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Fires and ice

the history of Highland Landing

by Megan Labrise
June 20, 2011 11:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Summer sun beckons Highlanders to the Hudson: for dinner and drinks with friends at Mariner’s on the Hudson or to uncover the speedboat for an afternoon cruise. At Bob Shepard Highland Landing Park, they do group Tai Chi, patronize arts and crafts exhibitions, launch kayaks and canoes, and hold family picnics. In recent years, the waterfront has become an increasingly popular place, admired by locals and Walkway Over the Hudson visitors who spy the west bank’s splendor from 212 feet above the river.

It’s not the first time in history Highland Landing has enjoyed a popularity growth spurt. In the mid-1700s, the relatively remote waterfront went from one man’s personal paradise to the epicenter of a pioneering town.

Anthony Yelverton was a Poughkeepsie businessman who traveled across the river to build Ulster County’s first frame house in 1754. (Still standing at 39 Maple Avenue, it is on the National Historic Register of Places.) Home to a one-room store and adjacent sawmill, Yelverton’s Landing soon drew settlers from near and far. In 1766, a road was built from the Village of New Paltz to the river at Yelverton’s, leading to the re-christening of the spot as “New Paltz Landing.”

Yelverton established the first ferry between New Paltz Landing and Poughkeepsie, rowed by slaves, in 1777. His sawmill produced lumber used to build additional homes and businesses along the river and, by 1790, there were 100 families living in the new settlement. The bustling hamlet was populated by fishermen and farmers, ice harvesters and millers who shipped their goods from the landing. In 1831, the first steamboat docked at the settlement; the ferry business flourished. Residents built warehouses, stores, cooperage shops, wagon-making factories, foundries, brickyards, lime kilns, scythe and rifle manufacturing centers, postash (agricultural fertilizer) works, stone quarries, coal yards, a restaurant, sawmills, grist mills and docks. There were decks full of fresh fruit and produce, ice harvested from the river in winter, and fish on drying racks.

The Hudson was the heart of the town.

“There was always the river, filled with sailboats and steamers in the summer and almost as busy in winter. Horse races as well as ice yacht races were conducted off shore. After bitter cold forced ferry boats to put up for the winter, stage coaches crossed to Poughkeepsie on the ice,” remembered Ella Davis Grisard in a 1953 Sunday New Yorker article.

Early industry of such a large scale proved both productive and destructive. A series of three disastrous fires led to the hamlet’s decline -- and relocation to today’s strategically located downtown district. According to former town historian Bea Wadlin, as quoted in a news brief in the Poughkeepsie Journal dated April 25, 1979: “In [1882] the center of what we now call Highland was down at the river, where Mariner’s Harbor is now located. It was called New Paltz Landing back then, but in [1882], a huge fire completely wiped out the commercial district,” she said. “That fire prompted community officials and residents to relocate to the ‘high land’ up from the shore. With time, people settled in, and we became ‘Highland’.”

The move was initially called “Philip’s Folly” after early settler Philip Elting -- but time proved his detractors wrong. The Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge was built in 1888, acting as “The Great Connector” for shipments between east and west. The dawn of the 20th century solidified the Highland hamlet at the town’s epicenter. Cars came and the Mid-Hudson Bridge was built by a federal public works project in 1930. Ferries between New Paltz Landing and Poughkeepsie continued until Dec. 31, 1941. Goods still shipped from the landing, but on a declining scale. By the 1950s, the waterfront was filled with pleasure cruisers peopled by families enjoying a prosperous period sweeping the United States.

“There were speed boats; they’d have their own private little boats to go motoring on the Hudson,” said Lloyd Town Historian Elizabeth Alfonso. “Probably in the 30s and 40s, boating was [a leisure class activity], but by the time the 50s came around, a lot of people had boats. IBM was coming in; people had more money. The economy was good then.”

In the early 1970s, the first Mariner’s Harbor opened on property that is still owned by the Relyea family. Circa 1980, it was wood shingled, with a large green sign proclaiming “Welcome to MARINER’S HARBOR; Steaks Sea Food Cocktail Lounge.” The restaurant survived two major fires -- in June 1980 and Aug. 1981 -- and changed hands several times. Past operator Frank Guido bought the business and relocated it to the Kingston Rondout. Today, Mariner’s on the Hudson is owned by Billy Phillips.

Rose Frame worked at an early incarnation of Mariner’s Harbor operated by son James Relyea Jr.

“It’s been many years since then, but we still frequent it,” said Frame. “You like to go there because it’s close to home. We enjoy sitting out and seeing the boats, and the view of the [Walkway Over the Hudson]. To me, it’s the best view in the Hudson Valley. There’s so many things to see.”

Soon, there will be even more grand sights to see. Mariner’s next-door neighbor, Bob Shepard Highland Landing Park, earned a New York Department of State Local Waterfront Revitalization Program grant of $911,904, slated for new bulkhead construction, deep water dock repair and the boat launch ramp. The improvements will enable visitors to launch powerboats up to 25 feet long and allow tour boats and iconic vessels such as the Clearwater and Half Moon to dock at the site. The park will ultimately link up with the Hudson Valley Rail Trail and the Walkway Over the Hudson, bringing even more people back to the place where Highland began.

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