The Geography of Udalls Cove
During the last great ice age, glaciers nearly a mile thick covered most of the northern portions of North America. The continental glaciers grew and shrank over a period that began about 110,000 years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. The maximum extent of glaciation was about 18,000 years ago. Its most southerly extent on the east coast was right here on Long Island.
As a glacier moves forward, it pushes vast amounts of rock, gravel and soil in front of it, like a bulldozer. This ridge-like mound of debris is called a terminal moraine. And Long Island was the site of the terminal moraine of the last great period of glaciation.
Drive the length of one of Long Island’s major north/south roadways and you’ll experience the terminal moraine. For example, start at the Little Neck railroad station and drive south along Little Neck Parkway. You’ll climb a short, steep hill to Northern Boulevard. Keep going and you’ll climb another steep hill until you get to about Leeds Road. You’ll drop down a short distance to the Long Island Expressway, but then you’ll be climbing uphill again until you reach the Grand Central Parkway – and there you will have reached the top of the terminal moraine. From there on, its all downhill until you reach the Atlantic Ocean. By the time you’ve reached Union Turnpike the land is almost pancake flat, very different from the hills and valleys of the north shore.
When our area was covered by glaciers, the moraine was much higher than it is now; and sea level was nearly 400 feet lower than it is today, because so much of the world’s water was locked up in the ice sheets. As the leading edge of the glacier melted, the water running south to the Atlantic carried away much of the material in the moraine and deposited it on a large “outwash” plain. As sea level rose when the glaciers retreated, much of that plain was inundated; what’s left makes up the majority of Long Island.
On the north side of the terminal moraine, the melting ice occasionally deposited enormous rocks and boulders that it had picked up on its southward journey tens of thousands of years earlier. These “exotic” rocks are called glacial erratics. The best known in our community is “Big Rock,” the large boulder located just off the Douglaston Point.
Once the ice was gone, small streams flowed down from the top of the terminal moraine in both directions, fed by rain and snow. Each little stream carved its own deep valley into the loose moraine material. And as the sea level rose, the incoming tide of the newly created Long Island Sound flooded into these valleys at their lower ends, creating the iconic bays of the north shore of the Island – think of Little Neck Bay and its companions to the east – Manhasset Bay, Hemstead Harbor, Oyster Bay and so on.
In the Douglaston/Little Neck area, four streams flowed down from the moraine and, near their mouths, joined into a single large valley to form what we know as Little Neck Bay. The largest and most westerly of these streams is Alley Creek, which starts in Alley Pond Park near the top of the moraine (about where Douglaston Parkway meets the Grand Central Parkway). It crosses under Northern Boulevard east of the Alley Pond Environmental Center, and empties into Little Neck Bay just west of the Douglaston LIRR station.
Next is Gabler’s Creek, which runs down from about where Middle School 67 is located. It is mostly underground these days, but emerges in Udalls Cove Park just behind the Douglaston Firehouse. From there it continues through the Udalls Cove Ravine, the approximate dividing line between Douglaston and Little Neck. It passes under the LIRR at 247th Street, then flows through Aurora Pond and under Douglaston’s “Back Road” (Sandhill Road), and ultimately reaches the open water of Udalls Cove, the eastern arm of Little Neck Bay.
The third stream drains Lake Success. It can be seen from Northern Boulevard, opposite the Leonard’s of Great Neck catering hall. Here the stream goes underground. It emerges again at Cutter Mill Lane, about half way between the Little Neck and Great Neck LIRR stations. From there it threads its way through the large Udalls Cove salt marsh, passing behind the most northerly homes in Little Neck on 255th Street. It joins Gabler’s Creek just south of Douglas Manor’s Memorial Field.
