Anyone who takes Metro-North’s Hudson River Line is struck by the beauty of the river, particularly in the evening when the sun is setting over the Palisades. Although it’s difficult to imagine, this trip has made an impression on travelers for more than 160 years.
Here’s one account of the passage up the river, through “Sing Sing” and Croton in 1873, excerpted from En Rapport on the Rails (Related on the Rails) by Vieux Moustache (Old Moustache) the pseudonym of Clarence Gordon—an author who at the time lived in Newburgh, New York. This story was published in the Troy Daily Whig, on April 26, 1873.1
The next time you’re taking the train back to Croton, imagine what the river would have been like at that time. It’s been “stifling hot in the city” and we’ve just crossed the Spuyten Duyvel. Our companion in the seat next to us has “aroused himself from his open-eye nap,” and given his “attention to the book in hand,” but soon he turns “from that to the scenery.” Our “offer to him of the seat by the window led to some desultory remarks, and those passed into a conversation which, before we passed the opposite Palisades, had grown as warm and earnest as the talk of old friends. . . .”
“What a delightful ride that is up the Hudson River railroad by a six or six-thirty train, of a summer's afternoon! . . . Before Sing Sing and seven o'clock the hot sun sank down behind the Nyack hills. Then we were able to push up the blinds and enjoy the full breeze and view.
In a moment we plunge from light, breeze and freedom into the damp obscurity of a short tunnel, then rush with clanging reverberations past the high, shadowed, white walls pierced with hundreds of narrow, grated window slits. You put your face close to the car side, and peer up with sad curiosity to the prison sides; perhaps catch a flash-like picture in one of those iron-barred frames of a face—merely a bare face seen but for an instant—but perhaps you fancy it a hard, desperate countenance, marked by misery and revenge. But few seconds for your gloom. It travels not beyond the massive, dreary walls and the last sentry-box. A harsh, prolonged whistle of the engine, and we are by the pleasant open shore again. Some faint pink lines over the Rockland hills, the river cheerfully rippled, a few sails, away ahead a steamboat just passing Croton Point. With increasing speed we flash by Sing Sing, screaming as though our monster locomotive craved some victim to wet its rails. Now Brandreth's pretty little pill box and factory close under our right;2 a marshy shore and outstretched nets on the left. We cross the drawbridge3 of the Croton—the beautiful river flowing out of a but partially revealed valley, and spreading into a bay that looks the picture spot for punts4 and flocks of ducks.
Just there, near the south shore of Croton Point, and about a quarter of a mile from the rails, was a sloop swinging on a new tack . . . In the softening light, a little in the shadow of the land, gently touched by a reflection of the western sky, and caught but for a glance as she turned to a new course, and we ran between the gravel banks5 that open with a dry yawn right at the base of the Point, she seemed as a shape seen in the clouds, as a fading mirage—a mysterious unreality and faintness encompassing her as the atmosphere of some phantom craft.”
Clarence Gordon (1835-1920), the pseudonymous author of this piece, was born in New York City, on April 28, 1835. He graduated from the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard in 1855. He lived in Savannah, Georgia until 1860, in or near Boston from 1862-1868, and then in Newburgh, New York. He was special agent of the United States census bureau in 1879-1883, in charge of the investigation of meat-production in the grazing states. He contributed to many journals and magazines, and wrote novels for boys, under the pen name of “Vieux Moustache.” These include Christmas at Under-Tor (1864); Our Fresh and Salt Tutors (1866); Two Lives in One (1870); and Boarding-School Days (1873).
- The newspaper version was taken from the May, 1873 issue of The Galaxy, a Magazine of Entertaining Reading. ↩
- Still standing today, but threatened with destruction. ↩
- In 1873 the railroad bridge over the mouth of the Croton River was a drawbridge to allow ships to pass. ↩
- A punt is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow, designed for use in small rivers or other shallow water. ↩
- When the railroad was built across the mouth of the river and the “neck” of Croton Point, four hundred thousand cubic yards of sand and gravel had to be removed. The remaining banks on each side of the tracks were removed over the years and there is no trace of them today. ↩