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.

Sickles was being uncharacteristically modest in saying he "helped" create Central Park. Without Dan Sickles, there wouldn't be a Central Park. Sickles was just one man, and he dug basins for lakes that did not even exist. Surely, over 150 years later, we can manage to drain one preexisting lake. One thing is certain - we must in the future set as high a bar for Ronkonkoma as Sickles did for a rocky and muddy shithole we now call Central Park.

Dan Sickles Meets Queen Victoria

One legendary story involving Sickles occured while he served as a diplomat in England. He was to be presented to Queen Victoria at court. In England this is a big deal, but Sickles would have none of the pretentious stuffiness expected of everyone at the time. Instead, he took the opportunity to present a prostitute to the Queen, defying social conventions and thumbing his nose at royalty. In doing so, he also landed a blow on a political enemy by introducing the prostitute using his last name.

All parties considered Sickles' actions to be tremendously insulting, which is excellent because that is exactly what Sickles intended them to be. Fuck them if they can't take a joke, was his attitude. A stunning hat trick executed fearlessly in the theater of life, demonstrating once again that no American grovels before royalty.

Lake Sickles: A Fresh Lake

Sickles would have visited Lake Ronkonkoma later in life, along with many other New Yorkers. Lake Ronkonkoma was all the rage, and during hot summers was the place to go. This obscure photo was probably taken during one of these visits. Note the maritime theme of his clothing.

Forever bound to the rich local history, Dan Sickles is the perfect man to name a new lake after. It will be a new lake, and should have a new name, but one that still links to the past. Lake Sickles is probably the best possible choice, and is the name supported by The Committee To Drain Lake Ronkonkoma should the decision be made to refill the lake.

Lake Sickles: The Lake Where No One Dies