turned left and fouund it back of the baseball field.  When we reached Prayer Rock, we were in awe of its size and formations.  We encountered a large group of teenagers using the rock for a Friday afternoon hang-out.  In past years, the rock has often been decorated with graffiti, a chronic problem throughout the park.  The Parks Department has been vigilant in painting over it with several now peeling layers of black and green paint.

We returned to Prayer Rock the next day when we were able to explore the area.  According to Dr. DeCandido, the rock is between four and seven hundred million yearw old.  It is an uplifted bedrock formed of gneiss and schist with igneous intrusions of feldspar and quartz.

In early photographs, one can see that a plaque was once bolted to the rock's northern side, and we found the holes where that plaque had been.  Mounted in 1913 by the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences, the plaque announced the establishment of several public parks, including Pelham Bay, as recreation areas for the enjoyment of its inhabitants.  I have found several newspaper articles reporting that there was opposition to the construction of anything permanent in the city parks, so I suspect that this plaque was a public statement by the Parks Department that development would be ongoing.

At the highest point of Prayer Rock, we noticed an area that had been cemented to assure that the tip would remain secure.  We also scanned the rock for petroglyphs (engravings on rock) but found none.  Our imagination took hold as we envisioned the screams and cheers of spectators sitting in the grandstand on this exact site.  I wish there were a way to know all that the Prayer Rock has witnessed in the past millions of years.  What stories it could tell!

The rock remains surrounded by trees and vines, as strong and as silent as it has always been.  Out attention then turned to the harrier, red-tailed and kestrel hawks circling over the old landfill and the girls' baseball tteam practicing on the open field next to Pelham Bay Park's historic Prayer Rock. . . ." 

Source:  Rothman, Jane, A Rock Tour of Pelham Bay Park, The Island Current [City Island, Bronx, NY], May, 2011, Vol. 40, No. 4, p. 7, cols. 1-4 (far more extensive article than this quote from it; includes early photograph of Indian Prayer Rock).  

Opening of Athletic Field and Military Parade in Pelham Bay Park.

THE opening of the athletic field and military parade ground at Pelham Bay Park on next Saturday afternoon will mark a new era in American municipal playgrounds.  At least this is the idea of the new Park Commissioner of the Bronx Borough, William P. Schmitt.  He believes that restricting a park simply to its function as the 'lungs of a city' is to misuse it; that it has a greater destiny, and that it has not fulfilled it until it ministers to a wide and generous physical culture.

The present effort to carry out this idea on the part of Commissioner Schmitt is the result of his life of athletics, for there is hardly a phase of outdoor amusement he has not dipped into, in some becoming an adept, as in rowing, his prowess with the oars still being a part of the athletic traditions of the East river, on which he has more than once pulled his shell the full length of the stream.

When this new way of treating a park is in full operation in Pelham Bay Park New York will have the most complete city playground in America, and it is doubtful whether any European centre has a better equipped play spot open to all its citizens.  

The spot chosen for this extensive trial is the 125-acre stretch on the southern end of Pelham Bay Park.  It lies between Pelham Parkway on the north, East Chester Bay on the east, the Archer Huntington estate on the south, and the Waterbury estate on the west.  The triangle formed by the Eastern Boulevard, which runs northeast through the grounds, and the Pelham Parkway will comprise the parade ground for military manoeuvres.

Facilities for enjoying nine different kinds of games will be provided.  These will be baseball, archery, clay pigeon shooting, quoits, lacrosse, lawn tennis, cricket, and bowling.  In addition, there will be a running track and general gymnasium ground, while boating and bathing will be provided for on the shores of the bay.  The golf grounds are in the northern part of the park, several miles from the athletic field.  The parade ground will contain twenty-five acres and the athletic field 100 acres.  An idea of the size may be formed by comparing the areas with the Van Cortlandt Park parade ground, which comprises eighty acres.

The exercises attending the opening will be in three parts, consisting of a military parade, speeches, and an athletic tournament.  The grand marshal of the parade will be Col. Joseph A. Goulden.  The formation will be at 1:30 P. M. on the parade ground.  In the line will be a whole troop from Squadron A, the entire First Signal Corps, the First and Second Batteries, battalions from the Eighth and Sixty-ninth Regiments, Posts 142 and 96, G. A. R., Garrison 63 of the Army and Navy Veterans, and several hundred Turn Verein members.  The procession will move over to the grand stand at the running track, where Mayor McClellan will make an address, followed with a speech by Park Commissioner Schmitt.  Then will come the planting of the linden tree, which has been kept in the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.  This tree is a gift of the German Emperor to the Free Smiths of Amerian, and was taken from the famous linden tree at Dortmund, Germany, under which, in the Middle Ages, malefactors were tried for all kinds of offenses, at the time the Free Smiths were powerful in Germany.  

