Highlighting the unique geology of the region, Palisades features a multifaceted granite bench that evokes the namesake cliffs rising steeply above the western bank of the river. Sunlight is filtered through the overlook’s perforated shade structure, mimicking the shadows created by the nearby forest canopy.
ELEVATION OVER WATER AT THIS POINT
APPROXIMATE MILE MARKER
The story of the Palisades, the steep cliffs that stretch for about 20 miles along the west shoreline of the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York, begins about 200 million years ago during the hot and noisy time called the Late Triassic Period. Dinosaurs roam the earth. Continents smash together and pull apart. From deep within the planet, molten rock, or magma, rises to the surface. Some of it explodes through the earth’s crust in thick rivers of lava. In other places, the fountain of magma is bottled up underground and forced to flow sideways through subterranean caverns and fissures.
In December 1910, the New York Times reported that the skeleton of a “dinosaur” 30 to 40 feet long and 15 to 18 feet tall had been discovered at the base of the cliffs opposite West 155th Street in Manhattan. After much study, scientists concluded that the beast in question was not actually a dinosaur but a Clepsysaurus manhattanenssis, a member of the genus Phytosaurus, “a group of aquatic, crocodile-like reptiles with long-toothed snouts, long flattened tails, and eyes and nostrils on top of their heads.” Today, the prehistoric creature’s bones are on display at the American Museum of Natural History.
before the cliffs become visible
Over a period of 200 million years, water, wind, and the repeated scouring and scraping of mile-thick glaciers wear away the softer layers of rock that sit atop the sill, or a hard shelf. As glaciers from the north grow and carve the earth, they turn ever-increasing amounts of moisture into ice, and the water in the oceans drops. When the glaciers stop and the ice melts, the torrent of rushing water that will become the Hudson River carves a deep canyon on its way to the Atlantic that today lies two miles or more under the ocean, 100 miles east of the mouth of the river.
The melting glaciers that shaped the Hudson Valley created a unique geological formation that posed numerous challenges for the builders of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. Designers conducted extensive geotechnical investigations and laboratory tests to define the characteristics of the varying layers of clay, silt, sand and glacial till covering the bedrock beneath the Hudson River. These studies helped engineers devise innovative ways to build such a large structure on top of the soil beneath the river. The soil borings and probes, some up to 440 feet beneath the riverbed, guided the development of a foundation system featuring 1,000 steel pipe piles up to six feet in diameter to provide a stable framework for the structure.
The magma that formed the Palisades cooled over several million years into a sill, 40 miles long, six miles wide and as much as 1,000 feet thick, buried under layers of sandstone and shale. The sill extends as far south as Jersey City. The Palisades have been designated a "National Natural Landmark" for being the best example in the United States of a thick diabase (a type of igneous rock) sill.
Rocks That Look Like Trees
With its rocky covering worn away, the eastern edge of the Palisades sill is fully exposed, its distinctive columns rising straight up from the river’s edge. The height of the cliff tops varies from 300 feet to 832 feet at their highest point in Rockland County.
The local Lenape tribe called the cliffs “Wee-Awk-En,” meaning “rocks that look like trees.” In April 1524, the first recorded Europeans to see them called them Palisades because they resembled a type of fence made of upright logs or wooden stakes. They arrived aboard the ship La Dauphine, flying the flag of the French King Francis I and sailing under the command of Giovanni da Verrazzano who, like many other explorers at the time, was seeking a short cut to the riches of the East. Just north of Nyack is Hook Mountain which, at 728 feet, is the second highest summit of the Palisades. Part of a National Natural Landmark, Hook Mountain offers spectacular views for bird-watching.
Flora & Fauna
A rich variety of plant and animal life is returning to this diverse habitat, including the peregrine falcon, which had come close to extinction, but now nests in the cliffs of the Palisades (and frequently atop one of this bridge’s towers).
Where sunlight reaches the riverfront, dense plant growth including grape vine, poison ivy and honeysuckle thrive. Oak, maple, tulip, poplar and other trees species grow on the slopes formed by fallen rock between the riverbank and the cliffs.
