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McAdam’s Bronx River Driveway

The original Bronx River Parkway won renown as an innovative roadway design when it was completed in 1925, but the Bronx River may have been the scene of a much earlier advance in road building, if local legend is to be believed.

The young Scotsman John Loudon McAdam came to New York in 1770 to work for his merchant uncle, and he soon developed connections with prominent mercantile families such as the Delanceys.  He became a frequent visitor to the Delancey estate on the banks of the Bronx River, across from today’s River Park at East 180th Street, where he courted, and eventually married, Charlotte Delancey.

The trip from lower Manhattan to West Farms was no easy matter, what with the primitive state of the roads in those days.  McAdam likely found it easier to take a boat up the East River and sail up the Bronx River to West Farms, where he could tie up just a short walk from the Delancey mansion.

This may have put the idea in his mind that there had to be a better way to engineer roadways. The innovation that eventually revolutionized transportation as the “macadamized road” involved raising the roadbed for good drainage, covering it with durable layers of large rocks and smaller stones, and finishing it off with a binding layer of fine gravel or slag.

Story has it that McAdam, to please his prospective father-in-law, first demonstrated this technique on the driveway to the Delancey mansion. We can’t say for sure if this story is true, but we do know that McAdam returned to Scotland a wealthy (and married) man, who in the early 1800s became famous for building his new roads all over Britain. The Delancey mansion overlooking the Bronx River is long vanished, but its driveway ran along the line of the present-day (and coincidentally named?) Adams Street. The remains of McAdams’ experiment, if it exists, would now lay beneath the 180th Street subway yards, and while more modern techniques built the Bronx River Parkway, his name lives on in the words “macadamize” and “tarmac.”

Stephen Paul DeVillo

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The Bronx River Alliance is a coordinated voice for the river that works in partnership to protect, improve and restore the Bronx River corridor so that it can be a healthy ecological, recreational, resource for the communities through which it flows.

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