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Home ยป Saga Of Rhinecliff

Saga Of Rhinecliff

When I was looking for a pied-a-terre in the general vicinity of Amtrak in the late summer of 1979 and did not have much money to spend, I was shown 16 houses hither and yon, not one of which appealed to me. A week later, an old friend called to tell me of a perfect place in Rhinecliff. How right she was! I put my money down on my birthday–a present to myself. It’s been a love affair ever since, not only the property itself, but the entire hamlet. I still get a catch in my throat as I drive down the hill with its first glimpse of the distant Catskill Mountains, round the corner past the old barn and cows, reduce speed as I approach “downtown” with its splendid views of the river, the Kingston lighthouse and again the mountains, then climb the hill into more open land where my dearly beloved house is. When I moved in, all I knew about Rhinecliff had to do with its ferry: that when I was a baby we had taken it on our way to Ontario, and that my husband had used it to get Double-Twirler spray rig supplies in Kingston. Being a bit of a historian, I set myself to learn more.

The first thing to know about the hamlet of Rhinecliff is that it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. High on the bluffs of the Hudson River, the ever- changing moods of that glorious thoroughfare are framed by the Rondout and the mountains beyond. They become an intimate part of residents’ everyday life. The variety of the modest houses and the extraordinarily harmonious way they fit into the rocky outcroppings and swales are a constant delight. So too is its small size–around 600–that through the years has bred a balance of conviviality and independence.

Rhinecliff is also, by Hudson River standards, ancient. Not only is it the oldest hamlet, but it preceded by many years the Town of Rhinebeck of which it is a part. In 1686 five Dutchmen from Kingston “bought” the property from three Native Americans for a handful of common tools, cookware, rum, and a gun each (at the time Kingston was the third largest settlement on the river after New York and Albany). Its 2200 acres had four miles of waterfront. At the northern extremity of the purchase was the crossing for the ancient trail that went west through the Delaware Water Gap and east to New England. Its southern boundary was the Landsman Kill, with several fine mill sites. What the purchase lacked in first rate agricultural land was more than made up for by its being an ideal transportation hub.

A remarkably (in)accurate map of the hamlet of Kipsbergen, ca. 1709, plus topographic hints or innuendos.
The partners subdivided the land in equal parts, but most looked upon it as a real estate speculation and only Hendrikus and Jacobus Kip moved there–hence the name Kipsbergen was applied to entire tract. By 1715 the Kips had cleared some fields, built three stone houses and a small dock on their northern portion, and were running an informal ferry to Kingston. (The lintel from Hendrikus’s house, which burned in 1910, is displayed in the Rhinebeck post office; the other two houses are still standing.)

Enter Hendrikus Beekman, a politically powerful merchant trader living both in New York and Kingston, who in 1697 procured a patent on over 22,000 acres, part of which would become Rhinebeck. In 1715, he bought 5500 acres to the north. Except for the riverfront, Beekman land now surrounded Kipsbergen. In addition his son Henry, who had married into the Livingston clan and anglicized his name, had bought a six-acre mill site at the mouth of the Landsman Kill from one of the speculating partners who was foolish enough to sell it. By 1710 he had a grist mill up and running on it.

Realizing that he had to settle his vast acreage to fulfill the requirements of his patent, Hendrikus Beekman did so in one fell swoop. He imported 35 desperate German Palatine families from the Livingston manor where they had languished trying to make tar, pitch and turpentine from inadequate pines and settled them at Wey’s Corners–today marked by the little burial ground where Routes 9 and 9G cross. Farmers in the old country, the Paletines soon flourished on the good agricultural land. However, in contrast to the freeholding Kipsbergen partners, the new settlers were lease-holders, essentially bound to Beekman as tenants paying him yearly quit-rents and doing him service in the neo-feudal system that gave the patroons immense advantage. Moreover, they were required to grind their grain at his son Henry’s mill.

Hendrikus Beekman died suddenly in 1716. Henry inherited his land and transferred his political base to Dutchess County. By 1726 it became obvious that he needed to establish a residence there. Somehow he persuaded Hendrikus Kip’s son to sell him the original Kip homestead. (One story is Kip sold it because all his children born there had died in infancy.) In 1731, Henry gave land for a Dutch church and graveyard on the Flaats above Kipsbergen. Some hamlet residents joined the congregation and served as elders and deacons; but others remained faithful members of their Kingston church.

In fact, Kipsbergen as a river settlement and a freehold had developed independently of the Beekmans and the Palatines, establishing a pattern that has echoes to this day. It was far easier to take the ferry or one of their own boats across the river than to hike up the steep hill to the Flaats. Kingston not only offered everything the Kipsbrgen dwellers could not supply on their own, but their relatives still lived there. It could not have been anything but an awful shock when, in 1737, the British established the precinct of Rhyn Bec and included Kipsbergen in its boundaries.