The soil is thin on top of the cliffs — only a few inches deep — which means that tall trees are always in danger of being uprooted by strong winds. In sunny locations on the summit, vines flourish especially poison ivy. Woodland mammals most frequently seen in the Palisades include gray squirrels, eastern chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, wood rats, red and gray foxes, and both northern long-eared and Indiana bats, which are drawn to tree bark that has been pecked loose by woodpeckers and other scavengers.
Reptiles and amphibians
Reptiles and amphibians are also at home in the cliffs: this group includes the black rat, garter, and northern ring-necked snakes; the venomous copperhead; and the five-lined skink (New Jersey’s only native lizard). Other year-round and migrant bird species favor the Palisades, including red-tailed hawks and vultures (both turkey and black).
History of The Palisades
As the most dominant feature of the landscape for miles around, the cliffs of the Palisades formed a dramatic backdrop as history unfolded before them. In the time before the Europeans arrived, the cliffs provided shelter, protection and a unique observation point for Native Americans including the Sanhikan, Hackensack, Raritan and Tappan tribes, who were all part of the Lenape people who welcomed Verrazzano, and maintained seasonal riverfront encampments for fishing, hunting and trading. The Europeans who arrived and settled after Henry Hudson’s voyage in the 17th century gradually built hamlets and small villages at the base of the cliffs, as well as roads that led over the Palisades to the farmland on the other side.
During the American Revolution, the Palisades played a key role in an engagement called The Capture of Fort Lee. Hoping to deal a death-blow to George Washington and his Army, under cover of darkness, British General Charles Cornwallis ferried 5,000 soldiers across the Hudson from New York and sent them up the New Jersey cliffs to attack the fort. Legend has it that patriot John Clifford, riding on horseback, tipped Washington off, who led his forces successfully on a hasty retreat across New Jersey. Although the attempted attack on Fort Lee was the largest military action involving the Palisades, there were numerous smaller skirmishes and actions during the Revolution as well.
a popular location for duels
In the summer of 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr rowed across the river from New York (in separate boats) and exchanged pistol shots at the foot of the cliffs. Burr was Vice President of the United States at the time, under Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton, who died of his wounds the next day, had been the first Secretary of the Treasury. Their longtime rivalry and alleged derogatory remarks made against each other have been blamed for the duel. In all, 18 Palisades duels are documented; many more than that are likely to have taken place.
Home of the Cliffhanger
Given their visibility on the Manhattan side of the Hudson, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would think of the Palisades as a unique giant advertising billboard. After the Civil War, signs advertising patent medicines (remedies of questionable therapeutic value spiked with healthy amounts of alcohol) and other products, painted in letters 20 feet high, covered the face of the cliffs. The practice, which also appeared in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and on the rocks at Niagara Falls, led to a public outcry and, eventually, legislation to limit outdoor advertising.
While product peddling was banished from the Palisades, movie-making soon found a foot-hold. In fact, the Palisades — Fort Lee, NJ, to be precise — was the location for the wildly popular film, The Perils of Pauline, which came to theaters starting in 1914. In the movie, the title character and her boyfriend Harry are forced to flee from a villain who chases them down the side of a cliff. The Palisades provided a perfect stage set. Quite a few years later, the word “cliffhanger” entered the English language to describe stories with suspenseful endings.
In her various heroine roles in the early 1900s, actress Pearl White flirted with danger in a long string of sequels that included “The Exploits of Elaine,” “The New Exploits of Elaine,” “The Romance of Elaine,” two war-time pictures and more. Dodging bullets, dangling from balloons, leaping in and out speeding cars, trains, boats and airplanes — all without a stunt double — took their toll on Pearl in terms of twists, sprains and a broken collarbone. By the time she retired in 1924, White was a very wealthy woman with a fortune of $2 million — more than $29 million in today’s dollars! The man lying on the Palisades ledge, the man holding on to his jacket and the cameraman all make their way to Hollywood in due course and enjoy considerable success as director, actor and cinematographer, respectively.
