In the introduction to his classic book The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea, Benson John Lossing wrote that he “proposed to present, in a series of sketches with pen and pencil, pictures of the Hudson River, from its birth among the mountains to its marriage with the ocean. It is by far the most interesting river in America, considering the beauty and magnificence of its scenery, its natural, political, and social history, the agricultural and mineral treasures … and the relations of its geography and topography to some of the most important events in the history of the Western hemisphere.”
Below is a slightly edited excerpt from two chapters of Lossing’s book, in which he describes the Croton area, from the vineyards on Croton Point to Van Cortlandt Manor, with a visit to a woman who had met George Washington as a child, a climb to see the view from the top of Prickly Pear Hill and a side trip up the Croton River to the original Croton Dam near Pine’s Bridge.
Lossing’s book was published in 1866, but most of the material was first published in magazine form in 1860 to 1861, so Lossing’s trip to Croton probably took place sometime in the 1850s. The wood engravings illustrating the text are all based on Lossing’s own drawings.
Croton Point, from Sing Sing
Teller’s or Croton Point divides Tappan from Haverstraw Bay. It is almost two miles in length and was called Se-nas-qua by the Indians, and by the English, Sarah’s Point, in honour of Sarah, wife of William Teller, who purchased it of the Indians for a barrel of rum and twelve blankets. It was called Teller’s Point until within a few years, when the name of Croton was given to it. Near its extremity, within a pleasant embowered lawn, stood the Italian villa of R.T. Underhill, M.D., who was sixth in descent from the famous Captain Underhill, a leader in the Indian wars of New England. The Point was owned by himself and brother, both of whom had extensive vineyards and luxuriant orchards. They had about eighty acres covered with the Isabella and Catawba grape vine, sixty of which belonged to the doctor. They also raised fine apples and melons in great abundance.
Mouth of the Croton River
After visiting the villa and vineyards of Doctor Underhill, we then rowed up Croton Bay to the mouth of the river, passing, on our way, under the drawbridge of the Hudson River Railway. It was late in the afternoon. There was a remarkable stillness and dreamy repose in the atmosphere, and we glided almost noiselessly up the bay, in company with two or three duck hunters, in their little cockles. The tide was ebbing, and as we approached the mouth of the Croton, the current became more and more rapid, until we found ourselves in a shallow rift abreast the Van Cortlandt Manor House, unable to proceed. After vain efforts of our united strength to stem the current, the boatman landed me on the southern shore of the stream. After satisfying his extortionate demand of about the price of three fares for his services, I dismissed him, with a strong desire never again to fall into his hands; and then clambered up the rough bank by the margin of a brook, and made my way to the “post road,” a most picturesque highway along the lofty banks of the Croton.
When near the “High Bridge” at the old head of boat navigation, I obtained a most interesting view of the Mouth of the Croton, including Dover Kill Island near, the railway bridge in the distance, and the high hills on the western shore of the Hudson in the extreme distance. The scenery thereabout is both picturesque and beautiful, and such is its character to the very sources of this famous stream eastward of the Pawling Mountains, whose clear waters supply the city of New York with wholesome beverage.
The ancient name of the Croton was Kitch-a-wan, signifying a large and swift current. The Dutch called it Croton in memory of an Indian Sachem of that name, whose habitation was on the northern border of the bay, near the neck a little below the mouth of the river. Its sources are among the hills of Putnam and Duchess, and it has five considerable tributaries, all of mountain birth. When the authorities of the city of New York were seeking sources of ample supply of pure water, their attention was early called to this stream. Commissioners reported in favour of its use, though far away; and in May, 1837, the construction of an aqueduct from a point six miles from its mouth to the metropolis was begun.
