This past Sunday Central Park was covered by a thick blanket of white as New York City enjoyed the first snowfall of the season. Later that day the slopes all around the park were covered with all manner of sleds and toboggans as New Yorkers young (and not so) took advantage of the rare, pre-holiday opportunity for downhill racing. I took a walk up the East Drive towards McGown’s Pass (E. 106th St.) later in the evening and experienced a moment of “Time And Again” temporal displacement. Streetlights twinkling through the snow, not a car to be seen, or heard, just the soft white mantle covering the road and trees, muting what little sound there was. Easy to imagine the park a century or so ago, when the first snow of the season was the occasion for a race to the Tavern that once stood at the top of McGown’s Pass.
For most of the latter half of the 19th century, right up until its demolition in 1915, the McGown’s Pass Tavern awarded a magnum of champagne to the first sleigh that reached it each season. The tradition was carried on with the Central Park Casino until it’s demise in 1934.
The Tavern was originally owned by the McGown family and had existed on the spot in various incarnations for over two hundred years. It was originally a stop along the Boston Post Road and the site has also been the home of Mt St. Vincent Convent and a museum. By the turn of the last century it had been rebuilt into an extremely popular restaurant and sportsman’s club – reportedly a favorite uptown spot for then Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.
The space once occupied by the Tavern is now the site of the Central Park Composting Center, a very valuable, if somewhat less fashionable, use for the hill at 106th St. But even now, on a still night following a snowstorm you can almost hear the muffled thump of hooves and jingling of sleigh bells through the crisp winter air.