Real estate on the Palisade cliffs overlooking the Hudson and New York was an irresistible lure to affluent businessmen, bankers, investors, and others beginning in the 1850s. The first mansion to roost on the summit was called Falcon Lodge, near today’s Tenafly-Alpine border. Its owner, Joseph Lamb, the founder of a leading U.S. stained glass studio, loved his home enough to endure a commute that involved a train ride up the east side of Manhattan to a place where he met up with a fisherman who rowed him across the river to the base of a steep path that he climbed to his home.
Following Lamb was the owner of a cereal mill, a newspaper reporter, and an architect. A publisher built a home called Gray Cliffs. A successful banker invested in the construction of the Palisades Mountain House, a 500-bed hotel that burned down in 1884. Rio Vista, the estate built by a sugar dealer from Cuba (near the present-day Alpine Lookout of the Palisades Interstate Parkway), had a carriage house, a garage with a rotating platform, squash and tennis courts, a man-made lake and a clock tower that still stands in the Rio Vista neighborhood in Alpine, N.J.
Before the opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931, John D. Rockefeller Jr., concerned the bridge would lead to over-development, began buying property along the Palisades summit. In 1933, as part of a far-sighted plan to protect the Palisades, Rockefeller donated 723 acres to be used for a scenic roadway (the Palisades Interstate Parkway). Whatever land wasn’t needed was to be returned to its native state. Information about the stately homes of Millionaires’ Row and much else besides is available at njpalisades.org.
It was labeled, without a trace of modesty, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It was otherwise known as the Ringling Brothers Circus and it made John Nicholas Ringling a very wealthy man. After settling down to married life in his 30s, John and his wife Mabel took a liking to a spot on the cliffs of the Palisades. In 1918, they purchased two homes and combined them into a 20-room manor that featured stables, a greenhouse, two cottages, an elevator and an electric pipe organ on 100 acres of clifftop land in Alpine, NJ. Parties at Gray Crag were, as one might expect, a genuine circus: Ringling was known to bring all his performers across from Yonkers on a ferry for a weekend to entertain his guests. The Ringlings held on to Gray Crag for a decade before putting it on the market. In the 1930s, the estate was torn down to make way for the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
Protecting the Palisades
Having survived the forces of nature for more than 200 million years, in the second half of the 19th century, the Palisades came up against the forces of man. Trees at the summit of the Palisades were an easy-to-reach source of timber for railroad ties. The slopes of rock that had fallen to the foot of the Palisades offered high-quality stone for rail beds, buildings and roads in fast-growing New York City.
Prior to the use of dynamite, stone harvested from dozens of small-scale quarries was used for building docks for the New York seaport and cobblestones for paving the streets in the city. After dynamite was patented in 1867, quarries blasted day and night — releasing as much as 12,000 cubic yards of stone each day and the columns in the cliffs began to disappear before the eyes of disbelieving New Yorkers.
A group of concerned citizens sought to protect the Palisades by turning them into an area where troops could practice maneuvers (and where quarrying would not be permitted). But Congress declined the invitation in 1897 and again in 1898. At that point, an unlikely group came to the rescue in the form of the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs. To save the Palisades, the Federation came up with an approach that had never been tried before. It involved the creation of a Palisades Interstate Park Commission that would have the power to acquire whatever land was needed to protect the Palisades.
Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York State, embraced the plan wholeheartedly and in New Jersey, after the Federation faced down the bitterly-opposed quarrying interests, so did New Jersey Governor Foster M. Voorhees. Because an interstate commission had never been created before, Congress had to pass an Act to allow it.
In the 1890s, decades before they won the right to vote, women were becoming the driving force behind progressive reform, including the protection of natural, cultural and historic resources. Before the public-spirited women of the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs came to the defense of the Palisades, those majestic cliffs were being quarried out of existence. Instead, today the Palisades Interstate Park covers nearly five square miles of protected land along the Hudson River, including a small plot where a handsome stone tower commemorates the efforts of the determined women who saved the Palisades.
did you know?
The region’s unique geological formation posed numerous challenges for the builders of this bridge. A soft organic clay layer at the river bottom — in places more than a hundred feet thick — was considered unsuitable for structural support, so very deep, stiff foundations were needed. Steel pipes were driven past the organic layer and had their upper sections filled with concrete to further stiffen them.