Friday, May 14, 2010

Public Access to Nutten Hook Shoreline Threatened

The Ferry Road crossing

Residents of Ferry Road in Nutten Hook are outraged by New York State's plan to close the Ferry Road Amtrak crossing and demolish five homes, including two on the National Historic Register. The closing will also block public access to one of the most unspoiled sections of shoreline on the Hudson River.

On May 13, 2010, the Hudson, NY  Register-Star reported:

Residents of Ferry Road heard directly from the state agencies that control their fate on Thursday morning. As in the past, they came away with more questions than answers. While holding court in Stuyvesant Town Hall, Administrative Law Judge Peter Loomis of the state Department of Transportation swore in three witnesses from his agency, along with one official from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Other officials and interested parties were also allowed to enter unsworn statements into his record.

The hearing re-opened a 1996 legal decision which declared the gated rail crossing at Ferry Road unsafe, and ordered it closed. An updated ruling in 2006 added that the crossing would remain open until a connector road was built to Ice House Road, a short distance to the north. Without a connector, three occupied homes on Ferry Road would be unreachable by emergency vehicles, and subject to purchase under eminent domain by the state.

This beautiful section of the Hudson River, once the scene of thriving industries, has long been of interest to us, and previous postings at Upstate Earth have focused on the ruins of the R&W Scott Icehouse and the Cary Brickyard . In the late 19th and early 20th century barges carried bricks and ice south to New York City, while a ferry plied back and forth to Coxsackie on the opposite shore.

Originally called Nutten Hoek, or "nut-tree point,"  by the 17th century Dutch, the bedrock promontory now known as Newton Hook may contain undiscovered artifacts of the Paleo-Indians whose presence has been documented at Tivoli Bay and other spots along this part of the Hudson estuary. The entire point is an undeveloped Department of Environmental Conservation site and included within the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

As soon as we read of the state's sudden rush to close off the area, we went down to the river to take a look for ourselves. Our first stop was at Icehouse Road, where another open rail crossing will, according to the state, be improved with new safety features. From here we saw the wetlands across which a road was promised in 1996. Now, however, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation has changed its position. The wetlands, according to DEC's Betsy Blair, contain federally and state protected wetlands and any road, even a single lane along the dry land at the base of the Nutten Hook peak, is no longer acceptable.

View  from IceHouse Rd. of  Nutten Hook and wetlands

We walked south on 9-J for half a mile to the Ferry Road crossing, where an Amtrak passenger train was racing by. Crossing the tracks, we soon encountered a local resident who provided us with many details about the current struggle. Among the most interesting was that buying and destroying the houses on Ferry Road would cost more than $900,000 while building a half-mile long single lane road connecting Icehouse and Ferry Roads would cost, at most, a third as much.

Amtrak train at Ferry Road crossing

Activists' signs on Ferry Road

Now a private residence, the 1881 Lynch Hotel
is on the National Historic Register

We moved on to the point to enjoy once more this shoreline so popular with local fishermen, hikers, and picnickers. This is just about the only spot in the county where people can find easy access to the Hudson, which is almost everywhere else blocked by the railroad line. The boat access at nearby Stockport Creek has no access to the shoreline  and  high speed trains make it unsafe for children. And the one state park in the area which offers river access, Schodack Island State Park, is set to be closed on May 16 due to the state's budget shortfall.

View of Coxsackie waterfront from site of the old ferryboat pier

Ocean-going freighter bound for the Port of Albany

Hudson River beach at Ferry Point

Still puzzling over why state agencies would join forces to close off this shoreline, we followed the trail leading from Ferry Rd to Ice House Rd.  This level route along the eastern edge of Nutten Hook hill is on dry ground and it seems clear that a single lane road could be constructed on this route at minimal expense and without any significant damage to the wetlands.

This trail between Ferry and Icehouse Roads could be 
converted to a single lane road

View of Catskill Mountains from the peak of Newton Hook

Ruins of the R& W Scott Icehouse, built in 1885

What can be done to preserve access to Nutten Hook?

The residents of Ferry Road have created a website, Save Ferry Road, which explains the whole situation in detail and provides a list of officials in the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Environmental Conservation who have joined forces to destroy this small community and block public access to the river.

The site also provides contact numbers for  the local representatives for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Scott Murphy, both of whom have written letters of support for saving Ferry Road. 

I am in the process of contacting these people and will post updates as to their response. I urge you to do the same.

Update June 10, 2010

DEC's Gene Kelly has written back saying that "the development of a connector road from Ice House Road to Ferry Road across the Reserve would impact the sensitive wetlands, archeological artifacts, and important wildlife habitat found at this site," without mentioning any post-1996 study substantiating the claims. He adds that: "assuming the state's fiscal climate improves, the Department anticipates building  a parking area and handicapped accessible trail to the Hudson River at the end of Ice House Road."

Congressman Murphy's assistant Rob Scholz said that the Nutten Hook issue was one for state representatives. None of the other officials whom I contacted have responded.

