Captain David Olmsted – Revolutionary War veteran, Ridgefield, CT

I am yet again stretching the relevance of a post, as this one definitely is not in Ossining.  However, it does connect to running. 

Credit: http://www.naturegeezer.com/2017/05/capt.html

I’ve run by this house six or seven times over the past 10 years – it sits at about the 5 and the 10 mile mark of the Ridgefield Half Marathon. In fact, think I’ve run this race more than just about any other race – there’s something about the season (it’s always in October), the weather (it’s generally crisp with peak leaves) and the fact that it’s super well-organized (this year they gave out locally crafted wooden medals and a very comfortable hoodie.) 

Best of all –  it benefits the Boys and Girls Clubs of Ridgefield.

So let’s learn about the Captain David Olmsted house c. 1750.  

Who was he?  Did he really live here?  Was he related to Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame?  This is a classic Ossining History on the Run post, because I’ve thought about all of these questions over the years and never looked it up.

Until now . . .

As far as I can tell, the David Olmsted of this house was born in 1748 in Ridgefield, and died in 1815 in Jamesville, NY.  He came from a long line of Olmsteds who came to the New World from Essex, England in the 1600s – at some point, one of them helped found Ridgefield. I also believe our David Olmsted was indeed distantly related to Frederick Law Olmsted as that Olmsted was also born in Connecticut and was also descended from Olmsteds who came here from Essex, England in the 1600s.

Our David married Abigail Ingersoll in 1768 when he was 20 and she was 18. (Abigail was related to Jared Ingersoll who helped write and then signed the Constitution as a representative for Pennsylvania.) 

David and Abigail went on to have about eight children, one of whom, born in 1776, was named George Washington Olmsted.  Nice.  

David was apparently one of the first young men in Ridgefield to join the Revolution and lead a company to join Washington’s army in 1776. (Hence the naming of his son?)   As a Captain, he served honorably in several skirmishes – at West Point, at Fairfield, and at the Battle of Ridgefield.

It’s here that legend takes over, and the Story of the Red Petticoat emerges.  Supposedly, as the British approached Ridgefield at dawn on April 27, 1777, the Patriots fought valiantly at the barricades (led by none other than General Benedict Arnold!) but scattered to the woods surrounding the town as the British advanced.  According to Silvio A. Bedini’s 1958 history “Ridgefield in Review” the tale goes something like this:

Abigail Olmsted remained at home with her children, anxiously awaiting word of her husband and of the progress of the conflict. When the detachment of British troops came marching along Olmstead Lane to the camp site [on Wilton Road West], she feared that her home would suffer the fate of others that had been burned by the British during the day. Looking about for some means of saving it, she thought of posing as a Tory. Having no other suitable symbol at her disposal, she removed her red petticoat and waved it from the house as the British soldiers came marching off West Lane Road and along the lane. The British, thinking it was a Tory house, left it unharmed.

When her husband arrived home at last during the night or on the following day, Mrs. Olmsted proudly recounted the incident, pleased with her presence of mind. Not so her husband. Livid with rage, Captain Olmstead thundered: ‘Woman, if I had seen you, I would have shot you dead!’ Far better it would have been to have this home destroyed than to have his wife suspected of being a Tory.

Now, this story raises several questions in my mind –  did nice gentlewomen in 18th century Connecticut habitually wear red petticoats?  Would Captain Olmsted really have threatened to shoot his wife?  And finally, why would anyone make this story up?  What’s the germ of truth behind it?

Alas, I can answer none of those questions (but if any of you dear readers can, please comment in the notes section!)

Apparently, the Olmsted house suffered a fair amount of damage from the British onslaught, red petticoat notwithstanding.  According to some pretty serious sleuthing by Keith Jones, in his book “Farmers Against the Crown,” we learn that Captain Olmsted requested reimbursement from the Connecticut government for property damage to the tune of £54, which was a significant sum in those days.

Ridgefield Town Historians have, over the years, confirmed that the house I’ve repeatedly run by, at 91 Olmsted Lane, was indeed owned by Captain David Olmsted of Revolutionary War (and Red Petticoat outrage) fame.  At least, they put up a sign to that effect in 1976 during the Bicentennial celebration.

By the end of the War, Olmsted was apparently promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, but was always known around town as Captain.  After the War, he became a well-respected member of the community, holding several offices in local government.  

At some point he decided to leave Ridgefield for reasons I haven’t uncovered, moving to Jamesville, NY, located in the Syracuse area. (Maybe because no one in Ridgefield would call him Colonel?) 

Perhaps the move had something to do with the fact that at that time New York State, in dire need of money to pay off its war debts, began pushing the Iroquois off their lands, despite the new Federal government’s promise to honor the sovereignty of the Six Nations.  (I actually read a fascinating article about all this called “The Iroquois And New York State: Two Centuries Of Broken Treaties And Map Lies” by Jo Margaret Mano of The College at New Paltz, State University of New York.  Google it if you want to know more.)  

The upshot was that millions of acres of Iroquois land was “purchased” by New York State and then sold to the highest bidder in the 1780s.  I guess after serving in battle, Captain Olmsted still had an itchy foot for action and decided to make a move. 

Wife Abigail died in 1805 in Jamesville at the age of 63.  

Olmsted is said to have remarried, to an Abiah Keeler.  However, my desultory research (which consisted of a quick glance through Ancestry.com and Google) has turned up nothing about this marriage.

