by Mike Hays
Buttermilk Falls County Park on S. Greenbush Ave. in West Nyack is a hidden gem near major highways that was once a popular summer local retreat. Named for their creamy “buttermilk” flow, the falls are just one of the 37 so-named Buttermilk Falls in New York State. The Village of Highland Falls near West Point was even once named Buttermilk Falls. Late in winter and early spring or during major storms like Hurricane Floyd, mountain water fills the Central Nyack Brook plunging over a stone ledge of some 20 feet to a pool, and then cascades through lesser falls to form a small creek that flows west towards the Hackensack River. But most of the year, don’t expect Niagara Falls. The falls are mostly dry in summer.
Buttermilk Falls drew summer picnickers for reasons other than the falls. At the base of the falls a glen is formed between stone cliffs and overarching trees. It is a cool, quiet, and shady spot. The Glen, as it was called in 1875, was “quite frequently visited by pleasure seekers, who sojourn our village in the summer months.” High above the falls, several dramatic outlooks look west to the Ramapo Mountains. Local folklore claims that Theodore Roosevelt would frequently ride a horse to the vista. The Falls has long been a subject for artists and photographers and has remained an interesting neighbor to the Rockland Center for the Arts (ROCA). The entrance to the park along Greenbush Road, once a Native American path and later the main north-south highway known as the Kings Highway, is new. The story of how Buttermilk Falls has changed since the time of the incorporation of the Village of Nyack highlights the vast cultural changes of the last 150 years.
De la Vergne’s Glen
Once known as a “miniature Buttermilk Falls,” the falls and glen became known as De la Vergne’s Glen after the land was acquired by Mr. De la Vergne, the proprietor of the Tappan Zee House on the S. Nyack riverfront. He would take hotel guests by carriage to the glen, often just before sunset. Villagers would either walk the 1 ½ miles to the glen, drive their own carriage, or take the West Shore Stage to W. Broadway and walk from there. In the early days, villagers would enter the glen from the east at a gate at the end of Waldron Ave. in Central Nyack. Then a new path opened slightly north of this using a stile over a fence.
By 1910, the falls and glen were owned by a New York artist who planned improvements, including a pavilion that was never built overlooking the glen with views to the western mountains. During the summer of 1910, different groups of children visited. A group from the Christian Herald Home (now Camp Ramah) on Christian Herald Road picnicked there in early July. In August, the grounds were opened for children and their parents from the Central Nyack Congregational Church Sunday School. The church was located nearby at the junction of Waldron Ave. and the Nyack Turnpike (Route 59). About 200 people attended on a hot Saturday for an all-day affair. People sought out cozy, shady corners, children climbed rocks and played in grassy lanes. Athletic games with prizes were held. Mr. Pirson, a magician from New Haven, performed a magic show featuring his famous illusion, the Burmese Block Enigma. Ice cream, cakes, candy, and iced lemonade were for sale. The only thing missing was the falls, which were dry that day, as they are most summer days. During the summer, other Sunday School groups could use the park for free; others paid a fee of ten cents.
By 1913, the property was owned by Mrs. Clara Francis Wolverton Gates. A new roadway off Waldron, perhaps the now private Buttermilk Falls Road, made access easier to the falls through Central Nyack. No longer did people have to walk through private property. The work was completed by members of the Wilson Memorial Academy, a part of the Missionary Alliance in S. Nyack (later Nyack College). Gates added picnic tables and benches under the trees and planted flowers on her property. Over time, visitors came from the Missionary Alliance, the Campfire Girls, and the general public during Decoration Day. An ecological seminar on “Clean Up the Swamp” was held on the 4th of July in 1915 with geologists, owners of the nearby Greenbush Swamp (now the location of the Palisades Mall), foresters, and engineers.
“Gypsies,” Nudists, Copperheads
The area near the exchange of the Nyack Turnpike (Rt. 59) and Greenbush Road (now largely supplanted by Rt. 303) was the site of temporary “gypsy” camps before WWI. The small dead-end Gypsy Camp Road off Ward Drive remains on most maps of Central Nyack. “Gypsies,” as the newspaper referred to them, would stay for only a short while trading horses and telling fortunes. Mrs. Gates complained about the intrusion on her park as did other nearby neighbors.
Neighbors were alarmed by the possibility of another intrusion in 1935 when a Black nudist colony from Harlem applied to Albany for a license to establish a camp at Buttermilk Falls. Around this time, there was already a nudist colony on South Mountain Road. Within a week of the application, the New York State Legislature passed a bill outlawing nudist camps in the state, a law that was championed by Al Smith, former Governor and counsel for the Legion of Decency in New York.
