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Health & Wellness

Diving Into History: Nyack’s Hudson River Beaches

Once upon a time in Nyack, swimming in the Hudson River was the perfect antidote to summer heat. Close to home, the sandy South Nyack beaches were very popular. The Tappan Zee House, a large summer hotel fronting the beach, advertised recreational and healthful swimming as a key activity as early as the 1880s.

An 1880s ad for the summer “resort”, the Tappan Zee Inn/House, in South Nyack. Courtesy of the Nyack Library

The Yellow and Black Rocks

Young boys preferred swimming near or between two rocks that remained slightly above water at high tide near the shore. The “Yellow Rock” (not to be confused with a ledge of rock 30 feet offshore from Philips Manor) near the Upper Nyack boatyards attracted swimmers early in the summer to test the water’s warmth. The “Black Rock” near the downtown boat docks was just as popular. Swimming and rowing races between the two rocks, about a quarter mile apart, became a regular summer activity. Interestingly, in 1908, the “Yellow Rock” was moved to the front lawn of the Nyack Library, where it remains as a memorial to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. No one seems to know what happened to the “Black Rock”.

The “Yellow Rock” now the Lincoln Memorial resides in front of the Nyack Library.

The “Quarry” Beaches

Machinery along the Hudson River at the New York Trap Rock Quarry located at the foot of Rockland Landing.

Compared to the South Nyack beaches, Nyack Beach and Hook Mountain Park were the most popular. Nyack Beach, often called Hook Mountain Beach and Upper Nyack Beach in the early days, is located at the old quarry at the end of Broadway. Hook Mountain Beach at Rockland Lake Landing became a park six years after Nyack Beach. Both beaches were at the ruins of two large trap rock quarries acquired by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) and assimilated into Nyack Beach and Hook Mountain State Parks.

Two steamboats at the docks of Hook Mountain Park. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Nyack Beach attracted locals. Cars from New Jersey and beyond crowded highways during weekends as people sought the luxury of a swim and picnic. Just up the river, Bear Mountain attracted 100,000 visitors on a weekend in the 1930s, with people arriving by car or steamboat liner. Two beaches at Grass Point drew 10,000 people, and two beaches in Haverstraw attracted many “out-of-towners.” By contrast, Nyack Beach would attract 3,000 people and 600 vehicles, with many villagers walking to Nyack Beach.

In this 1920s photo of Nyack Beach, cars line the beach. The quarry’s concrete powerhouse is at the far left and their old dock is on the right. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Nyack Beach Development

PIPC purchased the Manhattan Trap Rock Quarry in 1911. The quarry removed most of their equipment but left behind several buildings, including concrete housings on the plateau, a powerhouse near the beach, and a huge dock. The park remained mostly in this deconstructed state until the 1930s. Cars parked near the beach much as they do today. A small stand provided minimal amenities. In 1924, the Sisters of Marydell gave land to PIPC to create a traffic circle at the end of North Broadway, improving access. Yet, the road from the traffic circle to the beach remained primitive, narrow, and rutted.

1940s postcard of the traffic circle and ticket booth for Nyack Beach. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

After 1911, PIPC introduced many proposals to “develop” the park. One harebrained scheme proposed building a tunnel from Rockland Lake through Hook Mountain to create a waterfall. In the 1920s, a proposal to restart the quarry to remove part of Hook Mountain for more parkland gained the attention of Governor Smith. Fortunately, more intelligent personages noted that quarrying a park formed to stop quarrying just didn’t make sense.

The WPA at Nyack Beach

This photo of Nyack Beach shows the small refreshment stand used by bathers in the 1920s. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

In the 1930s, everything changed at the parks. Workers from Works Progress Administration (WPA), utilizing local labor, created a stunning array of naturalistic walls, picnic spots with BBQ grills, bathrooms, picnic areas, ranger stations, and baseball fields. Most stunning of all, the WPA refurbished the bare concrete powerhouse into a bathhouse. A sandstone facing covered the aging concrete. A walkway ran around the large main room with a huge fireplace using the old power station chimney. A refreshment stand and men’s and women’s bathing facilities completed its transformation. Nearby, sandstone walls held in place an improved road down the slope from North Broadway. Only in 2019 did it suffer a partial collapse.

