Here to return to
FOR twenty miles, between Peekskill and Cornwall, the Hudson plays hide and seek with the ancient rock-ribbed hills and mountains. The river scenery here is at its finest and often attains to real sublimity, especially if observed by moonlight or on mysterious days of haze, or when a storm sweeps over the rugged heights. None of the mountains are particularly lofty, for the highest is not much more than fifteen hundred feet, but they lift so steeply and massively from the river borders that they are far more imposing than many a mountain that soars to a much greater altitude in a different situation. A railroad skirts the water’s edge on either side of the stream, now and then darting through a tunnel or dodging behind a rocky wall, but on the whole affording a delightful impression of the scenery. All the large timber was long ago taken from the mountains, and the newer trees are cut as soon as they become of useful size; but as no fires have swept through the woodland for many years it appears from a distance like the original forest.
Peekskill, at the southern gateway to the Highlands, is a pretty town half hidden in a ravine, half scrambling up the sides of steep green slopes where several brooks come down into a quiet bay. There is an interesting story that the first settler of the town was a Dutch navigator, Captain Jans Peek, who got stuck in the mud here, soon after the voyage of Henry Hudson, and spent the remainder of his life in contentment by the faithless stream which he had mistaken for the main river. The creek came to be called Peek’s Kill in consequence. Troops were quartered in the town from time to time during the Revolution, and at one period General Israel Putnam was in command. Here he caught the spy, Palmer, and wrote that famous note to a British officer, who interposed in the spy’s behalf:
“Edmund Palmer, an officer in the enemy’s service, was taken as a spy, lurking within our lines. He has been tried as a spy, condemned as a spy, and shall be executed as a spy.”
Two hours later he added to the note, “P. S. He is hanged.”
Less than three miles away are Gallows Hill with its folk lore and Revolutionary legends, and the Wayside Inn, where André tarried after his arrest. In the east room of the old hostelry are yet shown the marks his military boots made as he restlessly paced up and down its narrow limits. Among the famous men who have had summer homes at Peekskill should be mentioned the great pulpit orator Henry Ward Beecher.
Over on the west shore of the bay rises the Dunderberg, or Thunder Mount, and less than three miles to the north the river runs between two other wild, brushy heights — Bear Hill and Anthony’s Nose. The next conspicuous mountain is Sugar Loaf; and beyond West Point is the grandest group of all including Crow Nest and Storm King, Mount Taurus and Breakneck.
It used to be currently believed by the settlers along the river that the Highlands were under the dominion of supernatural and mischievous beings, who had taken some pique against the Dutch colonists in the early time of the settlement. In consequence of this it was their particular delight to vent their spleen, and indulge their humors on the Dutch skippers; bothering them with flaws, head winds, counter currents, and all kinds of impediments, insomuch that a Dutch navigator was always obliged to be exceedingly wary and deliberate in his proceedings.
The captains of the river craft were especially fearful of a little goblin who haunted the neighborhood of the Dunderberg, wearing trunk hose and a sugar-loaf hat, and carrying a speaking trumpet in his hand. They declared that they had heard him in stormy weather, in the midst of the turmoil, giving orders for the piping up of a fresh gust of wind, or the rattling off of another thunder-clap; that sometimes he had been seen surrounded by a crew of little imps in broad breeches and short doublets, tumbling head over heels in the rack and mist, and playing a thousand gambols in the air, or buzzing like a swarm of flies about Anthony’s Nose; and that at such times, the hurry-scurry of the storm was always greatest. One time a sloop, in passing by the Dunderberg, was overtaken by a thunder-gust that came scouring round the mountain, and seemed to burst just over the vessel. Though tight and well ballasted, she labored dreadfully and the water came over the gunwale. All the crew were amazed when it was discovered that there was a little white sugar-loaf hat on the masthead, known at once to be the hat of the Heer of the Dunderberg. The sloop continued laboring and rocking, as if she would have rolled her mast overboard, and seemed in continual danger either of upsetting or of running on shore. In this way she drove quite through the Highlands, until she had passed Pollopel’s Island, where, it is said, the jurisdiction of the Dunderberg potentate ceases. No sooner had she passed this bourn, than the little hat spun up into the air like a top, whirled all the clouds into a vortex, and hurried them back to the summit of the Dunderberg, while the sloop righted herself and sailed on as quietly as if in a mill pond. Nothing saved her from utter wreck but the fortunate circumstance of having a horseshoe nailed against the mast — a wise precaution against evil spirits, since adopted by all the Dutch captains that navigate this haunted river.
