Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Ghosts of Beardslees Mills

Beardslee Castle is a fine restaurant and wedding venue along route 5 between Little Falls and St. Johnsville, New York. It is also widely believed to be one of the most haunted places in the state. The resident spirits of the old castle were featured last Halloween on the Science Fiction Channel, and ten years earlier on the History Channel. And the voices of the spirits and their wispy images can be found on You Tube.

The restaurant’s Facebook page contains mysterious images of the many entities that have been seen, heard and felt within the castle:

One of the earliest images I have is that of a ghostly boy from 1955, who rises up behind a gravestone in an abandoned cemetery a mile north of Beardslee Castle.

As October 31 neared, I determined to visit this haunted region once again. Arriving at the castle I found busy preparations for this year’s Halloween gala, but experienced no unusual sense of chill or dread. Undeterred, I proceeded up a gravel road that parallels the East Canada Creek just east of the Castle.

It was on this very road that an old friend of mine, Pete Murphy, ran his car full of teenagers into a ditch after sighting a mysterious ghostly man carrying a lantern. I saw him right afterwards and he was definitely shaken by the experience. He said that the light veered directly at his car, blinding him and forcing him off the road. Such incidents have been reported many times over the years.

Passing across a corn field and into the woods beyond, I approached the old Beardslee Mausoleum, empty now as it has been for decades. I remembered the mausoleum as it was many years ago. The walls were lined with marble sarcophagi and the door was of iron bars. At some point in the 1960s, the teenagers who were drawn here by ghost stories broke into the mausoleum and desecrated the graves of the Beardslee family.

The mausoleum's interior is filled with empty bottles and the charred remains of old fires. An acquaintance of my father’s, Jean Marie Parsons, had some connection to the Beardslees and was outraged by the treatment of the dead. It was she who arranged for the scattered bones to be reinterred in the Little Falls Cemetery on West Monroe Street. It would seem that their spirits are now at rest but perhaps Guy, Augustus and the others are still annoyed, or at least restless, after such a disturbing interrruption of their eternal sleep.

In the same woods as the mausoleum is a small cemetery, the only trace of the larger story of the Beardslees. The graves date from 1825 to 1850, well before the castle was built around 1860, and like many cemeteries of that era, many infants and children were memorialized here by their grieving parents.

Those resting here were almost certainly residents of Beardslees Mills, a long forgotten village that grew up around the mills built by Augustus Beardslee on the East Canada Creek in the early decades of the 19th century. With the coming of the Erie Canal in 1825, commerce shifted away toward Little Falls, which boasted both waterpower for mills and access to the canal for shipment of manufactured products. I cannot be sure when the village was abandoned but its location was somewhere beneath the reservoir that backs up behind the nearby dam.

Although their village faded away, the wealth and influence of the Beardslee family did not, as evidenced by the building of their mansion, patterned after an Irish castle, many decades later. Guy Beardslee, a West Point graduate and grandson of Augustus, is said to have been a major owner of the New York Central railroad who had his own train stop near the mansion. It was Guy who first developed the waterfalls as a hydroelectric source, selling electricity to St. Johnsville and other local customers, beginning in 1898. Guy also commanded the local Home Guard, a predecessor of the National Guard, which was disarmed in the early 20th century after a drunken spree which involved the murder of several cows near Camp Jolly. (Much of this history was featured in a presentation at the Herkimer County Historical Society in 2001 by Betsy Voorhees)

Just beyond the mausoleum is a good view of the National Grid (originally Niagara Mohawk) hydroelectric plant, and beyond it the ruins of the early Beardslee mill. The site is now completely fenced off, as are the glacial era potholes that were once the scene of much partying and skinny-dipping decades ago.

Directly across from the power plant is the filled-in entrance of what was once a silver mine, whose history is quite obscure. In a 1928 article Guy Beardslee shared reminiscences of the mine, which evidently contained lead as well as silver, but which never proved profitable. The entrance was open in my boyhood and my father told me of Mexican miners who had brought north to work the ore. However, I have been unable to find any corroboration of that story. Perhaps it is their ghosts who seek to make themselves known, but I have not heard that any of disembodied voices speak Spanish.

Thinking of the lost village, I set out to find a good access point to the very sizeable lake beneath which it lies. Just east of the Castle, state route 5 crosses the East Canada Creek. Taking the first right onto Old State Road and then another right up Clay Hill Road leads to Beardslee Road. Following the dead end Beardslee Road will soon bring you to the Beardslee Reservoir Special Fishing Area.

