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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 9.55.20 PM

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.

An Erratic in Our Midst

An Erratic in Our Midst

I am well aware that, with the exception of my post on the Hunterbrook Shelter, everything else I write about here is post-1700s.  Part of that, of course, is that I’m writing about things I notice when I run, and they tend to be something of the built, or modern,world.  Part of it is, I must admit, a generalized European prejudice – I just don’t notice things that aren’t familiar to me.  That said, sometimes there are things from the natural world that are so spectacular that they cannot be ignored.

The glacial erratic in Rockefeller State Park is one of those things.

It also stands as a reminder that our world existed for millions of years before us which, in this time of pandemic, is ironically soothing to me.  (NB – this post was written in March of 2020 during the Covid-19 crisis)

But I mean, check this thing out:

Erratic

You can get here by entering the park at the Route 117 entrance and parking in the (pay) lot at the top of the hill.  Then, take the NW (Nature’s Way) trail out of the lot or the SH trail (Old Sleepy Hollow Road Trail) down the hill.  From both trails, you will see a sign for the Glacial Erratic.  Check out this very poor screenshot of the map:

Rockies Trails to Erratic

And here is a sign that tells you more – of course, the point of this blog post is to tell you that more, but I want to give Brett Turenchalk of Pleasantville Troop 12 credit for his work.  I imagine it was his Eagle Project and I thank him very much for finding this spot and choosing to honor it:

SignThis boulder is something I’ve run by for YEARS and never noticed.  (To be fair, it is well off the usual path I run, but still . . .)

So what is this thing, this giant rock that stands so proudly and oddly in the midst of nothing like it?  It is called an Erratic, or a rock that was dragged here from perhaps as far away as the Arctic Circle, by a glacier thousands (millions?) of years ago.

Stay with me, people, as I attempt to summarize geologic history in blog-friendly form:

The Quaternary Ice Age, or more accurately, the Quaternary Period, encompasses the last 1.8 million years of Earth’s geological history.

I could dig deeper and tell you that it is one of three periods in the Cenozoic Era but I won’t.  As recently as 10,000 years ago (also known as the Pleistocene Epoch, as opposed to the Holocene Epoch, which is the one we’re currently in) our whole area – Ossining, Croton, Rockefeller State Park – was covered in sheets of slowly moving ice, and humans, mastodons and mammoths co-existed.  (In between the ice, I guess.)  These ice sheets are thought to have reached about halfway up the Empire State Building, if I remember the NYS exhibit at the Museum of Natural History correctly.  You can see the evidence of these ice sheets/glaciers in the rocks that show signs of striations, or long gouges, in them.  Take a hike anywhere in our area and you’ll see them.  These ones are in my backyard:

Striations 2

See the long scratches in the rock?  That’s evidence of a glacier slowly scraping its way over this rock millions of years ago!

Erratics are actually everywhere if you let yourself see them, though I’ve never seen one as big as this one.  There are several in Central Park and, honestly, if you walk around just about anywhere up here, you are bound to see them.  It really is amazing how easily we gloss over odd things like this — seeing them, but not seeing them, if you know what I mean.  (Actually, I think that is the best summary yet of what this blog is all about, but I digress.)

This particular Erratic is, according to Scout Turenchalk, is about 20 feet high and 65 feet around.  On the back side, I think you could climb up it fairly easily, but there were lots of young kids around when we went and we didn’t want to encourage them to do something risky.  It is so large, though, that it gives you a powerful idea of how strong these glacial ice sheets were, that they could shift rocks as giant as this one.  This also makes me think about the randomness of nature, that the ice melted enough right here to deposit this boulder in this exact spot.

Now, a cursory Internet search has not turned up anything credible on this specific Erratic.  I did find an academic article from 1994 written by a member of the Hofstra University Geology department that goes into great depth as to which glacier could have deposited this boulder.  (The authors assert that the glacial features created during the Pleistocene were likely caused by four glaciers, not just one.   Check out the article here: http://www.dukelabs.com/Publications/PubsPdf/JESCM1994b_GANJ_GlacialNYC.pdf)

As to what kind of rock this is – gneiss, schist, shale, limestone . . .?  Short answer is that I don’t know, but if any of you are geologists, please check it out and get back to me so I can update this post.

The Hunterbrook Rock Shelter

The Hunterbrook Rock Shelter

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I ran my first half-marathon eleven years ago, a race sponsored by the now-defunct MORE Magazine involving two soul-killing loops around Central Park. I ran it with my friend Lynette, and, as I recall, we did almost all of our training on a 4.5 mile loop around a section of the Croton reservoir off Route 129. We’d say “Hunterbrook tomorrow at 8am?” and would meet, rain or shine, in the tiny parking area at the top of Hunterbrook Road. We’d keep the reservoir on our left until we hit 129 again, then cross the bridge to complete the circle back to our cars. Fairly flat and generally shaded, it was a perfect introduction to training. When we needed to up our distance, we just did a second and (only once!) a third loop.

This, too, was the beginning of my habit of running by something unusual, wondering what it was in the moment, and then forgetting about it until the next time.

Here’s an inside view of that first unusual thing:

IMG_4911

It always looked like the mouth of a cave to me, but of course I never stopped running to investigate it. (Find the exact location of this odd group of boulders here

In the intervening years, I’ve mostly stopped running there.   So it was only recently, just by chance, that the answer to this mystery found me, in the form of a flyer for a talk being given by the Yorktown Historical Society on the “Hunterbrook Rock Shelter.” The flyer featured a photo of those very boulders I’d wondered about years ago and I immediately, unaccountably, recognized them.