Both Kipsbergen and Rhyn Bec continued to grow in the next decades. Neither was more than grazed by the Revolution, although Kipsbergen was perhaps more closely affected when the British burned Kingston in 1777. The events that had the strongest impact on the hamlet in the long run were the almost concurrent deaths of Henry Beekman and the two Robert Livingstons (Robert of Clermont and Judge Robert), respectively father, father-in-law and husband of Beekman’s sole living heir, Margaret. These triple deaths melded the Beekman patrimony into that of the Clermont Livingstons. Margaret became one of the richest and most powerful women in New York State. One of the first things she did was make it possible for three of her daughters to acquire great estates in Kipsbergen: Linwood, Wildercliff, and Ellerslie. The creation of these great Livingston family estates within Kipsbergen placed a further barrier between the hamlet and the town. Rhinebeck became socially three-tiered: shopkeepers, farmers, artisans and professionals lived in the village and eastern countryside; the elite with patroon connections and houses in New York City virtually surrounded the original Kipsbergen population; and shippers and traders dwelt in the hamlet. Each community thrived, but in socially separate communities.

The Transportation Revolutions
During the 19th century, Kipsbergen was boosted by a series of transportation revolutions. The 1802 Salisbury Turnpike was established, with its western terminus at the ferry landing. Soon after came the immense stimulus of steam navigation, an invention that shook the world with the maiden voyage of the North River steamboat from New York to Albany in 1807. The Erie Canal opened in 1825, followed in 1828 by the Delaware and Hudson Canal. This more southerly canal route, with its shipments of Pennsylvania coal, tied Kipsbergen more tightly into Kingston’s orbit with its developing industrial base, especially to the waterfront settlement along the Rondout that was called Esopus.

It was, however, the Hudson River Rialroad that would have the most lasting impact on Kipsbergen. Making its first stop in December of 1852 it provided fast, scheduled year-round service along the eastern side of the Hudson River between New York and Albany, with connections west to Chicago. Passengers and freight coming from or destined to the western side would have to rely on the ferry and barges from Kipsbergen.

In 1849 Charles H. Russell, a rich New York merchant trader and railroad board member who saw a bright future for the hamlet, had bought the 241-acre farm south of the Kips’ original land from the heirs of the recently deceased Jacob Shatzell. He persuaded the railroad company to put its depot at Shatzell’s landing, then bought the ferry monopoly and moved its dock site there as well. Then he laid a grid of small lots over its steep slopes and boggy swales, with hopes for a real estate boom. At first he tried to call the subdivision Shatzellville, then Boormanville (after the president of the railroad), but he was firmly advised “Rhinecliff” would be more enticing to buyers. Incensed the local stop wasn’t called Rhinebeck, inland residents considered the name silly. But Rhinecliff it remained.

The subdivision did not fill swiftly, but Russell stuck with it. First came the Rhinecliff Hotel, then development of the depot site with ticket offices for both ferry and train and the Hoffman House for refreshments and lodgings. A Methodist and an Episcopal church, the latter a mission of the Church of the Messiah in the village, were built. There were three grammar schools: the Orchard Street school in the center, the Flat Rock school on Rhinecliff Road, and the Ellerslie school at the junction of Kelly and Mill Roads. Gradually the subdivision took hold, although not as platted. Rather, the houses were sandwiched in between the steep slopes, rocky outcroppings and damp swales in whatever way they fit.

Across the river, fast industrializing Esopus surged. It had become the world’s largest supplier of bluestone. Cement was in such demand that mines riddled the land under its crowded houses. In winter-time, ice cutting took up the slack employment. Esopus provided every form of entertainment from cultural to bawdy as well as needed supplies, and Rhinecliff dwellers liked doing business there.

Rhinebeck Village also grew rapidly. The National Bank of Rhinebeck was established in 1853 and Rhinebeck Savings Bank in 1860. The Starr Library opened it doors in 1866. But Rhinecliff residents went up the hill only when necessary and what news the local Rhinebeck Gazette & Dutchess County Advertiser covered about the hamlet was sensational or cautionary. Upstreet residents used Rhinecliff’s railroad and shipping facilities, but in their daily lives they remained Post Road oriented.

