Tides of Tarrytown
Tides of Tarrytown is a reference to both the rich history of the village and the changes to its shoreline over time. The timber-clad bench of this overlook performs double-duty as a viewing platform, providing a panoramic view of Tarrytown to the north and of New York City to the south. The mirror-polished canopy captures the Manhattan skyline and reflects it downward.
ELEVATION OVER WATER AT THIS POINT
APPROXIMATE MILE MARKER
A Good Place
A Dutch farmer, a British spy and a Headless Horseman make up only part of the rich history of the village called Tarrytown. One of its most famous residents, the writer Washington Irving, joked that its name reflected the fondness of some local men for “tarrying” — or staying longer than intended — at the village tavern on market days. More probable is that the village gets its name from the Dutch word for wheat — “tarwe” — which grew well in the area’s rich soil.
Long before there were European settlers, however, the land belonged to the Weckquaesgeeks (Weck-queeze-geeks), who were part of the Algonquian people, closely related to the Mohicans. They raised corn, squash, beans and tobacco; fished for sturgeon, shad and oysters in the Hudson River; and hunted deer and black bear in the forest. Beginning in 1645, they traded fur and hides, especially beaver, with the Dutch settlers and maintained a settlement not far from here that they called Alipconk in their language, or “The Place of the Elms.”
In 1681, a Dutch couple, Frederick and Margaret Philipse, purchased a tract of land now home to the villages of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. They built a mill, leased fields to tenant farmers, and ground grain to be shipped down river on their own sloops to sell to the growing settlement of New Amsterdam — now known as New York City. Together, the couple made a fortune. At the time, the shoreline – which has changed dramatically since – permitted shallow-draft ships to dock alongside the mill. The open cove that once gave them access to the open water and shipping lanes would become a silt-clogged, impassable marsh filled with vegetation and wildlife.
In the late 17th century, the Philipse family brought the African slaves to Philipsburg Manor; from then until slavery was totally abolished in New York in 1827, enslaved men and women were a vital, but largely unacknowledged, force in shaping the history and economic growth of the Hudson River communities.
When Frederick died in 1702, his male heirs inherited the vast holding and expanded it further but with a consequence. During the American Revolution, his great grandson, Frederick Philipse III, declared his loyalty to King George, a move that cost him dearly: he was arrested and banished by New York State in 1776 and declared a traitor in 1779. All of his property was confiscated and divided up among 287 buyers (mostly former tenants) at an auction in 1785. The Philipse land holdings encompassed 52,000 acres from the Croton River almost to the northern tip of the Bronx.
The Traitor and the Spy
Frederick Philipse III wasn’t the only loyalist who ran into trouble in Tarrytown. The year was 1780. Major John André was the polished, well-educated English spy to whom the traitor Benedict Arnold gave the plans to the fort at West Point, as part of a plot to help the British bring the American Revolution to an end in one bold, dastardly stroke.
With control of West Point, the Redcoats would have dominated the Hudson — and the war. But the plot unraveled when, as he approached Tarrytown, André came upon three American patriots who were keeping a lookout for anything suspicious. When they asked André to remove his boots and discovered the plans he was sneaking to the British in New York City, they knew that foul play was afoot. Under the rules of war at the time, an English soldier travelling in plain clothes, as André was, would be considered a spy. The penalty for espionage: death.
Despite his treachery, admiration for André’s style as both an officer and a gentleman — and sympathy for his harsh sentence — persisted on the part of both the British and, surprisingly, many Americans. In fact, his remains were moved to Westminster Abbey in 1821. Today, Andre Brook runs through Patriots Park in Tarrytown, flowing past the monument that was erected in 1853 to commemorate the three men who foiled his plot and prevented an outcome that might well have changed the course of American history.