Update May 29, 2011 Newton Hook Rail Crossing Gets a Reprieve

The Albany Times Union carried a report today that "a  DOT administrative law judge ordered that the crossing remain open and be improved with federal stimulus funding while DOT studies long-term safety improvements. DOT has to file its report by June 30, 2012."

Report from Schodack Island State Park

Schodack Island State Park is one of 91 state parks and historic sites being closed May 16 as part of Governor Patterson's budget cuts, thus cutting off one more public access to the Hudson in our area. Fred Lebrun has excellent analysis of the politics behind this decision in  Padlocked Parks Lock Out Sense in the Albany Times Union.

The park already shows signs of neglect as the shutdown process gets underway. I biked along the extensive trail system, surprised to see no other bikers or hikers. Then I realized why. The trails are blocked in many places by fallen trees that would ordinarily be quickly  removed by park employees.

 Trails are blocked by fallen trees

 Idled State Park Police boats

The park was once three islands, before being combined into one by dredging, and is believed to be the place where Henry Hudson was welcomed by the Mohican people. Archeologists have done little work at this site, but it is known that the aboriginal people maintained corn fields in the rich alluvial soil of the island. Artifacts from this forgotten culture have been dated back to 5000 years ago, and there is doubtless much that we could have learned from them about living in harmony with the natural world.

Replica of Henry Hudson's Half Moon at Albany

Although they welcomed Hudson and his crew with a friendliness that was in sharp contrast to the more warlike peoples encountered near the river's mouth, their fate was not a happy one. Decimated by European diseases, the Mohicans lost several wars to the Mohawks, who adopted firearms and dominated the violent struggle for the furs in such demand by the European market.

 The 18th century Mohican Chief  Etow made
his home on this island or the nearby shore.

Update on Schodack Island

Schodack Island State Park was briefly closed, along with many other state parks, and then reopened to the public after additional funds were voted in Albany.

Update on Newton Hook

After many years of attempting to close the Ferry Road Crossing, State Department of Transportation finally gave up in september, 2012.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Burning of Schenectady, 1690

On the bitter cold night of February 8, 1690 the village of Schenectady lay deep in sleep. As the snow and wind increased, a band of 210 French soldiers and their Indian allies studied the sleeping town from across the frozen Mohawk River. Although surrounded by a stockade of logs ten feet high, the town’s two gates stood wide open and unguarded.There were no lights nor signs of movement in the small fort located on the northern side of the palisaded town.

The Mohawk River, from Riverside Park: probable site of French crossing

Three weeks earlier, the French commander Lemoine de Sainte Helene had led this small band out of Montreal, trekking on snowshoes through the deep snow of the Adirondacks for twenty-two days to reach the frontiers of the English colony.

The soundly sleeping settlers were mostly Dutch, and some of the eldest among them recalled the founding of their village four decades earlier by the redoubtable Arendt van Corlaer (or Curler), the Great Friend of the Mohawks. The Mohawks held Corlaer in such high regard that they ever afterward referred to the chief white man, whether Dutch or English,  as The Corlaer, and transferred to him their lasting loyalty.

The French who now lingered outside the helpless village had come south as much to crush the powerful Mohawks as to destroy Schenectady and its larger neighbor, known since 1664 as Albany. The war which now came with such stealth to the Mohawk Valley had its origins far across the Atlantic. When James II, a Catholic and friend of France, was forced to give up his throne in1688 in favor of the protestant William of Orange, worldwide war between England and France became inevitable. William and his wife Mary Stuart, backed by a lively parliament, were more than ready to duel with France for control of vast stretches of the New World. Even so, the villagers knew little of the quarrels of distant monarchs , and in the dead of winter, had no fear of any attack.

Louis XIV of France was ultimately 
responsible for the massacre

 William and Mary, whose ouster of James II
in 1688, led to war with France

The site of massacre is still  known as "The Stockade," and is a very desirable residential neighborhood of historic residences cherished by its inhabitants.

Elegant 19th century ironwork is common 
on houses in the Stockade neighborhood

According to Jonathan Pearson’s 1883 history of Schenectady:

The village at this time lay mainly west of Ferry street, and was stockaded with palisades of pine logs ten feet high. It had at least two gates, one at north end of Church street, opening out to the highway (Front street), which led to the eastward to Niskayuna. Another at south end of Church at State, opening out to Mill lane and the Flats and the Albany road (State street).The only dwellings outside the stockade were built on the northerly side of State street, extending as far south-east as Centre Street. It is said there were 80 good houses in the village and a population of 400 souls, both numbers doubtless greatly exaggerated.

House on Ferry Street, along which the palisade ran in 1690

In the northerly angle of the village on or near the corner of Washington and Front Streets was a double stockaded fort garrisoned by a detachment of 24 men of Capt. Jonathan Bull's Connecticut company under the command of Lieut. Talmadge.

No trace remains of the 1690 era settlement, except perhaps in traces buried beneath the streets and houses of this attractive neighborhood, although the Brouwer house may date back to the time of the massacre or just a little later.