Captain David Olmsted died in 1815 and is buried next to first wife Abigail in the Walnut Grove Cemetery in Jamesville, NY.  No word on where second wife Abiah Keeler ended up.

Sources:

http://www.naturegeezer.com/2017/05/capt.html

http://dunhamwilcox.net/ct/ridgefield_ct_rev_war.htm

Prince Sergei and Princess Catherine Gagarin

So, this isn’t Ossining-related, but it is running and history related, so please to enjoy . . .

Now, sometimes I do the environmentally horrible thing and DRIVE to a run.  Like take a 30-minute away drive.  

This run starts at the Buxton Cemetery on Succabone Road in Bedford Hills, and it’s so delightful and challenging that I try do it weekly.  After our run, my friend and I cool down by walking through the cemetery and drinking our water.  And we have learned a lot about the people who lived around here, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

But we only just noticed these gravestones:

Prince Sergei, Princess Catherine Gagarin and their family

It’s a little strange that it took us this long, because these headstones are entirely different from all the others. However, they are off to the side of the cemetery and are quite obscured by the ferns growing up around them. 

I noticed them mostly because the last name is “Gagarin” and Yuri Gagarin was the first human who ever went into space (Vostok 1, 1961. Yes I am a space nerd.)   However, I don’t think there’s a connection, as I don’t think he was from a noble family. At least, his origin story involves working at a steel plant and never mentions nobility. But then it wouldn’t, would it? (However, readers, always feel free to correct me!)

UPDATE 10/17/21

Thanks to an eagle-eyed reader of this blog, I was sent the following obituary of Prince Serge Gagarin, the son of Prince Sergei and Princess Catherine. The very last line says the following: “In case you were wondering, Serge Gagarin is not directly related to Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the cosmonaut who, in April 1961, was the first human to orbit the earth. Yuri Gagarin was descended from serfs owned by the Princes Gagarin. He died in the crash of his MiG-15 in 1968.” I had no idea that Russian serfs took on the name of their “owners.” Clearly, more research is needed, but it certainly gives Yuri bona fides as someone who represented Marxist ideals.

I have learned, through my armchair research, that Prince Sergei and Princess Catherine were indeed legitimate Russian nobility.  

It seems that the Gagarin family goes back centuries, some say 31 generations (!!), and were close to many Czars and Czarinas over the centuries.  Unfortunately, in 1917, after the Russian Revolution and the following civil war, being a noble was not a good thing – in fact, the concept of nobility was abolished.  The Gagarin family fled to Turkey, then France, finally settling in the US with other Russian ex-pat nobility.  

I did find an interesting article that seems to indicate that before he fled, Prince Sergei was involved in helping pack up St. Petersburg’s famed Hermitage Museum: “Crown diamonds – the symbols of the imperial power, genealogical books and treasures from the Jewel Gallery, earlier kept in the Winter Palace, left for Moscow in August 1914, immediately after the outbreak of World War I, and were stored in the Kremlin Armory. Now the royal throne and the palace silver were to be taken out of the palace.”

Both the Prince and Princess rated obituaries in the New York Times.  Princess Catherine died in 1938 at the age of 50 “of a heart ailment,” and is described as married to “a diplomat of the Czarist regime.”  And Prince Sergei, whose 1941 obituary states that he was “connected with the Russian Foreign Office” tells the horrible tale of his death “when a hot-water heater exploded at his Summer home in Bedford, New York.”  Yikes!  

However, both of these obits seem to skim over stories that are much more involved (and possibly dark?) than the New York Times felt like sharing.  I wonder what they are?

765/1340 Kitchawan Road

So here’s a place I’ve wondered about for years . . .

I’ve driven by here many Saturday mornings, after my weekly run with the Taconic Road Runners Club. (Come join us! We’re friendly!)

But that slowly sinking tower . . .


765/1340 Kitchawan Road (photo by the author)

The elegant gate . . .

This sure looks like an estate, no?  So grand!  So stoney!  Somebody important must have lived here, right?

Perhaps . . . if you know who Mrs. Georgia McDonald Reed was. According to Patrick Raftery of the Westchester County Historical Society, she was a daughter of John B. McDonald, a contractor/engineer who oversaw the construction of August Belmont’s Interborough Rapid Transit Line, aka the first subway line in Manhattan. Check out what I found in the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” about her father:

The St. Louis Republic. [volume] (St. Louis, Mo.) 1888-1919, May 08, 1904, The Sunday Magazine, Image 57
Image provided by State Historical Society of Missouri; Columbia, MO
Persistent link: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020274/1904-05-08/ed-1/seq-57/

That’s an interesting connection, but it doesn’t tell us anything about her or her husband. What I CAN tell you is that the lake you can glimpse from the road, is indeed a manmade lake (like so many others in this neighborhood.  Teatown Lake is another.)  Apparently, it was a big thing in the 1920s to dam up creeks and create a private lake, and here’s a news item detailing Mrs. Reed’s dam project: 

Courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society

And here, in this 1929 map, you can see Shadow Lake, the fruit of the above labors:

Courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society

(You can also see Jeanne Eagels’ estate right across Croton Dam Road on this map! Check out this previous blog post if you don’t know who that is!)

Now, after years of intermittent and desultory armchair research, I have turned up little more about the Reeds. In fact, I still haven’t found anything about Mr. Reed. According to the 1930 census, Mrs. Reed was married, living on her Shadow Lake estate, but was listed as the head of the household (where was Mr. Reed?) She also had a “lodger” whom I only mention because his name was enchanting – Archibald M. Fauntleroy. I think I shall name my next cat after him.