On a beautiful late October day this point of public land reaching out onto the lake is a magical place. The lake itself was deserted, not a boat nor a person in sight, an ideal place for quiet canoeing and kayaking. This point was a popular swimming hole that my brother and I enjoyed many years ago and has not changed at all.

And out there, beneath the quiet water are the remains of a lost and forgotten village, whose spirits never seem to join the busy throng of revenants at Beardslee Castle.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Basketmakers of the Taghkanic Hills

UPDATE Nov. 5, 2015: 

   “The Witch Girl and the Wobbly” is a tale of love between a young radical and a wild mountain girl in the time of the Red Scare and the Flu Epidemic. Inspired by a successful strike in his home town of Little Falls, Tom Ryan comes to New York in late 1918 and is befriended by the anarchists Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. When bombs explode and the government targets his comrades, Tom accepts an offer to organize the mills in tiny, upstate Stottville, only to find himself on the run from a murder charge. Stumbling through the forests along the Massachusetts border, Tom finds refuge with the Pondshiners, an isolated mountain community.

The young materialist at first believes that he has discovered a true utopia, free from the grasp of the plutocrats he detests, and is entranced by Lizbeth, the teenaged archer who found him near death in the forest. She tells Tom of the community's mysterious origins and their hostility to what she calls “Bible folks.” As their love grows, he learns that the ancient goddess-centered culture has been devastated by the recent flu epidemic, and that the surviving men have become so dangerous that the women refuse to live anywhere near them. The intrusion of the newly formed State Troopers sets in motion a series of events that culminate in a mystical experience that Tom cannot explain.
Searching for the Basketmaker community
From the 1800s into the first decades of the twentieth century, a unique kind of basket, now highly valued by collectors, was produced by a few families who lived in the hills near West Taghkanic, New York.

Taghkanic basket, currently priced at $975 by
John Keith Russell Antiques, South Salem NY

Taghkanic basket, currently priced at $475 at
Hillsdale Barn Antiques, Hillsdale, NY

No one can say for certain when the basketmakers first established their isolated community in or near what is now Lake Taghkanic State Park, nor how they developed their artistry. They and their way of life are almost forgotten now, and the location of their simple homes are lost in the wooded hills that rise above the rich farmland of Columbia County.

Chrisler Creek, near the location of the Livingston family's
Maryburgh Iron Forge in New Forge State Forest

Clermont, home of the wealthy Livingston family who once
owned much of southern Columbia County

Perhaps the basketmakers were workers for the Livingstons who stayed in the hills after that wealthy family abandoned its Maryburgh Iron Forge around 1796. Or perhaps they took over unclaimed and undesirable mountain lands during the turmoil of the Anti-Rent Wars waged by tenant farmers against the Livingstons and the Van Rensselaers in the 1840s. Contemporary accounts describe them as typically very pale and blond, but there are also unverifiable legends of Indian ancestry.

Millers Tavern in West Taghkanic was built
before 1770
and probably visited by Basketmaker
men during their visits to the hamlet

The families who made the baskets were often named Proper, Hotaling or Simmons, which are very common in the Hudson Valley. The Propers claim descent from the Palatine Germans who settled near Germantown around 1720 and the Hotalings (in many spelling variations) descend form the first Dutch settlers. The hill people thus were closely related to many local families and are said to have a number of descendants still living in Columbia and nearby counties.

The Basketmakers separated from the Methodist
Church at West Taghkanic early in the 19th century

It has been nearly twenty years since the final basket was made by the last of the hill country artists, Lizzie Proper, and the unique and irreplaceable Taghkanic baskets now command hundreds of dollars at Cider Mill Antiques in Red Hook and other shops.

However, the artistic tradition and fierce independence of the Taghkanic basketmakers has not been recognized by any sign, monument or local school curriculum. As far as I can determine, only a single small book celebrates the Taghkanic Basketmakers, Legend of the Bushwhacker Basket by Martha Wetherbee and Nathan Taylor. The authors are basketmakers with their own shop in New Hampshire who recognized that the skillfully made Taghkanic baskets were not products of Shaker workmanship, as some dealers had claimed. Wetherbee and Taylor identified a unique weaving style as the Taghkanic signature and in the 1980s conducted original research here in Columbia County that forms the basis of their book.

I first became aware of the basketmakers, known locally as either Bushwackers or Pondshiners, through an intriguing comment by Croswell Bowen in his 1941 photographic study, Great River of the Mountains, recently reprinted by his daughter Lucey Bowen on behalf of the Bannerman Island Trust:

“Resistance to civilization sometimes breaks into violence in this region. Once, when the schoolchildren didn’t like their teacher, they burned down the school house. About the only means of livelihood of the Pondshiners is the weaving of baskets. Most of them cannot read but they tell strange stories which echo from the middle ages.”

