LAKE RONKONOMA'S FAVORITE ADOPTED SON
DAN SICKLES AND LAKE RONKONKOMA
An American Icon
Most people remember Dan Sickles as the man that ruthlessly shot down the grandson of Francis Scott Key, Philip Barton Key, in the street like the cur that he was. But did you know that he was also the first person to successfully mount a defense against the charge of murder on the basis of temporary insanity? The very first, in American history, but certainly not the last.
This alone earns Sickles a place in the annals of history. But there is so much more to the story of Dan Sickles.
"One of the roughest and most forbidding
spots on the face of the globe...
an irredeemable swamp."
- Dan Sickles
In giving this memorable quote, Dan Sickles was talking about the future site of Central Park in New York, a park which today would not exist were it not for the determination and zeal of Sickles alone. It is easy to look at something which has already been done and say that it obvious, that it was inevitible, and to take it for granted. But there was a time when building an enormous and expensive park in the middle of Manhattan was a controversial and unpopular idea. Never one to be deterred by the controversial or the unpopular, Dan Sickles pursued the idea of a Central Park without mercy. One can hardly doubt that he would be at the front lines were he alive today - demanding that Lake Ronkonkoma be drained and that something beautiful and wonderful be installed in its place.
Hero of Gettysburg
Students of the American Civil War will also recognize Sickles as the officer that ordered the controversial advance beyond Cemetery Ridge on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. This order changed history, setting the stage for the iconic battle of Little Round Top and forcing the Confederates to modify their original battle plan. While some question the soundness of Sickles orders, it is impossible to deny that his actions helped to secure victory for the Union.
During the fighting, Sickles lost his leg to a cannonball and was carried off the battlefield cooly smoking a cigar, a sight which inspired his troops to fight on. He later donated both the leg and the cannonball to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where they remain on display. Sickles was also instrumental in the foundation of Gettysburg National Park.
Founding Father of Central Park
Though we now take Central Park in Manhattan for granted, there was a time when there was a lot of opposition, and many obstacles, to the entire project. The only land available was as described in the quote above, a twisted and ugly wasteland that nobody else wanted. Dan Sickles answered this challenge with steely resolve, laying the mandate for the transformation that must occur:
One must see in it beautiful lawns of emerald green, soft as velvet, and groves of tall, graceful trees; rambling brooks with musical voices, expanding into lakes that mirror the swans floating on their surfaces; gondoliers filled with happy groups of maidens and cavaliers; bridges of graceful design; broad avenues filled with gay equipages and thousands of happy men, women and children filling the landscape.
A grand vision indeed! And a costly one. Many of the arguments made against the park are the same ones made against draining Lake Ronkonkoma today. Reactionary, luddite fear masquerading as thoughtful consideration. Sickles overcame all of this, got the money, got the land, and got the law that said he could build it. And he built it. He was later able to happily say:
I saw the rocks in Central Park covered with soil... filled with earth; great basins for lakes excavated... countless trees planted... long bridle paths made; bridges of many graceful forms erected... and nowadays, as I drive through these charming pleasure grounds and see thousands enjoying them, I sometimes feel a complacent pride in the recollection that I helped to create this park.