Skip to main content

Alpine, New Jersey: Hiking through History


Each time I go for a hike, these days, I find myself walking through layer after layer of unexpected history. Most often, even with an occasional historical marker, it's not even visible history, not until you go home and dig.


That's certainly been the case with two hikes in recent weeks, with my daughter and grand-dog, in Palisades Interstate Park, the long but skinny park that was created to preserve the massive cliffs of the Hudson Palisades.

That's a story in itself, for later; the Palisades have a long history before they became parkland. It's a history that goes back before Europeans; Indians living in the area fished in the river and had settlements along the shore, usually where low spots or gaps in the cliffs gave access to the land beyond on the west shore of the Hudson.

P1070393Yes, we did think it odd, finding a number of manhole covers along the trail. Turns out that many streams in the park have been placed underground.

European settlers followed the same pattern. Those points, where access from the river was best, became small hamlets of fishers, river traders, and boatmen who moved the produce grown inland by farmers. One such, Alpine, New Jersey, is an anchor point for what turned out to be a false history.

After our long zig-zag passage from the top of the cliffs to the landing at the river, we found a 1928 marker proclaiming that here, at Closter Dock (Alpine is a name chosen by a real estate developer in the 1890s) British General Cornwallis landed with five thousand troops to attack Washington's troops at Fort Lee, where the George Washington Bridge now stands.


Only a few feet away was a newer sign, saying 'Nuh-uh! Not here! He actually landed a couple of miles away at Lower Closter Dock!' Well, we were willing to accept that, why not? And Lower Closter Dock, now known as Huyler's Landing, was the goal of our walk anyway, although heat forced us to leave that part of the walk for our second visit a week later.

P1070427On a historical marker, a copy of a contemporary view of the troop landing.

Having just twisted and turned our way down the cliffs, we felt some sympathy for anyone who had to march up that way. And while it turns out that they used a different road from a different dock, that path we followed was, in fact, used years ago as a farm road to the dock!

Redcoat Anthony Taranto

Where the troops did land, the road was a bare bit better, and half the redcoats, led by three New Jersey counter-revolutionaries, had to stumble up it in the dark. The second wave got to go in daylight—but they had to drag cannons up the hill as they climbed.


The Cornwallis story stuck for a long time, and the house in the picture, now called the Kearney house, was for many years labeled as Cornwallis's headquarters (sort of a rival to 'George Washington Slept Here'), and for that reason it became the location in 1909 for the official opening ceremony of the Park, which stretches for miles, from the George Washington Bridge to Bear Mountain, passing through New Jersey and New York.


Congratulations to George G, who recognized the Kearney House as our One-Clue Mystery this week.

kearney 1890s
The house today, and as it looked in the mid-1800s when it was a tavern at the Closter Dock.

But there's quite a path between the Revolution and the park. In the 19th century fishing continued along the river, and streams flowing down to the river were set to work turning mills, grinding bones for fertilizer and grain for cereal; a large one was located right near the Alpine picnic area. The isolated communities included numbers of African-American descendants of enslaved New Jerseyans. One of them, Kitty Brown, is seen below in front of her cabin near Alpine.

Kitty Brown John Spring

But the industry that led to the creation of the park was one that nearly led to the destruction of the Palisades. Diabase, a hard but brittle igneous rock, is plentiful in the Palisades, and was in demand for construction and concrete. Piles of it, called talus, accumulated at the base of the cliffs, and could be gathered and sold.

But as cities, especially New York grew and demand accelerated, quarry operators began buying up large areas of the Palisades and blasting them to rubble to supply the trade. By the end of the 19th century, a number of groups, especially New Jersey women's clubs, began demanding an end to the blasting and for the Palisades to be saved for public use. After the two states banned the quarrying, J.P. Morgan bought the last one operating and shut it down.

Annotation 2020-07-24 214334
The last quarry in the Palisades, shortly before it was closed in 1900.

As the states and wealthy donors like Morgan, Rockefeller, George W. Perkins and E.H. Harriman began buying up the land and creating the park, they also set about erasing the 19th century history of the area, creating the seeming wilderness areas we know today. 

Cliff Dale-001
liff Dale, one of the large mansions torn down to turn area into park land.

Under Perkins' leadership, the bistate Park Commission bought out the homes and businesses along the base of the cliffs. Morgan and others also paid to buy and demolish wealthy estates along the top of the cliff; Morgan paid the initial cost of the Parkway, but insisted no buildings should be visible from it except park buildings.

A 1915 view of the river beach at Alpine, and a 1932 view of the boat basin and ferry dock, with beach at the center of photo 

The work included a huge reforestation program, creation of twenty-three lakes and about a hundred miles of scenic drives, including the Henry Hudson Drive that provides access to the Alpine waterfront from the cliffs.

The CCC-built Alpine bath house now offers restrooms and some event space; originally it provided changing rooms for beach-goers.

And then they built another history, much closer to our time, but also now gone. Between 1909 and the 1940s, the commission created beaches and boating areas and recreation programs and day camps of all kinds, mostly along the water; Alpine was a major focus. Millions came from across the river by ferry from Manhattan and Yonkers.


A lot of the work was done in the 1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps members, working for the Works Progress Administration. Above, CCC workers building part of the Henry Hudson Drive, and a section of the road today. The drive allows cars to reach the base of the cliffs at Alpine.

We almost thought we were headed for a dead end, leaving the parking lot for the Shore Trail...

As a young Cub Scout, I remember a visit to the park on the Yonkers Ferry, although to be honest, I remember the ferry much more than the park. That was 1952, and almost ten years after pollution put an end to swimming in the river. After the war, the Palisades Parkway was built along the top of the cliffs, many of the riverfront activities disappeared over time, except for the boat basin and picnic areas. 

And, of course, the trails. The Shore Trail follows the edge of the river from the Alpine Landing south another mile and a half to Huyler's Landing, the focus of our second hike.


The landing itself is little more than a stone jetty sticking out into the river; not likely anyone is landing there these days, but we found several fishermen trying their luck there.


At Huyler's Landing, the Shore Trail meets the Huyler's Landing Trail, which led us back up the Palisades to where it meets Henry Hudson Drive, our path back down to the car.


Those are only a few of the many trails and combinations available in the Park, which now extends in several sections, all the way to Bear Mountain. For an area only minutes away from Manhattan, it's a good escape from isolation, and a chance to learn even more how many layers of history we live on.


Images (27)
  • 1915
  • 1932
  • Annotation 2020-07-24 214334
  • ccc1937
  • Kitty Brown John Spring
  • Redcoat Anthony Taranto
  • dedication
  • kearney 1890s
  • Cliff Dale-001
  • P1070393
  • P1070397
  • P1070419
  • P1070427
  • P1070428
  • P1070429
  • P1070434
  • P1070455
  • P1070472
  • P1070478
  • P1070496
  • P1070521
  • P1070523
  • P1070543
  • P1070547
  • P1070590
  • P1070595
  • P1070598

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Link copied to your clipboard.