The athletic programme comprises nineteen events, open to all amateur athletes, except four events, which will be for pupils of the public schools only,, and will be under the rules of the Public Schools Athletic League.  Gold, silver, and bronze medals will be given in all events.  The open contests will be under the rules of the Amateur Athletic Union.

The list of events is as follows:  100-yard run, handicap; 220-yard run, handicap; 440-yard run, handicap; 880-yard run, handicap; one-mile run, handicap; 440-yard hurdle race, handicap; throwing 16-pound hammer, handicap; putting 16-pound shot, handicap; throwing 56-pound weight, handicap; throwing discus, handicap; running high jump, handicap; running broad jump, handicap; pole vault, handicap; 50-yard run, elementary school bosy; 100-yard run, high school boys; two open relay races, at one and four miles; a one-half-mile relay for elementary schools and a one-mile relay for high schools.

Across the road, to the southwest from the lacrosse field, will be a track for hurdle racing by horses, which is expected to be fully built by next Spring.

This section is one of the prettiest in the park.  The land rises from the water's edge in a sort of terrace, while several hundred feet from the water are fine groves of trees.  The country is so fine that splendid estates border this part of the park.  Next to the Huntington place is Spencer House, James M. Waterbury's country seat, while near the Waterbury grounds is the Westchester Golf Club.

The area of Pelham Bay Park is 1,756 acres.  It is twice as large as Van Cortlandt Park, the second in size among the city's parks.  Central Park is less than one-half as large, and beautiful as it is, lacks the element of contiguous water, which is a striking characteristic of Pelham Bay Park, whose shores are washed by waters of the Sound to such an extent that it can boast a water front of eight miles.  This water feature would particularly distinguish the park, but in addition the great playground has a diversity of meadows, hills and valleys that make it one of the most picturesque parks in the world.  Other parks may possess a more striking feature here and there, like Palisade Park in New Jersey, with its bluffs, but there are none to surpass Pelham Bay in variety of natural charms.

The park is divided naturally into two sections by an arm of East Chester Bay.  The upper or northeastern part is much the larger.  The only athletic provision in this part is for the golfers, who enjoy a fine nine-hole course, a mile south of the Pelham Manor Station of the Harlem River branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.

It is the lower part, south of the bay inlet, that has been set apart as an athletic park.  One reason it was selected is that it is most easily reached by residents of Harlem and the Bronx.  One hundred acres of this section have been turned over to the athletes of Greater New York.  It would not be surprising if the customary indifference of the military to parade ground facilities should result in the manoeuvering field being added to the athletic grounds.  A trolley car station is proposed for the Eastern Boulevard, where it first touches the athletic grounds.

A fine regard for historical values influenced Commissioner Schmitt's choice of the site for the running track and the grand stand.  An impostng-looking rock, whose peculiar formation would attract attention anywhere, stands about 250 yards from the shore on a gentle rise of ground.  Under this rock in the centuries past the Indians used to meet for their religious exercises.  So it is called the Prayer Rock.  The grand stand has been built so close to it one can almost touch it from a seat in the eastern end.  The stand will accommodate about 500 people.  Within ten feet of the Prayer Rock is the inclosure [sic] in which on opening day is to be planted the linden tree.

In the centre of the running track are the arrangements for pole vaulting, the swinging rings, and the horizontal bars, and the marked circle for the discus throwers.  Commissioner Schmitt has sought to provide for all athletic tastes.  For the strenuous are the baseball diamonds and running track, while those with quieter predilections can use the bow and arrow or toss the peaceful quoit.  The archery targets are appropriately placed within the shade of the Indian rock.

By the opening of the bathing season next Spring the bathhouse facilities season next Spring the bathhouse facilities will be materially increased, and more boats will be supplied for those who wish to paddle about the placid waters of the Sound.  

Just back of the grand stand is a band pavilion in front of the old Hunter House.  Those who are out on the bay in boats will be able to enjoy the effects of music on the water, so near is the stand to the shore.

The Pell tree, in a meadow near the golf links, is one of the 'sights' of the park.  It marks the spot where Lord Pell in 1654 signed the first treaty of peace with the Indians who had been trying to drive the colonists away.  The old Hunter House is the finest piece of old-time architecture in that section.  It has long been a favorite resort for drivers, cyclists, and automobilists, and will continue its existence as a tavern under the more euphonious designation of the 'Park Inn.'