Bowen included pictures of an aged couple, Old Yet and Manny Hotailling, “whose world is peopled by goblins and spooks and omens.” He reported that the Hotaillings had been complaining of one of their community, whom they believed to be a witch.

Bowen’s book led me to that of his friend, Carl Carmer, whose 1939 The Hudson included a chapter on what he called the “border people” of the Hudson Valley:

“Back of the brickworks and cement factories at the water’s level, back of the line of towns and great estates that look out over the river, the sides of the Hudson Vallley rise at intervals into steep wooded hills, rock-strewn and desolate. On the edges of these slopes, which are green and beautiful to the passengers on the river boats, live a border people, independent, primitive and in many cases, physically handicapped. They make a poor living these days, from fishing and hunting and basketmaking, but they do not yearn for the things they miss. Occasionally, a traveler may come upon a high pile of baskets making a grotesque moving pattern against the brown earth of a country road and, if he stops, he may see beneath and behind it a wiry little man with quick, sharp eyes and bronzed, wrinkled skin.”

Carmer devoted his chapter entitled "Witches Make Star Tracks" to the supernatural beliefs of the Pondshiners and similar groups. According to him, a belief in witches, and fear of their powers, was universal among the Pondshiners. He knew of the baskets but did not see them as original or of any great value.

The other “sociological islands” on which he commented, such as the Jackson Whites of Ramapo, the Eagles Nesters of Kingston and the Van Guilders of Hudson Falls, were often of mixed Indian, African and white ancestry, similar in many ways to the much better documented Melungeons of the southern Appalachins. The Melungeons of Tennessee suffered severe discrimination in the days of slavery and Jim Crow, and it was not until Jesse’ Stuart’s evocative novel Daughter of Legend was published in the 1960s, that their descendants began to celebrate their heritage.

In describing the Pondshiners in the late 1930s, Carmer said that the Propers, Simmonses and other families had come down from “the Hill” where they had lived for generations and settled among the hamlets south of Hudson. He described visiting families in that area who still believed that they were troubled by witches and who showed him a number of injuries they attributed to those malevolent beings.

Old Yet and Manny Hotailling from Great River of
the Mountains by Crosswell Bowen (1941

Fran Ingals from Great River of the Mountains
by Crosswell Bowen (1941)


Home of one of the Taghkanic basketmakers, from
Great River of the Mountains by Crosswell Bowen (1941)

In his Great River of the Mountains, Crosswell Bowen reported that Old Yet and Manny Hotailling complained to him about the equally elderly Fran Ingals, whom they accused of all manner of witchery, including souring the milk and sending pitchforks hurtling through the barn. The Hotaillings said that a witch like Fran could only be stopped "drawing a line in the dirt three times around your house" although "sometimes you can spray a flit gun to drive them off."

I was puzzled by the combination of such artistic skill and a belief system hearkening back to the days of the Salem witch trials. Their supposed lack of religion and their "superstition" was commented on by nearly every writer who focused on them. Perhaps the basketmakers practiced their own kind of religion, something akin to what today is called Wiccan?

Their basketry skills were so distinctive as to mark them off as a separate culture, had they been discovered by anthropologists in the Amazon jungle. In what ways, I wondered, did their skills and their beliefs both reflect a common culture?

Certainly, people in the county and beyond did not understand them or their origins. The terms "bushwhacker" and "pondshiner" were insults which the hill people did not apply to themselves. I wondered what beliefs or practices led them to live in isolation for so long and how they reacted to the intrusion of the outside world that began ninety years ago.

In 1919 a journalist by the name of Frederic Van de Water was engaged in writing a history of the newly formed New York State Police, when the troopers were called upon to investigate a series of break-ins at summer homes on Lake Charlotte. (now Lake Taghkanic) A couple of young men in West Taghkanic accused the “Bushwhackers” of the crime. Although the hill people were soon cleared, and their accusers charged with the burglaries, official attention had come to the long isolated community and with it, sensationalistic journalism.

Van de Water accompanied the State Police into the “inaccessible ravine” where the hill people had long lived, away from the notice of the world, and soon published a lurid feature story about them in the New York Tribune. Among the headlines he generated:

The Bushwhackers of Columbia County! Strange People Populate Taghkanic Hills!

