Sweitzer Lake State Park is a public recreation area located on the eastern shore of Staten Island, New York. The state park occupies 1,000 acres (400ha) surrounding the lake and preserves the site of the former Camp Sink, where thousands of German prisoners-of-war were forced to build fortifications during World War II. The park offers hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, fishing, a boat launch with marina, picnic tables with pavilions, a playground, cabins, camping sites, and nature trails. It also includes the Arthur V. Watkins Recreation Area, which was operated as a separate facility until its closure in 2015.
In 1943, at the height of the war, over 25,000 German POWs were housed in camps across America. Among them were several thousand men who built Fort Sisney, named after Major General Andrew “Red” Smyth Jr., at the mouth of the Hudson River. Built within months, the camp served as an industrial hub producing ammunition, weapons, vehicles, and equipment for the war effort. At least one major component of the camp remained standing when the prison was abandoned in 1945; this became the core of what would later be known as Prison Block 10.
After being decommissioned, the property was transferred to the custody of the Army Corps of Engineers, who used slave labor from local African Americans to demolish parts of the camp block by block between 1948 and 1951. What remained of the camp was given to the Department of Parks and Recreation whose first director was William P. Swauger, a noted landscape architect best known for his work with the National Park Service. He designed the initial plans for the park, which opened to the public in 1959. Sweitzer Lake itself was created in 1950 when an earth dam was constructed around part of the old camp.
Prior to its formation, the land had been marshland that had been flooded repeatedly since the early 19th century. The dam provided for irrigation needs and flood control along the Haverstraw Canal, serving as a model for similar projects proposed for other sections of the canal. However, the project proved uneconomical and the waterway’s financial troubles worsened, resulting in abandonment in stages between 1958 and 1962. The dike was removed in 1969, releasing the lake into the waters of the Upper New York Bay. A second attempt to dam the St. Lawrence River occurred in 1980, when Congress authorized $28 million toward building a reservoir to replace Lake Ontario’s failing Allenhurst Dam.
This time the plan called for using the Manhattan Project’s formerly closed Cernox plant near Lebanon, New Jersey, as the source of the needed plutonium. Although the legislation passed both houses of Congress, it died in committee in the Senate due to a last minute change of heart by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had championed the cause. Instead, nuclear powered plants were banned from operating within 50 miles (80km) of the lake. Since the Cernox plant no longer existed, the idea of replacing the dam was dropped in 1989.
Today, Sweitzer Lake remains a popular recreational destination, visited annually by nearly 500,000 people. Its main feature, the lake, covers 290 acres (120ha). The park has five trails leading out onto the lake, including two dedicated bike routes. Two playground areas are available, as well as a ball field, soccer fields, and playing courts. Tennis courts and a fitness center have recently been added.
The park also contains four historic buildings from the Fort Sisney era, which now house museums and visitor information centers. These include:
- Barracks #1, originally housing Company 803, Military Intelligence Unit (MIU)
- Battery Construction Battalion (BCB) 30, formally BCB 936, which managed construction of Fort Sisney
- Commanding Officers Quarters (CQ), originally housing Colonel James Terry Gardiner, commanding officer of MIU 815
- Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ), originally housing Lieutenant Colonel Anthony J. Drexler, commander of BCB 936
The park is divided into three distinct sections. The northern section, or North Shore, consists of about 200 acres (81ha) of land north of the lake, primarily forested. This section of the park features two beaches, including the much larger and more private Long Pond Beach, plus additional parking and services such as concession stands and rental boats. The central section, or Midshore, stretches roughly between the mouths of the Haverstraw and Verona canals, covering approximately 400 acres (160ha). This section of the park features multiple small ponds, most notably Roscoe Pond, as well as additional parking and services, including a single large beach, designated as the Jimmie Davis Memorial Beach.
The southernmost section, or South Shore, is a peninsula south of the main portion of the park, accessed via a bridge carrying over the Verona Branch of the Erie Railroad. This section of the park features the smallest pond, Little Pond, as well as additional parking and services, including handicap access and vending machines.
During World War II, many thousands of German prisoners-of-war were incarcerated in camps across the United States. One such camp, Fort Sisney, was established inside present-day Sweitzer Lake State Park. Located just outside the city of Richmond, Virginia, the post spanned some 3,500 acres (1,400ha) and included ten rifle ranges and a huge underground munitions dump.
Over 18,000 prisoners worked on Fort Sisney, constructing roads, bridges, runways, anti-aircraft batteries, and artillery pieces. Three prisoner-built guns fired on targets at sea, but their shells failed to reach their intended target because they could not get past the 15-mile (24km) range limit of the gunners’ Krupp 88 mm cannon. Another gun, the PaK 40, mounted on a Tiger I tank chassis, engaged a US Navy aircraft carrier, USS Hornet, flying nearby practice bombing runs. Both sides claimed victory in the battle, which became known as the Battle of Point Judith.
Shortly thereafter, however, the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II, and all remaining POWs were released from American captivity. Upon learning that the war was over, officials in Washington, DC, wanted to know what to do with the enormous warehouse full of unexploded ordnance lying around the countryside. President Harry Truman directed that the material be turned over to the Army, which planned to dispose of it properly. Local citizens pleaded with the government to preserve the explosives for use in mining operations, thus creating jobs and revenue for the community. An agreement was made, and in 1947, the federal government began transferring ownership of the land containing the ordnance to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which established the Staton Island Defense Reservation.
The following year, 1948, saw the establishment of Sweitzer Lake State Park, then under the direction of the newly formed Queens College (predecessor of today’s Brooklyn College). As part of the deal, the college agreed to teach classes at the reservation each summer, providing employment for the faculty and students. Also employed there were numerous high school graduates, mainly recent immigrants, who received training as mine countermeasures specialists. They were paid minimum wage, but earned substantially more than they would have in a comparable job elsewhere. Many stayed in Staten Island, living off the earnings they generated from their mines. The program continued successfully for twenty years, until 1968. When the college shut down, so too did the operation, leaving the park and the reserve without any staff.
There are facilities for different activities such us:
- mountain biking
- horseback riding
- cross country skiing
- ice skating