Tuesday, April 20, 2010

State Prison or State Park? Preserving the Hudson's Far Shore


"Construct a new prison at Bear Mountain and abandon Sing Sing prison at Ossining." Unthinkable as this recommendation sounds today, it almost became a reality one hundred years ago. Before the move was halted, Sing Sing Prison actually transferred prisoners upriver from Ossining to begin construction on a new prison.

The wheels of change had been set in motion in 1906 when New York Governor Frank W. Higgins appointed a commission to create new prisons. Two years later, the commission announced plans to build a penitentiary at Bear Mountain to replace Sing Sing. Only seven years before, the village of Sing Sing--unhappy with its close association with the prison of that name—had changed its name to Ossining.

For the new prison, the state bought a 740-acre tract of privately owned land at Bear Mountain. Inmates were transported upriver from Sing Sing and housed in barracks within a tall stockade with guard towers at the corners. Convicts began clearing trees and brush from the site near Highland Lake (today's Hessian Lake).

The prospect of a prison at Bear Mountain alarmed and infuriated all who loved the Hudson Highlands. Not only did the area have scenic and recreational values, but it had hallowed historical associations as well. On the site were the ruins of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, where militiamen of Orange and Putnam Counties had fallen before a surprise British attack in 1777.

Earlier Victories
This prison proposal was not the first assault on the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley. Only a few years before, conservationists had succeeded in stopping the blatant destruction of the unique Palisades. Originally, the rock debris at the base of the cliff had been used merely as a source of ballast for ships. Serious threats to the Palisades began with urban development and the growing demand for road building material. Between Weehawken and Hook Mountain, dozens of quarries furiously blasted huge chunks out of the cliff face. Prominent landmarks were reduced to rubble.

A prime mover in the fight to halt this destruction was the New Jersey Federation of Women's Clubs. In 1897, the Federation sent a delegation to Governor Foster M. Voorhees in Trenton and proposed a commission to study ways of saving the Palisades. At about the same time, former New York City Comptroller Andrew H. Green approached Governor Theodore Roosevelt in Albany. Green had conceived the consolidation of New York City and Brooklyn into “Greater New York.” He was also a founder of an organization with an unwieldy name: Trustees of Scenic and Historic Places and Objects in the State of New York. In 1901 it would shorten its name to the more descriptive American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society.

Bills were introduced in 1900 in both state legislatures to form a Palisades Interstate Park Commission consisting of ten members, with five members appointed by the governor of each state. Its purpose would be to acquire land and preserve the Palisades for recreational purposes. In Albany, the legislation passed easily. In Trenton, lobbyists for the trap rock quarries worked to defeat the bill. The New Jersey Federation of Women's Clubs mounted a vigorous campaign, however, and the legislation was passed.

George W. Perkins, first vice-president of the New York Life Insurance Company, was named president of the Commission. He discovered that the two states had only provided only $10,000 to stop the quarrying. Perkins had a reputation for being able to elicit money from other persons of wealth. He proved this by securing large contributions to buy up land. J.P. Morgan gave $122,500--and invited Perkins to join the Morgan bank. He accepted. The Commission purchased the Carpenter Brothers quarry for $132,500, thus stopping the blasting.

Without the creation of Palisades Interstate Park, this inspiring natural feature would have been so extensively quarried that little would be left today. A contemporary writer summed up the victory: "The events from the advent of man to the assault on the Palisades may be covered in a few words: Adam discovered the earth. Columbus discovered America. John McAdam, a descendant of the old Adam, discovered how to construct roads with crushed stone. Carpenter Brothers, quarrymen, discovered the Palisades. And the people of New York and New Jersey discovered that one of the most beautiful features of the Hudson scenery was being ruined to supply road material."

During the Commission's first ten years of operation, some thirteen miles of the Palisades were saved at a cost of only $450,000. In 1906, the jurisdiction of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission was extended to include Hook Mountain and Stony Point. The immediate reaction of the quarry operators was to move farther north into the Hudson Highlands.

The Battle for the Highlands
Another outspoken supporter of protection of the Highlands was a New York City obstetrician, Dr. Edward L. Partridge, who had a summer home on Storm King Mountain. He enlisted wealthy friends to form the Association for the Protection of the Highlands of the Hudson in 1907.