They Have No Religion, No Morals, No Education and Run Like Rabbits at the Approach of Strangers - They Eke Out Scanty Existence By Making Baskets

Sixty-two members of two mongrel families, backward as the hill-billies of the South, live only 100 miles from New York City!

Van de Water later collected his sensationalistic accounts of the hill people for a chapter, entitled "The Frightened People," in his 1922 account of the State Police, Grey Riders.

Weatherbee and Taylor report that such articles on the hill people were regularly published by the New York papers for ten years, from 1919 to 1929, which must have attracted curious and unwanted visitors and done much to end the isolated community’s cultural and artistic traditions. A September 1939 Life magazine article seems to have been one of the last to bring undesired publicity to the basketmakers and included a photograph by the renowned Margaret Bourke-White of “Oldtimer Manny Hotaling holding his insecticide gun which he claims he keeps to ward off the Ghosts of Pondshiners that live around him in the Taghanic hills in the Hudson valley.”

Manny Hotaling, by Margaret Bourke-White,
Life, September 1939.

Although basket-making was usually mentioned in all the articles, it was regarded as a low-skilled and primitive activity. Such an attitude could explain why young people among the basketmakers did not continue the craft.

Even before Van de Water’s articles, it appears that the influenza epidemic had devastated the Pondshiners. Van de Water, who evinced no sympathy whatsoever for the hill people, quotes a sergeant who said that “the Flu wiped out about half of them a couple years back” and claimed that they didn’t even know enough to bury their own dead. The sergeant continued, “After all they’re just animals. They’ve slipped so far you couldn’t bring them back. Better if the Flu had wiped them out.”

The almost genocidal attitude expressed the state police sergeant is a good indication why the hill people were so frightened of strangers, and why their descendants generally avoid any acknowledgment of the cultural and artistic traditions of the Basketmakers.

Searching for sites of Pondshiner Settlements

Our attempt to find the location of the Pondshiner settlement began with exploring the hills around West Taghkanic and talking with people, many of whom remembered the basketmakers. Joyce O'Connor told us about Lizzie Proper, who was taught basket-making as a child and returned to the craft as an adult, supporting herself and her daughter. Nancy Griffiths, the Taghkanic town historian, told us that surviving relatives of the basketmakers tend to be shy and reluctant to say anything about their heritage. She recalled that the basketmakers lived near Taghkanic Creek and cut down ash trees for their baskets. The term "bushwhacker," she said, came from the practice of pounding ash wood in the creek in order to make it more pliable.

Relying on The Legend of the Bushwhacker Baskets as a guide, we searched the area south of the state park near Signal Rock, "a great stone ridge that has mysterious connections to the Indians." The authors believed that the region around Lake Taghkanic had significance for the Mohicans and this led them to speculate on an old Mohican connection to the basketmakers. They write about Jacob Lyle, a basketmaker who owned land near the park in 1821 and who they believe may have been a Mohican.

From the nearly extinct hamlet of Jackson Corners, Near Road leads up to Skiba Road, which reaches almost to the slopes of Signal Rock. However, the growth of expensive second homes in this area just off the Taconic Parkway has been accompanied by the fencing off and posting of much of the forest. The access from Green Hill Road off county road 11 is also blocked by private lands.

Signal Rock is barely visible at the end of Green Hill Road

Tom Morgan, a researcher of such communities, suggested some likely locations of “Stove Pipe Alley,” the ravine where the basketmakers had an extensive settlement . There is some disagreement as to which families lived in the ravine. Wetherbee and Taylor tell of a 1798 map that placed Propers and Dykemans in the ravine by 1798. They also quote a 1958 Chatham Courier article that places the arrival of some of the families in Stove Pipe Alley just after the Civil War - an era when iron stovepipes were replacing stone fireplaces.

Tom's study of the Taghkanic Methodist Church records indicated to him that the hill people separated from the church after 1813 and that the Propers and two Hotaling families had become pretty much isolated by the 1830s or 1840s. By the time sensation-seeking journalists descended on the community in the 1920s, no one could say for sure when or why the basketmakers first separated from the outside world.

The next day, we headed west from the hamlet of West Taghkanic on Route 82, where we parked near New Forge Road and headed into a pathless woods a couple miles north of the state park. As we proceeded to ascend a steep ravine, we found three level spots that could have been the locations of cabins and small gardens long ago, but there was little evidence of human habitation beyond some stone walls and a rusted pail.