These aerial photos by Jon McGillick show the Virginia Point section of Udalls Cove Park. The houses on the upper right corner of the photo on the left are at the north end of Little Neck Parkway. Just to the left of the houses is the Belgrave Sewage Treatment Plant, which serves parts of Great Neck, which can be seen on the left of the photo. The stream from Lake Success enters from the left and flows in front of the treatment plant and the houses; here it joins Gabler's Creek, which can be seen entering from the right. The discharge pipe from the treatment plant runs through the middle of the large salt marsh. (The marsh extends all the way south to the Long Island Railroad tracks between the Little Neck and Great Neck stations.) The photo on the right shows the portion of the pipe that extends beyond the shoreline into Udalls Cove. There it enters a concrete structure, visible at the lower left of the photo, where it takes a 90-degree turn downward, and then another 90-degree turn north. It continues just under the bottom of the Cove to a point hundreds of yards north of the Douglaston peninsula, where it discharges into the open water of Little Neck Bay. (The unattractive and dangerous concrete structure, painted with daisies -- or are they sunflowers? -- can be seen from much of Douglas Manor and Great Neck. This eyesore is scheduled to be removed in 2021 when the Belgrave discharge pipe is replaced with a new pipe that will run entirely underground from the plant to the discharge location. Eagle Scout Ian Tsao, working with UCPC, led a petition drive in 2017 that persuaded Belgrave to remove the structure.) The Queens/Nassau County border runs parallel to and about 50 feet to the west (right, in the photo) of the pipeline.
The fourth stream drains large parts of Great Neck and enters the Bay near the Great Neck Public Library on Bayview Avenue, next to Grist Mill Lane. More about the grist mill later.
Little Neck Bay itself is fairly large. Its mouth is more than a mile across from Fort Totten to Kings Point, where the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is located. The head of the bay is two miles south of the Fort, at about the location of the Long Island Railroad tracks. The Bay is divided into two arms by the Douglaston peninsula which juts into it from the south.
The Matinecock Indians were the original inhabitants of this area, making use of the abundant fish and shellfish in the bay. When Europeans first settled this area in the 1600s, the peninsula was called Little Madnan’s Neck. Eventually this was shortened to Little Neck, but today the entire peninsula is called Douglaston, and the community of Douglas Manor occupies most of that peninsula. The major landowners in the 19th Century were George Douglas and later his son William. In 1866 the North Side Railroad (which later became part of the Long Island Railroad) established service between Bayside and Great Neck; the station stop at what is now called Douglaston was then called Main Avenue in Little Neck. In 1870, members of the community bought "subscriptions" to fund the first actual station building there. This coincided in time with William Douglas subdividing a nearby portion of his property; that subdivision was called Douglaston. Perhaps because he gave the largest donation for the staion house, the station was also renamed Douglaston. Consequently, the community known today as Little Neck has no “neck” to speak of; the neck is all Douglaston.
The larger, western arm of Little Neck Bay is fed by Alley Creek, a tidal waterway that extends all the way south to the Long Island Expressway where there was once a lake called Alley Pond. That fairly large pond was filled in years ago; a small replacement was created within the past decade when the interchange between the Long Island Expressway and the Cross Island Parkway was rebuilt and reconfigured. The pond gave its name to Alley Pond Park, one of Queens’ largest parks, which now extends from the Little Neck Bay shoreline all the way south to the Grand Central Parkway.
The smaller, eastern arm of Little Neck Bay is called Udalls Cove. At the head of this cove is a large, healthy salt marsh of nearly 100 acres. It is dominated by Spartina grass, also called salt hay, which provides exceptionally good habitat for many species. (There is also plenty of Phrag-mites, the tall reed with a fuzzy frond on top. Phrag, as it's often called, is ecologically less productive than Spartina.)
Another large salt marsh occupies both sides of Alley Creek, near the head of the main arm of Little Neck Bay. Along with the Udalls Cove marsh, these two marshes are among the best remaining in New York City, exceeded only by the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in southern Queens. They are home to a wide range of birds and terrestrial animal species, and provide important nurseries for many fish and other aquatic species. (Visit the Photo Gallery to see photos of some of the wildlife of Udalls Cove.)
The name “Udalls Cove” is a bit of a misnomer. In 1833 Richard Udall bought from the Allen family a grist mill, located about a mile north of the Douglaston peninsula in a much smaller cove on the eastern shore of Little Neck Bay where a stream enters. The stream had been dammed up at its mouth to create a mill pond. When the tide was low, Udall let water flow from the pond to the bay to turn his mill wheel. When the pond was drained empty he would close the dam gate and wait for the tide to rise. When the tide was high he would open the gate and let the sea water from the bay flow into the pond. This would turn his mill wheel again, but in the opposite direction. Gears and belts inside enabled the mill machinery to run in the correct direction regardless of which way the mill wheel was turning. Udall’s mill, now a museum, still stands on the little cove in front of the mill pond. But his name was eventually assigned to the larger cove a mile south that lies between the Douglaston peninsula and the Village of Great Neck Estates. Strangely, the correct name of the cove is Udalls – without an apostrophe.