Piece of history unearthed in Ridgewood

The dead-end street is lined with barbed-wired walls, smack between the Frito Lay distribution center and Favorite…

By Dustin Brown

The block of Onderdonk Avenue that ends abruptly at the Long Island Rail Road tracks is an unlikely spot for a piece of local history.

The dead-end street is lined with barbed-wired walls, smack between the Frito Lay distribution center and Favorite Knitting Mill. Frito trucks cart crates of chips down the road, cutting a wide swath around a heap of ripped-up pavement covering half the street. Orange-and-white striped barriers lie toppled over the rubble, commiserating with a Blockbuster bag, an empty Minute Maid carton and other modern-day relics littering the roadway.

For the truckers, it’s an inconvenience. But for the residents of Queens and Brooklyn, the heap represents a rediscovered chapter of city history.

Three months ago workers from the city Department of Environmental Protection took a backhoe to the Onderdonk pavement and uncovered Arbitration Rock, a glacial boulder that unwittingly resolved a border dispute between Queens and Brooklyn more than 200 years ago.

Back in the days when Queens was Newtown and Brooklyn was Bushwick, the two communities endured 100 years of bad blood as they squabbled over their borders, starting in 1660. Although early 18th-century governor Lord Cornbury deigned to settle the conflict by gifting the land in question to friends, it wasn’t until Jan. 7, 1769 that they devised a border both sides could agree on. The resulting survey cites Arbitration Rock among the landmarks delineating the boundary.

By the 1930s, however, the border had been slightly redrawn, and the rock — perhaps disconsolate at its loss of stature — -disappeared from view.

“No one ever knew from photos if Arbitration Rock had ever survived or not,” said William Asadorian, a librarian at the New York Public Library who originally began researching the rock in 1993. “There is a picture from 1920 that shows Charles Underhill Powell, chief topographical engineer for Queens, sitting by the rock, but only part of it is exposed, and nobody ever knew what became of it.”

The modern-day terrain is hardly recognizable from the photograph, which shows the rock jutting out of a grass-strewn slope before a backdrop of trees and a wood-framed house. By that point, Flushing Ave. was already on the verge of losing its pastoral charm. Representatives of the Knitting Factory said documents date their one-story building back to the mid-1920s. By the 1930s, the Frito-Lay property had been converted from farmland to manufacturing.

“The neighborhood was changing at that time,” said George Miller, treasurer and archivist at the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society. “It still had a lot of open space, but anything new that was being built was a factory building. Probably within a period of 15 to 20 years the area went from very rural to almost completely industrial.”

Although no one knows when exactly the rock disappeared from sight, Miller said it most likely coincided with the construction of Onderdonk Avenue in the early 1930s.

“The rock disappeared several times over the years, because it was sitting down a gulley, and with the rain, I guess mud and dirt and all would run down the hill and eventually collect around the rock,” Miller said. “Twenty or 30 years later someone would go dig it out again.”

This most recent rescue effort was largely due to the efforts of Stanley Cogan, the Queens borough historian and president of the Queens Historical Society, who joined Asadorian’s quest and eventually secured the blessing of Borough President Claire Shulman to dig for the rock.

In its current site, the only stare Arbitration Rock will likely draw is the glower of truckers who swerve to avoid the rubble under which it sits. Recognizing the awkwardness of its present home, Shulman originally proposed moving the rock to Borough Hall, where it would likely get the most exposure.

But local historians adamantly advocated keeping it in Ridgewood, and the borough now plans to set Arbitration Rock on the property of Onderdonk House, a nearly 300-year-old farmhouse the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society has called home since the mid-1970s.

“This landmark rock is right in its ancestral home,” said Cogan. “It would just be an insult to its history to pick it up and move it” to Borough Hall.

Once transplanted, the rock will still sit along the original Newtown-Bushwick border, which runs through the Onderdonk property. However, the rock cannot be moved until the Landmarks Preservation Trust surveys the Onderdonk site — an official landmark — to ensure the placement will not adversely affect the property.

Although moving the rock from its original location may alarm historical purists, the Onderdonk proposal has support on both sides of the border.

“I’m all for leaving history the way it was, but there are practical issues involved here,” said Brooklyn borough historian John Manbeck. “I’ll go along with it.”

Meanwhile, Cogan is pushing to have the rock itself designated an official landmark. With a title like that, perhaps Arbitration Rock won’t be sneaking off again anytime time.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.