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The Dynamite Baron-Wilson P. Foss’ Legacy at Under Elms

Barons of Broadway #11

Welcome to our eleventh installment of “Barons of Broadway,” where we delve into the lives of Upper Nyack’s most notable figures. Intelligent, humorous, brave, and shrewd, Wilson P. Foss made a fortune in the quarry business. In 1908, he built Under Elms at 531 North Broadway, the most expensive home in Nyack at the time. Foss could recite parts in a play after reading them once, excelled at championship billiards, competed in senior golf tournaments, and raced his speedboat, Dashaway, with his neighbor Leroy Frost on the Hudson River. He survived numerous dynamite blasts. A man of many talents, Wilson combined the salesmanship of Steve Jobs, the intellectual prowess of Ben Franklin, and the sporting nature of Theodore Roosevelt.

1925 photo of Under Elms (from Nyack and Vicinity in Pictures).

Wilson Perkins Foss – Early Life

Wilson P. Foss was born in 1856 in Fairfield, ME, to a cigar box factory owner. In school, he amazed his peers by reciting long speeches from memory after reading them only once. At age 16, Foss joined the Portland Fire Department to assist at the Great Boston Fire of 1872. To break the fire’s path, firefighters used dynamite to blow up buildings. The experience ignited his fascination with dynamite, leading him to work in a Boston hardware store specializing in the explosive while studying chemistry at MIT. However, for some unknown reason, he diverted from his passion to manage a hat factory in Hartford, CT.

Ruins after the Great Boston Fire of 1872

An Explosive Career

Learning about the extension of the West Shore Railroad, Foss took a job in Haverstraw, using his nitroglycerin expertise to “blow tunnels” for the railroad. His business thrived as he started making dynamite using nitroglycerine, transporting it by boat to work sites. A shrewd businessman, Foss sold his company to DuPont for cash, a lifetime annuity, and employment as a traveling dynamite salesman in Mexico. After a year in Mexico, he joined an iron ore company in Plattsburgh, NY, as an explosives specialist. Returning to Haverstraw he established the Clinton Dynamite Company near Snedeker’s Landing. He began serving the Rockland Lake Trap Rock Company at Rockland Lake Landing in 1891. 

1897 movie of the Haverstraw Tunnel that Foss helped build.

Wilson survived two accidental explosions. In Plattsburgh, Foss’ nitroglycerine warehouse exploded, demolishing the building, killing two workers, and blowing Foss out of the building onto a frozen river. He survived a second deadly explosion in Haverstraw because he was working in his office. The explosion killed five people, uprooted trees, and hurled a huge boulder some distance crashing through a parsonage roof.

Antique dynamite box

Quarry Owner

Foss quickly transitioned from employee to quarry owner. As co-owner with Joseph E. Conklin, he modernized operations to meet the growing demand for trap rock, essential for road paving and building in New York City. Foss’s new company, the New York Trap Company, became the largest in the Hudson River Valley. His quarries, however, became environmental hazards. Loud noises from dynamite, drifting clouds of dirt from rock crushers, and the gradual deforestation of the Palisades, prompted figures like the Rockefellers and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) to fight back. Through their donations, the Palisades became quarry free. In 1917, Foss sold the last remaining Palisades quarry at Rockland Lake Landing at a premium, adding millions to his wealth.

Postcard of the docks for the quarry at Rockland Lake Landing. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

A Tough Competitor

Foss was known for his tenacity. He once fought off a business intruder at his docks, decking the barge owner who disrupted quarry operations and chasing him across the river to Ossining. At age 74, Foss sued his chauffeur for damaging his limousine, winning the case despite the chauffeur’s countersuit. He didn’t lose many battles. However, as Vice President of the Rockland County Trust Company, he lost a battle over the height of the new bank building at the corner of Broadway and Main Street. He advocated for a larger building, though it ended up being only half the size he recommended.