I did find this one delightful item in the Ossining Citizen Sentinel from May 7, 1931 in which Mrs. Reed loans some land to Ossining Boy Scout Troop 10, allowing them the privilege of camping on her property and swimming in her lake:

Courtesy of the Westchester Historical Society

I am curious to know precisely what portion of the estate was set aside for the scouts to use. The article says it is “nearest Ossining and within easy hiking distance of the community.” I wonder if it traversed some of the Briarcliff-Peekskill trailway, perhaps skirting around David Abercrombie’s Elda Castle? Regardless, this seems like a lovely thing to do, but the way the article is written gives the impression that Mrs. Reed was a bit pruney:

“Shadowlake is well kept and cared for and it is expected by her that if the troop uses the land it will not suffer by their occupancy.” Ah, I suppose that was the just the style of the times.

But if anyone can shed any more light on Mrs. Georgia McDonald Reed (or the elusive Mr. Reed) please leave a comment!

High Tor – Haverstraw, NY

This will be my last post from the Rockland side of the Hudson, at least for a while. But this may well be the most spectacular hike of the two I’ve recently blogged — the first mile of the hike is a bit of a scramble, but the view from the top is not to be equaled:

New York City from the top of High Tor; Lake DeForest in the foreground (Photo by the author)

High Tor has a long history — as the highest point on the Palisades, it likely was an important site for the Lenape (possibly the Rumachenanck?) tribe.

During the American Revolution, High Tor was apparently used as a place to send signals up, down and across the river.

In fact, if you look around carefully, you’ll see some very old graffiti carved into the rocks. Here’s a cool one:

Looks like this says “Crocheron 1862” (Photo by the author)

Also, note the wavy, scratchy lines all over the rock? Pretty sure that’s evidence of the Laurentide ice sheet that covered this whole area up until about 20,000 years ago. (Here’s a link to another blog post about that time.)

Later, during WWII, according to Wikipedia, High Tor was used as an air raid lookout point. Supposedly Kurt Weill, the composer, was a volunteer air raid warden. (Fun fact: Weill wrote the score to Maxwell Anderson’s “Knickerbocker Holiday.” More on Anderson anon . . .)

Artistically, High Tor has been quite inspiring: The New York Historical Society has this John William Hill painting from 1866 — he is considered one of the “American Pre-Raphaelites,” devotees of England’s famed critic John Ruskin. He made this watercolor, likely whilst sitting atop High Tor, and then completed the larger painting in the comfort of his studio.

And then in 1936, Maxwell Anderson, a playwright of some renown at the time, wrote a three-act play called “High Tor” in which he describes the trials and tribulations of Van Van Dorn, the poor scion of a Dutch family who had owned the peak since the 1600s. Evil agents of a trap rock company keep trying to buy the land out from under him for a pittance to “chew the back right off this mountain, the way they did across the clove there. Leave the old palisades sticking up here like bill boards, nothing left.” (Actually, you will see a mountain that, sadly, looks EXACTLY like that just south of High Tor when you head back to 9W.)

The plot is melodramatic, with characters such as a ghostly, shipwrecked Dutch crew, an Indian, the evil trap rock men — oh, it’s a bit tedious to recount it all. Yet this play won the New York’s Critic Circle Award for the 1936-37 season.

Image Courtesy of Work Projects Administration Poster Collection – Library of Congress

Fantastic comedy? I think not.

I will say, though, Anderson gets in a couple of nice observations about the area. For example, Lise, the ghostly, shipwrecked Dutch lady who speaks in verse, laments the scourge of quarrying that is destroying the area:

Only five thousand for this crag at dawn

Shedding its husk of cloud to face a sunrise

Over the silver bay?  For silver haze 

Wrapping the crag at noon, before a storm

Cascading silver down the black rock’s face

Under a gray-sedge sky?  For loneliness, here on this crag?  

Anderson lived nearby in Rockland at the time he wrote this play, and was instrumental in saving the peak from certain destruction by helping form the Rockland County Committee to Save High Tor – they raised money, purchased the land, and turned it into High Tor State Park. (Fun fact, the actor Burgess Meredith, whom you might remember from the original “Rocky”, was a neighbor of Maxwell Anderson’s and played the character of Van Van Dorn in the original production of “High Tor.”)

One of my favorite bits about the play is the final speech, said by the dying Indian:

There’s one comfort.  I heard the wise Iachim, looking down when the railroad cut was fresh, and the bleeding earth offended us.  There is nothing made, he said, and will be nothing made by these new men, high tower or cut or buildings by a lake that will not make good ruins . . . When the race is gone, or looks aside only a little while, the white stone darkens, the wounds close and the roofs fall and the walls give way to ruins.  Nothing is made by men but makes, in the end, good ruins.

Nothing is made by men but makes, in the end, good ruins.

TREASON!

So, very exciting — I found the exact site where the American traitor Benedict Arnold met the British Major John Andre to negotiate the surrender of West Point. Honestly, it shouldn’t have been that hard — if I’d only walked five more minutes up the trail the other day, PAST the switchbacked Treason Trail, I would have come upon this sign. But no matter — here it is. Now I can start planning a midnight re-creation of Andre’s rowboat trip from the HMS Vulture to the Rockland shore . . . Check back here in September.

