Piermont – Early History
The history of Piermont began many millions of years ago with geological events that left a break in the solid rock wall of the Palisades dominant along the west shore of the Hudson River above Manhattan. This break, and the creek that ran through it into the Hudson, created a passageway to the interior, making it an ideal place for commerce and trade. Tappan Indians, part of the Delaware Nation, inhabited the region and traded with the predominantly Dutch settlers when they began arriving in the 17th century. From that point on, this developed into an increasingly busy location that was variously called Tappan Slote, Tappan Landing, The Slote, or The Landing – but not Piermont.
The settlers found here a marsh alive with ducks, geese, swans, and shore birds, deer “as fat as any Holland Cow,” oysters lining the banks, and ten species of fish in the bay. The Indians enjoyed quantities of striped bass caught in nets made of swamp milkweed or “Indian hemp.” The settlers, too, found both saltwater and freshwater fish in abundance. So prodigious was the game, including wolves, bears, mountain lions, and elk, that one of these settlers, Adraen Vander Donck, thought it an “unnecessary anxiety” to imagine a time when they would disappear.
News, crops, furs, and people traveled by sloop in those days. Settlers and supplies went westward via the creek and their fertile inland farms poured produce back through it to the markets of New York. The first commercial settlement grew up along the creek, which was then called the Slote (a Dutch word for ditch), and later the Sparkill. A 1745 map of the area around the present day Silk Mill Bridge* shows a cluster of four buildings including “Henry Ludlows Griss Mill.” A dam had been built to provide power for the millwheels, and the mill pond exists to this day. Abraham Mabie had a store there which played a role in the Revolutionary War when General Washington used it for storage of tools and “armers.”
The area was growing and prosperous, but unrest was in the air, with momentous changes soon to come.
It’s hard for us today to imagine a war on our own land, in our own little village. Imagine your friends and neighbors organized as a Shore Guard patrolling the banks of the Hudson from the Sparkill up through Grandview to Nyack and beyond to prevent armed and hostile British soldiers from coming ashore to get fresh water and provisions. Imagine cannonballs being fired from the British ships at your house on the river. Or imagine the horror of a raid by a band of “Cowboys,” Loyalist guerillas, or just plain thugs, that roamed the countryside, burning houses, stealing livestock and food and generally making life even more insecure for the general population.
Such was the reality of life for the people here during the years of the American Revolution. The River Road (now Piermont Avenue) was then a horse trail used for troop and supply movements. The Onderdonk House, at the corner of Ritie Street (now on the National Register of Historic Places)*, was the home of declared patriots and was fired upon by British ships. Years later, residents dug cannonballs out of the front lawn and family members have saved them until this day. The Slote was a transportation route and presumably an active site for both militiamen and raiders. And the area was deeply divided by the Revolution. Friends and family members took different positions and conflict became bitter at times.
In 1774 a group of local residents had organized to formulate the Orange Town Resolutions, a call for allegiance to the cause of liberty in the colonies that presaged the Declaration of Independence two years later. From that point on, the die was cast. The Hudson River Valley was central in the eight year conflict, and its control was a key goal for both sides. Because it was a major transportation route, a major source of foodstuffs, and a potential dividing line between the colonies, it was a frequent battleground. George Washington spent fully one third of the Revolution defending the valley, and had one of his headquarters at the DeWint House in Tappan. In May of 1783, at the end of the war, George Washington arrived at the Slote to meet Sir Guy Carleton, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s forces in America. They rode to the headquarters in Tappan where they formulated an agreement for the evacuation of British troops from New York and other issues involving the property of the colonists. The following day, Washington went to dinner aboard Carleton’s ship, the HMS Perseverance, which was anchored in the bay off the Slote. Upon boarding the ship, Washington was greeted with a 17-gun salute, the first recognition of the new sovereign nation. This event is commemorated by a bronze plaque on the boulder at the Onderdonk House.
A period of reconstruction followed the end of the war, with a quiet and increasingly prosperous time arriving in the new century. But another revolution was brewing which would again change the whole area forever.
The Work of the Age
The place we now know as Piermont was developed in the 1830s. The New York and Erie Railroad was chartered by the state in1832 and began its ambitious project of building a rail line from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The Slote was chosen to be the site of the eastern terminus since it was the last port before the New Jersey border and the railroad was forbidden by law at that time to cross state lines. It probably also helped that Eleazar Lord, a founder of the railroad and its first president, had substantial landholdings here.
The railroad brought an army of laborers to the marshy waterfront area north of the creek and put them to work constructing a massive rail yard. Using picks and shovels, the laborers cut down the hillside above and deposited rock and fill to create 90 acres of new land, including a long pier extending almost a mile out to the deep water channel of the Hudson.
The local population swelled to several thousand. Every spare room for miles around was filled, and shanties sprung up on the waterfront. The terminus was completed in 1838. It included two roundhouses built on the north side of the site, one of which could accommodate 30 locomotives. There was also a brass factory and a coppersmith’s shop, a pattern room, a car manufacture and repair shop, a paint shop, a sawmill and lumberyard, plus a second repair shop in the center of the pier where freight cars were inspected and repaired after each trip. Freight and passenger depots completed the installation, filling Piermont with a mélange of clanging anvils, steamboat and locomotive whistles, and the smoke from a multitude of engines and furnaces. The bill for the whole terminus–the pier and 300-yard-wide area of yards, a foundry, offices, shops, and freight and car houses–was $300,000.
In 1839, Eleazar Lord decided that the place should be renamed Piermont, combining a reference to the Erie pier and the mountain above on which he was building his country estate.