Stone walls mark an old boundary on the side of the ravine

A level spot half way up the ravine
may mark the location of cabins

A rusted pail in the ravine
Stone Table in the ravine, possibly
used for butchering game

We continued to climb until we reached signs marking the Lake Taghkanic State Park. In 1929 the land for this park was donated to the state by D. McRa Livingston, an heir to the landholding family that once owned most of the county as its own feudal domain. Perhaps the inhabitants of this ravine had been squatting for generations on Livingston land and were simply thrown out when the park was created? Or perhaps they held title to these few acres and received payment for the loss of their homes?

But Wetherbee and Taylor had spoken of a large population, perhaps as many as forty families, who produced thousands of Taghkanic baskets of all varieties over many decades of work. Such a large group could not have lived in this narrow valley.

Pausing to rest about six hundred feet above where we began, it seemed clear to us that this narrow ravine could have only been home to a handful of families, and not to the sixty-two hill people mentioned in the 1920s, nor to the even larger group that existed before the deadly flu epidemic.

The ravine which we had ascended did not exactly match Van de Walker's description, since he said that he and the troopers left their horses at the Lake Charlotte Hotel, which presumably was on the lake now known as Lake Taghkanic. Perhaps this beautiful and isolated spot was not home to the basketmakers at all!

We next turned to the west, once again following Tom's suggestion, and after about three miles came to a priva
te road marked "Stove Pipe Alley." Clearly, this could not be a coincidence! Yet the approaches to the road via county route 8, an old road in existence well before 1919, could easily have been traversed by the troopers' horses. The area could not have been as inaccessible as Van de Water described it - but maybe he had altered the terrain simply to add drama to his story?

As we reached a dead end, beyond which "Stove Pipe Alley" led up into the wooded hills, we were greeted by a trio of fiercely vigilant watchdogs. At this point our imaginations went into overdrive. Did the ancient community still exist in some fashion in these hills? Were the old beliefs still practiced? Or was the road sign simply a way to honor what was once a thriving and unique community?

"Stove Pipe Alley"

Staring at the dead end sign that symbolized the frustration of our recent attempts to discover the home of the Taghkanic Basketmakers so mocked by the intruders ninety years ago, we recalled Tom's reminder of the moral necessity of respecting the privacy of the isolated communities and their descendants. We decided, for now, to delay our search for the homes of these forgotten artists.

A dead end - for now

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Along Stockport Creek

Stockport Creek, only a little over two miles in length, originates in the village of Stockport where the Kinderhook and Claverack Creeks join. The quantity of water and numerous drops of elevation in its brief journey made the creek an early center of water-powered industry.

We began our exploration by following the aptly-named Footbridge Road downhill from Route 9 toward the juncture of the streams. The footbridge was built in 1914 to accommodate the numerous mill workers of that era who were were employed in the villages of Stockport and Columbiaville. The bridge also provided access to the Albany & Hudson electric railway.

Pedestrian Bridge over the Stockport Creek

There was talk some years ago of restoring the footbridge but its present deterioration makes such a prospect unrealistic. The wooden floorboards are completely rotted and any attempt to venture upon the bridge might be fatal.

There is little trace of the mills in Stockport village, although doubtless foundations could be found along the creek. Private land ownership and luxuriant poison ivy precluded a closer investigation on our part.

An old mill in Stockport?

From Stockport the creek flows into Columbiaville Gorge, which is easily viewed from the Route 9 bridge. Looking downstream from the bridge, we saw the brick walls that mark where James Wild’s five story cotton mill once stood. In those years Hudson River sloops could make their way as far upstream as the first falls, expediting the shipping of cloth, paper and other manufactured products.

Columbiaville Gorge

Ruins of James Wild's Mill

James Wild, who was born in Stockport , England, was a driving force of that era, and imported raw cotton from the slave states, to be processed into cloth. Wild’s brother Nathan played a similarly influential role in the village of Valatie.

St. John’s Episcopalian Church, modeled after a gothic church in James Wild’s native Stockport, England, was consecrated in 1847 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The old wooden church is in good repair and has an active congregation.

St. James Church

However, the Methodist church at the juncture of County Road 22 and Chittenden Road has been vacant for at least 20 years, according to a neighbor. Reportedly, a private owner has declined several offers to sell the deteriorating church and adjacent church hall.

