Back in the Day

200 years ago, a teenager arrived in Cold Spring for a new life

Marvin Wilson’s memoir

Two hundred years ago, in 1819, a 15-year-old boy named Marvin Wilson moved from Southeast to Cold Spring to become an apprentice at a tanning and currying business. As he recalled in a memoir published 70 years later, in 1886, the village at the time was “not much more than a wilderness.”

Below are excerpts from Thirty Years of Early History of Cold Spring and Vicinity, With Incidents. A scan of the booklet provided by the Putnam History Museum can be downloaded at The photographs were scanned from glass negatives in the museum’s collection.

One or two sloops made regular weekly trips from Cold Spring to New York, carrying wood and some country produce, which came over this model road [toll road] from the east. No steamers touched here regularly…. Persons going to New York had to go on a sloop. The writer has been twice to New York in this way; once with his boss to witness the famous race between the horses Sir Henry and Eclipse. Those trips by sloop usually took a week.

Starting from Southeast at 8 a.m. with a two-horse wagon load of household goods, with roads bad until we reached the turnpike [a toll road from Patterson to Cold Spring], we did not get here until 9 p.m. Here we quartered in a log house, the only building that my boss Crosby had on 6 acres of land at the fork of the roads of the turnpike and the Lobdell road. Near the center of this plot the Margaret Brook, as it was called, went through. On the opposite side of the road stood the only schoolhouse in this part of the town and school for the three school districts: Nelsonville, Foundry and Cold Spring….

At that time the Longfield Hotel was building and nearly finished…. [Along with about eight homes and the schoolhouse], those were all the buildings from Griffin Corners to what is now the village of Cold Spring in the year 1819.

I will now take the reader to the West Point foundry. A cluster of houses, called Rascal Hill, was built, and occupied by the families of the workmen…. At that time the large molding house, the enormous chimney and furnaces and the large water wheel (perhaps the largest in America) was in full operation. It was called a cannon foundry, and there was no other like it in America.

An early map of Cold Spring

Churches and schools

Next I will describe, as best I can, the denominations of Christians that were rising up, and touch on the public schools that were then in existence.

Above the boring mill connected with the foundry was a large room used as a pattern shop. This room was cleared out and swept, and boards arranged for seats. This made a spacious hall for church or other gatherings. All denominations were invited to hold their meetings in it. There were but very few of each denomination then. The Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Baptists accepted the invitation. The Methodists chose to use a private house or the schoolhouse…

William Young was the superintendent of the West Point foundry, and being a north of Ireland man, was liberal in all his religious views, although a Presbyterian; so the pattern shop was made free for all. His desire was that we should not be heathens….

About 1826 a few wise heads conceived the idea of building a Union church. Meetings were held, and a committee was appointed, composed of Gouv. Kemble on the part of the Episcopalians, William Davenport on the part of the Baptists, Elisha Nelson on the part of the Methodists, and William Young on the part of the Presbyterians. This committee went to work with a will and a site was selected, funds raised, the building commenced, and in 18 months a famous church edifice was built of stone, with a cedar roof…. [It was decided that] the Presbyterians were to occupy the house the fore part of the Sabbath and other denominations to use the church in the after part of the day.


1725: Thomas Davenport was the first settler.
1730: David Hustis built a home in North Highlands.
1730: The central street was a dirt road from the area of modern-day Philipstown Town Hall to behind the present Butterfield Library, continuing westward toward a brook near what is now The Endless Skein at 126 Main St., then turned north toward the south of Sandy Beach.
1805: Elijah Davenport built a store on what would become Market Street.
1817: Fredrick Phillipse sold the land for the West Point Foundry.
1823: The road to Breakneck was laid out.
1826: The multi-denominational Union Church was built on Market Street. It was later the Presbyterian Church and a pickle factory.
1830: The Pear Tree School was built on Secor Street.
1831: The Baptist church was dedicated.
1833: The first Methodist church was built.
1834: The Church of Our Lady (now Chapel Restoration) was dedicated.
1836: The Cold Spring basin was filled in.
1838: Main Street was straightened.
1846: Cold Spring was incorporated.
1848: The railroad was built through Cold Spring.
1855: The Reformed Church was built on the site that is now the library.
1867: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was built on Chestnut Street on land donated by Robert Parrott.
1867: Philipstown Town Hall was built.
1868: Cold Spring Methodist Church was built.
1889: Construction began on a central school building on what is now the Tot Park. It was funded with an endowment from James Haldane. (It was replaced by the current school building in 1936.)
1895: Haldane had its first graduating class.

Adapted from a timeline created in 1988 by Frank Milkovich

Exploring the river

In the fall and winter before I came to Cold Spring. the Swift boy gave me lots of incidents and information about Cold Spring… One [incident] was very shocking. The sloop Neptune carried wood and produce and some passengers, mostly ladies. When on the up trip, nearing home and this side of West Point, the ladies sitting in chairs on the deck, near sunset, were very joyous, when a sudden flaw of wind struck the sloop without warning and upset her, throwing them all into the river, and seven of the number, nearly all, were drowned….