I thought today was a good day to post about treason, because we’ve been throwing this word around a lot. However, I wonder how much we really understand what it means. So let’s talk treason and why Benedict Arnold’s name is still synonymous with it.

First, I think we all need to start on the same page when it comes to a definition of treason, and what better page than the Oxford English Dictionary? They define “High Treason” as “Violation by a subject of his allegiance to his sovereign or his state.” I think we can all agree that this means doing something that knowingly harms your country. So what did Benedict Arnold do? Read on, MacDuff . . .

Come back to the Revolutionary War with me, back to 1741 when the aforementioned Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut to a fairly wealthy, well-connected family. Private school and Yale were in the cards for him, but for his father’s drinking problem and business failures. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his engrossing historical novel, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, describes Benedict thusly:

He was short, solidly built (one acquaintance remembered that “there wasn’t any wasted timber in him”), and blessed with almost superhuman energy and endurance. He was handsome and charismatic, with black hair, gray eyes, and an aquiline nose, and carried himself with the lissome elegance of a natural athlete. A neighbor from Connecticut remembered that Benedict Arnold was “the most accomplished and graceful skater” he had ever seen.

First, may I recommend Mr. Philbrick’s book as an engaging, informative read about a complex, challenging and difficult man? To say Benedict Arnold was just a traitor not only oversimplifies the story, it also de-fangs it of some of its potency. Valiant Ambition gives a nuanced, in-depth look at what caused Arnold to do what he did, without excusing or defending him. Go read it.

I personally was surprised to learn what a courageous and successful general Arnold had been. George Washington thought him one of his most reliable officers in the Continental Army. Combining daring, skill and audacity, Benedict Arnold notched up significant triumphs over the British in battles such as Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Ridgefield, just to name a few. (Of course, he could also be accused of losing far too many of his men due to his risky strategies, an accusation that could also be levied against George Washington in the early years of the Revolution.)

Arnold was wounded badly several times — in one battle having two horses shot out from under him in as many days — and at one point John Adams suggested that the Continental Congress have a medal struck in Arnold’s honor to acknowledge his bravery and sacrifices for the Patriots’ cause.

But Arnold’s personality contained an arrogance and sense of entitlement that caused him to feel keenly any perceived slight or lack of respect. Perhaps it was his rather Dickensian childhood that fueled his zeal for money, accolades and flattery. Dogging his career were ongoing rumblings of war profiteering, the proceeds of which he used to finance a wildly extravagant lifestyle. Combine this with an increasing bitterness on his part for not being promoted as quickly as he felt he should have been, and you have the recipe for a traitor.

Around June of 1779, Benedict Arnold’s profiteering caught up with him, and a court martial was begun. In January of 1780, he was acquitted of all but two of the most minor charges. His punishment, it seems, was just a snarky letter from General Washington expressing his disappointment in Benedict’s “imprudent and improper” actions. Washington went on to give Arnold command of West Point almost as a consolation prize. Pretty light punishment I’d say, but it just served to wind Benedict up. By July of 1780 he was giving the British classified military information.

At last, let’s talk about that fateful night of September 22, 1780, shall we? West Point, which was just a fort then, not the famed military academy it is today, was key to the British strategy of splitting the colonies and ending their troublesome revolution. For several months, bitter, lame and juggling creditors, Arnold had been secretly corresponding with Major John Andre, head of the British Secret Service in America and Adjutant General to General Henry Clinton, hatching a plot to turn West Point over to the British in exchange for L20,000. (It should be mentioned here that Major Andre had briefly courted Arnold’s young, Loyalist second wife, the lovely Peggy Shippen, and continued corresponding with her after she married Arnold. She seems to have played a major role in connecting the two men.)

One of my favorite details about Arnold’s correspondence with Andre is that not only was it written in code AND invisible ink, but they used noms de guerre — Arnold was Gustavus and Andre was John Anderson.) Because of the uncertainty as to Gustavus’ actual identity, General Clinton insisted that Major Andre have a face to face meeting with this mysterious double agent before any deal was finalized.

After several missed connections with Arnold, Major Andre went up the Hudson River in the British sloop the HMS Vulture, which anchored right off Teller’s Point (aka Croton Point.) Two young patriots, Jack Peterson and George Sherwood, spied it and began shooting at it with their muskets. See this plaque commemorating their heroism that can be still found at Croton Point Park:

They ran out of ammunition, and headed off the Fort Lafayette in Verplanck to secure more. During the lull, Joshua Hett Smith and two oarsmen, commissioned by Arnold, silently rowed up to the Vulture to take Major Andre to the appointed meeting place. All three maintained they had no idea they were being used in service of treason, having only been told that Arnold was gathering intelligence about the British strategy.

So it was right here, on the west bank of the Hudson River, right in this very forest that Major Andre and Benedict Arnold negotiated the price and logistics of Arnold’s treason: For 20,000 British pounds sterling (which is over $3 million in today’s dollars), Arnold was not only going to give the British the plans to West Point, but, as its commander, he was also going to make sure that the majority of the fighting men weren’t there when the British made their assault. Even worse, George Washington had just indicated his plan to inspect West Point in the coming days, and Arnold was ready to sacrifice Washington as well.

As the night began to turn to day, Joshua Hett Smith became increasingly anxious about the tide and the light and feasibility of rowing Andre back to the Vulture without being seen. Arnold had anticipated that his negotiations would take time, and had arrived with two horses. He and Andre rode them the few miles back to Smith’s house and continued negotiating. Smith and oarsmen, I guess, retreated upstream to stow their boat.

