By Paul Hicks
Pullquote: Edith refused to accept anything less than a sanctuary ‘forever wild’ deeded by the County.
Many readers may know Edith G. Read only as a name on a sign at the entrance to Playland. Born in 1904, she was a lifelong resident of Rye, graduating from what is now Rye Country Day School in 1922. She married Bayard W. Read in 1926, and, after raising two children she became increasingly involved in environmental issues affecting the Rye area, the County and New York State.
In 1956, Mrs. Read was one of the principal community leaders who persuaded the Rye City Council to turn the former Marselis Parsons estate on the Post Road into a nature park. Two years later, thanks to her perseverance, the City allotted funds to operate the Nature Center. In 1963, an adjacent 16-acre tract was sold to a building developer. Concerned citizens, led by Mrs. Read, persuaded the developer to sell the City ten acres of that land, which were added to the center. In recognition of her remarkable efforts, the Nature Center’s museum space was named for Edith Read in 1978.
As a member of the City Council in the 1970s (when she was in her seventies), Mrs. Read pressed for measures to control flooding in the Blind Brook watershed and for enforcement of the tidal wetlands law. Recognizing that flood control affected a wide area, she served on the board of the Westchester County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), becoming its chair in 1976.
Under her leadership, the SWCD approved the City of Rye’s flood control plan if Rye and the other two communities in the Blind Brook flood plain, Harrison and Rye Town, agreed to ban any new construction in flood-prone areas. It called for the communities to develop flood-warning systems and evacuation plans for residents, and adopt a system for closing off roads in high-hazard areas. It also required builders of any major developments, including apartment buildings, to install controls to prevent storm water runoff from draining into Blind Brook.
Her crowning achievement, however, was the preservation of a 179-acre tract of County-owned land at Playland as a nature sanctuary. In 1925, when this land was acquired by Westchester County, it contained two small amusement parks, some resort hotels and a large swamp. The swamp was considered wasteland and was converted into a lake, which was cut off from the Sound by floodgates with tide locks to keep it level at high tide.
According to Rye historian Paul Rheingold: “The life of the sanctuary began in 1970s with Edith Read taking the first steps creating an agreement between Westchester County and the Long Island Sound Task Force and the Federated Conservationists of Westchester County, Inc. to stop the dumping of dredge spoil on what would become the land carved out of Playland Park for the Sanctuary. The two organizations named above became plaintiffs in a suit to end the dumping. They employed Garrison Corwin, a Westchester lawyer who specialized in environmental litigation. Edith Read paid the legal fees.
“After a long delay, Edith persuaded county legislators and the new county executive in 1983 to dedicate the land as a natural park. Negotiations dragged on, but Edith refused to accept anything less than a sanctuary ‘forever wild’ deeded by the county. Edith also initially refused the honor that the county wanted to bestow on her by naming the sanctuary after her. Finally on Oct. 5, 1985, the Edith G. Read Natural Park and Wildlife Sanctuary was created and dedicated, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the sanctuary.”
Today, the Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses 179 acres at the southern end of Manursing Island in Rye. The mainland portion includes 94 acres with excellent trails, while Playland Lake, which covers 85 acres, is home in winter months to large numbers of ducks and other aquatic birds. In spring and summer, ospreys nest on an easily viewable platform. Seals have been seen in winter on rocks in Long Island Sound, and a resident mink has been spotted in recent months along with the ever-present herd of deer.
In 1990, a nonprofit organization called The Friends of Read Wildlife Sanctuary was formed to supplement the county’s support for the sanctuary. It also works with the curator (currently Michael Gambino) on programming and maintenance (see www.friendsofreadwildlifesanctuary.org).
To honor Edith Read, who died in 2006 at the age of 102, the Friends of Read commissioned a monument, consisting of a large boulder with a bronze portrait of her, in 2010.
In 1976, The Rye Chronicle said it best in an editorial: “As far back as we can remember, Mrs. Read has been fighting for proper conservation of resources and flood control in Rye and is probably the foremost authority on the subject in the county.”