Nyack Beach in the 1920s.The stone wall built by WPA workers remains today. Photo courtesy of Fran Clancy.

Workers opened the Upper Plateau, once the old working face of the quarry. The plateau allowed overflow parking, picnicking, a ballpark, and restrooms. In 1936, the park installed a lifeguard station.

Postcard of a refurbished walking path along the path to Hook Mountain Park. The quarry works can be seen in the background. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Eventually, workers removed stones and improved the trail/road between Nyack Beach and Hook Mountain Park and then on to Haverstraw. A huge windstorm in 1950 destroyed the pier. Otherwise, Nyack Beach remains much as it was in the 1930s.

Fran Clancy and friends enjoying Nyack Beach. Courtesy of Fran Clancy.

Hook Mountain Park Development

A schematic of Hook Mountain Park as remember by Rockland Lake villagers who were children at the time.
View of a steamer docking at Hook Mountain Park near the dance hall. Courtesy of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Commission.

A little over a mile north of Nyack Beach at Rockland Landing, an amazing summer park emerged. This area, once the site of a chute carrying ice from Rockland Lake to barges and a large quarry owned by Wilson Foss, an Upper Nyack resident, remained in rough shape until the WPA redesigned the area. Dayliners from New York City arrived at two docks. The Clermont, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton, Peter Stuyvesant, and City of Keansburg served the park.

The cafeteria on a plateau above the landing docks. Courtesy of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.
The children’s playground and beach at Hook Mountain Park. Courtesy of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Commission.

A children’s playground with a sand beach occupied space by the south dock. It included a wading pool, a merry-go-round, bumper cars, swings, and a hand-turned merry-go-round. Benches lined the road on the west side. Near the north dock, a riverside dance hall and roller rink attracted the “swinging set” in the 30s and 40s. Bathrooms and snack shops were nearby. Slightly uphill, a grocery, cafeteria, and possibly a hotel occupied a prominence near the plateau. Tennis courts, several baseball diamonds, and parking lots stretched out along the plateau.

The carousel at Hook Mountain Park. Notice how close to the water the ride is. Courtesy of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.

The beach was segregated. Black people could only use the north beach.

The dance hall and skating rink near the north dock. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

A Thanksgiving Storm

A huge storm hit Nyack over the weekend following Thanksgiving 1950. Weather people called it an extratropical cyclone, but various localities called it the Great Appalachian Snowstorm, The Sou’easter of 1950, and the Great Thanksgiving Storm. Some 30+ inches of snow fell in the Appalachians. As the storm reached New York and New Jersey, winds reached 100 mph, and storm surges rose to 7.5 feet. In downtown Nyack, the storm destroyed the old Nyack Rowing Association clubhouse on a dock at the foot of Spear Street. At Nyack Beach, the storm demolished the old quarry dock, and at Hook Mountain Park, the beach disappeared, along with the docks, carousel, and dance hall.

Shot looking down on Nyack Beach after the Thanksgiving storm of 1850. Boards from the destroyed pier line the beach. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Neither park rebuilt their docks. Without amenities and a beach, Hook Mountain Park returned to a natural state. Only some bits of concrete and metal among rocks at low tide mark the old park.

Buildings like these created by the WPA can be found along the trail from Upper Nyack to Haverstraw.

Pollution

The 1950 Thanksgiving Storm was not the final death blow to swimming in the Hudson River. Pollution overwhelmed the river and came to the public’s attention. Huge plants like the General Motors Plant in Tarrytown and General Electric upstream dumped immense quantities of dangerous chemicals directly into the river. In many towns, like Nyack, treated and untreated sewage flowed directly into the river. Much earlier in the 1920s, Nyack Beach saw some 25 people felled by typhoid fever. A public water source piped to the beach became contaminated by a cesspool near the source.

Swimming and Nyack beaches, once touted as a healthful pastime in the 1880s when Nyack attracted summer guests, closed around 1960 to swimming. While pollution has diminished somewhat, swimming is not likely to return to Nyack Beach.

A cooling dip in the river during hot summers is no longer an option. Fortunately, we have the beauty of the tiny beach, a stunning bathhouse, and a scenic trail along the river to take our minds off dipping our feet in the waves.

The old power house renovated by the WPA into today’s beautiful bathhouse. During the late 1930, the area to the left was covered and served as a refreshment stand.

Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.


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