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This story begins with an Irish immigrant named John Mullaly, who worked as a reporter and editor in the mid-1800s for several New York City papers.

Iguanas

John was a big proponent of green spaces, and often wrote about the lack of such spaces in New York City. Consider that at this time, the city had only one acre of public parkland for every 1,363 inhabitants, compared to one acre for every 200 in Chicago and one acre for every 300 residents in Philadelphia.

On November 26, 1881, the 46-year-old newsman and a large group of citizens concerned with widespread urban growth met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel to form the New York Park Association. John Mullaly was named secretary, Waldo Hutchins was elected president, and Hon. Luther R. Marsh was named vice president. The goal of the new association was to secure funding to create free public parks that would be rural and governed by as few restrictions as necessary to preserve them from abuse and destruction.

Bronx Zoo 1896

Of the 653 undeveloped acres condemned by the city for Bronx Park, more than half were owned by the Lorillard Estate and 170 acres were owned by the Lydig estate. The remaining acres were owned by the Ann Bolton estate, Jefferson M. Levy, Frederick Grote, C.A.L. Kernochan, Mary L. Barbey, and Eva L. Kipp. All total, it cost the city $2.3 million to acquire the lands for Bronx Park in 1888. This photo shows the northwest corner of what would become the Bronx Zoo in 1896. Collection of the author

As a result of the group’s lobbying efforts, an act was passed to appoint special park commissioners to locate and select undeveloped lands for parks and parkways in the 23rd and 24th wards of the Bronx. The commissioners came back with several options, including 1,070 acres embracing the Van Cortlandt estate, 1,000 acres on the Long Island Sound, and 653 acres on the Bronx River. It was estimated that the cost of the land would be no more than $8 million.

Bronx River, Bronx Park

Before the Bronx Botanical Gardens and Bronx Zoo opened in the late 1880s, the Bronx Park was a popular place for picnics, fishing, and boating. New York City pleasure seekers could get there in about a half hour by taking the train from Grand Central on the New York and Harlem Railroad. Museum of the City of New York Collections

In 1884, the New York State Senate and Assembly passed the New Parks Act, which provided funds for the city to condemn these lands. Within a few years, the lands would be known as Van Cortlandt, Pelham Bay, Crotona, Claremont, and Bronx Park.

So what does this have to do with iguanas?

In 1906, a large three-foot-long python escaped from the Reptile House but was soon captured by Bronx Zoo employees. New York Public Library Collections

In 1906, a large three-foot-long python escaped from the Reptile House but was soon captured by Bronx Zoo employees. New York Public Library Collections

By spearheading the effort to create green space in the Bronx, John Mullaly, the father of the Bronx park system, was the first of many sparks that led to the creation of the Zoological Park at Bronx Park – today’s Bronx Zoo – where the great iguana escape took place.

Escape From Bronx Zoo

On July 20, 1890, The New York Times wrote a comprehensive visitor’s guide to the new public parks in the Bronx. Here’s what it said about Bronx Park:

“Arriving at the park, the visitor should keep well in mind the fact that he has a right to go wherever he pleases and do just what he pleases so long as ordinary park regulations are observed. He will find fences and places that look like private grounds, but there is absolutely not a foot of private ground in the park and not a fence that one is not at perfect liberty to jump over or crawl under.”

Reptile House, Bronx Zoo

The Reptile House was one of the first structures built at the new zoo in Bronx Park. Work began on August 22, 1898, and was completed in the winter of 1899. The mottled brick, granite, and terracotta building was 146 feet long and 100 feet wide, and was designed to provide “suitable accommodations for representatives of all the orders of living reptiles and batrachians.” Situated on the edge of a forest of great oaks, it featured a nearby natural pool of water in granite rock that served as a summer home for lizards. Today, only the outer structure of the Reptile House remains much as it was in 1899. New York Public Library Collections

Apparently, many of the animals that have lived at the Bronx Zoo over the past 115 years have read this article, including our two iguanas from Cuba, a panther from Mexico, a python, and, of course, the cobra that escaped in 2011 and started its very own Twitter account.

Bronx Zoo Reptile House 1899

Once the iguanas escaped, they had full range of the Reptile House, shown here in 1899 when the zoo first opened. Collection of the author

The two giant iguanas arrived at the Bronx Zoo in July 1907. Although they were each about four feet long, for some reason Keeper Charles Snyder and the other keepers at the Reptile House decided to house them in a small cage without any lid. Even though the walls of the cage were low, they didn’t think the iguanas would try to be jail dodgers.

They underestimated the reptiles. Sometime on Saturday night or early Sunday morning, the two crawled over and out, just as they were instructed to do in The New York Times article.