New York State was planning a celebration in the autumn of 1909 to commemorate Henry Hudson's 1609 exploration of the river and Robert Fulton's 1807 operation of a successful steam vessel. The upcoming festivities helped to spur public interest in the preservation of the natural beauty of the Hudson Highlands.

Again, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society spearheaded the effort. They had argued for Federal protection of 65 square miles on the east side of the Hudson and 57 square miles on the west side. Authorities in Washington turned them down. The New York legislature eventually passed a bill that set aside 75 square miles on the west side of the Hudson as the Highlands of the Hudson Forest Reserve, with Dr. Partridge as the secretary of a commission to administer it. It was a toothless tiger.

Preparations for the construction of a prison at Bear Mountain continued relentlessly. Architects were invited to submit plans for a walled enclosure and eighteen buildings, the whole not to cost more than $2 million. Specified were an administration building, a cellblock with a capacity of 1,400 inmates, a mess hall and a chapel. Cells were to measure six by ten feet, with a toilet, washbowl and bunk. Auxiliary buildings included a prison hospital to care for 75 patients and a building with 30 cells to isolate prisoners who were troublemakers.

Enter the Harrimans
Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate, was an influential force to be reckoned with. He had money and wealthy friends in seats of power, and he would not hesitate to use both. The sprawling Harriman properties--more than 30,000 acres west of the Hudson--had been bought over the years and kept in an undeveloped state. He did not want a prison at his doorstep.

Working with insurance executive George W. Perkins, Harriman conceived a plan that would create a giant park between the Ramapo and the Hudson rivers. In a June 1909 letter to New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes, he proposed the gift of 19 square miles of the properties he had assembled, and $1 million to acquire other lands between his lands and the Hudson. He added a suggestion that the prison be moved to the other side of the river, "so as not to destroy the natural beauty which can never again be replaced." Governor Hughes responded favorably.

Unfortunately, Harriman died of stomach cancer on September 9, 1909, leaving his entire estate of $70 million to his wife, Mary Averell Harriman. Three months after the death of her husband, Mrs. Harriman wrote to Governor Hughes. Her letter offered a gift of land to New York for a state park, and $1 million to administer it. She also promised to raise an additional $1.5 million by popular subscription in sixteen days.

For its part, the State would appropriate $2.5 million to buy additional land and build roads. As a condition, the State had to agree to abandon construction of the prison at Bear Mountain. In two weeks, thanks to the persuasive efforts of George W. Perkins, $1,625,000 was raised from wealthy philanthropists. J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller each gave $500,000. Eleven other wealthy contributors gave $50,000 each.

New York and New Jersey passed the necessary enabling legislation. Because the new park would become part of the Palisades Interstate Park system, the Hudson River Forest Reserve was abolished after an existence of little more than a year. New Jersey also appropriated $500,000 to build the Henry Hudson Drive along the base of the Palisades.

On October 29, 1910, 18-year-old Yale student W. Averell Harriman, fifth of six Harriman children and later governor of New York, presented to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission the deed to 10,000 acres of land and a check for $1 million.

A Park Is Born
Development began almost immediately. The prison stockade and barracks were demolished. A dock was built on the Hudson for visitors who arrived by steamboat. Bear Mountain State Park opened officially for public use on July 5, 1913, and the first camps were occupied. In 1915, the rustic Bear Mountain Inn was built of huge chestnut logs. By 1919, two steamboats were bought. Fares for round trips from New York on weekends were 85 cents for adults and 45 cents for children.

In 1922, Benton Mackaye, a U.S. Labor Department employee and regional planner, proposed the construction of a 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. It would wind through fourteen states, from Maine's Mount Katahdin to Georgia's Springer Mountain. Its first section--a 16-mile segment--was laid out in the park in 1923. That same year, a large area was carved from Bear Mountain State Park and named Harriman State Park. Today, it contains 46,647 acres and is the second largest in New York's state park system. Bear Mountain State Park contains 5,067 acres.

Completed in 1924, the Bear Mountain Bridge, built by a privately owned company, the dramatically situated bridge and its scenic highway from the Annsville traffic circle gave easy access the park to residents on the east side of the Hudson. Until 1931, it was the only motor vehicle and pedestrian bridge across the Hudson south of Albany. The president of the bridge company was E. Roland Harriman, youngest son of Mary A. Harriman. Although the Bridge had cost about $5,000,000 to construct, New York State purchased it for a bargain price of $2,300,000 in 1940.