The Swift boy told of what fun we could have on the water, the wild ducks we could kill, etc. But I had such a charge from my mother before leaving home to not go near the water, it put such a check on me that I never joined my old school-mate in the fun he had anticipated for me.

A view of Main Street in 1893, looking east from 75 Main (Putnam History Museum)

Everyday life

The reader will wonder where the people got their shoes and their garments. In this way: A shoemaker would go from house to house with his tools, or “kit,” and make up the family shoes, and the tailor would do the same. The circuit would be made about twice a year. This was a joyous time with the boys and girls, for a pair of new shoes was a godsend to them. This mode of shoeing and clothing families was prevalent and universal the country over in 1820.

A horn [at the Foundry] would blow for the men to go to work at six o’clock, and at half-past six for breakfast; then again at seven to go to work. It would blow at twelve for dinner and at one to work. At six it would sound for the men to leave work. A store was built… It was called a store, and some groceries were kept, but it was not much more than a drink shop for the men. This was continued three or four years. The superintendent seeing his men were not benefited by the drink, the work was neglected, and families suffered, the drink was abolished. This was about 1825.

Rapid development

I will now return to the growth of Cold Spring. Large accessions were made to its inhabitants, say from 1826 to 1830, and they scarcely knew where to lay their heads. Houses must be built, and carpenters were in great demand. Houses rose up mushroom-like. Building materials were very cheap in those days… Wood was then the only fuel used; I do not recollect the price. Coal was unknown in those days, except what was brought from the Cumberland Mountains in Maryland, to melt the iron at the foundry….

The houses being put up, a lull in building followed. In the years before 1830 some began to settle down on business. Benjamin Dykman was the first butcher. Shoemakers and tailors came in soon after 1826. A blacksmith was located at Nelson Mill. William Davenport was the milk pedlar in 1820, and for some time after.

The Champlin Blacksmith shop at the corner of Main and Spring streets, with a view of the Pear Tree School in the background. (Putnam History Museum)

I have already told of the flood of inhabitants that poured into the place about 1830. Every available house in the vicinity was doubly occupied, I might say. The work had increased at the Foundry, and they had spread out their works. The demand for work for Cuba increased…. [At the foundry], most of the castings for machinery were rough cast and sent to New York by water in summer and by land in winter. They then conceived the idea of moving the finishing and smithing works to Cold Spring…. But where could they get houses for their men to live in? Houses must be provided. Mr. Gouverneur [Kemble, founder of the West Point Foundry Association] was consulted and was assured that if he would put up a number of houses they would be rented at a profit by the foundry.

Accordingly, about 1837, a contract was made to build 24 double houses; some to be built at Nelsonville, but mostly at Cold Spring…. Two hotels were established – one was kept by George W. Travis, the Cold Spring House; the other by Walter Simonson, the Pacific Hotel, and were located on or near the new dock. A new hotel was opened in Nelsonville called the Alhambra House. Dr. Burke had before started a saloon in what was called the barracks….

The 24 houses built by Mr. Gouverneur were soon occupied, and others came and built houses for themselves. The price of building lots at this time was as low as $4 per foot. In a few years the price went up from $12 to $15 per foot….

Philipstown Town Hall, which was built in 1867, in a photo taken by John Riggs in the 1880s (Putnam History Museum)

The railroad

About 1848 the Hudson River Railroad worked its way up to Cold Spring, and at the time set for cars to reach here a mob had gathered to stop it. The cause, as was understood at the time, was that a subcontractor had failed to pay his men, and they had combined to stop the train. But by an unavoidable delay miles below, it did not come as was expected on that day. This delay put a stop to any resistance by the mob.

About August of this year, a notice appeared in the local papers of the county calling a public meeting at Carmel. Only two persons from Philipstown attended, the writer being one. The object of the meeting was to form an agricultural society for the county of Putnam. I remember meeting Reuben D. Barnum there. He observed to me: “Why, they are building a railroad along the river.” I answered they were. He said, “We are building the Harlem road up through Southeast to Albany. Oh well, if they have a mind to throw away their money like that, let them do it, I don’t care. They don’t need a railroad along the river more than a dog needs two tails.”

The Haldane Central School was constructed in the 1880s on the site of what is now the Tot Park. (Putnam History Museum)

The Hudson River Railroad was built notwithstanding, and your humble servant rode to the City of New York for 50 cents, the regular fare. It remained at that price for a while, then the regular fare was increased to 62½ cents, and continued at that for a long time, and finally went up to $1.04 in summer and $1.30 in winter. At this time by commuting the fare can be had for 85 cents….

The charter

About 1844, a Village Charter was drawn up by William I. Blake, for the future government of Cold Spring Village, and submitted to the Legislature of the State. It passed that body, and was returned to be submitted to the people for sanction or rejection. It was passed. It worked quite smoothly for a time and then became partisan and still continues so. For several years past the management has been in the hands of a very limited number. There is a strong feeling for the substitution of a new charter, making it less political. I think this will be done in the near future….

One thought on “Back in the Day

  1. Loved it! Our history is amazing. The stories of real people and their lives should continue. I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley all my life and Cold Spring twice. I still love to visit.