Here to return to
FROM CORNWALL TO KINGSTON
THE northern slope of Storm King declines into a table-land that is broken by numerous ravines, and here the town of Cornwall pursues the quiet and orderly tenor of its life. With its majestic mountain background and its fine outlook on the river and a rich soil that makes possible flourishing gardens and an abundance of blossoms and fruit, it is exceptionally attractive. The town is a favorite resort in summer, and its population at that season is much more than double what it is the rest of the year. Country lanes and bypaths invite those who enjoy rambling afoot to explore the shaggy steeps of Storm King, and many varied and interesting drives are possible. Especially noteworthy is the drive to Orange Lake through one of the most fertile valleys in the state and amid a constant succession of stock farms with their luscious pastures and productive fields.
In the snug but rather dilapidated village that huddles around the Cornwall railway station and steamboat landing I had a chat with an old resident whose opinions on affairs both local and general, as he unfolded them to me, were decidedly individual and interesting. He was inclined to be critical of the wealthy city people who have acquired so many fine estates along the river, and to be doubtful of the value of most of the modern improvements which their presence has inspired. Thus he mentioned that in Cornwall they “used to get as fine water from the springs and wells as you’d find anywhere, and yet by and by nothing would do but we must have water works. I suppose we’re obliged to expand somehow — that’s to be expected — the pants a boy wore when he was two years old won’t do for him when he’s man grown. But when they claim the water is better than what we used to have, they’re going a little too far. No person on earth can fool me into believing that water which has fallen from the sky and been gathered in a pond and then stood a long time in pipes can be as good as spring water that has filtered through the ground.
“Well, everything nowadays is more or less a fake, my friend. You see the costly homes that line the banks of the Hudson — ‘the Millionaires’ Belt,’ they call it — and you think how grand they are. But a good share of those homes are closed all winter and much of the rest of the time. The owners are in New York during the day and only use their houses here in the country for sleeping places. They are rarely here steady at any season of the year, but are off to Newport or Long Branch or the other pleasure resorts. Many families of ordinary means could support themselves on the acres that the millionaires reserve in idleness around their mansions. Neither do the fine places give any great amount of employment, and they’re taxed very lightly. You show me a man who dodges his taxes, and I can tell you pretty near what his religion is, even if he does have a great big Bible and draw a long face to say his prayers. These rich people are a class by themselves. If a fellow in overalls has been drinking and staggers past they scoff and say, ‘Oh, see that bum!’ but they think nothing of being put into a cab in the city and driven home at eleven o’clock at night because they can’t stand up to get there any other way.
They want prohibition and respect for the law on the part of the poor, while they themselves do as they please; and they do have their own way to quite an extent simply because they’ve got the boodle.”
Not far above Cornwall the Hudson is joined by a mild little stream known as Murderer’s Creek. Near the mouth of this stream in early times there dwelt a family which numbered among its friends an Indian called Naoman. This Indian was frequently welcomed to the family’s cabin and showed great friendliness toward them, but in some way the head of the household incurred the hatred of Naoman’s tribe who resolved to kill the whole family. The friendly Indian contrived to impart this news and the whites stole away at night and rowed down stream in a boat intending to escape through the Highlands. But when opposite Pollopel’s Island a large canoe full of savages put out and gave chase. The white man succeeded in killing several of the pursuers with his rifle, but was overtaken and made captive. With his wife and children he was carried in triumph to the Indian village. The chief demanded from them the name of the person who had warned them, but they would not answer, even when they were told that their refusal would be punished with instant death. Then Naoman stepped forward and acknowledged that he was the guilty one. At once he was struck down and a rush was made on the defenceless white family. They were all killed and their bodies were thrown into the creek, the name of which recalls their melancholy fate.
The next places of importance which are encountered in journeying up the river are the towns of Fishkill and Newburgh, just across the river from each other. Behind the former, extending northeastward, is the finely sculptured range of elevations known as the Beacon Hills. During the Revolution some of these peaks were prominent stations for signal fires which were to give warning of any approach of the enemy. The beacon pyres were in the form of a pyramid, rising to a height of thirty feet, and made of logs filled in with brush and inflammable materials. A beacon on Storm King gave the first signal and the rest were subordinate.
Newburgh covers the slope of a wide hillside on which the buildings rise in a series of terraces from the water’s edge. The place occupies almost the only spot on the western side of the stream between Jersey City and Kingston where a great town could be situated, accessible by good wagon roads from the interior. It has therefore excelled from the first as a trading town. After the capture of the forts near New York early in the war, British vessels were free to patrol the river south of the Highlands, and at Newburgh was the most available ferry thereafter for the Patriot troops that hurried now east, now west, compensating for the pitiful inadequacy of every division of Washington’s army by their quick shifting to points of danger.