The Coming of Stage and Train
Throughout the 18th century, Tarrytown remained a key link in New York City’s supply chain — farming, milling and shipping grain downstream to the growing metropolis. Sloops carried wheat, barley and corn to the city and returned carrying goods for sale to farmers and their households. Tarrytown seemed destined to become an important stop for travelers. Beginning with the opening of a 154-mile post road connecting New York City to Albany in 1703, stage coaches would regularly “refuel” — with fresh horsepower and refreshments — in the village. The trip took roughly three days, with a stagecoach fare costing $8 — the equivalent of $515 in today’s dollars.
Stagecoaches — so called because they stopped at stations, or “stages,” every 12 to 15 miles to change horses — took on fresh horsepower at Tarrytown while passengers took refreshment at a local tavern. In the 1840s, a railroad connection to the state capital became a topic of interest. Opponents — including many steamboat companies — argued it was unnecessary, infeasible and too expensive. Those arguments didn’t overcome the fact that for as many as 100 days a year, the frozen Hudson was impassible for river traffic.
Not everyone in Tarrytown was thrilled by the arrival of the train. The track bed built along a causeway across a portion of what was then called Tarrytown Bay (since filled in) rattled just past the windows of Sunnyside, the home of America’s most popular story-teller, Washington Irving. Annoyed by the whistles, bells and general racket, Irving complained. The railroad’s owners did not change their route, but they did pay Irving $5,000 (nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars) for the inconvenience and set up signals near the track to remind train crews to keep their steam engines as quiet as possible.
An Indelible Impact
That Irving had obtained such influence might have come as a surprise to those who knew him as a young man. He was indifferent as a student and mediocre as a lawyer. But he had a vivid imagination, a way with words, and a talent for telling tales. He was born in Manhattan in 1783 as the youngest of 11 children. His parents, immigrants from Scotland, named him Washington, after the commander-in-chief of the colonial armies. In 1798, Irving’s parents sent their 15-year-old son to visit a friend in Tarrytown in order to get him out of the city during a yellow fever outbreak. There he saw a quaint village and heard local folk tales that made an indelible impact on him, stories that awoke the imagination that would launch his writing career. Some of what he saw and heard blossomed into two of his best-known tales: “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man who was lulled into a 20-year nap by a sip of Henry Hudson’s beer was published in 1819; and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with its unforgettable Headless Horseman in hot pursuit of the terrified Ichabod Crane, published just one year later.
Once again to Tarrytown
Although Irving made a living as a writer — with Europe acknowledging him as America’s first world-class literary talent — he was engaged during his lifetime in numerous other pursuits as well. He lived in Europe for 17 years, residing in London; Paris; Dresden; and Madrid. While he was abroad, he tried unsuccessfully to repair the financial damage his family’s trading company suffered during the War of 1812. Later, he worked for the American Minister to Spain and for the American delegation in London. In 1835, three years after his return to New York, destiny guided him once again to Tarrytown, where he purchased a ramshackle colonial cottage on 10 acres along the shore of the Hudson for $1,800 (more than $51,000 in today’s dollars). He called his home Sunnyside. In all the years Irving had spent travelling, he had never had a home of his own; now he did, and he worked tirelessly to transform it from a two-room stone farmhouse built in the 1690s to an “elegant little snuggery,” as he called it, surrounded by a park-like landscape of his own design.
Though he wrote everything from travel pieces to biographies, Washington Irving’s best-known and best-loved tales remain “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” His influence also remains alive to a remarkable degree in everyday language and culture. He is credited, for instance, as first to use the term “Gotham” to describe New York City. He also dreamed up the vaguely Dutch-sounding word “knickerbocker” to reference someone or something from Manhattan (its shortened version of “Knicks” is the colloquial name of New York’s professional basketball team). Irving’s popular history of Christopher Columbus, written in 1828, is the source of the long-lasting — but mistaken — notion that medieval Europeans believed the Earth was flat.
Commerce and industry took over in the 20th century, tying the village to its neighbor, and it was renamed North Tarrytown in 1883. But before that, the village was called Beekmantown, and not Sleepy Hollow. In the 1980s, the idea of officially changing the name to Sleepy Hollow arose from a desire to connect with its past. But it wasn’t until 1996, the same year the General Motors plant closed, that the village voted to rebrand itself under the name of Sleepy Hollow.
