Helderberg Escarpement Planning Guide - Historic and Cultural Resources

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY
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A Project of the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Committee

February 2002

Daniel A. Driscoll and Lindsay N. Childs, Editors

X. Historic and Cultural Resources

A. Overview

The Helderberg Escarpment region was probably first identified by name on the 1763 Bleecker Map which delineates the Manor of Rensselaerwyck and its sparse settlements of that period. The most significant mountain range shown in both the east and west manor is "Hellebergh" ("clear —mountain" in Dutch): it is also the only mountainous area named (Gregg, 1975).

The entire Helderberg Escarpment study area lies in what was originally the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, chartered to Killian Van Rensselaer in 1629 by the Dutch West India Company. Prior to this period, the Escarpment study area was an uncleared wilderness, probably primarily used as a hunting, trapping and foraging region for the Native Americans. It was not a major settlement area for Native Americans, however, as they preferred the more fertile valley floor regions, near the major waterways (Normanskill, Hudson River, Foxenkill. Schoharie Creek. etc.).

Colonial Settlement

The earliest colonial settlement of the study area occurred below the Escarpment in the early to mid-18th century: settlers were encouraged by the good farmland and resources, its proximity to Albany and the Hudson River, and the push by the Van Rensselaers to settle and make productive the West Manor. Settlement in the "upper" Escarpment region began later in the 18th century, much of it following the end of the Revolutionary War. This delay was generally due to the poorer soils and more difficult terrain above the Escarpment, as compared to the valley regions below. From the late 18th century, throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th century, the majority of the Escarpment region consisted of smaller family farms. These farms grew a combination of grain and hay, later there was some hop and fruit cultivation, and an extensive dairy industry.

Many of the early farmers were of Dutch and German descent: the new-world Dutch Barns built by these le century settlers are the most historically significant agricultural structures in the Escarpment region. The Dutch Barn is one of the earliest forms of barn architecture in the United States. These barns are found only in eastern upstate New York and in some areas of New Jersey. Their unique center isle threshing floor and large grain storage loft area made possible the very prosperous wheat and grain industry that preceded the 19th century dairy and hay industries. Dutch barns are rapidly disappearing from the Helderberg Escarpment region (as well as from other areas), and should be protected and preserved wherever possible. The State Legislature, in the Farmer's Protection and Farm Preservation Act of 1996, provided tax incentives for the rehabilitation (except not for residential use) of barns constructed prior to 1936.

Anti-Rent Rebellion

The 18th and 19th century settlers rented their farms from the Van Rensselaer Patroons. Annual payments were required—ten to fourteen bushels of winter wheat, four fat fowls, and one day's service with team and wagon; in addition, the farmers had to pay all taxes, and all wood, mineral, and water rights on the land were retained by the landlord. If the farmer wished to sell the lease, the landlord could purchase it at three-fourths of market value, or could collect one-fourth of the sales price. The farmers had no option to purchase the land unencumbered by these rents. The system was an American version of serfdom, and was widely viewed as an injustice by social reformers as well as by the farmers themselves, many of whom had difficulty meeting the rent because of the poor soil above the Escarpment.

Systematic attempts by Stephen Van Rensselaer IV to collect back rents and evict farmers in arrears following the death in 1839 of his more benign father (who had founded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824) led to a long period of uprisings across upstate New York, the Anti-Rent Rebellion. The earliest incidents in the struggle were centered primarily in the Helderberg Escarpment region. In one early incident, a Sheriff's posse was recruited in Albany and included former Governor William Marcy and President Martin Van Buren's son John. On December 2. 1839 the posse passed through Clarksville up Cass Hill Road and into the Hilltowns. After a bloodless confrontation at Reidsville with 1,500 or more armed farmers, the posse retreated to Clarksville, "[the] straggling army suffered casualties that day, but only from protracted assault on the bar and commissary at Clark's Tavern.- (Christman, 1975, p. 33). One of the last battles of the Anti-Rent war was at a home on Warner's Lake Road in Knox; a historical marker commemorates the event, and the home is being restored.

Early Industry

Prior to the 1830's, logging coexisted with farming as the primary economic activities on the Helderberg plateau, and small-scale manufacturing of wood products could be found in Berne (the Symonds [Simmons] Axe Factory, 1825-1833) and Knox (a pill box manufactory). But by 1850 virtually all of the Helderberg area had been cleared for farming. Only the Escarpment proper and steep slopes along the Foxenkill and the Switzkill remained uncleared.

