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Nyack People & Places: Self-Guided River Hook Walking Tour

by Mike Hays

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. –Marcel Proust 

River Hook stable.

You don’t have to travel far to find greenhouses, ghosts, and grapevines in Upper Nyack, but you do have to step back in time and use your imagination. This 1.85-mile, self-guided, take-your-time walk centers on River Hook: the Hester Haring Cason Preserve, and it covers a 350-year swath of “upper” Upper Nyack history. Many points of historical interest are now lost or much altered, yet many remain.

A convenient starting point is the corner of Lexow Ave. and N. Broadway. The walk passes through River Hook, a public preserve owned by the Village of Upper Nyack and assisted by a non-profit group, the Friends of River Hook.

River Hook and Nyack Beach State Park are open to the public, all other locations are privately owned and can be seen only from the sidewalk. Please respect homeowner’s privacy. Parking is not available at River Hook and is limited on streets in Upper Nyack.

Lexow Avenue

Start of the narrative for the self-guided walk. In the background is Belle Crest built by the Davies family.

One of the older east-west roads in Upper Nyack, Lexow Ave. was once a lane that ran through the 19th century farm of George Green who grew fruit trees and grapevines. The avenue is named after Rudolph Lexow, the father of a famous Nyack family, who bought 8 acres north of Lexow Ave. between Broadway and Midland Ave. for a new home that was never built. Clarence, one of Rudolph’s sons, became a famous NYS senator who exposed police corruption at public hearings. Caroline, Clarence’s daughter, was a famous suffragette and an international peace and equal rights advocate.

Biplane landing in 1911

Harry Atwood and his biplane in a hayfield just north of Lexow AVe.

Just northwest of the corner of Broadway and Lexow, Harry Atwood, one of the early pioneers of flight, made an emergency landing of his biplane in 1911 in a hayfield while on the last leg of what was then the longest flight made in the US. He had to stay overnight in Nyack while his engine was fixed. Villagers had mostly never seen a plane before. They thronged the landing site and helped lift the plane to a place where Atwood was able to take off for NYC.

Upper Nyack Tennis Club

Upper Nyack has long been a haven for tennis. In the early 1920s, the Nyack Country Club was on the national lawn tennis circuit. The current club was formed in 1938 and moved to this location in 1946. Augusta and Marion Chapman were national champions and helped the club locate here.

Belle Crest609 N. Broadway

Belle Crest was once the largest home in the Nyacks when it was built as a summer home in 1908 for the Davies family. Davies was chief executive at the Ansonia Clock Company in New York City, then the largest clock manufacturer in America. The tennis-loving Chapman family lived here from 1928-1950.

River Hook Entrance – 626 N. Broadway

Map of walking tour. The winding road segment is in River Hook.

River Hook has been a farm for close to 300 years. Unlike many N. Broadway homes in Upper Nyack, it is not fronted by a stone wall or fence but mostly by hedges. The front gate posts probably date from 1934 when the Haring family bought the property.

River Hook’s Winding Road

The farm road that winds through River Hook is lined with stone blocks probably from the 1930s.  Around the time of the Civil War, the farm was owned by Theodore Grunenthal who raised some 700 grapevines on trellis along with dwarf pear and apple trees. Fruit was made into wine and fresh grapes were shipped to New York City from River Hook as well as many other Upper Nyack farms. The Rockland County Journal called his residence one of the most beautiful with unexcelled views in all directions.

The Lower Meadow

Hester Haring who lived at River Hook from age 3, married Jim Cason in the mid-1960s. They raised sheep that often could be found grazing in the lower meadow. They didn’t raise sheep for food. Cason said he preferred sheep as meadow mowers to mechanical ones. A natural meadow was started in 2021 near the house.

Estate House

View of the Haring home from the winding road next to the Upper Meadow. The front of the house faces west. The Hudson River can just be seen to the far right.

William Post Haring, a Wall Street real estate and financial planning magnate, hired Julius Gregory, a famous NYC architect, to build the Neo-Georgian style brick estate house for his family of 3. The eastern side patio overlooking the Hudson River is the “back” of the house. The front of the house faces west with a circular drive renovated in 2021.

Stable

The elegant, one-of-a-kind, fieldstone stable is unique to Nyack. It probably dates to the mid-19th century and may have been built by Theodore Grunenthal. The horse stalls are still visible in the rear of the first floor.

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Upper Meadow

The broad meadow that flows uphill is similar to many of the open farm fields that once graced Upper Nyack’s lower slope in pre-Colonial times to the beginning of the 20th century growing grain crops, fruits, and grapes. The smell of fruit flowers in the spring must have been strong.

Kuyper Street

Soon after exiting River Hook and turning north, Kuyper Drive appears on the left heading uphill lined by homes built on large lots, some of which date back to the mid-1960s. The land was also once owned by the Haring family. The street is named after Cornelius Kuyper, the first settler of Upper Nyack in 1688. Kuyper once owned all 640 acres of Upper Nyack.

Midland Avenue

1890s map of the area. Tucker’s greenhouses are shown near the corner of Larchdale and Midland. 2 houses are shown on Broadway that no longer stand, Undercliff and Larchdell. River Hook is shown as the property owned by Joseph Hilton, a lumber magnate who had been a Confederate General during the Civil War.