By 1927, seven other park trails were completed. Swampy areas were dammed to create pristine lakes of surprising beauty. These were given Indian names. In summer, young campers occupied cabins along the shores of these lakes and were introduced to the wonders of nature. Over the years, walkers and hikers have explored the old mine roads, military trails and Indian paths that crisscross the parks. Surveyed and maintained by dedicated volunteers from metropolitan walking clubs, newer trails lead to the crests of peaks and often reveal unparalleled views.

George W. Perkins, who had died in 1920, was memorialized in 1934 with the construction of Perkins Memorial Drive, a motor road to Bear Mountain's summit. Thanks to careful preservation and enlightened development by visionaries like Perkins, unspoiled tracts of exceptional charm and historical interest remain close to the metropolitan area. Yet in a wilderness so near to population centers, it is still possible for a tyro hiker to become lost within sight of the Empire State Building.

Fire and Ice
Today, the parks are a veritable living museum of the early history of technology. Hikers frequently encounter the pits and shafts of old mines dug to exploit the region’s magnetite iron ore between 1746 and 1880. Fewer--but nonetheless interesting--are the ruins of furnaces in which the ore was reduced to pig iron. Iron from these mines and furnaces formed the massive chain that denied British naval vessels access to the upper Hudson came from here. A few links of this chain are on view at West Point.

Among British policies contributing to the American Revolution was the shortsighted mercantilism that viewed colonies as existing only for the enrichment of the mother country. Historians have placed emphasis on the Tea Act and stamp taxes, but another reason for Colonial dissatisfaction was the so-called Acts of Trade, which governed various manufactured products.

Particularly onerous among these were the Iron Acts, which allowed the colonists to mine iron ore but denied them the right to manufacture iron products from it. The law decreed that the iron had to be smelted and shipped to England without duty in blocks called "pigs." Articles of iron were illegally manufactured in Colonial America in so-called "slitting mills." This practice became a source of graft for Colonial administrators bribed to conceal the existence of such mills.

In the mid-19th century, the Knickerbocker Ice Company owned the proposed prison site. In winter, ice was cut on Highland Lake and sold in New York City. Blocks of ice were slid down long chutes for storage in large sheds on the Hudson shore near Iona Island. Knickerbocker also cut ice on the east side of the river at Lake Meahagh (then known as Knickerbocker Pond) bordered by Buchanan, Verplanck and Montrose.

Hikers on Dunderberg Mountain are sometimes surprised to come upon evidences of sections of a railroad roadbed and tunnels. This is all that remains of the Dunderberg Spiral Railway. A cable incline was to have taken passengers to the summit of the mountain at 920 feet, where a hotel and summer colony were planned. The return trip was to be by gravity over a series of gentle grades winding down the face of the mountain for nine miles. It was the 1890 brainchild of Henry J. Mumford, who hoped to duplicate his previous successful operation of a gravity railway in Pennsylvania. After spending $1 million, he ran out of money. The depression of 1893 sealed the fate of this broken dream.

Telltale Lilacs
From the beginning, it was the Commission's policy to encourage removal of persons living within park boundaries. Houses were purchased from heirs when owners died, and money was offered to current owners to vacate homes. Hikers frequently come upon old foundations and cellar holes--sites of former dwellings and outbuildings. Lilac bushes or vestigial gardens are often the only clues to former human presence.

Hamlets that existed in the past and are no more include Baileytown, Bulsontown, Johnsontown and Woodtown. The largest of such now-abandoned hamlets is Doodletown, located in the valley between Dunderberg and Bear Mountain. Folklore has it that the town got its name after British troops passed through on the way to attack the American forts on Popolopen Creek and played the song "Yankee Doodle" to deceive the inhabitants about their identity. Like many folk tales, it has no basis in reality and already had that name. In his report on the battle, the American commander, future Governor George Clinton, noted that he had sent a half company of troops to "the place called Doodletown" to scout the British advance.

The name "Doodletown" is believed to come from two Dutch words, "dood," meaning dead, and "del," dale or valley. Dutch skippers often put into the mouth of Doodletown Brook for water and wood. Something about the place perhaps led them to call it "Dead Valley." "Town" was added after a community had sprung up there. The U.S. government bought Iona Island in 1899 for use as a naval ammunition depot, and many residents of the little hamlet found employment there. By 1945, the population of Doodletown was about 300 persons.