Another twelve years passed before the last spike was finally driven and the railroad could open. The project had been plagued with financial and other problems, but eventually prevailed, and the opening ceremony was spectacular. This was the longest railroad in America and by far the greatest railroad in the world. The New York City Board of Aldermen in an engraved charter resolved: “We hail the completion of this gigantic and stupendous work as emphatically THE WORK OF THE AGE.”
On May 14, 1851, President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster, plus a long list of politicians and dignitaries, traveled to Piermont on the steamboat Erie. Arriving with great fanfare at 7:45 a.m., they then boarded two lavishly decorated trains and set out for Dunkirk on Lake Erie. This star- studded first voyage inaugurated the railroad that would help revolutionize transportation in the nation and the world, and move forward the westward course of empire.
The glory days of the railroad were short lived in Piermont, however. As soon as interstate regulations were changed in 1852, the Erie moved their main terminus to Jersey City, closer to Manhattan, leaving repair shops and related functions in Piermont. The population declined by close to half, and even the shops were closed by 1869 – left abandoned and ultimately destroyed by fire.
There was, though, still a commuter rail line in operation. Built in 1869-70, it connected to other existing tracks to take passengers from Nyack to Jersey City. The little station on Ash Street, now so lovingly restored thanks to the Village Board and the Piermont Historical Society, opened in 1883, according to an article in the Rockland County Journal of that time:
"The new station at Piermont-on-the-Hill is nearly completed, and we do not hesitate to say that it is one of the handsomest little buildings we have ever seen. Its architecture is of Swiss design, the architect being Mr. M.W. Debaun, of the firm of M.W. and H. Debaun who erected it.It is 20 x 30 feet on the ground, two stories high, and elegantly fitted up. On the first floor are the waiting rooms and ticket office, which are finished in Georgia pine, and the second floor is divided into living apartments for the station agent. The building is painted a French gray with olive trimmings, and presents a very attractive appearance both inside and out. The grounds will be nicely graded and adorned, so that they will, in point of beauty, be in perfect keeping with the building. The builders, the Messrs. Debaun, have done their work well, and the effort is very pleasing. The citizens of Piermont are justly proud of their handsome station…."
The railroad, along with the steamboats then plying the Hudson daily, had made possible a growing tourist business in the Hudson Valley. People streamed out of the hot and dirty city to find healthful air and tranquility along the banks of the river, and in Piermont around the turn of the century the Fort Comfort Inn and Realty Company converted an old mansion along the west side of Piermont Avenue into a hotel. In 1903, a recreational enterprise called “Fort Comfort Resort” or “Old Fort Comfort Park” was started on the peninsula between Piermont Avenue and the river a short distance southeast of the hotel. It included an ice cream parlor, bathing beach, a merry-go-round, shooting gallery, bowling alley, dance hall, swings, boating, and other amusements.
A local publication described the facilities:
“The Fort Comfort Beach is the most desirable place on the Hudson for bathing and has many attractive features not found at seaside resorts. The clean, fine sand bottom sloping gradually for a long distance makes it absolutely safe for small children and enjoyable to all. A modern Bathing Pavilion lighted by electricity for bathing at night, has about one hundred large booths furnished with shower and foot baths. Very large assortment of fine suits for hire. Fort Comfort is a strictly first-class resort in every respect, and is patronized by people of wealth and refinement. Shady porches, river breezes, beautiful scenery, delightful bathing, sandy beach, ice cream, soda water, cigars and confectionery. The Casino is a recent addition to Fort Comfort and consists of a Billiard Room, Bowling Alleys and Music Room.”
All that remains today to remind us of this idyllic bygone era are the crenelated curved battlement and towers on the site and the puddingstone gateposts along Piermont Avenue that flank a semicircular drive that once led to the original inn.
The Industrial Twentieth Century
While the fortunate tourists were bathing at Fort Comfort Beach, some Piermont promoters were engaged in attracting industry to the Village. Members of the Piermont Improvement Association were instrumental in bringing in the paper mills that would, under one management or another, build a new industrial complex on the old rail yards and dominate the Village for the greater part of the twentieth century.
The Piermont Paper Company filed incorporation papers on January 12, 1902, with capital of $500,000. On February 12, 1902, the first machine began operation. In 1920 Piermont Paper merged with the Robert Gair Company of Brooklyn, which had developed new ways of folding paperboard into cartons. The Gair operation expanded and, by 1941, 900 men were employed there. The payroll ran to $1,250,000 a year, and employment eventually reached 1,200.
Gair in turn merged with Continental Can Company in 1957, and in the late 1970’s Federal Paperboard and Clevepak were operating in some of the original brick and concrete buildings of the Piermont Paper Company. In 1979, Clevepak bought the portion of the mill it had been leasing and made it the center of its paper recycling operations in the East. But by the early 1980s, economic and environmental issues had rendered the operations unprofitable and the property was sold for real estate development.
Today’s elegant housing at Piermont Landing, as well as our new library, now occupy that land originally developed by the Erie Railroad close to two centuries ago.
Most of the information in the above is excerpted from “Piermont: Three Centuries”, compiled by former Library Board member Julie Jackson and published by the Friends of the Piermont Library in honor of the Library’s Centennial in 1996. There is a great deal more included in the history than what could be covered here, and copies are available at the Library at a cost of $15.00, plus $3.00 shipping and handling if required. With Ms. Jackson’s assistance, we hope to have the entire book online at some point in the not too distant future.