Here’s an old photo of the so-called “Treason House” — it was demolished in the 1920s and the Helen Hayes Hospital sits on this site today:

However, soon after sunrise, our friends Jack Peterson and George Sherwood returned to Croton Point Park with a cannon and began shelling the Vulture. Seeing no sign of Andre, the sloop retreated down the Hudson, back to the British line. Andre is said to have watched in horror from an upstairs window in Smith’s house as he saw the boat disappear, leaving him alone behind enemy lines in his telltale red coat.

Arnold was unruffled, giving Andre a change of clothes, a passport, and instructions to hide the plans to West Point in his stockings. Joshua Hett Smith, the most oblivious man in history, was tasked with accompanying Andre back down to the British lines. They rode up what is now 9W to King’s Ferry, took said ferry across the Hudson to Verplanck, and rode down towards Tarrytown. Smith left Andre at the bridge in Croton, near Van Cortlandt manor, which was the southern border of the American lines at the time. Andre continued south until he was captured by “three honest militiamen” named John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams. Andre was frisked, the plans found, his disguise unmasked and he was hanged as a spy three days later in Tappan, NY.

And Arnold? Well, he had hotfooted it back to his house, and on September 23rd was waiting to breakfast with George Washington in advance of the General’s inspection of West Point. Right before Washington’s arrival, Arnold learned that Andre had been captured. He told his wife Peggy the gig was up, promised he’d send for her and their infant son, then dashed to the shore to be rowed down the Hudson to the Vulture. Peggy, upon Washington’s arrival, created a scene that both detained Washington and convinced him of her instability (and thus, the unlikelihood that she would have been involved with the plot of which Washington was soon to learn.)

The Arnolds eventually escaped to England, and despite the fact that Peggy was presented to the court and received a token of the Crown’s appreciation, to the tune of 100 pounds sterling per annum, the couple found themselves to be personae non gratae there. They moved to Canada, where Benedict continued his downward spiral with bad business deals and petty lawsuits. Finally, they returned to London where he fought duels to protect what honor he had left, and possibly spied for the British during the French Revolution. He died London, deep in debt, in 1801 and is buried there.

For a country that generally has a short historical memory, Benedict Arnold’s treachery lives on. In 1865, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon equating Arnold with Jefferson Davis, depicting them sharing a “treason toddy” in Hell.

To this day, Benedict Arnold’s name is one of the more recognizable ones from the Revolutionary War years. While we may not all remember the details of his treachery, we all seem to know that his name is synonymous with treason — which, according to Article III, section 3 of the US Constitution is defined as “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

Hiking along the Rockland Side of the Hudson River

Okay, so this is definitely NOT within the jurisdiction of OssiningHistoryontheRun because it is across the Hudson River. But I feel I can squeeze it in here because you can SEE Ossining clearly from this side of the river, so . .

There are several trails to choose from here – Google Hook Mountain, Nyack Beach, and or Rockland Lake Park and you will find one that suits you.  I parked at (more or less) the black and green dot below, at the intersection of Landing and Collyer Roads.  

From there you can take your choice of trails – a six-mile loop south down towards the Mario Cuomo Bridge along the river and then back by way of Hook Mountain, or north six miles along the river, up to the steep, switch backed Treason Trail, so-called because it is where the traitorous Benedict Arnold met British Major John Andre to complete the deal that would surrender West Point to the British, in exchange for £20,000. 

Both trails are about 6-mile loops

Check out the link from the NY/NJ Trail Conference here for more details. Go either way and you will pass the ruins of old quarries, beach houses, docks, ice houses, an inclined railroad and even a cemetery, plus see some spectacular views of New York City, the Hudson, Ossining and Croton Point Park.  So follow along for a little forensic hiking . . .

First, I think it’s important to note that all of these trails are within the Palisades Interstate Park Commission that was created by NYS Governor Theodore Roosevelt and NJ Governor Foster Voorhees in 1900 in response to the rampant quarrying activities that were seen to be destroying the Palisades.  We’ll be walking above and by many of these quarries – you decide . . .

Now, let’s start at the top, where the Knickerbocker Ice Company stored its ice and transported it down to the river.  

Note that Rockland Lake was originally called Quaspeck Lake by the Munsee-speaking Lenni Lenape Indians who were here first. Henry Hudson sailed past here in the Half Moon in 1609, and the first Europeans to settle here were the Dutch.  But by the 1660s, the Dutch had handed off the land to the British.

By 1831, the lake was renamed Rockland as the Lenni Lenape had been displaced (or Ramapough Mountain Indians, or Ramapo Lenape Nation or Ramapo Lenape Munsee Delaware Nation – no one seems to be able to agree on exactly who they were, probably because their land was stolen out from under them so long ago.) 

Hook Mountain, in fact, gets its name from the Dutch – they called this area of the Hudson Verdrietige Hoogte, or “Tedious Hook” because I guess it was tricky to navigate a boat past it due to unpredictable winds and currents.

Next, rock quarrying is much of the reason that the Palisades look the way they do, especially north of the Mario Cuomo Bridge.  Hook Mountain, in fact, jutted much farther towards the Hudson in the eighteenth century than it does today, thanks to decades of quarrying in the mid-1900s.

First accomplished through sheer manpower, then through steam-powered stone crushers and dynamite, today’s bucolic surroundings bear little resemblance to the bustling, noisy, dangerous areas they once were.  

