The park is one of the few places where one can still see what Manhattan looked like before all the construction radically refashioned the original landscape. Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary who designed and built Central Park with his partner Calvert Vaux predicted this when he wrote in 1858.
*The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely varied, rocky formation of the island will have been converted into foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of rectangular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the few acres contained in the park.
Rockin’ in Central Park
I’ve grown to appreciate the geology of the park, its timelessness, and its unyielding strength. Unlike Mr. Olmsted in his vision of the grid, I do not see Manhattan as monotonous rows of buildings. I see its curvaceous beauty in the park’s varied landscapes, revealing the gritty bedrock that underlays the entire island.
The name Manhattan comes from the Munsi language of the Lenni Lenape people. They called their home Manahatta, the island of many hills.
The Lenape were deeply religious, and their belief in a Creator and eleven lesser Gods touched all aspects of their lives. They believed that all elements of the world had souls. With deep reverence for their natural environment, they felt that humans were only a small part of Nature’s grand scheme.
So, they built their **patahmaniikan, or prayer houses, on this rocky ground; that glittery mica-filled stone is Manhattan Schist. It underlays most of the island. An extremely heavy, tough material that the skyscrapers of Manhattan stand on it. The rock began as mud below an ancient sea almost half a billion years ago. It is a metamorphic rock, twisted, mixed, and folded under tremendous pressure by the collision of the continental plates.
There is Much to Appreciate During our Walking Tour
Although the designers strove for a natural look, on our Central Park tour, you will see how ingeniously the park designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux wove the unyielding rocks and boulders into an exquisite design. Central Park is a masterfully built illusion, constructed according to Vaux and Olmsted’s Greensward Plan.
On a Central Park Private tour, you may pass through arches embedded into the rocky terrain that herald your arrival into the Ramble. The Ramble is one of two heavily wooded areas of the park; the North Woods is the other.
Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward plan required the removal and shifting of thousands of tons of rock and debris. There was no hydraulic equipment when Central Park was under construction from 1857 to 1876, blasting powder was used until the invention of dynamite in 1867. The construction was laborious and backbreaking; the heavy rock was excavated and shaped into arches, bridges, lakes, and other landscape features. The techniques used would have been familiar to a Phoenician or Mycenean stoneworker.
The least engineered section is the North Woods. Originally the park extended only to 106th Street. On our Secret Central Park tours, you will see the original landscape Olmsted and Vaux felt strongly was most suited for park construction. Acquired through eminent domain; it is now Northern Central Park.
As we walk on our Central Park tour, you’ll see how the various outcroppings of stone are woven artfully into the landscape. There are famous outcroppings like Umpire Rock and Summit Rock, the highest point in Manhattan, approximately 148 feet above sea level. Watch people as they stake out areas for picnicking, sunbathing, playing, or lounging. You might even see rock climbers practicing their skills. The park is a geological wonderland for scientists and casual visitors alike.
Learn From Your Licensed Tour Guide.
Your guide will point out how massive glaciers passed over the prehistoric landscape during the last ice age and striated the stone. You will see glacial erratics that were dropped randomly into the landscape as the ice sheets retreated.
According to Sidney Horenstein, an environment educator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, “…look for the tilt of the rocks, they’re always dipping in a southerly direction.” The ancient rock sitting stoically in place will serve as your compass. Of course, you’ll be with your guide on a Central Park tour, but as a backup, use the tilting stone as your lodestone in the unlikely chance your intrepid guide loses their way.
* Olmsted to the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, May 31, 1858, in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted Volume III, 176. [ia18]
**Today, down on Weehawken Street in Greenwich Village, a Lenape prayer house stands, given as a gift from Jean-Louis Goldwater Bourgeois, 76, an architectural historian and activist for Native Americans.