Croton Dam near Pine’s Bridge (now submerged)
At the head of the aqueduct a dam was constructed, for the purpose of forming a fountain reservoir. At the beginning of 1841 a flood, produced by a protracted rain-storm and melting snows, swept away the dam, and carried with it, riverward, a quantity of earth and gravel, sufficient to half fill the beautiful Croton Bay. The dam was immediately rebuilt, at greater altitude, and a lake was produced, almost six miles in length, containing about 500,000,000 gallons. It is 166 feet above mean tide-water at New York, and pours into the aqueduct from 40,000,000 to 50,000,000 gallons every twenty-four hours. Three ventilator designs used on the Croton Aqueduct
The Croton aqueduct runs parallel with the Hudson, at the mean distance of half a mile from it throughout its entire length. Its course is marked by culverts and arches of solid masonry, and its line may be observed at a distance by white stone towers, about fifteen feet in height, placed at intervals of a mile. These are ventilators of the aqueduct; some of them are quite ornamental, as in the case of the one at Sing Sing, others are simple round towers, and every third one has a square base with a door by which a person may enter the aqueduct. At the top of each is an iron screen, to prevent substances from being cast into the ventilators. Our little group shows the different forms of these towers, which present a feature in the landscape on the eastern shore of the river, to voyagers on the Hudson. This great work was completed, and the water opened to the use of the inhabitants of New York, in the autumn of 1842. Its cost was about $12,000,000.
High Bridge over the Croton River
The “High Bridge” over the Croton, at the old head of the navigation, was a wooden, rickety structure, destined soon to fall in disuse and absolute decay, because of a substantial new bridge, then being constructed across the head of the bay, almost a mile below, by which the route from Croton to Sing Sing would be much shortened. Here was the “Croton Bridge” of revolutionary times, frequently mentioned in connection with military movements between New York and the Highlands; and here is now the scene of most important experiments in the production of malleable iron from the ore, by a simple process, which, if successful, would produce a marked change in the iron manufacture. It is a process of deoxidizing iron ore in a heated hollow screw, out of which, when the process is completed, it drops into the furnace, avoids all fluxes, and comes out “blooms” of the finest iron. Mr. Rogers, the inventor, claimed that by this process there would be a saving of from eight to twelve dollars a ton in the production of iron—a matter of great importance to such isolated districts as that of the Adirondack works at the sources of the Hudson. It was from Bailey’s rolling mill at the foot of the rapids in the Croton, just above the old High Bridge, where these experiments were going on, that I made the sketch of that dilapidated affair, just at sunset.
Crossing the bridge, I strolled down the right bank of the Croton, along the high margin of the stream, to the Van Cortlandt Manor House, passing the old Ferry House on the way, where a party of New York levies, under Captain Daniel Williams, were surprised by some British horsemen in the winter of 1782. At the entrance gate to the mansion grounds, at twilight, I met Colonel Pierre Van Cortlandt, the present proprietor, and accepted his cordial invitation to partake of the hospitalities of his house for the night.
Van Cortlandt Manor
The Van Cortlandt Manor House stands near the shore of Croton Bay. It was erected at the beginning of the last century by John Van Cortlandt, eldest son of the first lord of the manor, and is now more than one hundred and fifty years old. Orloff Stevenson Van Cortlandt, father of the first proprietor of this estate, was a lineal descendant of the Dukes of Courland, in Russia. His ancestors emigrated to Holland, when deprived of the Duchy of Courland. The family name was Stevens, or Stevensen, van (or from) Courland. They adopted the latter as a surname, the true orthography of which, in Dutch, is Korte (short) and landt (land), a term expressing the form of the ancient Duchy of Courland. Orloff emigrated to America and settled in New Amsterdam (New York), and in 1697 his son Stephen purchased the large estate on the Hudson, afterwards known as the Van Cortlandt Manor. By intermarriages, the Van Cortlandts are connected with nearly all of the leading families of New York—the Schuylers, Beekmans Van Renselaers, De Peysters, De Lancys, Bayards, et cetera.
The Manor House was built of heavy stone; and the thick walls were pierced with loopholes for musketry to be used in defence against the Indians. It has been somewhat changed in aspect by covering the round stone with stucco. Its front graced, by a pleasant lawn, commands an extensive view of the bay, and of the Hudson beyond. In that bay, under the shelter of Croton Point, Hendrick Hudson anchored the Half Moon, on the evening of the first of October, 1609; and such a resort were these waters for canvas back ducks and other water fowl, that as early as 1683, Governor Dongan came there to enjoy the sport of fowling. There, too, great quantities of shad were caught. But its glory is departed. The flood of 1841, that swept away the Croton Dam, almost filled the bay with earth; it is accumulating there every hour and, in the course of a few years, the Van Cortlandt estate will have many acres of fine meadow land added to it, where once large vessels might ride at anchor.
