Walking Backward

Local guides lead hikes into history

The man who shot John Wilkes Booth lived in what is today Beacon for a spell. The city’s factories got a leg up in the 1700s with a machine smuggled out of England. Dozens of mysterious stone structures stand in Putnam County woods.

Emily Murnane and Robin Lucas

Emily Murnane and Robin Lucas (Photos provided)

These are among the obscure facts revealed during walking tours by two organizations that turn the Highlands and vicinity into an open-air museum.

Robin Lucas, who lives in a Beacon farmhouse and led tours for Hudson Valley Bucket List (a victim of the pandemic that offered a two-hour history walk in Beacon), in March launched Beacon Walking Tours (beaconwalkingtours.com), assisted by local old soul Emily Murnane.

She started her historical digging looking into her own home’s past and branched into genealogy. Like Murnane, she is active with the Beacon Historical Society and Madam Brett Homestead. They are both also members of the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, which owns the former home of Madam Brett.

Lucas combed through primary documents to create her tour of Matteawan, the name of the eastern section of the city before its 1913 merger with Fishkill Landing on the waterfront. (The latter is the locus of another program in development.)

One tale told on the Matteawan tour centers on two industrialists in the late 18th century who visited Scotland intending to abscond with a cotton-spinning mule, in violation of English law.

Confronted at the dock, they created a diversion and smuggled the contraption past the guards, helping to foster the industrial might of Beacon and beyond after they arrived home with the purloined technology.

Another local character, Thomas “Boston” Corbett, who made wool hats in Matteawan and who shot Lincoln’s assassin despite orders to capture the fugitive alive, was remembered in a news account published soon after as an “ardent and zealous Christian, if not a fanatic. He was always singing.”

Lucas likes to limit her tours to 90 minutes but says that benchmark can be difficult.

“I could go on for countless hours with the history lessons,” she said. “It’s incredible how everything is interconnected. When you spend a long time in the archives and get some great stories, it’s fun to share.”

Another purveyor of tours, the Putnam History Museum in Cold Spring (putnamhistorymuseum.org), offers an array of hikes.

During a Putnam History Museum tour, hikers follow the path Benedict Arnold took when he fled to the river.

During a Putnam History Museum tour, hikers follow the path Benedict Arnold took when he fled to the river.

When the pandemic hit, Executive Director Cassie Ward decided to beef up the museum’s outdoor programs. She and her staff developed a range of tours spotlighting Garrison’s Landing and Arden Point, the remains of the West Point Foundry, the Revolutionary War redoubts, Benedict Arnold’s flight, Fahnestock State Park (focusing on mining) and Little Stony Point’s environmental history.

The museum leads 10 to 12 tours per year; the redoubts, the Foundry and the Benedict Arnold programs are staples. The museum also received grants to develop self-guided tour packages available outside its front door at 63 Chestnut St.

This fall, the museum plans to adapt the Foundry tour to reflect information in a current exhibit, Indigenous Peoples in Putnam County, and guides will lead a hike up Mount Nimham and tour some of the county’s undated and unidentified stone chambers (root cellars or religious buildings, perhaps).

“In the Highlands, and in the county, we’re so fortunate to have incredible hiking trails,” said Ward. “And 99.9 percent of them have interesting historical angles to explore.”

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