By 1895 unregulated industrial, residential, and agricultural development had transformed the Bronx River into an open sewer. The Bronx Parkway Commission was appointed in 1906 to reclaim the river and "incidentally create a parkway." When the Bronx River Parkway Reservation was completed in 1925, it was America’s first public automobile parkway. (The privately owned Vanderbilt Parkway on Long Island preceded it as the first nominal "parkway" explicitly intended for automobile use.) The reservation had a right-of-way that varied from 200' to 1,200' wide and a total area of 1,155 acres. The parkway drive was 15.5 miles in length and followed the route of the Bronx River. The primary feature of the drive was the river, which was nearly always in sight. The naturalistic landscape, designed by Hermann Merkel, featured small lakes at frequent intervals, a diversity of open meadows, rocky ledges, and woodlands characteristic of the valley.(4) The parkway reservation included more than 20 miles of recreational pathways and numerous areas designed to serve the leisure needs of local residents.
The work of developing the BRPR was organized by the Bronx Parkway Commission (BPC), a small group of prominent individuals that operated with an energetic hands-on style of management. The commission was assisted by a well-staffed work force that included talented engineers and landscape architects, as well as a dedicated law department, clerical division, and laborers. Most employees served the commission from its earliest days until it was terminated in 1925. Many BPC employees continued their service to Westchester County by transferring to work in the Westchester County Park Commission.
The Bronx River Parkway Reservation encompasses a significant portion of the Bronx River Valley from its northern terminus at the Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla to its southern terminus at the New York Botanical Gardens in New York City. The road parallels the Bronx River and the New York Central Railroad.
From Kensico Plaza south to the Sprain Brook Parkway the drive is four lanes wide. The lanes range from 9' to 11' wide. For most of this section, steel w-beam guide rails separate opposing traffic lanes. In several areas, the roadways divide into separate one-way roads. In some locations, especially south of Fenimore Road, the parkway drive has mountable concrete curbs and drop-inlet drains. Modern steel streetlights illuminate the parkway in Westchester County. Originally, both the guardrails and light standards were constructed of rustic locust logs.
The northernmost section of roadway between Valhalla Bridge and White Plains maintains the greatest historic integrity. The winding drive follows much of its original alignment, traversing several hills between Valhalla Bridge and Virginia Road. The views in this corridor are the most expansive in the Bronx River Parkway Reservation. Northbound motorists passing over Valhalla Bridge have an impressive view of Kensico Dam and the upper reaches of the Bronx River Valley. Motorists traveling south from the Kensico Dam Plaza view the Bronx River Valley spread before them. The area between Kensico and White Plains has many open meadow areas, retaining the balance of field and forest intended by the original designers. Broad grassy lawns are maintained in organically shaped bays defined by mature tree growth and thick undergrowth. Thick bordering vegetation screens parkway users from adjacent development and the railroad.
Immediately south of Kensico Plaza the parkway drive proceeds around a roundabout and separates into two one-way drives of two lanes each. The northbound lanes pass over Valhalla Bridge, an eclectically ornamented masonry-faced concrete girder structure completed in 1925 to carry the parkway drive over the New York Central Railroad tracks. Concrete jersey barriers have been added on either side of the driving surface to shield pedestrians and bicyclists on the bridge’s sidewalks and prevent motorists from hitting the original structure. The southbound lanes are carried over the railroad tracks on a modern steel-girder bridge with simple steel railings. The opposing roadways are separated by a wide, grassy median with some trees. Just south of Valhalla Bridge, the parkway lanes merge and are carried over the Bronx River on a concrete arch bridge with rustic stone masonry walls. The vertical and horizontal curvature in this section is excessive by modern standards, but the winding alignment serves as a characterful reminder of the serpentine roadway that once stretched throughout much of the parkway reservation.