After the Second World War, the Navy abandoned Iona Island. The Park bought it for $265,000 in 1965, the same year that the last of the houses in Doodletown was vacated and demolished. The site of Doodletown, with its two lonesome cemeteries, can be reached from Route 9W and several trails.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to those early conservationists who had the foresight to preserve this parkland for us. Each year these parks receive eight million visitors--more than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone. No matter whether you stroll, walk, roam, saunter, climb, hike, backpack or camp, go and explore them. [Guidebooks and maps are for sale at the Bear Mountain Visitor Center near the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area, Exit 17 on the Palisades Interstate Parkway.]

A Personal Postscript
Over the years, campers, walkers and hikers have explored the wood roads and trails that crisscross the park. Surveyed and maintained by dedicated volunteers from metropolitan walking clubs, easily followed trails lead to the crests of peaks and often reveal unparalleled views.

I have long had a fondness for this fascinating area. In the depths of the Depression I spent three summers at an unusual summer camp in Harriman State Park. Called Camp Freedom, it was located on the western shore of Lake Sebago. Operated by an organization with a name straight out of Charles Dickens--The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor--Camp Freedom was a "leadership camp" to develop counselors for the Association's other camps. My brother, eight years older than me had also been a camper at Camp Freedom. I would later discover his name inscribed in charcoal on the underside of the open-fronted Adirondack style shelter atop Tom Jones Mountain. Park records are scarce, but one document reveals that in return for construction of the camp, the Association enjoyed rent-free occupancy for eight and a half years. The nominal annual rental in the first years was $745.

Camping season at Camp Freedom lasted from the beginning of July and to the end of August. At the Association's massive camps centered on Lake Kanawauke, hordes of underprivileged children were brought up from the city for two-week periods.

The journey to and from Camp Freedom and other camps in the parks was by Hudson River steamboat. Campers assembled at the pier at West 40th Street and the Hudson River. Stops were made at 130th Street, Yonkers, Indian Point and Bear Mountain. Here buses met the campers and transported them to the camps.

Camp Freedom's roster was thirty boys, three counselors--all recent graduates from Ivy League schools--and a cook remembered for his fondness for baked beans. Seven small screened cabins stretched across the hillside, six with five campers each and one for counselors. Nearby was a large building, also screened, with a mess hall and kitchen on one side, and a recreation area on the other. A rough outdoor latrine, dubbed the "La-La," was a short distance away. It would be taboo today, but the thirty boys were divided into three “tribes” with Indian names: Iroquois, Ute and Seneca, This division provided three teams for baseball, flag football and other sports,

Freedom here was more than a word, and the concept of "freedom" was carried to an unusual extreme. On Wednesdays, each camper had to leave the camp under his own power right after breakfast. A basic lunch was provided. Travel could be by canoe or afoot on the trails that laced the hills and valleys. Sunday was another free day. More traditionally oriented campers would hitchhike to such centers of civilization as Southfields, Tuxedo, Sloatsburg or Suffern for church or treats like sodas and sundaes. For my part, I decided to explore the vastness of the park, and course its trails. I learned to orient myself anywhere.

A well-stocked library contained reference books on reptiles, mammals, trees, shrubs, flowers, and rocks and minerals. Other than the twice-a-day swim periods and afternoon sports, campers were encouraged to pursue their own interests and intellectual pursuits under the tutelage of a counselor whether it was woodcarving, natural history or camping skills. I chose mineral collecting. This unusual camping experience whetted my interest in geology and natural history, and led to a decision to study geology. The rich past of the area also left me with an abiding curiosity about local history that endures to this day. And, in coursing the trails, I learned woodcraft skills that only a few years later would help me to stay alive during World War Two.

In 1939, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor became the Community Service Society, which still serves the poor of New York City. Hudson River steamboats are only a memory. After the war, I resumed my interest in hiking. To reach the park on weekends, I used the Chambers Street Ferry and the Erie Railroad. Later I introduced my two sons to the wonders of the woods on park trails. With the creation of a large public bathing beach at the north end of Lake Sebago, the buildings of Camp Freedom were demolished in 1952, and no vestiges remain.

I was last a Camp Freedom camper 75 long years ago. Nevertheless, I should like to stand once again on the porch of that modest cabin under Parker Cabin Mountain and gaze across Sebago's waters upon the verdant slopes of Brundige Mountain beyond. Yet the hills could hardly be so lush with mountain laurel and wild azalea, the meadow flowers so soft and lovely, as they are in the eyes of memory.

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