One of New York’s most enduring urban legends is the tale of the alligators haunting the sewers, descendants of souvenir baby ‘gators supposedly discarded and flushed down the toilet. Folklorists trace the origins of this story to the reported discovery of a juvenile caiman in an East Harlem manhole in 1935. Little known, though, is a curious incident that happened on the Bronx River three years before.
On June 29, 1932, a pair of boys wandered into the headquarters of the Bronx River Parkway Police near Tuckahoe, bearing what looked like a dead three foot-long alligator. They explained to the startled cops that they had found the thing at a wide spot on the river known as Crestwood Lake. And not only that, they claimed they saw two or three more alligators – live ones – moving about in the water.
Chief William J. Byrne hastily organized an alligator hunting expedition for dawn the next day, while newspaper reports spoke of “swarms” of alligators lurking in the “jungle” of quiet Crestwood. With no procedure for capturing live alligators to be found in the Parkway Police manual, Byrne reached out to the local community for advice. One helpful chap coached one of the policemen in how to produce what he said was the alligator mating call. Another recommended using liver as bait – it would make the ‘gators literally walk across the water to the shore, where they could easily be caught in ordinary fishermen’s hand nets.
Armed with fishing nets and fresh liver, Byrnes’ brave men combed the river the next day, but never found a single alligator, let alone the reported swarms of them. And the dead critter the boys dragged in turned out to be a crocodile anyway.
So the next time you hear the old alligators-in-the-sewers story, just smile, knowing that while legendary saurians may roam the sewers of Manhattan, the humble Bronx River had them first.
Stephen Paul DeVillo