In 1923, in what can only be described as a mind-bogglingly crazy proposition, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission had the audacity to suggest mining the entire remaining Hook Mountain at Nyack Beach to create more parkland. Yes, you read that right, they actually thought it was a good idea to obliterate one of the area’s natural treasures for the sake of playgrounds, athletic fields, and a riverside road.
This bizarre notion, backed by influential figures like Robert Moses and signed off by both New York and New Jersey Governors, would go down in history as an utterly outrageous and environmentally reckless plan. The project aimed to use the revenue from renewed mining to pay for itself, as if that somehow justified the destruction of a majestic landscape and the disturbance of the local community. Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how absurdly insane this proposal was.
Quarrying of the Palisades
The Palisades along the western shore of the Hudson River from Englewood, NJ to Haverstraw create a perfect source for trap rock, a type of igneous rock characterized by its durable and dense composition, making it highly suitable for various construction applications. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the demand for trap rock grew due to its usefulness in railroad beds and roads.
The Upper Nyack Quarry
In 1898, the Manhattan Trap Rock Company quarry at Nyack Beach joined the ranks of the numerous quarries along the Hudson River Palisades. While all the quarries caused significant disturbance to the environment and the local community, the Upper Nyack quarry was especially heinous. The loud dynamite blasts and the resulting vibrations led to complaints and lawsuits from nearby residents in Upper Nyack.
Even wealthy landowners across the Hudson River like John D. Rockefeller complained of noise and falling plaster in their estates. In addition to noise, the blast zone created disfiguring scars from what had been green slopes.
“If it weren’t for the splendid golf links I have, we would close up the place (Kykuit) until a stop was put in the terrible work in progress on the other side of the river.” John D. Rockefeller
Rockefeller, without being asked, pledged $1 million to stop the blasting.
Various individuals and organizations played crucial roles in preserving Nyack Beach and Hook Mountain. J. Dupratt White, a prominent advocate and founding member of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, advocated for a park in his home neighborhood of Upper Nyack. He was a leading figure in successfully securing donations from influential figures like J.P. Morgan, the Rockefellers and Harrimans to acquire the quarry and nearby land for parkland. Nyack Beach was officially acquired by the park commission in 1911, ending the quarry operations and initiating the process of turning it into a peaceful local park.
Developing the New Park
What was the best way to utilize the old quarry with its abandoned industrial buildings and docks? Over the years, several development proposals for the park emerged, including the creation of a 160-foot waterfall by digging a tunnel from Rockland Lake through Hook Mountain. That idea died a quick death. The most significant change in this period was to start using the concrete power station as a bathhouse. However, a more ominous proposal was in the making.
A Threat to the Park’s Integrity
In 1923, the proposal to further mine Hook Mountain came to the public eye during a steamboat tour of the region for the benefit of Governors Smith and Silver and 350 dignitaries including New York assemblymen and senators. On board the steamboat Onteora, park commissioners presented the plan along with a plaster model showing picnic facilities, athletic fields, and a new one-way automobile road from Upper Nyack to Haverstraw. The ten-year project included removing some 10 million cubic feet of rock.
Governor Al Smith, known for his progressive policies and strong leadership, surprisingly threw his support behind this colossal undertaking, believing it would create additional recreational spaces and generate revenue for the park. His famous remark, “I don’t see how there can be any opposition. Go to it, and go to it quickly,” indicated the level of enthusiasm he had for the project.
New Jersey Governor Silver, too, lent his backing to the plan, believing it would benefit both states by expanding the park’s amenities and attracting more visitors to the area.
The Backlash & Preservation Victory
However, the idea of further mining Hook Mountain, a revered natural landmark, for the sake of park expansion faced an immediate backlash by who saw it as an unthinkable sacrilege against the very purpose behind the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.
Within a week, the park commission was walking back their proposal. DuPratt White, now President of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission announced that the commission didn’t intend to remove the entire mountain only welcoming “an opportunity for the removal of sharp contours and sharp scars left by the old quarry operations.” Besides the disingenuous aesthetics’ argument, White stated the commissioned supported a new automobile road along the river.
In the face of mounting opposition and public outcry, the plan eventually met its demise, sparing Hook Mountain from further devastation.
A Park’s Transformation
In the following years, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) took charge of the park’s development during the Great Depression. Using locally quarried sandstone, they transformed Nyack Beach into the serene and picturesque park it is today. The old power generating station became a charming stone-covered bathhouse, the access road enhanced, and the beach cleared of stone debris. The plateau, once the site of quarrying, was converted into peaceful picnic grounds, and a walking path to Rockland Landing was created.
A Hidden Environmental Heritage
Today, the scars left by the quarrying have been softened by a century of tree growth, and Nyack Beach stands as a hidden environmental heritage. Many visitors are unaware of its history, appreciating it as a quiet and beautiful local park. Hook Mountain, once threatened by quarrying and development, remains a cherished natural treasure, thanks to the dedication of preservationists and the rejection of a second ill-fated mining proposal in 1923. Nyack Beach remains as it should be— a preserved haven of natural beauty and tranquility for generations to come.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays 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.