William White Niles
Cornelius Amory Pugsley Gold Medal Award, 1933
William White Niles (1860-1935) received the Pugsley Gold Medal in 1933. He was born in Waterford, New York and was the beneficiary of a privileged education: attending prep school in Norwalk, Connecticut; Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire; receiving A.B. and A.M. degrees from Dartmouth College in 1883 and 1886, respectively; and a L.L.B. from Albany Law School in 1886.
Niles joined the New York Bar in 1885 and established the firm of Niles and Johnson to practice law in New York City in 1991. He inherited some interest in parks from his father, Winston W. Niles, who had played an important role in the development of parks throughout the Bronx. Thus, in 1881 while still an undergraduate student, Niles helped to found the New York Park Association. Presenting comparative studies of parkland in foreign cities, predictions of rapid population growth in New York City, and rising land values, the Association called for more land for parks in the southern Bronx, which had been annexed by New York City in 1874. This effort cumulated in the 1884 New Parks Act and the city's 1988-90 purchase of lands for Van Cortlandt, Claremont, Crotona, Bronx, St. Mary's and Pelham Bay Parks and the Mosholu, Pelham, and Crotona Parkways. The new properties increased the city's parkland fivefold from about 1,000 acres to about 5,000 acres.
Niles was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1895. He was a prominent civic leader, as well as an attorney, in New York City. He served as counsel to the sub-committee on borough government of the New York City Charter Revision Commission. He was a prominent member of several civic and social organizations including president of the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences and the Bronx Board of Trade; vice-president of the Citizens Union and the Tree Planting Association; member of the City Planning Commission, New York Botanical Gardens Board, and New York Zoological Society Board. However, it was his advocacy work in reclaiming the Bronx River which was probably his most significant and lasting contribution. The malodorous conditions in Bronx Park made visits unpleasant and the pollution threatened animals in the park's Bronx Zoo. Niles, through his involvement with the New York Zoological Society, was concerned about the river's spoliation of Bronx Park and realized that action was necessary before the river was completely destroyed.
His consciousness was aroused after a visit with the director of the New York Zoological Society to see Andrew Carnegie at Skibo Castle in Scotland. There he walked the banks of the River Ness through the city of Inverness and was surprised to find the water was clear after the river passed through the city as it was before it entered the city. He contrasted that with the Bronx River into which refuse and sewage were dumped, and dilapidated structures and unattractive development blighted the view. Niles observed that in the United States:
From the earliest times it has seemed as though every man's hand was against the river. Although, when our fathers first came over, our rivers were teeming with fish and it would seem as though the desire to protect such a valuable and cheap source of food supply would have furnished a strong motive for their protection, no such inclination is anywhere apparent but from the earliest times whenever a community grew up alongside a river the work of spoliation immediately commenced. The first misuse was the dumping of garbage and other refuse material into the river, then as drainage was undertaken the addition of the community's sewage to the stream, then with the advent of manufactories, the location of the most unattractive utilities along the banks and the drainage of tannin, sludge and acid and other chemicals into the river. This practice has continued to the present day with the result that our rivers are almost devoid of fish and wherever a city has grown up the river banks present so distressing a sight that no one ever thinks of erecting a residence on the shore of the stream or, indeed, any other structure than a factory or a coal yard.
Niles recognized the need to win public support for the river's clean-up was a prerequisite to securing major funding for it. Accordingly, he persuaded the New York Zoological Society to endorse his proposal for the state legislature to establish a commission to report on the problem. After being rebuffed in 1905, he was successful in 1906 after extensive lobbying in Albany of both the Legislature and the governor.
The bill was passed and it provided for the governor to appoint three commissioners who were to inquire into the advisability of preserving the waters of the Bronx River from pollution and creating a park reservation of the lands on both sides of the river. Niles suggested to the governor the names of two other individuals to join him on the commission and they were appointed.
Their report was presented to the governor and legislature in 1907. This led to the passing of legislation to create the Bronx Parkway Commission. Niles drafted the law that created it. He was vice president of the commission from 1907-25. The commission acquired the land alongside 23 miles of the river, and the long process was hailed as a success when the Bronx River Parkway opened in 1925. Niles also played an active role in the northway extension of the Bronx River Parkway, a project that eventually evolved into the Taconic State Parkway. He was a member of the Taconic Commission and became its chairman in 1927.
The Bronx River Parkway was the nation's first public parkway designed explicitly for automobile use. Initially conceived as a river reclamation project that would also provide flood relief, land was leased or transferred to adjacent municipalities that developed recreational opportunities along a motorway that was considered highly advanced for its day. At the time the parkway was created, the commission's primary goal was to restore and preserve the Bronx River. The motorway was considered to be of secondary importance. The parkway was to be a scenic area that could also be used for numerous recreational opportunities including swimming, walking, skating, bird-watching, and various organized athletic activities. The significance of the motorway became increasingly apparent as the development progressed. While the parkway drive was intended to offer pleasure-driving opportunities and serve as an important connection between New York City and Westchester County's rapidly expanding park system, the roadway's appeal was not limited to its recreational potential. Commuters soon flocked to the attractive and efficient motorway, which provided a convenient link between suburban residences and Manhattan offices. Niles later recalled:
When I first conceived the idea of the Bronx River Parkway, it was not with the thought of building a park driveway but with the purpose of protecting a beautiful little stream, running through a lovely valley, from destruction. The defilement had progressed to such a point that in five years more the river would have been an open sewer creating a forbidding no-man's-land through what is now one of the most beautifully developed suburbs of any city and practically ruining one of the finest city parks...Sewage was discharged into the river wherever sewers were constructed, refuse and garbage were dumped into the river together with rubbish, such as worn out automobile tires, discarded boilers, barrel hoops, everything in fact. The acquisition of the river bed and adjoining uplands by the parkway commission stopped all these abuses, the river was cleared of rubbish, the discharge of sewage gradually stopped and the river restored to its original condition. The resulting improvement has been almost unbelievable. A high class of residence building immediately commenced and has continued without intermission.
Niles believed that his Bronx River project could be a model for other despoiled rivers in urban communities. He saw that it was in the best interest of owners of properties adjacent to urban rivers to encourage and contribute to restoration and to protect them from further abuse because of the positive impact this would have on the value of their remaining property:
I am convinced that our streams can only be saved by acquisition of their banks by the state. Public sentiment alone will accomplish little or noting. Attempted regulation by law affords only partial relief. It may put a stop to the dumping of sawdust and acid refuse into our streams but will never reach the minor offences or prevent the erection of eyesores and nuisances.
Let us move to save our streams before it is too late. The amount of land to be acquired need not be great, only enough to absolutely control access to the water. If the owners of the uplands are assured of the protection of the river, they will, in most instances, rejoice in the opportunity to protect their adjoining holdings.
Unfortunately, it was to be another half-century before the positive relationship between river restoration and urban rejuvenation and property values that Niles envisioned and demonstrated with the Bronx River project, attracted widespread attention in the U.S.
In recognition of the impact that Niles had in the development of Bronx Parks and the Bronx River Parkway, Niles' triangle which is part of the greater Bronx Park, was acquired and named after him in 1990.
Niles Triangle, Bronx Park. New York City Parks Department.
Historical American Engineering Record (2002) Bronx River Parkway Reservation. Westchester County Library Archives: HAER NY-327.
Clarke, G.D. (1959) The parkway idea. In Snow, E.B. The Highway and the Landscape. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. pp. 34-37.
Niles, William W. (1931) Preserve our rivers. Parks & Recreation, 623-625.