On an eminence in plain view from the river is the Jonathan Hasbrouck house which, after the battle of Yorktown was fought, was Washington’s headquarters from April, 1782, until August of the next year. The house is in an excellent state of preservation and is used as a repository for military relics. Its stone walls are two feet thick, and it has hewn rafters of savory cedar. There is an old story that while Washington lived in it a plot was concocted to capture him and turn him over to Sir Henry Clinton. A man named Ettrick and his daughter dwelt in a secluded valley to the south of the Hasbrouck house. Their home was at the head of a long, narrow bay, and though only a short distance away in a direct line could only be reached by the road after making a detour of nearly two miles. The chief was in the habit of going occasionally down to the head of this bay, and Ettrick and several confederates planned to seize him on one of these visits and row off with him down the river. Luckily Ettrick’s daughter betrayed the plot and it came to naught.
While at Newburgh a paper drawn up and signed by officers who had stood by him through the darkest of the conflict, informed him that they wished this country to be a monarchy and Washington himself its king. The appeal seems to have grieved him deeply. He had not been fighting for personal aggrandizement, and such an outcome of the war would be melancholy indeed. In his response he said, “You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable,” and begged them to banish such thoughts from their minds.
At length the day came for ordering the disbanding of the army. It was an occasion of jubilee that was marked by a noble address from the commander-in-chief, and ended in an illumination on a gigantic scale. Watchfires on all the prominent hills blazed from huge stacks of timber to announce that peace was at last a reality.
A half dozen miles above Newburgh is a projection from the western shore that from early Colonial times has borne the significant name of den Duyvels’ Dans Kamer — the Devils’ Dance Chamber. It is a flat-topped rock, half an acre in extent. The devils referred to are Indians who were accustomed to meet on the rock for councils and merry-makings. When the superstitious Dutchmen saw them engaged in their pow-wows and dancing about the campfires under the lead of their medicine men they no doubt seemed fiends incarnate. So presently it came to be a matter of common belief that the devil appeared here to his votaries to set them on when any particularly atrocious deed was to be accomplished.
The tendency seems to have been irresistible to associate Captain Kidd with every unusually striking rock or cove along the borders of the river; and it is understood that one of the hoards of pirate treasure was secreted in the waters neighboring the Danskammer. Attempts to locate this wealth have, however, thus far failed.
We now begin to come into that part of the river where ice-houses abound. There is a constant succession of these immense storehouses hugging the shores all the way to the head of navigation, forming a feature of the scenery more conspicuous than ornamental. Into them is gathered the winter harvest of the river’s surface, which is later sent in barges to New York and other cities as it is needed. Housing the ice gives work to thousands of laboring men along the course of the river, and they look forward with eagerness to this chance of employment during the rigors of midwinter. “Ice or no ice,” says John Burroughs, “sometimes means bread or no bread to scores of families, and it means added or diminished comfort to many more. It is a crop that takes two or three weeks of rugged weather to grow. Men go out from time to time and examine it, as the farmer goes out and examines his grain or grass, to see when it will do to cut. If there comes a deep fall of snow, the ice is ‘pricked’ so as to let the water up through, and form snow ice. A band of fifteen or twenty men, about a yard apart, each armed with a chisel bar, and marching in line, puncture the ice at each step with a single sharp thrust. But ice, to be first quality, must grow from beneath, not from above. A good yield every two or three years is about all that can be counted on.
“The cutting and gathering of the ice enlivens these white, desolate fields amazingly. There is the broad straight canal running nearly across the river. On either side lie the ice meadows, each marked out by cedar or hemlock boughs. The further one is cut first, and when cleared shows a large black parallelogram in the midst of the plain of snow. Then the next one is cut, leaving a strip of ice between the two for the horses to move and turn on. Sometimes nearly two hundred men and boys are at work at once, marking, ploughing, scraping, sawing, hauling, chiseling; some floating down the pond on great square islands towed by a horse or their fellow workmen, others on the bridges, separating the blocks with thin chisel bars, others feeding the elevators, while knots and straggling lines of idlers here and there look on in cold discontent, unable to get a job.
“The best crop of ice is an early crop. Late in the season the ice is apt to get sunstruck, when it becomes ‘shaky,’ like a piece of poor timber.
