Monday, September 9, 2013

History revised, Cornwallis redirected: Closter Landing and the times that try mens' souls

After a visit to the State Line Lookout hawkwatch in Palisades Interstate Park, we took an exploratory drive literally down the cliff to Alpine Landing. Once known as Closter Landing or Closter Dock, this sea-level portion of the park offers easy access to the Hudson River and once served as a terminal point for ferries traversing between New Jersey and New York. It also provides an interesting lesson in the ways history can become distorted or revised, based on faulty information or the passage of time.

Mistakes were made...
According to an old historic marker at the base of the Palisades, the British took advantage of this favorable landing spot on November 18, 1776, starting the chain of events which resulted in the evacuation of Fort Lee (the military installation, not the town) and Washington's retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. You might recall that we covered this unhappy turn of events after our visit to New Bridge Landing last year. Once across the Hudson, the troops were said to have taken a stone paved road up the embankment, then turning south to reach Fort Lee. What's more, their commander, General Lord Cornwallis, is said to have appropriated a nearby house and tavern for his headquarters. Some even said that the tavern's owner, Rachel Kearney, served beverages to Cornwallis as he plotted his troops' next moves.

The house and the road are still there, but the story is off by a distance and a few days. As a much newer, adjacent waymarking sign states, the actual date was November 20, and scholarship now proves that Cornwallis' troops landed at a place known as Huyler's Landing about a mile to the south. The timing error, it seems, may have been due to some hasty record-keeping by a British officer. In any case, the nearby road was no doubt used by generations of travelers and locals who plied the river, but it most likely was not trod by invading Redcoats.

The Kearney House, awaiting post-Sandy restoration.
It's doubtful that the house's history includes a general's stay, and Mrs. Kearney wasn't born until 1780, four years after the British crossed the Hudson that November. She and her second husband, James Kearney, didn't move into the home until 1817. Still, historians have it on fairly reliable word that Rachel converted the family home to a tavern after James' death in 1831, eventually building an addition to accommodate more business and lodgers. It was a savvy move, as the site was landing point for many river travelers and even hosted a steam-powered oat and coffee mill starting in the 1860s. The tavern kept rivermen fed and in good spirits until it was purchased by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in 1907 as part of a larger plan to preserve the Palisades and build a public recreation area.

Today, the Kearney house stands as a reminder of habitation and industry at Alpine Landing, though it currently wears the evidence of 21st century intervention. The small white wood and stone structure was inundated by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy, and plywood covers the lower windows as well as a large hole in a lower wall. Restoration is underway, based on the meticulous documentation the Commission has done of the building over the past century. Fortunately, the park and volunteers anticipated the potential for flooding and moved many artifacts to the upper floors before the storm, though other pieces were later retrieved from various spots on the landing where the storm had deposited them.

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