 The oldest house in Schenectady

Originally planning to wait until much later at night to attack, the French and Indians were driven by the unbearable cold to strike at once, entering the village without hindrance and assembling in small groups outside each house. Then, according to Professor Pearson, the slaughter began:

In the ill fated village, the inhabitants went to rest with their gates open and no guard set. They trusted that the Indians who had been sent out as scouts to Lake George would forewarn them of the enemy's approach. The French marched upon the village from the north, crossed the river on the ice and divided their men into two companies with the intention of entering the town, one by the north or Church street gate, the other by the south or State street gate. The latter entrance being in a measure covered by the dwellings on that street could not be found; both companies therefore entered by the north gate and separating, spread themselves throughout the village, five or six before each house. At the signal agreed upon, a simultaneous onslaught was made upon each dwelling and before the terror stricken inhabitants could seize their arms, the savages were upon them. Resistance was vain. Within two hours 60 of the people were slaughtered without distinction of age or sex. After selecting such booty as they could carry away,the French fired the houses and burnt all but five or six.

1898 plaque commemorating the massacre of 1690

 A tourist reading the 1898 plaque

This was a slaughter. The only successful resistance was offered by Adam Vrooman and his family at their house, which stood on the west corner of Front and Church streets opposite the north gate. Evidently, they maintained a steady fire which kept the enemy far enough back so that they could not set fire to the house.

Professor Pearson speaks of one other family that escaped destruction:

Capt. Sander Glen's family and relatives with their habitations and other property, on account of former kindness shown to captive Frenchmen, were spared by express order of Lemoine de Sainte Helene

The Glen Sanders Mansion

Portions of the elegant Glen Sanders Mansion, now a popular wedding and banquet venue, may date back to Captain Glen’s house spared in 1690.

By the  morning of February 9, 1690, the French and Indians headed back into the northern forests with  27 (or 30) prisoners and 50 horses laden with plunder, giving up on the original plan of destroying Albany and burning the Mohawk villages farther west along the river.  African slavery was widespread among the Dutch and slaves were among those killed and taken prisoner.

 Historic marker recognizing the role of Symon Schermerhoorn

Symon Schermerhoorn, though wounded, had managed to escape the slaughter that night and raised the alarm. According to records preserved in Albany, the call to arms was given but the militia decided not to pursue the enemy lest they leave Albany undefended.

The official French report by M. de Monsignat, quoted by Professor Pearson, reveals that the French lost 17 and the Indians four on the return journey. The names of all those carried off as prisoners are included in primary sources included by professor Pearson in his chapter on the massacre. Many of those taken were ransomed and returned to the Mohawk Valley in succeeding years.

The enemy was pursued, although apparently only by the Mohawk friends of the settlers, who caught up with the French just before they reached Montreal and killed six. Their actions were commemorated by the erection of a statue in 1887 of one their number, known as "Lawrence the Indian." The statue was placed at the junction of Front, Green and North Ferry Streets, which marks the northeastern extremity of the stockade and blockhouse.            

Lawrence the Indian statue

The war ended inconclusively, but was renewed again in 1725 and 1755 before the French were finally defeated. Schenectady was never again directly attacked, although much blood was shed nearby in the series of wars that originated in European rivalries.

Update on location of the 1690 Stockade

I recently heard from Tom Morgan, an avid researcher of local history and a follower of this blog.  Tom generously provided an old engraving  which he believes to be a fairly accurate depiction of the village at the time of he massacre.

Tom also provided the information below and his own chronological map showing the location of the three stockades which stood on this site.


At the time of the massacre the village lay mainly west of Ferry Street, protected by pine palisades ten feet high. The only dwellings outside the palisade were on the north side of what is now State Street. Near the corner of Washington and Front stood the double stockade fort which fell so easily on the fatal night. After 1690 the palisade was rebuilt, and was again rebuilt in 1705 to include more of the expanding village.  Being made of wood, the walls and fort had a limited lifespan and needed to be rebuilt once more in 1735. This time the fort was constructed with timbers on a stone foundation.

The fort remained an essential feature of each rebuilding. When the village was restored  just after the massacre, a new and larger fort was constructed in the southwest corner of the enclosure, the original fort being used as a blockhouse and church. This fort contained "two great guns." In the 1705 renovation, a fort was built in the northeast corner, variously called Corlear's Fort, Fort Cosby and the Queen's Fort. In the 1705 and 1735 reconstructions, the "Queen's New Fort" was built at the east angle of the stockade. The fort remained  standing through the Revolution and was finally torn down in 1783.

The expense and effort which went into the fortification of this site is testimony to the uncertain and violent century which followed the 1690 attack. Although wars swirled around Schenectady, however, it was never again attacked.

The neighborhood thrived in the peaceful and prosperous era that accompanied independence but was in decline by the mid 20th century. Tom informed me of the formation of the Stockade Association in 1958, through whose efforts the area was designated as the first Historic District in the state, saving many buildings from destruction and preparing the way for the attractive residential neighborhood it is is today.