The Van Cortlandt mansion is clustered with historic associations. It was the summer home of the master, whose town residence was a stately one for the colonial times. There, at early, as well as at later periods, the wealthy and the high born of the land frequently assembled as guests. From its broad piazza the famous Whitefield preached to a large audience upon the lawn. There, in 1774, Governor Tryon, and Edmund Fanning, his secretary, came on a mission of bribery to General Van Cortlandt, who had espoused the cause of the colonists. They offered him lands and titles for his allegiance to the crown, but they were refused. Under that roof the illustrious Washington was a frequent guest when the army was in that vicinity; and the parlour was once honoured by the presence of the immortal Franklin. There may be seen many mementoes of the past: the horns of a stag killed on the manor, when deer ran wild there; the buttons from the yager coat worn by one of the captors of Andre, a box made of the wood of the Endearour, the ship in which Cook navigated the globe, et cetera.
On the morning after my arrival, accompanied by Mrs. Van Cortlandt, I rode to the village of Croton, a mile distant, to visit one of twin sisters, who were ninety years old in August, 1860. On our way we turned into the cemetery of the Van Cortlandt family, upon a beautiful point of land, commanding an extensive view of the Hudson southward. A little west of the cemetery, at the neck of land which connects Croton Point with the main, stood the old fort or castle of Kitch-a-wan, said to have been one of the most ancient Indian fortresses south of the Highlands. It was built by the Sachem Croton, when he assembled his parties for hunting or war.
In a beautiful nook, a little east of the site of the fort, on the borders of Haunted Hollow, is the Kitch-a-wan, burying ground. Around this locality hovers the memory of many a weird story of the early times, when the superstitious people believed that they often saw, in the groves and glens there, the forms of the departed red men. They called them the Walking Sachems of Teller’s Point.
We visited one of the twin sisters at Croton, Mrs. Miriam Williams. Her memory of long-past events seemed very faithful, but the mind of her sister had almost perished with age. They had both lived in that vicinity since their birth, having married and settled there in early life. Mrs. Williams had a perfect recollection of Washington, when he was quartered with the army near Verplanck’s Point. On one occasion, she said, he dismounted in front of her father’s house and asked for some food. As he entered, the twins were standing near the door. Placing his hands upon their heads, he said, “You are as alike as two eggs. May you have long life.” He entered with her father, and the children peeped curiously in at the door. A morsel of food and a cup of cold water was placed upon the table, when Washington stepped forward, laid his hand upon the board, closed his eyes, and reverently asked a blessing, their father having, meanwhile, raised his hat from his head. “And here,” said Mrs Williams, pointing to a small oval table near her, “is the very table at which that good man asked a blessing.”
From the little village of Croton, or Collaberg Landing, I rode to the dwelling of a friend (James Cockroft, Esq.) about two miles northward, passing on the way the old house of Tellar (now Moodie) where the incident just related occurred. Accompanied by Mr. Cockroft, and his neighbour, J.W. Frost, Esq., I climbed to the summit of Prickly Pear Hill (so called from the fact that a species of cactus called Prickly Pear grows there abundantly), almost five hundred feet above the river, from which may be obtained the most extensive and interesting views in all that region. From no point on the Hudson can be seen, at a glance, such a cluster of historic localities, as from this eminence. Here Washington was encamped in 1782, and made this pinnacle his chief observatory. At one sweep of the vision may be seen the lofty ranges of the Highlands, and the Fish Kill Mountains, with all the intervening country adjacent to Peek’s Kill, Verplanck’s and Stony Points, the theatres of important military events during the war for independence; Haverstraw, where Arnold and Andre had their conference; Teller’s Point, off which the Vulture lay, and from which she received a cannonading that drove her down the river; King’s Ferry, where Andre crossed the Hudson; the place of Pine’s Bridge on the Croton, where he was suspected; Tarrytown, where he was captured, and the long wharf of Piermont, near Tappan where he was executed.
View from Prickly Pear Hill (looking south, toward Croton Point)
All of these, with the villages on the eastern shore of the Hudson, from Cruger’s to York Island, may be seen from this hill. Before it lies Haverstraw Bay, the widest expanse of the Hudson, with all its historic and legendary associations, which limited space forbids us to portray. Here the fresh and salt water usually contend most equally for the mastery; and here the porpoise, a sea-water fish, is often seen in large numbers sporting in the summer sun. Here, in the spring, vast numbers of shad are caught while on their way to spawning places in fresh-water coves, and here, at all seasons, most delicious fish may be taken in great abundance. All things considered, this is one of the most interesting points for a summer residence to be found on the Hudson.