Methodist Church in Stockport

Before resuming our downstream journey, we ventured north a mile or so on Route 9 looking for an oddly shaped house supposedly haunted by a friendly old spirit belonging to the once-prosperous Smith family. According to local historian Mindy Potts:

"A member of this family, Rachel Smith, known as "Aunt Rachel" was a member of a group of spiritualists who met regularly to hold seances. She was reported to have supernatural powers and could read minds. She was also a very good story teller and was very well liked. Aunt Rachel lived a long life, and upon her death in 1875, according to her family, she became a congenial spirit. She would not terrify the living. She would rock her old chair by the stove or playfully yank out pillows from sleeping peoples' heads. After her death, Aunt Rachel's nephew also died from Typhoid fever. His wife, also ill, was too sick to be told. Upon her recovery, a relative went to break the news, but the woman stopped him before he could speak, saying, "You don't have to tell me. I know everything. You see, Aunt Rachel was here."

One well-maintained house did meet the description, but we found no one at home to verify any continued presence by Aunt Rachel.

Did Aunt Rachel's friendly spirit linger here?

Turning back to the route 9 bridge, we took Station Road toward the river where, according to tradition and a New York State historic marker, Henry Hudson first met with the local Mohicans back in 1609. This was supposedly the place where Hudson saw so many Indian children that he named the region Kinderhook, or “childrens corner.”

Although Hudson never returned and lost his life to a mutinous crew a few years later, the Dutch soon established farms, mills and trading posts in what is now Stockport. The oldest house in Columbia County is still standing near where Station Road ends at the river. The Abraham Staats house is privately owned and kept in very good repair by its current owners. Staats came to New Amsterdam from Holland in 1642 and owned this land by 1654. According to Edward Collier, the first house on the site was burned by Indians in 1664 and quickly rebuilt. The three-foot thick stone walls and foundation may be part of the original structure or the second, but in either case, the house is about 350 years old.

The Abraham Staats House

(For those interested in a fictional recreation of that early era, I recommend my own historical novel, The River That Flows Both Ways, which is centered on the life of Staats’ predecessor as physician at Fort Orange, Harmen van den Bogaert. He was unusual for his time in his understanding of the native cultures but later ran afoul of the colony's moral code and was condemned to death.)

Stockport Creek empties into the Hudson amid a region of freshwater tidal wetland. The nearly five miles of public shoreline, marshes, islands and peninsulas of Stockport Flats are accessible primarily by boat, and include the Stockport Creek State Wetland Preserve and the Hudson River Islands State Park. The Flats are an important spawning and/or nursery ground for a variety of freshwater fish species, and osprey, egret and heron are frequently seen. We caught a sizable small-mouth bass here during our visit.

Hudson River Islands State Park viewed from Stockport Cove

At the end of Station Road there is a public boat launch with plenty of parking. But do be aware of the hazard of high speed trains. The river's banks are well worth a visit, either by boat or on foot, and present many scenes that seem little changed since Hudson's time - except, of course, for the absence of the aboriginal tribes who lived here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Hudson River shore a few miles
north of Stockport Creek

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A walking tour of the old red light district in Hudson, New York

Fifteen years ago Bruce Edward Hall published Diamond Street: Hudson New York; The Story of the Little Town with the Big Red Light District, a very entertaining description of the lurid underside of Hudson’s long history.

The Quaker Meeting House on Union Street

The Quaker settlers who founded Hudson in 1783 were seeking a port for their whaling vessels that was far enough inland to escape the harassment they had experienced on Nantucket from the British navy during the Revolution. Hall speculates that the “brazen harlots” who had been recruited to entertain British troops found their way to the new port of Hudson after the victorious Americans kicked them out of New York City that same year. Whether this legend is true or not, there is no question that Hudson’s reputation as a center for vice began just after the Revolution and continued until state troopers led a huge raid on the local brothels in 1950.

Sadly, Bruce Edward Hall died in 2003 at the early age of 49. The walking tour included in his book, which he calls “The Hudson Red Light Walking Tour; A Self-guided Lowlife Adventure,” is based on his observations of the town in 1994, and much has changed in the ensuing fifteen years. We decided to follow the exact route set by Mr. Hall, to photograph the scenes of so much mischief and mayhem, and to accompany the photos with some choice quotes from Bruce Edward Hall.

The Hudson Opera House
Our first stop was the Hudson Opera, which has been thriving since 1992 as the venue for over a thousand performances of all kinds. From 1873 to 1962 the city police station was on the left side of the ground floor. The Hudson municipal offices were on the right side. Doubtless, many envelopes of illicit cash were exchanged on these premises.

Hudson Opera House theater

The upstairs auditorium was the scene for everything from political rallies to vaudeville shows. Funds are currently being raised to complete renovations of the theater space.