An old name for the hill down, which the Central Nyack Brook passes, was Snake Hill because it was known to be the home of copperheads. Copperheads are 2 to 3-foot-long diamond-backed poisonous snakes endemic to the slopes of the Palisades with its many rock faces. They have a limited striking range and are generally wary of people. Some say you must really work at it to get bitten. While sightings in the park are rare, care should be taken not to approach any snakes.
Ten-Year Effort to Create a County Park
The idea of creating a public park at Buttermilk Falls was first proposed in 1967 by Martin Bernstein to the Clarkstown Town Board. Clarkstown was in the mood for new parks, and they considered acquiring Buttermilk Falls, Congers Lake, and the Traphagen property. The acquisition fell through when the Parks Board came out against it since most of the proposed 186-acre tract was in Orangetown, the town line being just south of the Falls. The Rockland County Board took up championing the park, but it was a slow process.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, a number of apartment complexes were under discussion near to and within the proposed park boundaries. A 72-unit garden apartment named Vista was completed in 1972 just above Greenbush and north of the Falls. The builder was at first denied a certificate of occupancy when it was learned that their driveway crossed village land. Residents of the original subdivision map specified that property owners would have rights to a “paper road” to the Falls. Building inspector Robert Bowman stated that the road had been abandoned by the town board action in 1968, therefore no public access was allowed.
Finally, with the aid of Federal money, Rockland County acquired 72 acres, less than one-half of the original proposal. By 1977, the acquisition was complete, and soon people like Carol Weiss of the Rockland Audubon Society were conducting birding and spring flower tours. Over time, trails were marked within the park that connected to abutting parks.
Artistic Views of the Falls
The creamy quality of Buttermilk Falls was first captured in stereoscopes made by Nyack photographer Isaac Van Wagner around 1880. 100 years later, in 1977, the Nyack Library, in coordination with the opening of the new park, featured a painting by William Henry Hill of Buttermilk Falls. Hill was a part of the American Pre-Raphaelites who believed in plein air painting and were forerunners of the Hudson River School of painting. Hill painted a stunning view of the Falls in A Study of Trap Rock (Buttermilk Falls) in 1863 that hangs in the Met. In 1905, he made a large copy of the painting and gave it to the Nyack Library. Long buried beneath old copies of Scientific American stored in the basement of the library, the painting was rediscovered, restored, and featured in the library. ROCA mounted their own display of local paintings and included nature walks to the Falls.
Buttermilk Falls County Park is so close to Nyack it is worth a visit for hikers and children of all ages. A picnic in a cool spot might be a good addition. While there, consider villagers of old who walked or took carriages for summer fun in the glen, hoping for the Falls to be flowing, and wishing for a clear day to see the distant Ramapo Mountains. No wonder the park has been the subject of paintings and photographs to this day.
Hiking in & Around Buttermilk Falls
Buttermilk Falls Parking Lot on Greenbush Road
From the Greenbush Road parking lot find the two entrances to the circular 1-mile long blue-blazed trail. The left or northern entrance leads up a steep incline of some 600 feet passing by outcroppings overlooking the Fall. Further climbing leads to several lookouts west over the valleys to the Ramapo Mountains. The scenic western views may be disturbed if the wind is right by traffic noise from the Thruway. The return path to the parking lot is much easier following an old road. The path is not one-way, so one can begin at either entrance.
The hike may be extended by turning north onto an Orange-blazed trail near the lookouts. The orange trail crosses Schuler Road into the Stephen Rowe Bradley Park. At a T-intersection with a white-blazed trail turn right and follow the white trail back to the blue trail, turning left to the parking lot. The circuit is about 2.1 miles. Other longer circuits can be made through Blauvelt State Park.
ROCA Parking Lot on Greenbush Road
After parking at ROCA and perhaps taking in their gallery, head to the yellow-blazed trail through the Katherine Konner Sculpture Park that makes a short circle. At the southern end (turning right from the museum), a short, out-and-back, red-blazed trail leads to a view of the glen across from the Falls.
The deep part of the Glen on both sides of the brook makes it a difficult bushwhack with many fallen trees. It is a little hard to visualize the old picnic area.
In the early 1970s, dirt was excavated near the park on an empty lot between Rt. 303 and Greenbush at Bradley Parkway to create a new Orangeburg Road. Bed rock was exposed, and it was there that Paul Olsen, a paleontologist discovered tracks that were made by a Coelophysis, a dinosaur about four feet high and eleven feet long that roamed what was then muddy flats some 215 million years ago. Don’t look for the tracks today for they were removed to the New York State Museum. Over the years, various proposals for development of the site have been fought by the people of Blauvelt including card dealerships. In 2019, plans for 68 townhouses on 8 acres with a gift of 8 acres including site of the tracks as parkland was stopped by negative reaction from neighbors. The sites are wooded today. Are there more tracks hidden in the area?
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.