That Sunday, the Reptile House was very crowded with women and children. Pandemonium erupted when a little girl started to scream after seeing one of the iguanas crawling near the base of the anaconda cage.

Bronx Zoo Reptile House and keepers 1901

It took Keeper Snyder and two guards about an hour to catch the two escaped iguanas and return them to their cages. Here, the Bronx Zoo keepers and attendants stand in front of the Reptile House in 1901. New York Public Library Collections

As the people all struggled to get out of the narrow door, one man scrambled over a low iron fence into the alligator cage — he jumped out as soon as he realized where he had landed.

Meanwhile, the second iguana was hovering near the rattlesnake’s cage. Keeper Snyder came running from his office at the rear of the building and started yelling, “There is nothing to fear. The reptiles are harmless!”

The one iguana responded to that comment by striking at Synder several times as he and two guards attempted to reign in the escapees. It ran past the men and out the door, causing brave men to scatter in all directions.

Bronx Zoo Head Keeper Charlie Snyder

Charles E. (Charlie) Snyder, considered one of the world’s leading authorities on snakes, was head keeper of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s. Ironically, he died of a rattlesnake bite while hunting in Suffern, New York, in 1929, making him the only person in all of New York State to die from a rattlesnake bite in the 20th century.

Snyder and the guards, who were armed with billy clubs, chased the iguana back into the Reptile House and shut the door. After an hour of chasing the two around the building, they were finally able to throw a burlap bag over them and put them back in the cage. They immediately called for carpenters to build a wire lid so they couldn’t get out again.

A Brief History of the Bronx Zoo

The New York Zoological Park has only to be seen to be appreciated. It is located in what was the old Lydig estate, and many thanks are due to the Lydigs for their thoughtfulness in leaving the great forest trees that add so much to its picturesqueness and beauty.

In 1896, the New York Zoological Society petitioned the city for a municipal zoo aimed at preserving native animals, promoting zoology, and educating the public. The site they chose was 261 acres in the southern section of Bronx Park. A large portion of this land – about 170 acres — had been purchased from the Lydig estate in 1888 to create the park.

DeLancey Mills on Bronx River

The DeLancey Mills were located on the eastern shores of the Bronx River, just south of the falls. Prior to 1895, land east of the river was part of Westchester County. The house and mills burned down in 1845. Collection of the author

The land dated back to 1680, when the town of Westchester granted William Richardson permission to erect mills near the falls on the Bronx River. The mills – three grist mills and a saw mill — then passed to Everet Byvanck, whose widow sold them to William Provoost in 1711. Provoost in turn sold them to Stephen DeLancey, whose heirs sold the property to David Lydig.

David Lydig was the grandson of Philip Lydig, a German ship’s baker who came to America in 1750 and worked as a grain merchant. The ship baker’s son, also Philip, arrived in America 10 years later and was apprenticed to a leather merchant. Philip’s son David was born in 1764.

Philip Lydig cottage, Bronx River

In 1846, Philip Lydig built a cottage near the former DeLancey house on a knoll overlooking the Bronx River.

Sometime around 1830, David Lydig purchased the DeLancey estate on the Bronx River, which included the mills and the old family homestead. He and he wife, Catherine Mesier, and their only son, Phillip Mesier Lydig, lived at the estate in summer months.

In 1845, five years after David Lydig died, the original DeLancey house and mills burned down. A year later, Philip built a cottage on a knoll overlooking the river and his own mills on the west side of the river, a short distance from the dam. The mills produced ground grist for the neighborhood and grain that was transported to New York City via sloops up the Bronx River.

Bronx Zoo boathouse

In the early 1900s, the foundations of the old Lydig mills were still visible near the Bronx Park Boat House, pictured here in 1914. The Boat House was very popular during the summer season and thousands of park visitors used the rowboats that were kept here. Today this is the site of Jungle World at the Bronx Zoo.

When the Lydig property was condemned for Bronx Park, the mills were torn down. However, for many years the foundations still existed, providing a beautiful view of the falls through a ruined archway.

It took a lot of cutting through bureaucratic red tape, but the New York Zoological Society finally got the go-ahead to construct the zoo. Construction began on June 1, 1898.

The Bronx Zoo (originally called the Bronx Zoological Park and the Bronx Zoological Gardens) opened its doors to the public on November 8, 1899. Under the direction of zoo director William Temple Hornaday, the zoo featured 843 animals in 22 exhibits.

Today more than 2 million visitors a year come to see the more than 6,000 animals at the zoo. The Reptile House is still there — now called the World of Reptiles — albeit, there are no more iguanas.

  1. Ijquanas can be quite the scamps!

  2. My Grand Father was the Bronx Zoo keeper. He also was the Super intendant of Buffalo Park Zoo.