Monday, July 28, 2008

On the trail of the Continental Army with Brenda Becker and a bunch of Brooklyn bloggers.

Behold Brenda Becker in her tricorn hat, about to guide a bevy of Brooklynite bloggers through a bit of what Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, best remembered as the designers of Central Park, considered their real masterpiece, Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Brenda, who produces the fascinating Prospect: A Year in the Park, is holding a copy of John J. Gallagher's The Battle of Brooklyn-1776 while briefing us for a short journey that will traverse both recent and Revolutionary War history. Behind her is the Music Pagoda, rally point for our expedition.

A few steps from the Pagoda, we crossed a bridge over a stream connecting a small pond to a larger one. this is a view of the smaller pond. Xris, of Flatbush Gardener, was able to identify the purple flowers on the pond's bank at the right. Perhaps he'll remind me what they are. (Update: He reminds me--see comments--that it's "Pickerel Weed, Pontederia cordata, a native, semi-aquatic plant.") Brenda said that these ponds were the source of all the watercourses of the Park, so we had to be at a considerable elevation here. (Correction: I must have misheard Brenda, as both she and Xris--see comments--tell me that the source is further up, near a place called "Dog Beach".) Indeed, our path led downhill for some distance.

We had hoped for a chance to ride the Park's carousel (which would have been my first since my daughter celebrated her fifth birthday here), but found it closed. Brenda told us that the carousel began its life on Coney Island, where it was designed by Charles Carmel (see a history of the carousel here), noted for a style featuring horses with flaring nostrils and flowing manes.

Here we go back almost two and a third centuries into history, to the beginning of the first real battle of the Revolutionary War. Concord's "rude bridge" and its "embattled farmers" are etched in our memories, thanks to Emerson, but Concord and Lexington, though of momentous historical significance, were skirmishes in which local militias held their own against regular British troops. It was in Brooklyn, and initially in what is now Prospect Park, that a Continental Army, under the command of George Washington, would first come into battle with the Royal Army. Brenda is standing in front of the Dongan Oak Marker, which commemorates a great tree felled by American troops to block a path from use by British troops advancing from the south.

Brenda is perched on a rock bearing a marker commemorating Battle Pass, where American troops fought a holding action that allowed most of their compatriots to escape to westward. This and a later, particularly valiant stand by a Maryland regiment which took horrendous casualties at The Old Stone House, allowed the majority of Washington's army to escape to Brooklyn Heights, then later to Manhattan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Here we turn from scenes of valor and carnage to those of bucolic delight. According to Brenda, this style of structure, made entirely of logs, is typical of what Olmstead and Vaux wanted for their park; that is, one that was simple and rustic, or, in New York State lingo, "Adirondack". She contrasted this with Robert Moses's later, mid-twentieth century additions, which were neoclassical and decidedly civilized and urbanized.

Beyond the rude gazebo, we descended into a ravine to a bridge crossing a stream just below this waterfall. Brenda said that the first post on her blog featured a photo of the falls, with the caption, "This is Brooklyn?"