Described as “a prehistoric site in our backyard which illuminates the science of archaeology and the deep past in the Lower Hudson Valley.  In 1976, Roberta Wingerson of MALFA (Museum and Laboratory For Archaeology) excavated a small cave of glacially tumbled boulders in Yorktown, not far from the Croton Dam. Her discoveries shed light on stone tool types as an indicator of culture and age, the local landscape of thousands years ago and the importance of small scale explorations by trained avocational archaeologists.”

A prehistoric site? In Westchester? The land of SUVs and Round-up and private SAT tutors? How very interesting.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the talk, but I rode my bike out there the very next day to finally investigate the boulders. I poked around inside, even though there’s really not much room inside there to poke. I took a stick and moved some leaves aside in front of the boulders hoping to find an arrowhead or something. I sat on one of the rocks and thought about eating a Paleo bar.

At home, I did some light Googling and almost immediately came upon Roberta Wingerson’s 1976 article on the dig.  (Scroll ahead to page 19.)

And oh, I really hate to tell you this, but the article really could not be more boring.

There. I said it. It’s my dirty little secret – pre-history is just too old for me. I simply don’t find it all that engaging and Roberta Wingerson’s careful, methodical article keenly highlighted this blind spot of mine. She meticulously and thoroughly described the site (except that the map coordinates are wrong, so don’t try to use them!) and the precise method of excavation. She exhaustively discusses the stratigraphy and the soil zones and the “scattergram of artifacts.” She hypothesizes about the direction of the Ice Age-era glacier that left these boulders. She tells of the faint remains of campfires found about two feet down – “charcoal smears and lithic debris scattered onto the hard-packed surface into which were dug five hearths.”

I found myself trying to get excited about these hearths — “Feature No.1: a hearth, basin-shaped, 16 – 22 in. by 4 in. deep, almost completely ringed with stones, with burned earth on the bottom.” Well now, that is a little interesting. People made that hearth, then they burned wood in there. To cook. Or to keep themselves warm. Yup, that’s probably what it was for.

Ms. Wingerson includes several pages of photographs showing all the different types of arrowheads found in and around the shelter. Arrowheads that have been systematically identified, classified and named, indicating a sophisticated field of study I know nothing about. There’s a Madison-like point, a Lackawaxen expanded stem point, Beekman triangles, a dwindle-stemmed point – well, you get the idea.  (See page 21 of her article if you’re really keen on arrowheads.)

The fact of the matter is that I simply don’t know enough about pre-history – that is, 10,000 BC – 1,000AD – to let it capture my imagination. In my limited study of this era, it seems that all we know about these Archaic peoples is gleaned from their leavings – fragments of pottery, or rocks chipped into points, or even the occasional skeleton.

Wingerson’s article, though comprehensive, gives us no concrete information about the actual PEOPLE who left all those arrowheads and hearths. All she can do is theorize that they were nomadic, that they were likely “post-Paleo hunters following game herds migrating through the valley,” who grubbed for wild turnip and dandelions, maybe ate some oysters and mussels while sheltering under the boulders, and moved on.

However, they remain just shadows – the only tangible evidence we have of them is what they left behind. There’s just nothing there there. These spectral nomadic peoples – what did they look like? What did they wear? How did they eat their nuts and berries and oysters? Did they just huddle miserably around their smoky fires, hungry and cold, dying young of starvation or untreatable diseases, or were they a cohesive, proud, strong people who told intricate stories and sang songs?  How were they related to the Wappingers and the Algonquins who greeted Henry Hudson in 1609?  So many, too many, unknowns about these ciphers who wandered through today’s towns and villages and camped and hunted on what are now backyards and parks and highways and malls.

But, even as I tell you this doesn’t interest me much, I still was able to fall down an Internet hole and find out about other pre-historic digs that took place in the area. Digs that show fairly conclusively that our very own section of Westchester has been inhabited for at least the last 10,000 years. (Check out this link that mentions the Piping Rock dig from the 1970s – it’s now the site of Eagle Bay condominiums in Ossining!)

We “modern” humans have done so much to shape and craft this world in which we live.     Coming up against actual evidence of ancient peoples who lived before me, perhaps literally right where I live, makes me stop and think for a minute.  I go outside and squint my eyes to try and imagine what all this looked like before the houses and the roads and the electric lines and reservoirs. I try to hear the birds chirping and the leaves rustling without that constant background hum of airplanes and lawn mowers and cars.  I think about living with so few things that I could strap them on my back and walk for miles.  Eating only the food I could find or catch.  Looking to streams and lakes and rivers for my drinking water.  Being grateful to find shelter under rocks and ledges,

Several years ago, I met a Native American artist who told me that he got antsy when he spend too much time indoors. The straight lines and flat, hard surfaces gave him a headache, he said.  “In nature, you see, there are no straight lines.”

Go outside and look around — he’s right.  Nothing is exactly straight or plumb.   But I know that I feel more comfortable within the lines, both physically and historically.  I want facts and documents and pictures to clarify and outline the past.  I want to know that this happened then and it happened exactly here and this person was involved.  Trying to piece a story together from wood crumbs and rock dust seems empty and dull. And unreliable.

But really, there are no straight lines in history except for the ones we put there.