Beacon, NY: A City And Its History
Dedicated to providing information about the history of Beacon, NY. If you have a question please post it in the Comments section or email the library at firstname.lastname@example.org. This service is provided courtesy of the Beacon Historical Society and the Howland Public Library.
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Thursday, May 26, 2005
THE NAME OF THE CITY: While the city of Beacon is relatively new—the city incorporated in 1913—its name reflects a heritage that began in the nation’s struggle for independence. For the American revolutionaries, protecting the Hudson River Valley was a vital strategic necessity, as British domination of the valley would effectively sever New York and the New England colonies from the rest of the new United States. To protect the Hudson Valley, therefore, the Continental Congress created two military departments (areas of military responsibility) specifically charged with defending New York: the Highlands Department, which actually manned the forts and other defenses along the Hudson River, and the Northern Department, which defended the rest of New York from attacks by the British and their Indian and Loyalist allies.
The Americans concentrated their Hudson River defenses in the Highlands, a chain of low granite mountains stretching from Massachusetts south through New York and then into Pennsylvania and New Jersey; the New York portion of this range is located some fifty to sixty miles north of New York City and is called the Hudson Highlands. The Hudson River narrows considerably while passing through the Highlands, forming a fjord, an inlet of the sea bordered by mountains rising straight up from the water’s edge. As a result of these natural advantages the Highlands formed a powerful defensive position; George Washington believed that West Point, in the heart of the Highlands and guarding the narrowest point in the lower part of the river, was the most important fortification in North America. The area around Fishkill was logistically important as well, as the main supply depot for the Northern Department was located there.
For the Americans, therefore, holding the Hudson Valley was a military mission of prime importance. To forestall a British move up the river the Continental Army instituted the 18th century equivalent of an early warning system. On top of a chain of mountains from Westchester County north the Americans built signal stations consisting of wooden pyres some fourteen feet around at the base and twenty feet high. The soldiers manning these stations would set these pyres on fire whenever they received news of an impending British attack up the Hudson River. With each fire within telescope view of the next mountaintop, the news of any advancing British force would soon reach the soldiers manning the Hudson River defenses. Mount Beacon formed part of this warning system of beacon fires, and when the villages of Mattewan and Fishkill Landing incorporated in 1913 to form the City of Beacon the new municipality took its name from those Revolutionary signal fires.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
JOSEPH HOWLAND, 1834-1886
Joseph Howland was born on December 3rd, 1834, in New York City, the scion of a prominent merchant family that had grown rich in the China trade. His first American ancestor, John Howland, was one of the Pilgrim Fathers and a signer of the 1620 Mayflower Compact, the first British governing document in the New World. Joseph Howland’s father was Samuel Shaw Howland, a partner in the shipping firm of Howland & Aspinwall; his mother was Joanna Esther Hone, the niece of Philip Hone, the noted diarist and mayor of New York. Both of his parents died when Howland was comparatively young: his mother when he was fourteen, his father at nineteen.
Despite these early tragedies the Howlands were a close-knit and deeply religious family, so committed to their religious faith that at one time Howland considered entering the ministry, but gave up those plans due to ill health. “The idea of preaching Christ’s Gospel was the greatest thing I could propose to myself,” he wrote in a letter in 1856, “…but a true realization of the severity of the preparation I should require have shown my physical unfitness for the work.” It was this same ill health that prevented Howland from attending school and university; he was educated at home, with several years of European travel to round out his education.
At the age of twenty-one, Joseph Howland married Eliza Newton Woolsey of New York, one of three sisters well known as prominent reformers and anti-slavery activists. The couple honeymooned in Europe and the Holy Land, and while touring Italy they commissioned two marble busts of themselves from the Italian neo-classical sculptor, Giovanni Maria Benzoni; these busts stand today in the Howland Public Library. The couple returned to the United States in 1859, and in that same year Howland bought a farm along Fishkill Creek in the upstate village of Mattewan. He named his new estate Tioronda and set about turning it into one of the finest estates along the Hudson River.
Howland’s efforts to lead the life of a country gentleman, however, came to an end two years later as the United States, after decades of increasingly bitter sectional political strife over the issue of slavery, descended into civil war. Upon the outbreak of the war, Howland immediately joined the 16th New York State Volunteers, where he served first as the regiment’s adjutant and then as its adjutant and chief of staff. Howland made an impressive soldier, so much so that when the commander of the 16th New York received a promotion, Howland was the unanimous choice to replace him as colonel.
Howland enjoyed soldiering, but his time as the commander of the 16th New York was short. On Friday, June 29th, 1862, during the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, one of the Seven Days Battles of the Peninsula Campaign, Howland was sitting on his horse directing his men into their place in the line when a Confederate bullet struck him in the thigh. He refused to go back to the hospital, staying with his men until the end of the battle. The regiment’s official report credits Howland with “…the most undaunted bravery and marked coolness…” as he stayed on his horse and rode up and down the line, giving orders and shouting encouragement to his men, “…unmindful of…the leaden hail…” through which he had to ride.