The original Indian Ladder Trail ascended the Escarpment from the hamlet of Meadowdale, culminating in a ladder up the cliff. In 1821 the site of the Indian Ladder was blasted away to create the Indian Ladder Road. The primary purpose of the road was probably to access additional wood lots and agricultural sites. This road was in use until 1920 when it deteriorated to the point of being hardly passable for wheeled vehicles. The old roadway remains today as a significant historic landmark.

In the early to mid-19th century the Helderberg Escarpment region became recognized as having some of the richest fossil bearing formations in the world. International attention by the geological community focused on the Escarpment region for the balance of the 19th century and on into the 20th century; to a lesser extent, geological interest continues today. During this early period of rather intense scientific study (which lasted about 100 years), the Escarpment attracted and was explored by many internationally recognized geologists and paleontologists. In 1933, a tablet was erected at the top of the Indian Ladder Road by the Daughters of the American Revolution and New York State to recognize the important work of these early pioneer geologists.


In the later 19th century, with the onset of the Victorian era and its increased emphasis on recreational pursuits, the Escarpment region became attractive for reasons beyond farming, logging and scientific study. It became a major destination for all manner of hikers, daytrippers, picnickers and general outdoor enthusiasts. Many of these folks arrived from urban areas, such as Albany, via the train into Meadowdale Station below the Escarpment. From here they would hike to the top following the Indian Ladder road. Many early postcards and photos attest to the popularity of the Helderberg Escarpment region for its recreational opportunities and scenic wonders.

The late 19th and early 20th century also saw the Escarpment region become an extremely popular summer resort and vacation area. The wealthy built summer homes on its slopes to take advantage of the vistas and beautiful surroundings. A wide variety of hotels, inns and camps, particularly around Thompson's and Warner's Lakes, provided vacation areas for the less wealthy. Today, most of the extensive summer resort culture that existed in the Escarpment region has disappeared.

Farming remained the predominant activity in the Helderbergs until the 1920's, when farming began to decline in the area and some of the previously farmed land was left fallow. An accelerated return to woodland began in the 1930's as the Great Depression forced marginal farmers to abandon the land and move either to the cities or to richer land to the west. Cropland reverted first to old fields, then to shrubland and finally to woods. By the 1960's about 75 percent of the Helderberg Plateau had reverted to woodland. That trend continues to this day, but at a much slower pace since there are few farms left. Recent surveys showed only 11 active farms in the Town of Berne and 8 full-time farms in the Town of Guilderland. The reforestation enabled logging, and a sawmill, to return to the Hilltowns in the 1950's.

In recent years the area has felt the pressure of residential development. The areas and structures around the lakes are now almost all individually-owned private camps.

Evidence of the early history and culture of the Escarpment region may be found in the 18th and 19th century homes, farms and stone walls scattered throughout the Escarpment region, and in the cemeteries. The most significant and earliest cemetery is probably High Point Cemetery on a promontory near the intersection of Old Stage Road and Route 156. The earliest stone dates back to 1785. and on the headstones are the names of many of the early settlers of the Escarpment region.

The most important event in the Helderberg Escarpment's post-colonial era occurred in 1914 with the establishment of John Boyd Thacher Park. The Park protects over five miles of the finest and most dramatic portions of the Escarpment. During his lifetime, John Boyd Thacher had acquired 350 acres of land along the top of the cliffs to prevent exploitation of the limestone bluffs for quarrying or cement works. This land was given to New York State by Mrs. Emma Thacher, widow of John Boyd Thacher.

Through Mrs. Thacher's efforts the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society was made custodian of the property in 1914 by the New York State Legislature, and the Park was named in memory of her husband. Her goal in establishing Thacher Park was to "preserve the finest parts of the Helderberg cliffs, for the protection of their scenic, geological and botanical values, and for a place of public recreation." With state appropriations and bond issues, the Park increased to 820 acres by 1935.

Today, Thacher Park and its surroundings are the focal attraction of the Helderberg Escarpment region: it is visited and used by thousands of people annually. It is a major recreational resource for the region. The Park has increased to 2,200 acres, and efforts are underway to protect additional parts of the Escarpment, but a significant portion of the critical Escarpment area remains unprotected outside of the Park boundaries.

Much of the historical and cultural value of the Helderberg Escarpment region involves its rugged natural and unique character, which has remained largely unchanged since the Europeans first settled this area The Escarpment was featured prominently in many early maps and writings, and later in the early postcards and photos of the region.

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