There is another story told of this foul-weather urchin by Skipper Daniel Ouselsticker of Fishkill, who was never known to tell a lie. He declared that in a severe squall he saw the Dunderberg goblin seated astride of his bowsprit, riding the sloop ashore, full butt against Anthony’s Nose, and that he was exorcised by Dominie Van Gieson, of Esopus, who happened to be on board, and who sang the hymn of St. Nicholas; whereupon the goblin threw himself up in the air like a ball, and went off in a whirlwind. With him he carried the nightcap of the Dominie’s wife, which was discovered the next Sunday morning hanging on the weathercock of Esopus church steeple, at least forty miles off! Several events of this kind having taken place, the regular skippers of the river, for a long time, did not venture to pass the Dunderberg without lowering their peaks, out of homage to the Heer of the Mountain; and it was observed that all such as paid this tribute of respect were allowed to pass unmolested.
Where the base of the Dunderberg stretches out into the river is Kidd’s Point, so called because the renowned pirate is said to have sailed up the river this far to secrete some of his treasure. So the ground has been dug over and over in search of this mythical wealth.
A few years ago the captain of one of the river craft anchored near the foot of the mountain, and when he was ready to resume his course, he found that the anchor was caught in something heavy. But by dint of great effort it was brought to the surface, and along with it came a small cannon. One might naturally infer that this cannon had belonged to some British war vessel; but instead it was gravely proclaimed to be a relic of Captain Kidd. Then a speculator worked up enough enthusiastic interest to collect twenty-two thousand dollars, for the purpose of securing the vast riches that everyone knew must lie there on the river bottom where the cannon had been found. Vague rumors were in circulation about a sunken ship, the deck of which had been bored through with a long auger, and when the auger was withdrawn it brought up pieces of silver in its thread. A coffer-dam was built, and a powerful pump established over the supposed resting place of the pirate ship and the work went merrily on until the funds ran low. Then faith began to waver and the enterprise collapsed.
Between the Dunderberg and Bear Mount winds an ancient road, on which the British and the Continental soldiers marched back and forth in the Revolutionary War. Reminiscent of that time, is the village of Doodletown back in the hills. The place got its name in jocular reference to the “Yankee Doodle boys,” as the patriot soldiers were sometimes called.
Then, too, there is Bloody Pond, or Highland Lake, on the shores of which tradition declares that several Hessians were killed and their bodies thrown into its gloomy waters. Old residents of the vicinity say that even now, on overcast and windy nights in midsummer, ghostly apparitions in helmets and stout riding boots may be seen flitting across the dark bosom of the pond, and that there floats to the frightened ear the whispering of commands in a strange tongue and the faint rattle of sabres and harness.
Anthony’s Nose is a long ridge sloping down to the river from the east, and pierced at the tip by a railway tunnel. The explanation of its extraordinary name is that in colonial days a vessel was one day passing up the river under the command of Captain Anthony Hogan. As it approached this mountain the mate was impressed that the profile of the mountain and the shape of the captain’s nose, which was notable for its vigorous prominence, bore a rather striking resemblance to each other. As he glanced back and forth comparing them the captain caught the drift of his thoughts and said, “What! does that mountain look like my nose? Call it then, if you please, Anthony’s Nose.”
As we go on up the river we at length come to the bold plateau of West Point, with its shaggy cliffs reaching out into the stream, and overlooked from the rear by wooded heights. It was Washington who first suggested this place as a desirable situation for a United States Military Academy. The Academy may be said to have begun its existence in 1802; yet until 1811 it lived “at a poor dying rate” and in the latter year had not a single cadet.
But with the beginning of the second war with England the legislators awoke to the necessity of making the institution an effective aid in furnishing trained leaders for the future needs of the army. Admirable work was done in the years that followed, and the graduates at length tested the value of their instruction under the skies of Mexico, where in two campaigns “we conquered a great country and won peace without the loss of a single battle or skirmish.”
The corps of cadets numbers between three and four hundred. They room together in twos. The furniture of each apartment is confined to the bare necessities, and each cadet is required to make his own bed and keep his quarters tidy. He is aroused at six o’clock in the morning by the drums. Twenty minutes later his room must be in order, bedding folded and wash bowl inverted. Woe betide him if he is dilatory. A superior visits him and reports his delinquency, or, as the lad would say, “skins” him. Breakfast is eaten between half-past six and seven. From eight o’clock until noon he is busy with recitations, class parades and other duties. Then he has two hours for dinner and recreation. Academic work is over at four o’clock, and the rest of the day is occupied by drills, amusements and dress parade. Lights are extinguished in quarters at ten, and the cadet is supposed to go to sleep.
It is doubtful if he always does so. Stories of stealthy midnight expeditions for the purpose of hazing some unfortunate youngster, or to enjoy the mysterious edible mixed in a washbasin and known as “cadet hash,” form a part of the traditions of the Point. But these offenses against discipline are less frequent than formerly. A better sentiment has grown up as to hazing, and even the wildest spirits thoroughly appreciate their privileges and responsibilities. The restriction of the cadet to “limits,” which by no means include the whole of the reservation, and his total lack of money are powerful obstacles to forbidden pleasures. He is paid forty-five dollars a month; but every penny of it is spent for him by the quartermaster and commissary officers, and he is permitted to receive no cash whatever from home or anywhere else. He does not even have pockets in his trousers. The cadets all stand on their own merits, and parental position or wealth count for nothing. As a matter of fact the fathers of the majority of the cadets are wage-earners.
