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Garage Decorated as Underground Railroad Tribute Set for Demolition

Underground Railroad

By Bill Demarest

A small garage just of Main Street in Nyack that was dressed up as a tribute to the Underground Railroad has been ordered torn down because the structure has fallen into disrepair and is a hazard.

The narrow, two-story block and wood structure for years has been popular among local photographers and artists because of its faded look and its awkward tilt at the top. However, the garage behind 29 Catherine St. does not have any direct links to Nyack’s role in the Underground Railroad – the clandestine freedom path taken by slaves in the 1800s to escape bondage in the South.

Nyack Judge Robert Knobel Jr. ordered the garage – cited by the village as an unsafe structure – demolished at the conclusion of a Village Court trial in which Daniel Mitlof, owner of 29 Catherine St., was found guilty of illegally converting the home at that address from a two-family dwelling to a three-family dwelling.

Mitlof was fined a total of $2,000 for violating village codes and for the hazardous garage. However, the judge told Mitloff he’d get a break on the fine regarding the garage if he removed the hazardous structure quickly. The garage is part of the 29 Catherine St. property.

Mitlof appeared before the Nyack Architecture Review Board on Tuesday and was granted the necessary approval from that group to tear down the garage. The approval process, however, was complicated because of confusion over the origins of the garage – which has a large “Underground Railroad” sign on it.

While the old garage has no historic significance, the building was turned into a tribute to the Underground Railroad by Mitlof’s father, Joseph Mitlof. The large “Underground Railroad” sign attached to the building is purposely visible from Main Street.

Ungerground Railroad Garage DetailJoseph Mitlof, who formed the Historic UnderGround Railroad Society, decorated the garage in 2004 with old tools and hoped the site could become a museum of sorts that could help educate children about the Underground Railroad and Nyack’s role.

Here’s a description of the purpose for the garage:

Come see our exhibit in Nyack (on Pond Rd. A ‘paper’ street behind the new Adare apartments)… The exhibit includes brief histories, sculpture, period tools (mid 19th century) as well as plans for a ‘secret escape passage’ and an audio of the slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

While there are three historic markers in Nyack paying tribute to the Underground Railroad and contributions of local residents Edward Hesdra and John Towt, all funded by Mitlof and the American Legion, the old garage that Joseph Mitlof put his “Underground Railroad” sign on is not linked to either Hesdra or Towt. The garage is near the route of the Nyack Brook – now piped underground through most of Nyack – which is believed could have been a passageway for escaping slaves

The Nyack Library had a February 2008 display focusing on the village’s role in the Underground Railroad. Here’s what the library says on the subject:

There are two historical markers in Nyack that commemorate local participation in the underground railroad. One is at the corner of Main Street and 9W. Another is further down Main Street near where the brook is visible and a short pedestrian bridge gives people access to stores set back from the street. The two major players in the local underground railroad activities were Edward Hesdra and John Towt.

Brooks, creeks, streams, and rivers were often used as landmarks for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Due to the extreme secrecy of the underground railroad network, it is difficult to trace the exact stops on the railroad. We do know that Edward Hesdra was in charge of an underground railroad station in Nyack. Hesdra owned property near the corner of Main Street and (Route) 9W where one plaque now stands in remembrance of the spot. Another plaque marks the brook that was perhaps used as a landmark. If you consult the 1876 map of Nyack it shows that Hesdra owned property in the location where the 1st plaque was located, but he also owned riverfront property near where the brook flows into the (Hudson River). Also notice that John W. Towt, another noted abolitionist owned properties near Hesdra in both locations.

underground railroad_nyack sketch log

Nyack Sketch Log by Bill Batson featured the garage turned shrine

In 2012, Nyack artist and writer Bill Batson wrote about Joseph Mitlof’s efforts to commemorate the Underground Railroad and his role in the creation of the Historic Underground Railroad marker that is located at Route 59 and Route 9W.

Batson wrote about Mitlof’s motivation for his focus on the Underground Railroad:

Mitlof, who is white, describes himself as a child of the 60s who watched as the nation went up in flames during the unrest that followed the assassinations of  Robert Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He fears that the combustible material of racial discord still clutters the public square.  For Mitlof, the Underground Railroad symbolizes a period in our history when blacks and whites came together to overcome a seemingly insurmountable injustice.

Joseph Mitlof, long known as an entreprenuer, has been involved with real estate development projects  including the Mountain Shadows townhouse development in Congers and created Tappan Zee Water Taxi and Tours.

The water taxi, which took passengers to Tarrytown and back, ended when tragedy struck in August 1998. The water taxi operated from the Nyack Marina at the foot of Burd Street, using a pontoon-style boat to ferry passengers. One of the water taxis, Conservator, capsized north of the Tappan Zee Bridge with 28 people on board and a passenger became trapped beneath the boat and died.

29 catherine st., nyack

29 Catherine St

Problems at 29 Catherine St.

The fines issued in Nyack Justice Court against Daniel Mitlof after a four-hour trial were the latest chapter in continuing efforts by the Village of Nyack to have 29 Catherine St. brought into compliance with local laws. Village Attorney Walter Sevastian said Daniel Mitlof had previously been fined $250 because of an illegal creation of a third apartment in the home.

In the recent Village Court trial, Mitloff argued that he had not created a third unit, under state definitions. However, the judge agreed with Sevastian’s assessment that the building had indeed been set up with three housing units and Mitlof had not followed required procedures with the home.

Sevastian also notes that the house has three separate entrances – numbered 1, 2, 3.

Sevastian said Mitlof faces further prosecution if the third apartment, accessible from the rear of the home, is not removed.As for the garage, Mitlof said he was not certain whether the entire structure would be demolished or just the top, wooden portion.

See also:

Bill Demarest blogs about news in Nyack and Rockland County at NyackFreePress.blogspot.com.


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