Midland Avenue is a busy street with no sidewalks. In the 1870s, N. Midland Ave. was a project started by Boss Tweed’s colleagues who planned to build a hotel atop Hook Mountain. A wide boulevard, now 9W, with sidewalks was to provide easy transportation to the hotel. In concert with the 9W Boulevard, N. Midland was also planned and funded at the same time. The hotel didn’t happen, nor did the sidewalks, but it became an important street.

The Upper Nyack Trail

On the west side of Midland just north of Radcliffe Drive, white blazes on trees mark the Upper Nyack Trail leading into the woods. For many years, the white-blazed path has connected Nyack Beach State Park with the blue-blazed Long Path that runs from the GWB to the Catskills passing though Nyack and over Hook Mt. A new trail connecting Nyack Beach with the Long Path along the southern front of Hook Mt. is expected to be complete in 2022.

Greenhouse Corner

Arthur Tucker, a gentleman farmer, built commercial greenhouses in the late 19th century on the flat area of Midland just before Larchdale Ave. His primary crop was roses for export to New York City. Nyack had many commercial greenhouses in the later 19th century. The largest was the DePew greenhouse located in what is now upper Memorial Park in Nyack. There was once a vernal pond across Midland that provided a perfect water source for the greenhouse.

Marydell Faith & Life Center – 640 N. Midland

Marydell Faith & Life Center entrance at the corner of Midland and Larchdell Aves. The cabins date back to the time of summer camps.

The Marydell Faith & Life Center cabins visible at the corner of Midland and Larchdale Aves. date back to the 1930s when the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine ran the Save-A-Life farm during the Depression and ran summer camps for nearly 50 years. Currently, Marydell Faith & Life Center is still used for youth educational programs.

Larchdale Ave.

The street was built between Arthur Tucker’s greenhouses and the property of Colonel Pollock, another gentleman farmer and neighbor of Tucker. They paid for the street and later gave it to the village. The original name of the street was Larchdell, so named for the larch trees that fronted Pollock’s estate. Over time the name of the street changed from Larchdell to Larchdale.

Hook Mountain

Early winter view of Hook Mountain from the corner of Broadway and Larchdale.

A stunning view of 728-foot Hook Mountain, a National Natural Landmark, appears at the east end of Larchdale. Hook Mountain, one of the most prominent geographical features of the lower Hudson Valley, was called Verdrietege Hoek, or “tedious angle” by early Dutch sailors who found themselves either becalmed or experiencing sudden storms at the river bend. “Hoek” was anglicized as Hook. An old legend states that the spirit of a Native American appears here at the Harvest Moon.

Nyack Beach State Park

The entrance to Nyack Beach State Park is just steps north of Larchdale on Broadway. Once a massive trap rock mining operation from the 1890s to 1910, Hook Mountain was saved from total destruction by preservationist-minded donors who helped create the Palisades Interstate Park system. Near the riverside parking lot, the powerhouse for the mining operation is now the sandstone-faced bathing house. A flat upper plateau that was dynamited out of the mountain is not a picnic area.

Larchdell, Undercliff, and Rivercliff (649 N. Broadway)

Rivercliff today.

Heading south from the entrance to Nyack Beach State Park are the locations of Colonel Pollock’s Larchdell and Arthur Tucker’s Undercliff estates. Both are now gone although Larchdell’s barn is now a renovated home just before the entrance to Nyack Beach. Tucker’s grand Victorian was replaced by Rivercliff, now a 16,000 sq. foot Georgian-style house. During the 1930s, Rivercliff was the home of Anthony Fokker, a Dutchman who designed airplanes including the most successful WWI fighter. Fokker had a huge dock for his speed boats.

The Smith Quarry

As you approach 621 N. Broadway a large depression appears in front of a modern brick house set back from Broadway. This is one arm of one of Nyack’s earliest quarries from which brownstone was quarried for export to NYC. The quarry was started by the Smith Brothers near the dividing line of their properties. Major John Smith, a hero of the Revolutionary War once lived at the foot of the small lane that leads from Broadway to the River. His riverfront house , with walls some two feet thick as protection from British cannon shots, was later the home of a Civil War officer, Wilson Defendorf.

Aury Smith’s House — 627 N. Broadway

This home is perhaps that of Aury Smith from the time of the Revolutionary War. It has been much expanded since that time.

Just south of the lane to John Smith’s residence is a red clapboard farmhouse facing south and mostly hidden by trees and a stone wall. It was once small Dutch cottage topped with dormers and thought to be the home of Captain Aury Smith who served with his brother in the Nyack Shore Guard Militia. The house is rumored to have a resident poltergeist. The Smith brothers are buried in the Old Palmer Burial Grounds on Old Mountain Road in Upper Nyack.

Waterways, former Jewett estate — 617-619 N. Broadway

The 22-room mansion named Waterways built by industrialist R. Dickinson Jewett in 1896 was destroyed by fire in 1957. Cottages leading down to the water along with some of the field stone walls and lookouts favored by R. Dickinson Jewett remain.

New stoneware for the front door through the efforts of Friends of River Hook and Greenbush Construction.

You have now completed some 440 years of Upper Nyack history in a brief 1.85 walk all the while experiencing the many wonders of River Hook. It’s worth a walk in every season and enjoy the changes that Friends of River Hook are bringing to the old farm.

Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health, and Weld Realty.

 

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.


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