Personal Life

Portrait of Wilson Foss

Foss served as Haverstraw’s first mayor. In 1906, while serving as mayor, the disastrous landslide and a subsequent fire created by clay mining for bricks occurred. A national billiards champion and the American Senior Golf Champion, Foss also enjoyed racing speedboats. He raced neighbor Leroy Frost from Tarrytown on their last leg of their daily commute. He collected antique Oriental porcelain and jade, with items later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery.

The Foss Family

In 1882, Foss married Anna van Buskirk de Baun from a longtime Rockland County family. They had four daughters and two sons. Anna married David Lawrence Jewett in 1914, and Helen married painter Benjamin Kilvert. After being widowed, Helen survived a fire at Water Crest.

Acquiring the Property

In 1908, Foss acquired 37 acres in Upper Nyack, a 600-feet wide strip running west from the Hudson River for $40,000. The previous owner, Andrew J. Smith, obtained the land from two Boss Tweed speculators who bought the land from George Green in 1870. They attempted to capitalize on Boss Tweed’s plans for a resort hotel atop Hook Mountain. Foss moved the old Smith house west across Broadway on a lane that bisected the Foss Property. This house became the residence of one of his daughters. The top part of the lane west of Midland Avenue is now Foss Drive.

View of the old Smith house that Foss moved to this site west of Broadway. This lane once ran all the way to the top of the Foss property. The top part is now Foss Drive.

Building Under Elms

Foss contracted with Charles Leavitt to design Under Elms and E.E. Waite of White Plains to build it. Aside from designing the gardens for neighboring Widewater, Leavitt designed gardens, parks, mansions, and, among municipal structures, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Waite’s resume included the Mizzentop Hotel in Pawling and the Palatine Hotel in Newburgh.

1925 photo of the south side of Under Elms. Today the porches are enclosed. From Nyack and Vicinity in Pictures.

The design for Under Elms included a 21-room house with three small apartments, seven bathrooms, an elevator, stable, three-car garage, pergola, boat house, brick driveways in a herringbone pattern, garden walls and iron fence. Foss selected Indiana limestone as the primary building material, importing Italian masons to build it. The estimate, likely an underbid, came to $250K, an astronomical figure in those days.  He departed from the Barons of Broadway tradition of building stone or brick walls for privacy, by erecting a tall iron fence and gate.

View of River House circa 1980. Photo by Sally Savage

Foss, his wife Anna, five of their children, and five servants moved into the finished house in 1910 or 1911. A married couple listed as gardeners lived in the carriage house.

Foss Dies in 1930

Foss died on September 21, 1930, at his Upper East Side apartment where he was staying while seeing a specialist. Some obituaries list pneumonia as the cause, others heart failure, and in one case that illness was brought on by a fall while inspecting one of his mines. His wife, Ana Debaun Foss, and daughter, Ruth Foss, continued to live in the house until Ana’s death in 1940. Two other daughters had already built homes on part of the property along Midland Ave. His son, Wilson P. Foss Jr., was named executor of the estate, valued at some $30M, factoring in inflation about 5.3 billion today. 

River House today.

From Under Elms to River House

In 1951 Daniel Kalina who owned a nursing home in Allentown PA purchased Under Elms converting it into one of the first assisted living facilities in the country called Under Elms. Kalina converted the estate rooms into suites and patients brought their own furniture. 

View north toward Hook Mountain from the old Under Elms dock.

At some point, Daniel Kalina turned “Under Elms” into “River House,” filled with luxury riverfront condos. River House remains a beautiful reminder of Wilson P. Foss, a man of many talents.


Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Tom Englert and Marie McGuire for sharing a copy of the privately distributed River House History, Beth Potter, 2007.

Barons of Broadway Series

#1 The Magnificent Saga Of Larchdell

#2 Revisiting Underclyffe–A Lost, Gilded Age Mansion

#3 The Adriance Era At Underclyffe Manor

#4 The Flying Dutchman Lands at Underclyffe Manor

#5 The Saga of Rivercliff”s Storied Resdents

#6 The Winding Saga of River Hook

#7 Unveiling Water Crest

#8 The Legacy of Belle Crest: From Clockmakers to Tennis Champions

#9 Greenland In Upper Nyack

#10 The Wonders of Widewater


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.

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.


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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