In those years, instead of serene trails alongside the Hudson, 

Photo credit: Sharon Edmonds

there were docks and piers all along the riverbank – landings named Sneden’s, Tappan Slote (Piermont), Rockland Landing, Waldberg (or Snedeker’s) that received ferries and barges which took on rocks, ice and later people, conveying them either across the river or down to Manhattan. Check it out (and note that you will be walking right THROUGH where all of this once was):

Thanks to Scott Craven for this photo

This New York Times article from October 1899 gives a sense of the dangerous conditions the quarry workers faced:

The Rockland Lake Trap Company, mentioned in the above article, owned and quarried much of these riverside hills.  Can you imagine what it was like to hear the blasting of the rocks once at noon, and again at the end of the workday? Can you imagine what is was like to work in one of these quarries? Apparently work of this nature was going on all up the Rockland side of the Hudson from Piermont up through Nyack and as far as Haverstraw.  Here’s a postcard of the above stone crusher:

Thanks to Scott Craven

No wonder the locals started complaining.  Over thirty companies were blasting away at the mountains from about the 1870s until about 1920, when the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission bought up the final parcels of this land, under the watchful eye of Commissioner George Perkins and thanks to donations from the likes of the Harriman and the Rockefeller families. 

You can see the scars from these quarries as you walk along the riverside trails:

In addition to the quarries, whose products were used for macadam roads and for foundations for many New York City buildings, the Knickerbocker Ice Company was also a bustling and lucrative business.  

Back before the Revolutionary War, in 1711,  a man named John Slaughter had purchased land at Rockland Landing that extended up Trough Hollow and back to Rockland Lake.  He build a dock and pier there which was for years called Slaughter’s Landing before being renamed Rockland Landing in the early 1800s.  

By 1805, ice harvesting began on Rockland Lake and it proved so popular that by 1831 the Knickerbocker Ice Company formed.  Ice began to be harvested in a systematic and efficient fashion to serve New York City’s ice boxes and restaurants.  Rockland Lake, you see, was said to have the “cleanest and purest ice” in the area.  During the coldest months of winter, ice was sliced up into blocks, and stored in icehouses in the area. Check out this Edison film from about 1905 showing the horse-drawn ice cutters:

 By 1856 an incline railway was built in Trough Hollow, the ruins of which you can see as you start your hike (look for the crumbling stone walls to your right as you head down to the river.  Imagine small rail cars filled with blocks of ice rolling down to the river to be loaded onto barges and steam ships and transported to the most august eating establishments in New York City.)

Here’s the lower part of what’s left of the incline railway. There are still pier footings in the river below.

With the advent of refrigeration, ice harvesting ended here in 1926, but the land around the lake was developed, and bungalows, resorts, hotels and even casinos for New Yorkers took up the slack until the late 1950s when the entire area was purchased and converted into Rockland Lake State Park. Check out these drawings of the Rockland Hotel (also see here for more information.)

Once the quarries were stilled, beach side parks were developed and Hook Mountain Beach Park was quite elaborate.

Overview of Hook Mountain Beach Park, in use from about 1920 – 1941
Steamboats docking

Sadly, this delightful beach park was shut down in 1942 due to WWII (I don’t know what the connection was, but apparently there was one) and a hurricane in the late 1940s destroyed the park, never to be rebuilt again. By the 1950s, no one wanted to let their kids swim in the Hudson anyway because it was so polluted.

As you walk along, you’ll see ruins of old stone buildings – some of which were from the beach park era, some of which are from the quarry period and served as storage sheds for dynamite or offices.

Last but not least is a beauty shot of the spectacular view you will see when you climb to the top of Hook Mountain:

I’m glad Theodore Roosevelt et al had the foresight to protect this land. What do you think?

Musing on History

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A trail bridge at Teatown Lake Reservation, Ossining, NY 

Thanks to all of you who’ve reached out to ask about my next post.  Lest you think I’ve abandoned this blog, let me assure you that I have about five posts in the pipeline.  It’s just that the present has gotten in the way of the past . . .

But I came across this article in the New Yorker from last year that I thought I’d share as an amuse bouche, if you will, to the blog posts I promise are coming.  (Don’t worry, it’s short!)

It made me think about why learning about the history of my immediate surroundings is important to me, and why I started this blog.  The article quotes Bruce Springsteen saying (in his Broadway show, if you remember the days when Broadway existed!) “I wanted to know the whole American story. . . . I felt like I needed to understand as much of it as I could in order to understand myself.”

I am not as big picture-oriented as Mr. Springsteen.  I just like stories.

I see myself as part of a story and so like to know what came before me in the story.  It’s an obvious leap, then, to questioning what the stories might be that silently surround me.  Because there really are so many.  I guarantee you, you can’t walk a mile in Ossining (or, I feel sure, in ANY town) without crossing the site of at least one story.

I will leave you with this, a quotation from Robert Wapahi, a Sioux Indian I had the good fortune to meet at a writing retreat at Ragdale in Chicago:

“No part of the earth has not been a trail at some point;

Passed through, over and under;  in the air and in the water; countless trails made and continuously added on to;

Nearly all have gone unnoticed.  You, the reader, cannot even retrace your last hour’s path.

But, they lie there, waiting.  And stories are trails in words.”

Robert Wapahi, 2011

Ossining’s Revolutionary War Gun Emplacement? UPDATED

Ossining’s Revolutionary War Gun Emplacement? UPDATED

Gun Emplacement USE THIS

Spoiler: No it is not.