The official reports states that Howland’s wound “…will disable him for several weeks.” In reality, the wound ended Howland’s career as a soldier, as the wound and the resulting fever dangerously undermined Howland’s health, never very good to begin with, and made further active service impossible. He resigned as commander of the 16th New York and never served again in the field. He returned to duty during the New York City draft riots in 1863, taking the train down to the city and placing himself at the disposal of the civil and military authorities as they tried to quell the largest municipal riots in American history; Howland quickly organized a regiment of civilian volunteers to help suppress the chaos, but after the emergency passed he returned to civilian life. For his courage at Gaines’ Mill Howland received the brevet, or honorary, rank of brigadier general.
After the war, Howland served as Treasurer of New York State for two years and served an active role in drafting the trust deeds for Cornell University and in organizing the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane, the humane treatment of the mentally ill being one of his and his wife’s great concerns. In Mattewan, Howland was instrumental in building Highland Hospital, the Presbyterian Church, and the public library that still bears his name. Howland commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect Richard Morris Hunt, to design the library building. The building is now the Howland Cultural Center and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, placed there in 1972, the 100th anniversary of the building’s construction. The library moved to another Main Street location in 1976, but retained the name of the man who founded the institution.
Joseph Howland died in Mentone, France, on March 31st, 1886. He and his wife had no children and after his death Eliza Howland never returned to Tioronda, saying that the memories of her husband made staying there too difficult. She died in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1908, at the age of eighty-two. After her death Tioronda became Craig House, a hospital for the mentally ill.
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
The city of Beacon lies some seventy-five miles north of New York City. Formally incorporated as a city in 1913, Beacon is, like many cities, the inevitable product of its geography. Located between Mount Beacon, a part of the Hudson Highlands and actually two peaks despite its singular name, and the Hudson River, the two villages had nowhere to grow as they expanded during the nineteenth century except into each other. The incorporation of 1913 simply gave legal form to what was otherwise an accomplished urban and economic fact.
Despite its 20th century nativity, the city traces its ancestry back to 1683, when Francois Rombout, a French speaking Protestant from what is now Belgium, bought 85,000 acres of land lying between Fishkill and Wappingers Creeks from the Wappingers Indians for about a thousand dollars worth of trade goods. There is a story that the Indians promised Rombout that he could buy all the land he could see, and Rombout, being nobodys fool, promptly went to the top of Mount Beacon and held the Indians to their promise. However good a story this is, it is purely apocryphal. Rombout and his partners required government approval, a patent, to treat with the Indians and part of that approval was that the Indians had to receive a fair price for the land they sold. Rombout sold one third of the land to Stephanus Van Cortlandt and divided what the rest with his partner, Gulian Verplanck, dividing the land in such a way that all three had property on the Hudson River and water rights to Fishkill and Wappingers Creeks. Rombout kept the southern third, where the city of Beacon and a large sized chunk of the Town of Fishkill are now, for himself and his daughter, Catharyna.
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Henry Hudson and the crew of his ship, the Half-Moon, were the first recorded European visitors to the area that now comprises the city of Beacon, anchoring the ship in what is now Fishkill Creek on a windy night. Hudsons expedition, financed by the Dutch East India Company, went up the river in 1609 looking for the Northwest Passage, the much storied water route through the Americas to the Pacific and the Orient. They got as far as what is now Albany, New York, before having to turn back. The disappointment was great, but as they sat out the night in Fishkill Creek, one of Hudsons crew, Robert Juet, wrote in his diary this is as fine a river as can be found and as pleasant a land as one need tread on.
Monday, April 25, 2005
Thursday, March 31, 2005
Fishkill Landing Company
In 1853 the Fishkill Landing Company started in business, begun by seventeen men who’d once worked at the Mattewan Company, a business that had gone under shortly before this time. The men, all machinists, took over the formal mill and storage building of the Mattewan Company at the riverbank and the foot of Main Street. The company manufactured marine and stationary engines, including, for a time, the Corliss steam engine, the mechanical star of the 1876 Centennial Exposition and a for the time revolutionary step forward in steam engine technology. During the Civil War, the plant manufactured ordnance for the Union Army. Firms in New York City, such as Bloomingdale’s, as well as many local and foreign firms, all used engines produced by the Fishkill Landing Company. The company went out of business in 1913, and upon its dissolution the New York Central Railroad acquired the site in order to expand its roadbed from two tracks to four. Later, the city of Beacon used the area as a dump. Today, after a major cleanup, the site of the old plant is Riverfront Park.