by Mike Hays
If Nyack was once called the “Gem of the Hudson,” then the gem of that gem must have been the 4.9-mile Nyack Beach river walk alongside an ever-changing Hudson River, towering Palisades, mature trees, and skies filled with eagles, falcons, herons, and geese. The lower parking lot of Nyack Beach State Park re-opened on May 8 after a two-year hiatus due to a collapsed downhill roadbed. The park itself was never closed, except for a spell during the COVID surge of April 2020. However, only the upper plateau was open with very limited parking. A zig-zag trail went from there to the river. So for most of the past two years, the parking lot was a long way away from the beautiful riverside trail, and the long trek up and down the hill posed a big accessibility problem.
Many nature lovers sorely missed one of the most scenic spots near New York City. With a little imagination, the walk can feel like one indigenous people once took. Nyack beach gives locals the opportunity to spend some time outdoors, something which is of utmost importance for family health and mental wellness during what we hope is the waning COVID period.
Natural and manmade disasters have been a part of Nyack Beach and Hook Mountain for a long time, of which recent events are but one more chapter.
What Happened & Why Did It Take So Long To Fix?
In May of 2019, a section of the sandstone wall supporting the downward sloping road collapsed and a section of the roadway slumped. It was no longer safe for cars to use it. For a time, bikers and walkers could still use it. It took a year to get the project into the state budget, and another year to find contractors and complete the work of reinforcing the slumping downhill wall that supports the roadbed.
The end result is fantastic. The multi-tiered, locally quarried sandstone retaining walls first built during the WPA-era of the 1930s have been artfully restored. It is a small simple park with a long history that not many people know about it especially compared with the larger and busier Rockland Lake State Park atop Hook Mountain. Locals would like to keep it their private park if they could.
Hook Mountain is the anglicized version of the Dutch name for the mountain, Verdrietige Hoek, meaning sad, or sorrowful point because of the uncertainty of winds there for sailing around the point. Hook Mountain may have an even more distant name. “Nyack” in the Munsee dialect of the indigenous people of the area means “point of land.” It is just possible that Hook Mountain was once known as Nyack and that became attached to the area. (Many theories have been posed as to how Nyack got its name, and a discussion of the various theories is larger than time allows here.)
The southern foot of Hook Mountain, what we now call Nyack Beach, was indeed a beach and must have been an excellent temporary summer residence for indigenous people who fished and harvested plentiful oysters.
Nyack Beach remained a quiet spot among the farming communities of Upper Nyack until the 1880s, when the mining of trap rock along the Palisades became a huge business. Trap rock was perfect for rail beds and road making. The Palisades is a basaltic extrusion and an excellent source of trap rock. The invention of dynamite accelerated the process of extraction. The cliffs were dynamited, the rock was crushed into smaller rocks, and shipped via barges.
The Manhattan Trap Company, named and owned by various people over the years, started mining operations at Nyack Beach around 1890. Wilson Foss, an Upper Nyack resident, already wealthy from other quarries including that at Slaughter’s or Rockland Landing a few miles away, probably had a stake in this highly profitable mine. Local citizens took the company to court over noise and dangerous operations, but they lost. Work accelerated, and the mountain was even more deeply scarred.
The work face of the quarry was above the river where a plateau was established, now a picnic area. The hills were dynamited, the rock loaded onto trams on rails and taken to a rock crusher at the cliff edge, the foundations of which can still be seen. After crushing, the rock flowed downhill through two tunnels, still visible, and loaded onto an elevated tram line that carried rock to waiting barges. From the plateau, one can see how deeply the Palisades were carved out.
Palisades Interstate Parkway Commission (PIPC) Acquisition
Fortunately, a preservation movement was started by wealthy families like the Rockefellers, and the Perkins, whose estates on the west side of the Hudson saw the increasing destruction of the Palisades. The destruction seemed total. Not a tree stood anywhere near the quarries. The bald face seen in pictures is shocking. In addition, the sound of dynamite resonated throughout the lower Hudson River Valley on a daily basis.
The preservation movement picked up steam and by 1900, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission was established, a unique intra-state group dedicated to land preservation. Over the course of time, the Palisades were preserved through the efforts of people like Upper Nyack resident and PIPC trustee, DuPratt White and their efforts to raise money from wealthy donors. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land were added to the public trust.
The quarry at Nyack Beach of approximately 61 acres was acquired in 1911. Dynamiting stopped on June 30, and operations wound down by the end of the year. Equipment was removed, and what remained was a ghost quarry with denuded cliffs, a concrete power plant along the shore, a long dock, and the foundations of the rock crusher and other concrete buildings. Picnicking and camping began almost at once.
PIPC took a long time in deciding what to do with the beach. Various development plans were offered including one that was agreed to by Governor Smith to further dynamite Hook Mountain to pay for a new road through Upper Nyack along the shore to Haverstraw. The idea of destroying a park to create a park was soon dismissed. By the 1920s, a parking lot at the beach was full of Model Ts, concessions were sold, and families and children would swim at the natural sand beach. The Nyack Evening Journal reported the 1919 scandal of a woman wearing a red, one-piece bathing suit. Such suits for both men and women were common by then on the Jersey shore and Coney Island but not in conservative Nyack.
During the WPA era, as Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was being enacted all over the country, Nyack Beach became a real park. The road from Broadway down to the beach took the shape we see today with tiered sandstone supports. The old quarry powerhouse was faced with local sandstone and a front porch to become a bathhouse with concessions. Stone bathrooms were built on the plateau, and picnic spots with grills were built along the trail north.
At Rockland Landing, two miles to the north, an even more expensive park was built, Hook Mountain Beach, with amusement rides, dance halls, cafeteria, ball fields and tennis courts. Hook Mountain Beach was a segregated beach; it is unknown if Nyack Beach was too.
The Times They Are A Changing
While the park remained popular with lots of local groups who held picnics there, swimming soon became limited after World War II. Water was deemed unsafe due to contamination from sewage. At the time, Upper Nyack, Nyack, and South Nyack allowed lightly processed sewage to flow into the river. For three years running, the beach was closed, and that was pretty much it for swimming, even before industrial contamination became a problem.
In 1950, a strong Thanksgiving storm destroyed much of the waterfront in the village of Nyack. The Nyack Beach and Hook Mountain docks were destroyed. Hook Mountain Beach never came back nor did Nyack Beach’s dock. Hurricane Gloria in 1985 carried away most of the sand on the beach, what remains is a small reminder of what once was. The parking lot was reinforced with a concrete seawall and the trail with natural rock. The next threat came from Hurricane Floyd, which caused huge landslides and blocked the path. Later, another hurricane brought down more landslides and a major renovation effort restored the trail.
New mileage signs along the 4.9-mile trail have been added as an Eagle Scout project by Michael Eckerle. A sign has been put up near the old bathhouse announcing that the park is a National Natural Landmark, so designated in 1980.
Over the last few years, teak benches have been installed along the trail in scenic spots. One bench placed in 2020, commemorates the life of Michael J. Kuhling with a plaque that is a fit epitaph for the reborn park that is hopefully a gateway to a life beyond Covid:
“When I am silent, I fall into the place where everything is music.”
Michael Hays is a 35-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.