UPDATED 5/5/2020

I had to update this post because I felt too many people saw the misleading title, but did not read the article.  I couldn’t, in good conscience, let people walk around Ossining thinking that there was a Revolutionary War Era gun emplacement here when in fact there is not.

Have you ever seen this little structure in Ossining?  It’s just north of the Ossining train station, high up on the ridge.  You might notice it if you happening to be craning your neck and looking to the sky as you pull out of the Ossining train station. (It also needs to be winter, when all the overgrowth and leaves are clear.)

It’s always looked like a Revolutionary War gun emplacement to me.  And it’s been a huge mystery – well, at least in the moment it flashes past.  Then, as is so often the case, I forget about it until the next time.

It’s taken me several years of extremely intermittent and apathetic research to solve this little mystery, but I think I’ve done it.

And, sigh, no.  It is not a Revolutionary War gun emplacement.

It seems it is just the foundation of a small gazebo on Oliver Cromwell Field’s properly, built in the early 19th century.

But let’s go deeper, shall we?

My original haphazard and undisciplined Internet research turned up nothing.  But then,  investigating something else, I stumbled upon an Archeological Assessment and Field Investigation report for the Hidden Cove Development that was being planned for the old Brandreth Pill Factory site.  Luckily, I downloaded the whole thing because the link to the Village site no longer works – I’m guessing this project is on permanent hold.

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Anyway, this little document – well, it runs a cool eighty-four pages, so it is NOT little at all – makes for some surprisingly fascinating reading.  First, and please join me on this little tangent, who knew that there are six pre-contact sites of archeological interest within one mile of this one.  (Pre-contact means before Europeans arrived.  It is thought that humans have been living here for at least the last 13,000 years.)

Two of the sites are in Crawbuckie Park, but there’s no further information about exactly where (yet.)  Two more are somewhere nearby along the river.  The fifth is apparently the site of a pre-contact village at the mouth of the Croton River, but with no specific details.  Finally, the sixth site was professionally excavated in 1977 by Louis Brennan and is called Piping Rock: “a Paleo-hunter and Dalton Early Archaic Site.”  So as not to sideline this blog post too much more, allow me to promise that I will investigate this thoroughly soon in a future post.

But back to my Revolutionary War Gun Emplacement that is not . . .

On page 10 of this Report, there’s an achingly accurate history of the Brandreth parcel of land (we all know that the Brandreth Pill Factory was one of 19th century Ossining’s biggest employers, right?  And that Benjamin Brandreth was wildly successful at selling his highly impotent and useless patent medicines at a time when nothing else worked either.  Herman Melville even mentions them in “Moby-Dick!”  But I digress yet again.)

Originally, the land was stolen from the indigenous Sinc Sinck by Frederick Phillipse in 1685.  (Too much?  Okay, Phillipse made a completely fair trade, as has been so often the case in North American land transactions with native peoples.)

Over a hundred years later, an English gentleman named Oliver Cromwell Field purchased this parcel of land, and “immediately constructed a house on the promontory that overlooks the Hudson River. The house  was a large building in the Greek Revival style that had large columns on the southern exposure. During the Field’s occupancy a small summerhouse, or gazebo, was built on the tip of the southernmost cliff (the foundation is still extant on the site. (Assessment, 10)”

Aw, there you have it.  My gun emplacement, which in my mind was manned by courageous Sing Sing citizens during the Revolutionary War, who fired off potshots at the British vessels as they approached the Hudson Highlands, is really just some rich English guy’s 19th century gazebo.

Sometimes history is like that. . .

Here are a few more pictures.  I STILL think it looks like a gun emplacement.

Gates to Nowhere

Gates to Nowhere

One of the things that endlessly fascinate me are the ‘gates to nowhere’ that I pass on my runs.  You know what I mean — those stone entranceways that sit just off the road, often covered in vines, sometimes with a name carved into them. The last vestiges of a grand estate sitting forlorn and forgotten. It’s at once tragic and mysterious to me that someone once spent the time and effort to install a stone gate to mark the entryway to their property, yet today it’s reduced to a stub of a thing leading nowhere.  What happened?  Why?  Where are the people that put the gate up?

Since I have nothing else to think about when I run, I find myself getting terribly existential, and mourn the ephemeral nature of our world. Then I get mad — it’s a sad commentary on our respect for history that an estate or farm that once merited a grand gate can just be erased from memory and topography by real estate developments.  (Of course, to be fair, often those developments memorialize what was there by naming themselves after it.)

Some of these gates are connected to estates I’ve blogged about before.  Some are of unknown provenance.  If you know anything about these mystery gates, please let me know and I’ll update this post.  (Who knows, perhaps they’ll even merit a post of their own!)

This first one can be found on Spring Valley Road, almost exactly across from the Heady Family Cemetery, and is one of the mystery gates.  It seems to have “Lichtstern” etched into it on the right-hand pillar.  I have not been able to find any records of such a family anywhere in the area.  Anyone?

This is the pillar for the entrance to John Cheever’s old house.  It looks as if it’s been maintained in the recent past, so I like to think that Cheever had it rebuilt and a new namestone engraved.

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Here is the entrance to Carrie Chapman Catt’s former Ossining home, Juniper Ledge.  It looks random and forgotten, sitting as it does on North State Road, catty corner to Club Fit, but it is in fact still guarding the driveway to where Catt lived in the 1920s.