During this period, the estate population also increased, spurred on by the Romantic esthetic that united the the landscape’s natural beauty with disarming artifice. In the 1830’s Henry J. Kip, a distant and wealthy relative of the original settlers, had come from New York to build Ankony, a neoclassical mansion north of the old Kip houses. In 1842 William B. Kelly, who had made a fortune in as a grocer in the city, bought the semi-abandoned Ellerslie and transformed it into a 1,000-acre farm featuring a prize herd of Guernsey cows. At mid-century Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, said to be the origin of the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” built the stern gothic Wyndcliff north of Linwood, while Thomas Suckley bought 52 acres of Wildercliff property for a comfortable Italianate villa called Wilderstein. William B. Astor bought 124 desolate acres north of Ankony that he and his descendants parlayed into a 2800-acre no-expense-barred farm crowned by a magnificent mansion; the entire place was called Ferncliff. All the estates provided jobs for Rhinecliff residents, but only seasonally; their owners also lived in the city and resorts such as Newport, and traveled extensively abroad.

The Civil War created less of a break with the past than in other parts of the country. Rhinecliff men fought from Gettysburgh to Atlanta, some attracted by the $200 bounty offered for enlisting. Aside from the soldiers’ return home, the most important event of that dreadful conflict was Lincoln’s funeral train rolling slowly by the station. The hamlet was draped in black, church bells rang, a gun salute sounded in Esopus.

After the war, despite a national recession, Rhinecliff entered a period of extended expansion. The new population was heavily Irish, with a few Germans. Some of the houses that stand today were built at this time. Russell gave land for a Roman Catholic church and cemetery. High above the road leading to the depot, its image to this day is of a great white hen brooding protectively over the hamlet. The Rhinebeck and Connecticut Railroad started up in 1872, its primary purpose to carry coal to New England and commodities to growing industries (such as Baker’s chocolate factory in Red Hook), as well as agricultural products to the barges and trains on their way to New York City. Because it went so slowly that riders were said to be able to gather berries along the way, it was fondly called the Hucklebush line.

In the late 1880’s came another flurry of estate building. Levi P. Morton bought Ellerslie from Kelly’s widow, pulled the old house down and built an immense but comfortable mansion in the Queen Anne style. Just after he moved in he was elected vice president of the United States, a special source of pride to Rhinecliff. Robert Suckley inherited his father’s Wilderstein at the same time and spent his fortune transforming the Italianate villa into a Queen Anne extravaganza.

Rhinecliff itself kept growing too. The commercial area added hotels and three business buildings, one of which still stands. When Rhinebeck became the greenhouse-grown violet capital of the world in the 1890s, Rhinecliff was its shipping center; box upon box of the bouquets were sent on to the city every day. Residents finding violet growing a profitable home industry even built little greenhouses in their yards.

The 20th Century
Sometimes great sorrow has a positive side. In Rhinecliff’s case, it was the untimely death in 1905 of one of Levi P. Morton’s five daughters that occasioned him to give its residents the Memorial Library and Community Center. From the day it opened through the Depression this building became the center of activity for all hamlet dwellers. Boys and girls did their homework there, learned carpentry, sewing, and sailing, and attended scout meetings. Adults had banquets, bridge parties, lectures and club meetings. Everybody joined in holiday celebrations and came to the movie showings that began in 1912; the center even offered baths and showers. Another activity central to the hamlet’s well-being was the Rhinecliff Volunteer Fire Company, organized in 1914. A male bastion of course, but with a strong ladies auxiliary, it grew steadily in numbers and equipment until, in 1927, it was able to build the fine brick building that, much added onto, serves to this day. The churches flourished as well and, remarkably, all community groups worked together: for instance dinners before Catholic fundraising dances regularly took place at Morton Memorial, and resident of all faiths attended both. During the four-tracking of the railroad begun in 1912, the old station was abandoned and an elegant new one built a block north and east (moved there, it was said, at the behest of estate owners who wished to avoid the hurly-burly of Rhinecliff downtown). The vehicular and pedestrian track overpasses were built at this time, providing access to the ferry without the dangerous grade crossing.

During the First World War 25 men from the hamlet shipped overseas, supported as during previous wars with packages, letters and funds from home. Two of them died. The Depression cast a long shadow over the hamlet, not enough to extinguish all merriment. Fathers walked miles for a day’s pay. Many children put cardboard in their shoes to lessen wear and block the holes that inevitably came. With the exception of Vincent Astor’s Ferncliff, hiring on the estates dried up. Business was slack in the stores. The Brice building, one of the three commercial buildings, was torn down. The R&C; railroad closed, having been in a long decline; the tracks were torn up in the late thirties. (It is said they were sold as scrap to the Japanese.) The violet industry breathed its last gasp; its place was filled in the hamlet by anemones, brought to florist grade perfection by Roswell Cole, scion of one of its old families. And although the Morton Memorial endowment ceased to yield sufficient returns to continue to pay its executive director and reduced its offerings to the library and the Christmas party, a young resident named Marion Conklin, whose giving nature had been shaped by the center, provided games and hot chocolate at the Sugar Bowl which she ran, and whenever anyone needed baseball practice or wanted to go swimming, she was always ready to pitch balls or give lessons.