In the last half of the 19th century, Washington Irving’s legends gave way to real-life titans — Jay Gould, Madam C.J. Walker, and John D. Rockefeller — who used oil, steel, railroads, and banking to transform America. They made vast amounts of money, which they spent lavishly on elaborate showpiece estates up and down the river, from the hills above Troy to the Hudson shore in the Bronx. Mark Twain and his friend Charles Dudley Warner co-authored a novel in 1873 called “The Gilded Age” to describe the greed, waste and excess of the day. The title struck a nerve and has remained in the American lexicon, along with another new term, “millionaire.” In fact, there were so many grand estates in the Tarrytown area that it came to be known as a “millionaires’ colony.”
Many of the stately homes built along the Hudson were architectural masterpieces, made of locally quarried stone and built by the Irish, Italian, German and other immigrants who flocked to the United States during the 19th century. In addition to providing employment opportunities during their construction, once they were completed these great homes hired residents from the community to serve as members of the household staff. Lyndhurst, Kykuit (pronounced Ky-kit) and many other Hudson River homes and historic sites still stand today and are open to the public.
One of the grandest of the Hudson River estates, the massive Gothic Revival mansion called Lyndhurst, dates to 1838. It served first as home to William Paulding, a former mayor of New York City, followed by George Merritt, a successful merchant who bought the place in 1864 and doubled its size. In 1880, the notorious railroad magnate Jay Gould — some called him a “Robber Baron” — purchased the property. The great oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company and the richest man of his time, built a 40-room country estate for himself in 1893 on a high point of land just north of Lyndhurst in the village of Sleepy Hollow. The 2,300-acre Rockefeller estate is called Kykuit, which in Dutch means “lookout.”
As modes of transportation evolved from sloop to stagecoach to rail and then to automobile, Tarrytown also evolved. The changing shoreline tells the story. Coves and bays have been filled in over the years to allow for the construction of train tracks, storage yards and industrial facilities. Land occupied by automobile factories that operated here from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th — and visible from the bridge — has been transformed into residential neighborhoods and open space at the river’s edge.
In modern times, no development has had more of an impact on this area than the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, carrying a highway that creates a direct connection between Buffalo, the Great Lakes and New York City. Compared to South Nyack, where the bridge displaced more than 100 homes and businesses, its physical impact in Tarrytown was far less extensive. Along with a few small homes, only one large estate, Hawthorne, and a handful of smaller homes were demolished to make way for the bridge’s landing and toll booths.
The opening of the bridge in 1955, and its connecting roadway, the Cross Westchester Expressway (I-287) just five years later, linked Rockland and Westchester with Connecticut. The openings paved the way for a new corporate mecca alongside Westchester Avenue, parallel to I-287, which is known today as the Platinum Mile. New jobs stimulated population growth and housing demand on both sides of the river for workers benefiting from new access to the job market via the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Another Tide of Change
The Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, which replaced the aging Tappan Zee Bridge, ushers in another tide of change for Tarrytown, its neighbors and its shoreline.
Throughout history, Tarrytown has always been a key connecting point for many modes of travel. The bridge’s unique shared lane for pedestrians and cyclists represents an important step forward, offering an alternative to automobile travel and also creating a stronger connection between the bridge, the village and the Hudson River.
The path also serves as a link to a network of parks and trails that offer exceptional access to natural beauty, cultural heritage and outdoor recreational opportunities and demonstrates the value of preservation and adaptive reuse. Noteworthy destinations near the bridge include the Scenic Hudson RiverWalk Park, a former industrial site offering magnificent river views; the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park, a level hiking trail that follows the route of the aqueduct to supply water to New York City that was built in 1837; and the Empire State Trail, a 750-mile network stretching from lower Manhattan to the Canadian border — the longest multi-use recreational trail in the nation.
Did you know?
In order to build this span over the railroad tracks without interrupting service, engineers cantilevered more than 2,000 tons of structural steel using a specially-designed track system.