These are the pillars for the Brandywine estate entrance, now the Briarcliff Manor Center for Rehab and Nursing Care:

Here’s the entrance to Frank Vanderlip’s estate “Beechwood,” complete with columns left over from the National City Bank building renovation located at 55 Wall Street:

Entranceway_to_Beechwood

The two photos below show the gate to the Kress Estate (today’s Cedar Lane Park), now and then (the ‘then’ photo is courtesy of grandson Rush Kress via Steven Worthy’s Facebook page “Save the Kress Buildings at Cedar Lane Park“):

These next three examples are likely leftovers from the McCord Farm which, in the 1750s, encompassed about 225 acres and was originally part of Frederick Phillipse’s Manor.  (This definitely requires its own post!)

Now, I’ve been told by those who know, that these pillars – found at the intersection of 134 & Kitchawan Road/Croton Dam Road – were the original entrance to the McCord Farm.  Since the main farmhouse is all the way over at the corner of  Narrangansett and Collyer, I kind of question that assessment, but since I have nothing better to add, I’ll leave it there until I learn more:

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This gate sits along Narrangansett near Bayden Road and has been nicely incorporated into the entrance of the current house:

Narragansett & Bayden

This one’s kind of hard to see, but it’s at the intersection between Croton Dam Road and Narrangansett.  If you look really closely, you can see it has brass letters that read “HarrieDean” on the left column:HarrieDean Croton Dam Road & Narragansett

These pillars are at the corner of Eastern and Watson — not at all lined up with the house behind.  So curious!

Corner Watson & Eastern

Are there any other old gates in the Ossining area that you’ve always wondered about?  Send photos and locations and let’s see if we can solve their mystery!

The Cornish Estate Ruins

The Cornish Estate Ruins

web_img_20140810_140241678_hdrPhoto from MinskysAbandoned.com

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you’ll know that I have a special interest in ruins.  From Elda Castle, to the Kress Estate, to the Brandywine Estate, to Rockwood  – there’s a plethora of them to explore in the area.  Few things are more exciting to me than discovering overgrown ruins hidden in the woods (someday I will write about stumbling upon the Ouvrage La Ferte in the Ardennes sector of the Maginot Line in France in 1984, but that’s a tale for another time.)

There’s something deeply compelling (and rather tragic) about the disintegration of grand, rich houses.  It’s a reminder of a past when the barons of industry and arts purchased great swaths of Westchester/Putnam land at the turn of the 20th century and built elaborate country manors.  It’s also a reminder of the strength of mother nature and the vicissitudes of life – nothing stands forever.

The Cornish Estate is definitely up there as a remarkable example of an elegant, early 20th century country home that has fallen on hard times.  Located just south of Breakneck Ridge in Garrison, you park at the brand spanking new Washburn trailhead and parking lot.  We hiked a whole loop, that takes you past an old quarry (which is unusual in its flatness), but you can also do an easy hike up the old driveway straight to the Cornish ruins.  Check out this link for a hiking map.

(And yes, I know this isn’t technically within the geographical purview of the Ossining History on the Run area.  But I make the rules, so I’m making an exception.  I mean, this is just too cool to ignore!)

Built in the 1910s by diamond merchant Sigmund Stern, the estate was originally dubbed “Northgate.”   According to Rob Yasinac at Hudson Valley Ruins.org, Sigmund Stern was actively involved in the adjacent Surprise Lake Camp, serving on its Board and selling parcels of land to the camp.  (To digress, Surprise Lake Camp is still in existence and is probably one of the first Jewish camps organized in America.)  Supposedly, and I cannot confirm this, the architecture of both the Northgate estate house and the main building of Surprise Lake Camp were very similar and built at around the same time. For what it’s worth,  I read through this pamphlet on the history of Surprise Lake Camp and could find no mention of a Sigmund Stern.   (But there’s lots on Eddie Cantor, an early camper and lifelong supporter.)

Sigmund, it seems, did not spend long at Northgate, selling both the house and the surrounding 650 acres in 1916 to Edward and Selina Cornish.  They lived there until 1938, when Edward tragically dropped dead at his desk at the National Lead Company.  Selina followed him to the grave two weeks later.  After that, it seems that some relatives of the Cornishes lived there until the 1950s, but I couldn’t discover much about that period.

Here’s what it looked like in its prime:

northgate-huntington-85                      Photo from MinskysAbandoned.com

You can still see the remains of a freshwater, gravity-fed swimming pool, a greenhouse, a pump house some distance away on the creek and a large stone barn.  Rob Yasinac asserts that “Cornish raised prize jersey cows here and newspaper articles of the 1920s chronicled the record-setting milk producing efforts of Cornishes dairy cows, including one named ‘Fon Owlet.'”  Alas, I have not been able to locate these newspaper articles. . .

In 1958, the house was mostly destroyed by fire. The heirs to the Cornish family sold the property to Central Hudson Gas and Electric, who were planning to build a power plant on the site.  (This was around the same time that Con Edison wanted to build a power plant on Storm King Mountain right across the river.)  After various local conservation groups fought the project, CHG&E gave up and sold or donated the land to the Hudson Highlands State Park.   (Fun fact, the Con Ed power-plant-on-Storm-King idea was active until the 1980s.  How lucky we are that neither plant was built.)

Check out Minsky’s Abandoned for more photos of the current state of the ruins.

And for more pictures of the estate in its prime, please visit this link (I’d reproduce the photos here for you, but the website specifically asks one not to.)