“One of the prettiest sights about the ice harvesting is the elevator in operation. There is an unending procession of the great crystal blocks ascending this incline. They go up in couples, glowing and changing in the sun, and recalling the precious stones that adorn the walls of the celestial city. When they reach the platform where they leave the elevator they seem to slip off like things of life. They are still in pairs and separate only as they enter on their ‘runs.’ Here they are subjected to a rapid inspection, and every square with a trace of sediment or earth-stain is rejected and sent hurling down into the abyss. Those that pass the examination glide into the building along the gentle incline and are switched off here and there on branch runs, and distributed to all parts of the immense interior.”
On the portion of the river above the Highlands where it congeals so firmly, ice is not only important as a commodity, but it is also a source of pleasure. The breadth of the stream and its long straight reaches, and the evenness with which it freezes, owing to its lack of rapids and vagrant currents, make it unusually favorable for ice-yachting. With what astonishing speed those sails on skates do move! Sometimes they go more than a mile a minute and outstrip the fastest express trains. A ride on one of them is like the Chinaman’s first toboggan slide — “Phwt!!! Walkee back two mile.” The runners are three in number and support a broad, low platform, on which the pleasure-seekers, wrapped in furs or blankets, lie at full length. There is, of course, quite a degree of danger, but this only seems to add spice to the enjoyment.
As we continue northward we see the great cantilever bridge spanning the river at Poughkeepsie. It is about two and a half miles long, extending from highland to highland, and at the center is one hundred and sixty-five feet clear above the river. The bridge was finished in 1889 and cost over three million dollars. One or two athletes, seeking money and notoriety have allowed themselves to drop from it into the river and have survived the foolhardy exploit.
The name of the adjacent city is said to be derived from a Mohican word apo-keep-sinck, — “a safe and pleasant harbor.” This harbor is a small bay where a stream that flows through the town joins the Hudson. It received its title in the following manner:
A youthful Pequod warrior who had been captured by some Delawares and condemned to torture, was offered his liberty if he would renounce his own tribe and become a member of theirs. He refused to accept such terms and was bound to a tree for sacrifice when a shriek from a thicket startled his captors. A young girl leaped into their midst and implored for the life of the young brave who was her lover. The Delawares held a consultation but were interrupted by the warwhoops of a party of Hurons. They snatched up their arms to defend themselves from the fierce enemy, and the maiden took advantage of the confusion to sever the thongs that bound the captive. But in the conflict that ensued the two were separated, and a Huron chief carried her off as a trophy. The Pequod attempted her rescue by entering the camp of the Hurons disguised as a wizard. She was sick and her captor employed the wizard to exert his art to cure her. That night the two eluded the vigilance of the Hurons, and with swift feet fled toward the Hudson. They were pursued, but reached the river first and darted out on the stream in a light canoe. The strong arms of the young warrior paddled his loved one safely to a deep rocky nook at the mouth of a creek, and there he concealed her. Some members of his own tribe were within hail, and they promptly came in response to his shouts and helped him drive off the Hurons who had followed him. The sheltered nook where the maiden was hid had been indeed a safe harbor, and fully merited its title of Apo-keep-sinck.
On the southern suburbs of Poughkeepsie, between the river and the highway, in a fine open spot, stands the house that was once the home of Professor S. F. B. Morse, who made telegraphy practicable. A little above, we pass the great Call Rock where tradition says the early burghers of the town used to sit and hail the sloops for news as they drifted by. Here at the waterside are the vacant and battered brick buildings of Matthew Vassar’s brewery whence came the money that started Vassar College. Originally, Mr. Vassar, when he thought of doing something of public value with his wealth, was inclined to erect a monument to the discoverer of the river. But the announcement of this plan seemed to arouse little interest, and he at length decided to found a college instead. So the first institution in the world devoted exclusively to the higher education of women came into being in 1861. It is on the upland two miles east of the city in the midst of an extensive and beautiful park. Its more recent buildings have a good deal of architectural charm, and there is an air of repose and refinement about the place that is very attractive. Close at hand is a little lake winding back between wooded banks in a protected hollow, and one of the prettiest sights at the college is to see the canoes on its quiet waters, moving swift or slow according to the mood of their occupants. Some of the girls prefer horseback riding; and as one of the helpers about the place remarked to me, “They are up at half-past six every morning to canter away somewhere over the roads. But there’s others who don’t get up till they have to.”