Site of the Lincoln Hotel

Turning left from the front door of the Opera House, we came to an empty parking lot where the Lincoln Hotel once stood. Long ago, a recovering prostitute threatened to throw herself from the roof to avoid testifying against her highly placed clients.

Where Mrs. Benson warned her granddaughters

Across the street is an old mansion at 306 Warren, where Mrs. Benson forbade her granddaughters from sitting at the windows, lest they be mistaken for ladies of easy virtue.

Upper Warren, where the well-to-do lived

Only a block from the red light district, this part of Warren (then Main) Street was home to the wealthiest of Hudson’s citizens.

Site of the General Worth Hotel

The Hudson Electric Supply, at 217 Warren, now occupies the site of the old General Worth Hotel. According to Hall, “for most of its history, bellboys and waiters were on various Madams’ payrolls, receiving a cut for every customer they steered in the right direction."

The Tainted Lady Lounge?

Across the street from the hotel, where there is now an empty lot, “the Tainted Lady Lounge touted Hudson’s old reputation until the 1980s."

Where Legs Diamond's bodyguards kept watch

In what is now an empty lot at 248 Warren, Mike Finn ran a barbershop in the 1930s. “Whenever Legs Diamond came here to get his hair cut, Mr. Finn would pull the shades down while Mr. Diamond’s henchmen stood outside, carrying their tommyguns in violin cases.”

Allen Street, where the middle class lived

Following Hall’s directions, we turned left on Second Street and walked two blocks to Allen. “This was a solid middle-class neighborhood in 1875, when most people who resided here could expect to live at least into their sixties. The same year in Hudson’s poorest neighborhood (the corresponding blocks on the opposite side of Warren Street, the average age of death was nineteen.” We could not help but wonder about the mortality rates among Hudson's poorest and wealthiest residents in our own time.

52 Front Street, once the Langlois Saloon

Following Allen Street downhill to Front Street, we came to 52 Front “once painted bright purple as the home of the Langlois Saloon. Inside, the slovenly women at the bar provided very cheap thrills for those on a budget.” The building is now vacant, except perhaps for a few slovenly ghosts.

Half Moon Bar on the site of the Curtis Hotel

On the other corner of Allen and Front, where the Half Moon Bar now stands, was “the infamous Curtis Hotel, a house of assignation where philandering couples could go, no questions asked. It burned down in 1931.”

The port of Hudson, where seagoing vessels docked

Across Front Street is an old bridge leading over the Amtrak line to what remains of the once proud seaport of Hudson, now a marina for small craft. As late as the 1930s, dayliners carried travelers to New York from this point.

The Promenade, where Hudsonians showed off their finery

The Promenade, a public park originally called Parade Hill, was given to the city by the Quaker proprietors in 1795, and rose fifty feet above the busy seaport where whaling vessels and other seagoing craft docked. According to Hall, "Parade Hill, with its beautiful view of the river, provided the rich or the merely pretentious a place to walk in public and show off their finery."

Saloon of the notorious desperado, John Kiere

Hall tells us that the large three story building on the corner of Front and Warren was the saloon of the notorious desperado John Kiere in 1876. That was the year Kiere was again involved in a shooting as he had been in the famous shoot-out of 1869 at the Central House Hotel at Warren and 5th Streets.

In 1876 this was Hudson's largest brothel

At the corner of Front and Partition Streets, Mary Mackey operated the town's largest brothel of the 1870s. The building, formerly occupied by Maxie's Urban Bistro, is now vacant.

Vinegar Hill today, once "a hangout for disreputables of both sexes"

Continuing four more blocks on Front brought us to a narrow unmarked alleyway that is officially listed as Prison Lane. Across from Prison Lane, the knoll where the original log jail stood was later known as Vinegar Hill, “a mid-nineteenth century hangout for disreputables of both sexes.” The Hudson Terrace Apartment Houses now occupy the site. It was here I happened to witness my first drive-by shooting a couple years ago on the way home from the train station.

Kiere's bordello on right, Larry Mack's saloon on left

Walking back up Warren Street, we followed Hall’s route and turned left on Second Street. Just past Prison Alley on Second Street yet another brothel flourished, this one owned by none other than John Kiere. “A murder on its steps once precipitated one of the biggest sensations of the 1800s," according to Hall. "In the brick building next door was Larry Mack’s saloon, where the body was taken and a mob formed to lynch the alleged murderers – or was it a murderess?”

