The Sawmill River flows into the Hudson at Yonkers, a few miles north of New York City. At 23 miles long, the Sawmill is the longest tributary of the Hudson. Over time, however, the section that passes through downtown Yonkers was slowly covered over—first with individual bridges and then by a few industrial bridges that spanned the stream in the quest for more space, until finally the city built concrete tunnels around what little of the river remained exposed. Now, it travels a winding and invisible path under streets, parking lots, and buildings. It still flows out into the Hudson, although it’s only a shadow of the river it once was—much of its watershed is now urbanized, and storm drains and sewers carry away much of the water that once fed it.
This river had originally been called the Nepperhan Creek; it became the Sawmill sometime after 1646, when a Dutch lawyer named Adriaen Van Der Donck built a water-powered sawmill on the Nepperhan near its junction with the Hudson. Van Der Donck had received the land—a 24,000 acre estate-- from New Amsterdam Governer William Kieft, as a reward for his help in establishing a peace between New Amsterdam and local groups of Native Americans. (The belligerent Kieft needed help in establishing peace; the previous two years, known as “Kieft’s War,” had involved a series of incredibly bloody massacres of Indians by Dutch soldiers, motivating the Algonquian tribes to unite against the colonists.)
Van Der Donck was arguably one of the first great American patriots, and at the very least he was an early, enthusiastic booster for what would become New York. He was a tireless proponent of a local, republican government for the colony to replace the control of the West India Company, and his book Beschryvinge van Nieuw-Nederlant (Description of New Netherland) was a glowing description of the New York region that attracted many colonists.
Trained as a lawyer, he first arrived in New Amsterdam in 1641 at the tender age of 23, with a job as “schout” (a prosecutor, sheriff, and tax-collector) for Kiliaen van Rensselaer’s domain near where Albany is now located. Astounded at the beauty of the Hudson Valley, Van Der Donck spent much of his time exploring the countryside instead of attending to his duties. He learned the language of the Mahicans and the Mohawks, which would lead to his key role in establishing peace with the Algonquins.
Yonkers itself, under which the Sawmill River now flows, had taken its name from Van Der Donck. With his new status as a major landowner, he had received the Dutch honorific “Jonkheer,” approximately translated as “young gentleman” or “young lord.” His estate was therefore “De Jonkheer’s Landt” in Dutch, which would eventually be anglicized to “The Yonkers” before it became shortened to “Yonkers.” In the 1840s, New York’s first railroads connected the bucolic riverside town to New York City, spurring a rapid growth. Yonkers was officially incorporated as a village in 1855, and was recognized as a city in 1872.
With its enviable site on the Hudson, Yonkers grew quickly in the 19th century. Elisha Graves Otis installed the first prototype of his revolutionary “safety elevator” in a factory in Yonkers. But as it grew, the river that had given birth to the city became an obstacle to growth. As more industrial buildings were built in the 19th century, some straddled the river. Sections of the river were shunted through underground flumes, and road bridges were built across other parts of it, until eventually the city decided to simply cover over the last exposed sections of the river. By the early 1900s, the river was completely underground for the section that passes through downtown Yonkers.
The many years of change and growth are along the underground river. Stone arches from the 19th century sit next to sections of 20th century concrete, and next to these there are small sections where the span of an old bridge was supported on rough-hewn logs.