Not far above Poughkeepsie the eastern ridges of the Catskills begin to come into view from the river, and are one of the chief scenic attractions of this part of the Hudson valley for thirty or forty miles. In hazy weather they have very much the appearance of clouds along the horizon, and as a matter of fact they were called by the aborigines the Onteoras or Mountains of the Sky. Among these mountains, according to Indian belief, was kept a treasury of storm and sunshine presided over by an old squaw spirit who dwelt on the highest peak. The great Manitou employed her to manufacture clouds. Sometimes she wove them out of cobwebs, gossamers and morning dew, and let them float off in the air to give light summer showers. Sometimes she would brew up black thunderstorms and send down drenching rains. She kept day and night shut up in her wigwam, letting out one at a time. Among her other duties was that of making a new moon every month. The old moons she cut up into stars.
One of the minor villages bordering the river within a short distance of Poughkeepsie is West Park, where John Burroughs, nature lover, philosopher, and grower of small fruits has chosen to make his home. No one else has ever written of the wild life of the fields and forests, particularly of the birds, with such enthusiasm and keenness of observation and with such lively humor. On the long slope rising from the river are his acres of grapes and currants, and well up the incline stands his home of gray native stone nearly hidden by shade and fruit trees. He has the Hudson in sight from the house, and also from his little bark-covered study lower on the hill where much of his writing has been done. Latterly, however, his favorite writing place is at “Slabsides” a rude but not uncomfortable domicile he has built for himself back a mile or two in the rocky woodland.
The first large town north of Poughkeepsie is Kingston, one of the earliest settled places on the river. Its founders built their cabins near the mouth of a creek where they fortified themselves, and this portion of the present city still has the name of Rondout, meaning fort or earthwork. As time went on scattered farmers established themselves, and then trouble developed with the Indians. A farmer was killed and two houses burned in May, 1658, whereupon the governor of the province, Peter Stuyvesant, came up the river from Manhattan with fifty soldiers and called the sachems to account. They conferred under an ancient tree of vast expanse, and the dusky-skinned chieftains were scolded roundly by the doughty Peter, who demanded that they should deliver up the murderer. They replied that the culprit was not one of their tribe, and moreover he had fled into the great woods, no one could say where or how far. There followed much argument and excuses and threats, and at last the Indians came forward to propitiate the governor with belts of wampum and begged for peace. He did not have much confidence in them, however, and in fear there might be a renewal of hostilities he ordered the settlers to build, on an out-thrust of the upland a little back from the river, a stout stockade large enough to contain all their buildings, and into which they were to retire each night.
Stuyvesant’s precautions were amply justified, for that autumn a party of Indians employed by one of the settlers got hold of a jug of firewater and made the night so hideous with their tipsy yells that a panic was started among the settlers. In spite of strict orders from the commander of the stockade, certain ones fired at the Indians, wounding several, and as a result a desultory and barbaric war began. The redskins soon gathered a force of five hundred braves, and surrounded the fort. No one durst leave it for three weeks. Crops were burned, cattle slaughtered, houses destroyed, and a number of captives were put to death by torture.
A truce was at last secured, and a feeling of security gradually developed which led the Kingston people to leave the gates of their fort open day and night. But in June, 1663, the Indians, who had come to the fort in great numbers under pretence of trading, made a sudden attack while most of the white men were outside of the walls. The Dutch rallied, and after a desperate fight in which eighteen of them were killed, drove out the invaders. Forty-two prisoners were carried away by the savages, and nearly all the newly-established farms were destroyed. The war did not end until the local Indians had been almost exterminated. The survivors agreed to abandon the river settlements to the Dutch, retaining the privilege of trading at Rondout, “provided but three canoes came at a time, preceded by a flag of truce.”
During the Revolution Kingston again suffered. When Sir Henry Clinton moved north to cooperate with Burgoyne this was almost the farthest point he succeeded in reaching. He easily captured and destroyed the shipping in the harbor, and drove the garrison from the neighboring earthworks. Then a British detachment marched up the slope from Rondout to Kingston, encountering no more resistance than a stray shot now and then from some exasperated American. They found the village deserted by almost everyone except a few slaves. The people of the town — “a pestiferous nest of rebels,” the British esteemed them — had fled, taking with them only such valuables as they could hastily stow in wagons, and the soldiers immediately scattered about the place looting and setting fire to the houses and barns. This done they hastily withdrew. One of the houses burned was a stone dwelling in which were held the first sessions of the state senate, but the walls remained intact, and the interior was presently restored. It stands today one of the most interesting relics of the past in the Hudson Valley.