The Mystery of the Devil’s Footprints

Article from the Syracuse Journal, May 2, 1913, one of the many New York papers which carried the Devil's Footprints story.
Article from the Syracuse Journal, May 2, 1913, one of the many newspapers which carried the Devil’s Footprints story.

Where are the Devil’s Footprints?

This simple question was recently posed to a group of Crotonites—experts in local history, in Hudson Valley geology, and some people who grew up here and explored all of Croton’s old ruins and haunted places in their youth.

They all had the same reply: “What footprints?”

The answer takes us back more than a century, to when Alfred P. Gardiner purchased most of the land on Hessian Hill and built a magnificent estate. As the New York Times reported in 1906, “A. P. Gardiner has bought the Hessian Hill farm at Croton-on-Hudson from the Cockcroft estate. It has a frontage on the Hudson and extends back for over a mile. Hessian Hill has an elevation of 600 feet and commands a fine view of the river. Mr. Gardiner will improve the property extensively and make it his country home.”1

Did Gardiner know he had acquired the Devil’s Footprints? We may never know, but six years after he purchased the property the New York Press revealed the whole fascinating story, in an article that was picked up by newspapers across the country.2

A 1908 map showing the location of A.P. Gardiner's Hessian Hill estate. From Atlas of the rural country district north of New York City . . . by E. Belcher Hyde, 1908. Plate 12.
A 1908 map showing the location of A.P. Gardiner’s Hessian Hill estate. From Atlas of the rural country
district north of New York City . . .
by E. Belcher Hyde, 1908. Plate 12. Click the image to enlarge it.

The Devil’s Footprints

“Mysterious footprints in the solid rock on the east and west banks of the Hudson at Croton have puzzled the scientists, who believe them to have been made by a primeval man before the Stone Age. On the east shore, along the old Albany postroad (sic) and at the bottom of a steep hill belonging to the A. P. Gardiner estate, lies a huge boulder shadowed by tall trees . . . Its smooth surface bears the imprint of a pair of human feet placed side by side, as if a barefooted man had walked down the hill and stood on the spot while the stone was still soft and yielding from nature’s crucible. Every toe is clearly defined, and judging from the mold he left in the granite the foot of this ancient man was both large and shapely. Behind the footprints, all the way to the top of the rock, are a series of peculiar indentations such as the links of a heavy chain would make in soft earth. Exactly opposite, on High Tor Mountain, on the other side of the Hudson, the footprints again appear on the rock, but with the heels turned toward the river, as if the man was traveling away from it due west. By actual measurement the footprints on both sides of the river correspond in every particular and were undoubtedly made by the same pair of feet.

Gardiner Estate 2
Today, only the foundations of Gardiner’s home are left at the top of Hessian Hill. Click the image to enlarge it.

Many weird and wonderful legends have been read from the footprints in the rock. One of these attributes them to the devil, who was chained up in Connecticut for a number of years, but finally escaped and fled into New York. Dragging his chain after him, he paused on the boulder at the foot of Hessian Hill to rest before he continued his flight to the vast Adirondack wilderness. The indentations in the Hessian Hill rock are pointed out as the marks of his chain, and the footprints on High Tor as further corroborative evidence of the truth of this tale. Another story relates that a cave man was approached from the rear by a terrible many-legged serpent as he stood upon the boulder, and that he was so frightened he leaped clear across the Hudson and landed on the other side. The indentations are supposed to have been made by the serpents’ legs . . .

Gardiner Estate 1
The building on the right is a private home today and the entrance gate columns are still there.

A famous professor on first viewing the footprints advanced the theory that they were made by the ‘missing link’ before he shed his caudal appendage3, which trailed in the prehistoric clay behind him while he scanned the surrounding landscape for something good for breakfast. This accounted for the indentations and scored one for Darwinian theory. The devil legend seems to have hit the public fancy, though, for the big boulder at Hessian Hill is known as the Devil’s Rock, and Croton people point to the strange fact that nothing will grow in the unholy footprints, while the surface of the rock elsewhere is covered with gray-green lichens and thick moss. The Mohegans, who built their signal fires on the top of Hessian Hill before the first Dutch trader settled there to give rum and firearms for furs, regarded the giant boulder with deep veneration, and believed the footprints to have been made by the Great Spirit when He created the world.”4

Gardiner Estate 3
The view of the Hudson from the top of the hill.

