By Alison Rooney
The Beacon Institute of Rivers and Estuaries (BIRE), now part of Clarkson University, has developed a series of Walk and Talk excursions, each focused on different aspects of Denning’s Point (DP), the spit of land extending from the shoreline south from the Beacon Metro-North station, as part of its Center for Environmental Education (CEIE) programming. The walks, usually offered twice a month, seasonally, have focused on topics like geology, birding, herbs, and history. One more history walk takes place this Saturday, Nov.9, before the season ends. Educator Karen Gell leads the walk, following on from historian Jim Heron, upon whose book, Denning’s Point, A Hudson River History, content is largely based.
On a recent crisp October morning, Gell led a group on and off the trail, which loops around the Point, describing a rich history which began about 4,000 years ago. The walk, billed at 1.5 hours, took slightly longer, due to participant curiosity. Though not difficult, the walk involves uneven, wooded and sandy terrain, with some climbing using stones as balance, so those with walking difficulties might find it challenging.
Denning’s Point, a 64-acre spit of land, is part of the Hudson Highlands State Park. It is open for hiking and fishing, but closed in winter (beginning Nov. 17) to protect the bald eagle habitat. Gell, who first attended a walk as a participant, found that the land “spoke to her.” After much study and absorption of thousands of years of history in one small parcel of land, is now enthusiastically telling its story; her affinity for it is palpable.
By virtue of following the trail, DP’s history is told in a fragmented, non-linear fashion. Beginning at the building which once housed a leading brick works factory — one of about 160 in this region — Gell began telling participants of the period of industrialization, beginning in 1881, which saw the end of DP’s rural existence as Homer Ramsdell, whom Gell described as “a dry goods clerk and suave opportunist who married into a rich family,” purchased the bankrupt property from Denning family members and started up DP Brick Works, removing topsoil from a third of the point, envisioning endless supplies of clay and sand from which to manufacture the bricks. A lot of fill was used and extensive clear-cutting eliminated many trees. The large factory, with many buildings then, brought in hundreds of immigrants, based there for months at a time. Descendants still populate Beacon today.
Changing hands in 1928, the new owner introduced brick making machines and rebuilt and restructured the factory. He developed a transportation crate for transporting bricks by train; formerly the bricks were shipped by barge, largely to New York City. Continuing with 20th-century history, Gell told of the Depression era, during which the people of Beacon were spared some of the hardships of the day as the factory continued to operate, then the 1939 transfer of the Brick Works to the Durisol Company, “the first green building products, impervious to weather and insects — a product ahead of its time.” That company was succeeded by the Noesting Pin Ticket Company, which manufactured wire products.
Heading into the woods, Gell jumped back thousands of years to talk about Native Americans who once inhabited this land. “There is no indication that they lived here in families initially,” Gell said. They came, hunted, fished and moved on, seasonally. Gell said that when BIRE took over the property they explored the possible presence of Native American burial grounds, and after much research, determined that any remains had already been excavated.
Skipping ahead to the 1683 8,500-acre Rombout Patent purchase (for $1,250) of lands from the Wappingers Indians, Gell said that remotely located Dutchess County was one of the last to become populated. The island was part of the purchase. Madame Brett, daughter of Rombout, took the southern third of the patent, eventually selling it to her nephew, Jacobus de Peyster, and in 1738, along with constructing a causeway to the mainland, he built the first homestead, a Dutch-style house, in which he lived until 1789.
That house was used by historic notables, most prominently Alexander Hamilton, following his tenure as aide-de-camp to George Washington, who rented the home, and wrote several essays there, which later became part of the Federalist Papers. Washington himself frequented the house during many river crossings from his New Windsor headquarters. A short trek off-trail led to what is presumed to be the remains of the de Peyster home. A number of objects, but not enough to officially corroborate, have been found near the remains of walls.
The de Peyster house was eventually sold to the Allen family, who built a European-style, lavish hunting lodge. That family’s financial difficulties led to the purchase of the home and land by the Denning family, described by Gell as “wealthy, generous, well-respected, with mercantile interests” in 1821. The Dennings lived there through 1889, until fortunes had declined. Eminent Domain forced them to sell two coastal strips of the Point to the Hartford and Erie Railroad, and, soon after, they had to sell what was left to those who became the brick works owners. The last major change for DP came in 1988 with the acquisition of the land by New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which maintains it.
With stops made along the beach, and at what remains of a cider mill which once stocked 500 barrels made from Pippin apples found in the Denning’s orchards and made into locally sold “Fishkill Champagne,” the program concluded at the CEIE center, a LEED-gold building replete with solar panels, composting bathrooms and wind towers, repurposed from what was once the power plant. Gell concluded by saying “I don’t know of another small place where so much has happened. How the story ends really depends on us — how we take care of it.”
After this weekend’s program, which begins at 10 a.m., the Walk and Talk series resumes next April. Visit bire.org or phone 845-838-1600 for details on this and the Institute’s lecture series, which continues through winter.