The murder grew out of an drunken attempt by a young man to rescue his wife from a life of sin and shame. Annie Spaulding, a married woman of fifteen, had left her husband Giles one winter day in 1876 and walked two blocks down Diamond Street to start a new life in the house of ill fame run by John Kiere’s devoted wife Ellanora. Giles was not happy with this turn of events but was unwilling to risk facing Kiere. Waiting until the saloon keeper took Ellanora off for a trip to New York, Giles recruited a friend, Charles Hermance, and after a few drinks to fortify themselves, they set off together for the house of infamy. Their first efforts being rebuffed by the ladies at the house, the two had a few more drinks before returning to rescue Annie.

Did Annie Spaulding watch the murder from
this balcony at Kiere's bordello?

This time John Kiere was at the bordello and greeted the would-be rescuers with a loaded revolver. He fired and Hermance fell dead. Ellanora went promptly to the police station to turn herself in for the crime. The jury, however, did not buy the story that she, and not her husband, was the killer and convicted Kiere of murder. He was sentenced for life to Dannemora prison.

Tidy houses on the 200 block of Diamond Street

Turning right, we walked along the once infamous 200 block of Diamond Street (renamed Columbia Street in the 1930s) Originally, the location for a sperm oil works for the whaling industry, this block hosted dozens of small brothels over a period of 150 years. The editor of the 2005 edition of Hall’s book warns that most of the Diamond Street sites described by Hall in 1994 have been demolished. We found several tidy new houses, many empty lots and a few older buildings.

Where lives were ruined by Hudson's
infamous floating crap game

An empty lot on this block is most probably the location of the garage described by Hall as the last home of "the high-stakes floating crap game that netted some $70,000 per month and was responsible for destroyed lives and ruined careers up and down the Hudson River.”

Boarded up bordellos on the 300 block of Diamond Street?

Who can say what this ancient staircase
on the 300 block has seen?

Between Third and Fourth Streets was the most notorious section of the red light district, known simply as “The Block.” Hall reports that almost every old dwelling on this block was a bawdy house at some point between 1800 and 1950, when Governor Tom Dewey initiated a massive raid by state troopers that brought an end to an era. The addresses occupied by some of the most colorful characters, such as #325 where Kate Best ran a bordello during the Civil War, are now empty lots.

The Mansion House, biggest brothel
of the 1930s
, once stood here

A parking lot is all that remains of the Mansion House, at 330-334 Columbia (Diamond) Street, the biggest brothel of the 1930s. “Its ladies were famous for their versatility and the drinks cost a whopping one dollar."

#350 & 352, where Ma Brown and
Mae Gordon kept brothels

Columbia County Human Services
now occupies much of the old "Block"

A few of the old houses described by Hall in 1994 are still standing, including #350 where Ma Brown kept a brothel with its own small bar/restaurant and #352 where Mae Gordon maintained an establishment. Mae was one of the last madams in town and was arrested in the big raid of 1950. Later on, she went to live with her daughter in Albany.

The former insane asylum viewed across
the site of the old high school

The Hudson City Library, formerly an insane asylum and orphanage, can be seen across the empty field where the high school once stood. “When there was a fire on the Block one early-1930s afternoon, students in the science lab rushed to the windows, gleefully picking out familiar faces among the half-dressed johns fleeing the flames out the brothels’ rear windows.”

4th & Warren, once a favorite gathering place
for idlers and troublemakers

Turning right on Fourth Street, we came to the corner of Warren, “an intersection known in the nineteenth century as Central Square. It was a favorite gathering place for idlers and troublemakers, with a plethora of saloons in the surrounding blocks.”

Location of Macabees speakeasy

Diagonally across is 401 Warren. On the second floor of this building was “Macabees Hall, a popular speakeasy. With the repeal of Prohibition, Macabees was closed and forgotten.” Hall tells of the 70-year-old graffiti and the classic peephole in 1994, but the editor of his 2005 edition says that the interior has been much changed in the intervening years.

A woman was hanged here in 1817

Turning right on Warren, we passed the home of the Register-Star. “It was built in 1800 as a replacement for the old log jail, and was then located just beyond the edge of town. In 1817 its front yard was the scene of a public hanging of a woman for the murder of a child.”

As we return to the Opera House, Hall invites us to “imagine yourself as one of the hundreds of people jeering and catcalling at the johns, girls and gamblers hauled in by the truckload one steamy summer night nearly forty-five (now fifty-eight) years ago, ending an era many view with nostalgia.”

Nostalgia aside, Hudson remains the same small city where the well-to-do coexisted uneasily for two centuries with a poorer and more desperate underclass, and many middle class folks lived their lives without much contact with either.