The New York Press says nothing about how and when the Devil’s Footprints were discovered in Croton, but they must have been known for some time. As far back as 1895 they were pointed out as a local landmark to a New-York Daily Tribune reporter writing an article about the area between Tarrytown and Peekskill. “At one of the highest points on the [Albany Post Road] . . . the guide shows one a place known as “Devil’s Track,” where the imprint of two human feet can be seen in the rock. ‘That’s where he stood when he jumped across the river,’ so goes the story, ‘and on the other side, near Haverstraw, you can see the footprints on the rock to correspond with these.’ As the river is about four miles wide here, no one argues the point when the native says: ‘It was a pretty good jump.’ ”5

Footprints Everywhere

It turns out the “Devil” has been jumping around the world for millions of years, leaving what are called petrosomatoglyphs, naturally-occurring representations of human or animal body parts incised in rock (though some petrosomatoglyphs are man-made).6 As early as the 1830s, archaeologists searching for authentic dinosaur or bird footprints knew there were naturally-occurring examples, usually caused by the action of water. Here’s an 1836 account by an Amherst College professor of a visit to the “Devil’s Track” near the village of Wickford, Rhode Island:

“Encouraged by . . . several very glowing descriptions that I had received of foot marks upon stone in Rhode Island, I was led . . . to perform a journey of two hundred and fifty miles for their examination. They occur about two miles north of the village of Wickford, on the road to Providence; and every person of whom I enquired, within twenty miles of the spot, seemed to be acquainted with the impressions there, under the name of ‘the Devil’s Track.’ But I saw no evidence of any agency there, except that of water. And it seemed to me that the only reason why every one does not impute the effects to water, is the difficulty of conceiving how a stream could have ever flowed in that spot for a long time, as it must have done, to produce the excavations . . .”7

The Devil’s Footprint in a rock on the bank of the Green River Cove near Hendersonville, North Carolina.
The Devil’s Footprint in a rock on the bank of the Green River Cove near Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Croton isn’t the only place in Westchester with Devil’s Footprints. “Legends of Pelham,” a 1901 article from the New-York Daily Tribune says “When those who lived a hundred years or more ago found the prints of huge human feet on rocks at various places they decided that they had been left by the devil on his flight through the country. The first print was discovered in East Chester, and another, pointing in the same direction, was near Fort Schuyler. Across the Sound they found the third footprint in solid rock, and there the trail was lost. Long Islanders have said that if the devil could jump from East Chester across Pelham to Fort Schuyler, a distance of nine miles, he would not find it difficult to step across the island to the sea. . . .”8

Croton’s Footprints

Someplace at the bottom of Hessian Hill “lies a huge boulder shadowed by tall trees” with “a smooth surface,” bearing “the imprint of a pair of human feet placed side by side.” They aren’t the footprints of a leaping Devil, they’re a natural phenomena—but one so seemingly real that they became a local legend more than a century ago.

Unfortunately, it appears that this particular legend wasn’t passed on from A. P. Gardiner’s era to today, so we’re left with a question that we hope some Crotonite can answer. . . . Where are the Devil’s Footprints?

  1. The New York Times article is available here.
  2. The Gettysburg Times, the Indiana Gazette and the Shawnee News-Herald are just a few of the papers that ran the story.
  3. A caudal appendage is a tail. See Wikipedia here.
  4. The Devil’s Footprint, The New York Press, September 1, 1912.
  5. See the end of the article “The Charms of Tarrytown” in the New-York Daily Tribune, August 5, 1895. Page 4.
  6. See Wikipedia.
  7. From the article “Description of the Foot marks of Birds . . . on new Red Sandstone in Massachusetts” by Professor Edward Hitchcock inThe American Journal of Science and Arts. Volume XXIX. New Haven: J.D. & E.S. Dana, 1836.
  8. See the New-York Tribune, December 15, 1901.

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