During this time the Rhinebeck schools consolidated. First high school, then grammar school students were required to attend the town school. It was a difficult transition, for the Rhinecliffians were not only new to the town children, but they tended to wear more hand-me-down clothes. It may have been at this time that Upstreeters dubbed Rhinecliff dwellers “Dock Rats,” an appellation still in use when I arrived in 1979.

Sixty-nine men from Rhinecliff served with the armed forces in all theaters during the Second World War, some even enlisting before the draft came. Two were killed. (In 1946, a war memorial was erected in the place where the Brice building had been.) Many married their old sweethearts and settled down in the hamlet. As in most of the mid-Hudson area, hard times were slow in loosening their grip. Still, more Rhinecliffians had automobiles, which gave both men and women added work opportunities. IBM was starting up in Poughkeepsie and Kingston; it would become a major employer. Locally, Northern Dutchess Hospital, many nursing homes and Bard College hired significant numbers.

During this period Linwood, Ellerslie and Ferncliff were given to the Roman Catholic Church. Linwood became a convent and a retreat for laypeople; Ellerslie first the Cardinal Farley Military Academy, then a facility for delinquent youth (it is now vacant); Fernciff is a nursing home. All three houses were destroyed: Ellerslie by fire, but Linwood and Ferncliff by wreckers. Ankony, too, was pulled down, but continued as a cattle farm. Wyndcliff still stands, but its longevity is precarious. Of the great estates only Wilderstein and Wildercliff have been preserved. The golden age of estate living was clearly over.

Perhaps the most profound change in the daily life of Rhinecliff came in 1957 when the ferry was replaced by the Rhinecliff–Kingston bridge. Though its demise cut an historical link, it did not sever the cross-river connection: Rhinecliff residents to this day are more likely to shop in Kingston than are their upstreet townsmen. The most painful adjustment came with the slowdown at the waterfront. In the 1960s a town Improvement Committee was formed to fix up the decaying dock and depot area for recreational boating, swimming and fishing and to tear down the derelict Newman building to make room for a mini-park and parking lot.

When I came to Rhinecliff in 1979, house prices were the lowest in the area, with the exception perhaps of Tivoli. In fact, until the 2000 census, the hamlet was eligible for federal grants to poor neighborhoods. Gradually, however, more newcomers with ties to the city settled there, drawn by excellent Amtrak service. Some were weekenders, some daily or part-time commuters, but several were full time inhabitants who found jobs nearby. As computer technology advanced, more were able to work from home. Prices rose moderately; most properties became available only because old-timers moved to warmer climes or died.

In the early 1990s, the town revised its Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance. The committee in charge of the work, mainly upstreeters, soon realized that setting needed regulations for Rhinecliff with its nearly defunct business district, its highly irregular lots, its ailing sewage, it steep, narrow roads and its unruly topography presented so many complexities that it could make only minor changes in the new ordinance; the lot size remained one and five acres, but in fact most lots could be measured in tenths of acres.

As I write, the town is winding up work on a another revision of its Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance. (They are scheduled to be at least partially unveiled as this goes to press.) The latest word is that the hamlet will be greatly expanded east of the junction of Orchard Street and Rhinecliff Road. The initial idea was to almost double its size with a major development consisting of small houses and apartments. (With the exception of a similar high density area around the Stop and Shop on Route 9, the residential lot size in the rest of the town has apparently been set at six, ten and twenty acres.)

Meanwhile, with a new focus on the waterfront, the world at large has suddenly discovered the manifold beauties of Rhinecliff. The hamlet has become fashionable. Real estate values have soared. Single properties under the town’s new reassessment, in some cases, have been reevaluated at one million dollars, a shock to everybody, but especially to those who have lived in Rhinecliff all their lives.

Without question, Rhinecliff is on a cusp. Will its high priced real estate, its sudden expansion, its growth as a regional transportation hub and as a tourist gateway erode its neighborly character? Up to now the new people who have moved in do not seem very different from those who chose it when I did. Whatever their income–and it varies widely–they like meeting fellow hamlet dwellers casually as they walk to the post office or the Chinese restaurant or to the Morton Memorial Library and Community Center which is sprouting programs and entertainments galore. They like the hamlet’s independent heritage. Still, they understand that changes will come. But they also believe that, with careful, in-depth planning, the essential character of the hamlet can be preserved.