There are nearly two hundred buildings of all sorts. Some of the newer ones are strikingly big and beautiful. Conspicuous on the north side of the plain, where there is a noble view up the river, stands the tall graceful shaft of the Battle Monument, which was erected in memory of the two thousand two hundred and thirty members of the regular army who perished in the defense of the Union during the Civil War. Near by is Trophy Point crowded with cannon and mortars captured in Mexico and some guns taken from the British in the Revolution. Under the crest of the hill here is a modern battery with its guns pointing up the river. But I will not attempt to list further West Point’s many features and attractions.
The rocky character of the Point did not in the early days invite settlers and it was only frequented by the hunter and the wood-cutter. During the war for independence, Constitution Island, to the northeast, was fortified and an enormous chain, each link weighing over one hundred pounds, was stretched across the river. The Point itself also had its defences, and a redoubt of logs, stones and earth was started on the most commanding eminence to the west of the plateau. When Sir Henry Clinton came up the river to cooperate with Burgoyne the defences were very imperfect, and he captured them with little trouble. After Burgoyne was worsted Sir Henry withdrew down the river, and the Americans resumed work on the fortifications. Arnold’s treachery threatened to undo all their labor, but his plans came to grief, and West Point was never in serious danger afterward.
Constitution Island is a mass of rocks inclosing considerable arable land, and only separated from the eastern shore of the river by low meadows and marshes. For many years it was the home of Miss Susan Warner who wrote “The Wide, Wide World” published in 1849. The story was long and slow, according to the critics, but the public bought it with avidity nevertheless, and no book of that period, except “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” exceeded it in popularity. Other novels by the same author followed. Her sister Anna likewise won favor as a writer, and the two combined in the production of “The Hills of the Shatemuc,” the final word of the title being one of the Indian names for the Hudson.
Looking northward from the island the great rounded crags of Crow Nest and Storm King are seen overshadowing the river. The name of the former indicates the prevalence of crows on that eminence, just as Eagle Valley between the two mountains signifies that the vicinity is a noted breeding place of eagles — birds once very abundant along the Hudson, and still often seen. The river front of Crow Nest is called “Kidd’s Plug Cliff” on the supposition that a mass of projecting rock on the face of the precipice forms a plug to an orifice where the pirate hid a store of gold.
Storm King, the monarch of the Highland mountains and guardian of the northern gateway, was originally called “The Klinkenberg”, which means “Echo Mount;” and later it became known as “Butter Hill” from a fancied resemblance of its dome-like form to a pat of butter. N. P. Willis, who lived in the vicinity, and whom some of his neighbors used to speak of unappreciatively as “the dude poet of the Hudson,” succeeded in bestowing the title of “Storm King” on it, as a term befitting its dignity, and expressive of the fact that it is an unfailing weather gauge to all the country north of it.
The rough headland opposite, whose precipices are too steep to support much vegetation, is Breakneck Mountain, and close at hand to the south of Breakneck is Mount Taurus. There is a story that a wild bull once terrorized the country back of the latter height, until at last a strong party undertook to hunt down and kill the creature. He fled before his pursuers to the top of the next mountain where his impetuous flight carried him over the verge of the crags. Down he crashed onto the rocks below, and there he was found with a broken neck.
Well out in the stream opposite the place where this tragedy occurred is Pollopel’s Island. The old skippers when they came to this island on their way down the river are said to have had a habit of christening new hands by sousing them into the current. The ceremony gratified the navigators’ love for horse play, and at the same time was supposed to make the victim immune from the goblins that were well known to haunt the numerous wild mountains that were to be encountered in the next few miles.
With the help of Pollopel’s Island, this northern gateway of the Highlands was obstructed in 1779 by a line of strong iron-pointed pikes, each about thirty feet in length, secured at the bottom in cribs filled with stone, and slanted so that their points were just at the surface of the water. The British sailors, however, under the guidance of a deserter, found little difficulty in taking their ships past this obstruction after the Highland forts had been captured. Later the cribs were gradually destroyed by ice, or removed.
A romantic story which brings the island into the scene of its action is the following: Many years ago a fair maid of the neighborhood was beloved by a farmer’s lad. At the same time her attractions won the heart of a young minister, and one winter evening the preacher took her for a sleighride. They were driving on the river near Pollopel’s Island, when the ice broke and they were plunged into the cold water.
But the farmer’s lad happened to be not far away and he came in all haste and rescued them. The lady at once embraced her rustic lover with a warmth that was unmistakable. It was clear to the minister that this affection made his own suit hopeless, and he promptly renounced his love, and there in the moonlight united the fair lass and the farmer’s lad in marriage.