There has been some objection to the city's going in so heavily for games in the parks, but Mr. Schmitt thus explained the motives which led him to plan this outdoor recreationl place in a talk with a representative of THE NEW YORK TIMES:

Need of a Change.

'The time has come,' he said, 'when we must look the fact in the face that park conditions must be changed to meet the needs of the people.  Once the idea was that the fewer games there were in the parks the better; that the parks were primarily to be looked at.  That idea was born of the old close, narrow idea of the Sabbath.  That was the day when the poor were expected to visit the parks in the largest numbers, and naturally good folk thought it was their duty to see that the parks offered no temptations to Sabbath breaking.  Then along came the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, and he made his fight for concerts in the parks on Sundays, and when that fight was won the old idea of the 'gameless' park went with it, no all at once, but gradually, until now, I think, the timem has come when we must recognize that on the one day when the poor can get out of the crowded districts of the city should do all it can to lure them into innocent outdoor amusement.  Vacant places are more and more becoming difficutl to find for playing games on Manhattan Island, and the city can do no better work than enticing people out of the sweltering streets into the cool green of the country.  Some will be lured out only by the prospect of games, and these the city ought to provide facilities for.'

Commissioner Schmitt's acquaintance with athletics is indicated by hi club memberships.  Among the many clubs he belongs to are the New York Golf Club, (Van Cortlandt Park,) Nassau Boat Club, New York Athletic Club, Greater New York Irish Athletic Club, and the New York Central Turne Verein.  Though one of the busiest of public men, Mr. Schmitt finds time daily for his physical exercises.  In wrestling and boxing in his younger days he won many prizes in Turn Verein contests, and when an antagonist of former days calls on him now they often settle a dispute about other years by taking down the foils and masks hanging over Mr. Schmitt's desk and going at it like d'Artagnan and Aramis.  His interest in rifle practice began early in life and took him into many schuetsenfest contests.  His interest in shooting is shown by the clay pigeon shooting he has arranged for.

There will be separate apartments in the comfort stations for the baseball players, so they can change their clothes conveniently.  The comfort stations are to be open Winter and Summer, which, with the Red Cross emergency stations, will be a necessary part of the new arrangements.

Freedom of Lawns.

All lawns in the Bronx parks are open to the public, as the crowds there thus far have not been so great as to threaten the ruin of the grass.  'What I'd like to do,' said Mr. Schmitt, 'is to bet the people out to the outlying parks, like Pelham Bay, thus relieving the pressure on the interior parks, but of course car fare and time are important obstacles.'

Closely associated with the broadening of the scope of Pelham Bay Park is the Commissioner's turning over of Twin and Hunter Islands for the use of the children of the lower districts of New York under the auspices of the Jacob A. Riis Society and the Little Mothers' Society.  The these societies the Commissioner says he will extend all the aid he can confidently give.  For children who cannot find accommodations on the two islands, more will be erected, and on Sunday afternoon a band concert is to be given.

The Turnbull mansion near Hunter Island was turned over by the Commissioner for the use of crippled children on June 1 last, and already the success of the plan has been amply proved.

'Much has been said of the inaccessibility of the Pelham Bay field,' said Mr. Schmitt.  'Well it can be reached by the Harlem Road from One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Street and Third Avenue in twenty minutes, Baychester being the station.'"

Source:  A NEW ERA IN AMERICAN PLAYGROUNDS -- Opening of Athletic Field and Military Parade in Pelham Bay Park, N. Y. Times, Sep. 4, 1908, p. 2, cols. 5-7.

Image of Indian Prayer Rock Published With the Article Quoted
Immediately Above.  Source:  A NEW ERA IN AMERICAN
in Pelham Bay ParkN. Y. Times, Sep. 4, 1908, p. 2, cols. 5-7.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Presentation to Be Made to City by Borough Society.

Six bronze tablets, to be erected in Bronx Park, will be presented to the city by the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences on Saturday, April 19.  These tablets will be commemorative of the acquirement of the park system of the Bronx, and presentation will be made through Thomas J. Higgins, Park Commissioner, for that borough.  

Presentations will be made by Henry M. MacCracken, chancellor-emeritus of New York University, and short addresses will follow by Charles B. Stover Commissioner of Parks, Cyrus C. Miller, Borough President of Bronx, William W. Niles, president of the North Side Board of Trade, and others."

Source:  TABLETS FOR BRONX PARKS -- Presentation to Be Made to City by Borough Society, The Evening Post [NY, NY], Apr. 5, 1913, Vol. 112, p. 2, col. 3.   

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