Possessing High Tor Mountain
by Judith Richardson
The cultural landscape of the Hudson River Valley is crowded with ghosts — the ghosts of Native Americans and Dutch colonists, of Revolutionary War soldiers and spies, of presidents, slaves, priests, and laborers. In Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley, Judith Richardson looks at why this region just outside New York City became the locus for so many ghostly tales, and shows how these hauntings came to operate as a peculiar type of social memory whereby things lost, forgotten, or marginalized returned to claim possession of imaginations and territories. Reading Washington Irving’s stories along with a diverse array of narratives from local folklore and regional writings, Richardson explores the causes and consequences of Hudson Valley hauntings to reveal how ghosts both evolve from specific historical contexts and are conjured to serve the present needs of those they haunt. These tales of haunting, Richardson argues, are no mere echoes of the past but function in an ongoing, contentious politics of place. Here is a brief excerpt.
The story begins one spring afternoon in 1936 when playwright Maxwell Anderson set out to climb to the top of High Tor. Anderson could see the mountain from his home of fourteen years, four miles away on South Mountain Road in the still mostly rural New City. Thirty miles north of New York City, on the west shore of the Hudson, and adjacent to the river’s widest point, High Tor was the northernmost point of the Palisades, and the boundary between the towns of Haverstraw and Clarkstown. High Tor’s less- than-mountainous 832 feet were made sublime by their steep ascent from the Hudson River and the town of Haverstraw below. It was the highest point in the view from South Mountain Road. This, along with its distinctive shape, made it a favorite landmark among Anderson’s neighbors — something of a colony of artists, writers, and theater people. The mountain often appeared in their paintings and poems.
That day when he climbed to the top of High Tor, Maxwell Anderson could see the wide expanse of the river below. He could see Connecticut in the east and the Ramapo Mountains in the west. To the north he could pick out Dunderberg and Bear Mountain, the southern gate of the Hudson Highlands. From parts of the mountain he might even have caught a glimpse of the growing number of tall buildings on Manhattan island. Anderson could see the hand of civilization here, too, in this stretch of the river valley spread out below: in the towns — Haverstraw, Stony Point, Croton, Ossining, Tarrytown — and in the railroad tracks that ran along both shores of the river. Just below, he would have been able to make out where the tracks came out of the West Shore Railroad tunnel, and he could see remnants of the brickworks that had once lined Haverstraw’s shore.
Breathtaking as the view from High Tor could be, there were things in it that were unsettling to Max Anderson. When he had ﬁrst come to New City, in the days before the George Washington Bridge had been built, his house had been without electricity, the road had been unpaved, and he preferred it that way. Indeed, when Rockland Power and Light had tried to run a high power line across his property, he had gone out at night to pull up the survey- ing stakes every time it had tried to place them; eventually the company had to put the line elsewhere. But the modern world was inexorably encroaching, and portents of a new order were all around him. There was already an automobile factory across the river at Kingsland Point in North Tarrytown, and down at the foot of the mountain on which he stood stretched the paved surface of Route 9W, which, now along with the bridge, smoothed the way for automobile tourists and commuters to come pouring out from the city.
Most immediately disturbing to Anderson was the view to the south where Middle Mountain stood. Behind a placid east face, the mountain was being chewed away, to be made into pavement for roads like 9W. “The great gouges in the mountain were an ugly sight and a real eye-opener,” Anderson’s son later recalled. “It was a real crisis around here at the time.” Anderson knew that the same thing was happening at other mountains along the Hudson, and he could not help but fear for this mountain of rock that seemed so solid beneath his feet. The New York Trap Rock Company had been trying to buy High Tor, and the only thing stopping it was the stubbornness of its current owner, Elmer Van Orden. The land on the mountain had been in Van Orden possession since before the Revolutionary War, and Elmer, a farmer and hunter, then well into his seventies, still lived alone on the mountain in a one-and-a- half-story farmhouse, the last habitation before the summit. Van Orden was “pretty churlish” toward trespassers, as actor Burgess Meredith observed when he went up to do publicity shots for High Tor. Yet there were other presences here that might be even more unsettling to the encroaching quarrying company. If on paper High Tor was the property of Elmer Van Orden, Van Orden was not the only one who possessed it.
So much history had passed on and around High Tor mountain. It was on High Tor, according to legend, that the local Lenape tribespeople ﬁrst spied a ship full of Dutchmen coming up the river in 1609. At its feet the Dutch, slowed at ﬁrst by “Indian raids,” came to settle along the river’s shore, joined over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by German, Huguenot, and possibly Danish and Flemish settlers, as well as an increasing number of migrants from New England. During the American Revolution, signal ﬁres had burned on the mountaintop to warn of the approach of British ships; and it was in the mountain’s shadow that British major John André came ashore for his infamous and fateful meeting with Benedict Arnold. High Tor stood through the rise of industries — ice works at Rockland Lake, textile factories in Garnerville and along the Minisceongo Creek, and brickworks, which dominated Haverstraw’s economy in the nineteenth century. These industries had drawn new groups of people into the area and had also left marks on the mountain as the industrial appetite for wood denuded its slopes. The mountain remained after most of these industries fell to ruin in the early twentieth century. There were visible traces of this history in Anderson’s view from High Tor — the “dead lagoons” of the abandoned brickyards; the graveyard, Mount Repose, on the mountain’s northern side; the remnants of Dutch Town; and the sign marking the spot where André came ashore.There were also less tangible emanations from the past lurking in the neighborhood. Perhaps it was the way the mountain brooded over Haverstraw, or the eerie emptiness of the mountain next to the bustle of the town below. Over the centuries, High Tor had been inscribed with legends and stories; it was a kind of storehouse of the supernatural, a place where the strange and ghostly were to be expected. Native American legend supposedly held that High Tor had been present at the creation of the world; it was the place where Manitou imprisoned evil spirits, who later escaped to roam the terrain when an ancient lake broke through the mountain to form the river. Another legend said that one of the magi had come to High Tor and erected a stone altar for the purpose of converting the Indians. When a war party tried to rush up the mountain, the river broke through, swallowing up the warriors in a torrent of water. Another legend, related to a group of German ironworkers who came to High Tor in 1740, told of a giant salamander who brought chaos to the mining colony when the iron master refused to let the forge ﬁres be extinguished after seven years, as was the old-country custom. That the mountain was still perceived as haunted into the twentieth century was attested by Daniel DeNoyelles, a local historian whose family had owned one of the main brick making operations of Haverstraw, who remembered rumors from his boyhood “about ghostly lights twinkling over the mountainous cliffs so we children often gazed at the darkened peak at bedtime.” Even Elmer Van Orden said there were ghosts sharing his craggy peak, and the ghost of his long-dead ﬁancée reportedly haunted the vicinity.
Of course, it wasn’t just High Tor that was haunted. Ghosts might have been found just about anywhere Maxwell Anderson might have rested his eyes that day. The Dutch, long out of power, were believed still to sail in ghostly vessels on the river below. In the dark of night one might hear the oars of Rambout Van Dam, an unfortunate Dutchman condemned eternally to row there for breaking the Sabbath centuries before. Or one might see the dramatic silent “storm ship.” A haunted house stood on Treason Hill, two miles north, while night travelers on Storm King Highway reported seeing the ghost of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, hero of the battle of Stony Point, riding by. Up north on Dunderberg lived imps responsible for the storms that battered boats on the river be- low. To the south were stories of a mysterious lone Indian on Hook Mountain, and another in a place called Spook Hollow in Nyack. Across the river, in Ossining, shad ﬁshermen told stories of ghosts who protected buried treasure, while in Tarrytown there once rode on horseback a Hessian who had lost his head. (According to some he still rode there, although he was confused since the moving of his favorite bridge.)