The Mystery of the Underhill Medal

Front of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847.

Front of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847.

How did a silver medal from 1847, awarded to R.T. Underhill for the grapes he grew on Croton Point, end up buried in a garden on Long Island? That’s what reader Mike S. wants to know.

“Many years ago, possibly 25 or so,” he writes, “my grandfather was turning his garden in Shirley, New York. He heard a loud bang, and quickly shut off the rototiller to see what it was. After a moment of searching he found a large piece of metal. He cleaned it off, gave it to me, and told me it was a lucky charm.”

For Mike, his treasured “lucky charm” has become something of an obsession.

  • Who was R.T. Underhill?
  • What was the American Institute, the organization that awarded the medal?
  • Why is “R. Lovett” stamped along the bottom of the front side?
  • How did the medal get buried in his grandfather’s garden?

We can answer all his questions—except the last one.

Back of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847 "for choice specimens of Isabella & Catawba grapes.".

Back of the silver medal awarded to R.T. Underhill in 1847 “for choice specimens of Isabella & Catawba grapes.”

The Grape King of Croton Point

As readers of this blog know, Richard T. Underhill was the “Grape King,” who built the first commercial winery in the United States on Croton Point. He began his vineyard by planting European varieties of grapes he purchased in Brooklyn from André Parmentier, a wealthy, educated Belgian who came to America to escape the French Revolution and started a nursery that included a vineyard. At first Parmentier sold only European grapes, but it turned out that they did not grow well in New York.

According to U.P. Hedrick’s authorative book, The Grapes of New York, Parmentier later added “the two American varieties, Catawba and Isabella, which were then becoming popular.”

Detail from “Gathering Grapes—An October Scene on the Hudson,” a wood engraving published in Harper's Weekly. The image depicts the Underhill vineyard in 1867.

Detail from “Gathering Grapes—An October Scene on the Hudson,” a wood engraving published in Harper’s Weekly. The image depicts the Underhill vineyard in 1867.

Underhill’s first batch of European varieties had died, but Hedrick says that Underhill “had been fired with a consuming desire to grow grapes. In 1827 he began planting Catawbas and Isabellas. This vineyard of American grapes grew until it covered 75 acres, the product of which was sold in New York City. This was the first large vineyard in the country.”

View of one of the American Institute's fairs from Harper's magazine.

View of one of the American Institute’s fairs from Harper’s magazine.

The American Institute

The American Institute of the City of New York (also known as the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention) was founded in New York on February 19, 1828, to encourage and promote “domestic industry in this State, and the United States, in Agriculture, Commerce, Manufacturing and the Arts, and any improvements made therein.” It attempted to fulfill that task by two means: first, by organizing annual fairs at which prizes were awarded to outstanding artisans and inventors, and second, by actively promoting government policies that would encourage and protect domestic manufacturing, agriculture, and commerce.

R. T. Underhill was a leading member of the Institute and the 1847 silver medal is one of many awards he and his brother, William A. Underhill, won over the years for their grapes, plums and quinces. 1

The Institute’s annual report gives us an idea of the size and scope of the 1847 fair. “The fair was opened to the public at Castle Garden on the 6th day of October, and closed on the 23rd. The exhibition consisted of productions from 2,194 contributors in almost every department of manufactures, the mechanic arts and horticultural production. The whole consisting of more than 20,000 articles . . . For about three weeks the place of exhibition is the centre of attraction for this city, the neighboring cities, and throughout our country, to distances almost incredible; crowds are continually flocking here to witness the grand display, which embraces the products of all occupations and the whole industrial community.”2

Robert Lovett, Engraver

The medal awarded to Underhill was designed by Robert Lovett, Sr., the patriarch of a family of famous engravers. He was born on March 19, 1796, and grew up in a quiet New York City neighborhood in an area now covered by the western end of the Brooklyn Bridge. After a brief military service during the War of 1812 he apprenticed in the shop of master stone seal engraver Thomas Brown.

Advertisment from Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, [Philadelphia], January 15, 1818.

Advertisment from Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, [Philadelphia], January 15, 1818.

By 1816 he had married and moved to Philadelphia to set up his own engraving business, specializing in dies and seals. By 1824 Lovett was back in New York City, where he set up shop at 249 Broadway. “His shop location moved several times over the years,” according to Lovett expert and collector Baldwin, “but he stayed in New York City until his death on December 31, 1874, just six hours after the passing of his wife of 60 years.”

Lovett has another Croton connection—he designed the medal produced for the Croton Water Celebration, when what we now call the Old Croton Aqueduct opened to public use on October 14, 1842. See an example of that medal here.

A Mystery

How did the medal end up buried on Long Island? The Underhills do have deep roots there. Capt. John Underhill (1608/9-1672), the founder of the oldest and largest Underhill family in the U. S. and Canada, lived at various times in Flushing, Southold, Setauket and Oyster Bay. One can speculate that perhaps an Underhill relative had once lived in Mike’s grandfather’s house. Whatever the case it’s great to be able to share this medal with our readers.

For more information on the Underhill vineyards, see these previous posts:


  1. See Underhill’s obituary in the Proceedings of the American Pomological Society, 1871.
  2. See the Sixth Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New-York, 1848.

A Croton River Disaster—197 Years Ago Today

Detail from a map of Cortlandt Manor in 1797 showing (A) the mill complex, (B) Van Cortlandt Manor and the Ferry House, (C) Bethel Chapel and the Quaker Meeting House, (D) docks on the Hudson River and (E) the location where Quaker Bridge is today. Since there is no line across the river indicating a bridge it is likely the bridge had been washed away by a freshet at the time this map was made.

Detail from a map of Cortlandt Manor in 1797 showing (A) the mill complex, (B) Van Cortlandt Manor and the Ferry House, (C) Bethel Chapel and the Quaker Meeting House, (D) docks on the Hudson River and (E) the location where Quaker Bridge is today. Since there is no line across the river indicating a bridge it is likely
the bridge had been washed away by a freshet at the time this map was made.

As the weather in Croton gets warmer and we rejoice that the snow and ice are finally melting, let’s look back to a time when the Croton River ran wild and spring thaws would often bring massive freshets—river floods caused by heavy rain and/or melted snow and ice.

On Tuesday, March 10, 1818—exactly 197 years ago today—the Westchester Herald published a story about a freshet and the great damage it caused to “two Merchant Mills owned by Gen. Cortlandt.” 1

“Croton River.—The rapid thaw on Saturday . . . and the succeeding day, attended with heavy rain, occasioned the Croton river to rise to a considerable height, and floated down ponderous shoals of ice. Among the disasters it has occasioned we have to regret the damage done to the two Merchant Mills owned by Gen. Cortlandt, situated on that river. One of them was removed some feet from its base, the water-wheel destroyed, and some hundreds of barrels stove in; the floor of the second story was carried away, and upwards of one thousand bushels of feed destroyed. A saw-mill on the same race way was also swept away. The other mill, we are happy to learn, received but little damage. The whole loss is estimated at upwards of $3,000.”

Although the article is short it gives us a wealth of information about the flour mills on the lower Croton River.

  • There were two separate mills operating on the lower Croton River in 1818. As shown in the map above, they were both on the south side of the river.
  • The “race” that diverted water from the Croton River also powered a sawmill.
  • The mills are called “merchant mills” because they were large commercial operations that purchased unprocessed wheat from farmers and sold the flour themselves or through agents. 2
  • We get a sense of the size of the operation from the description of the damage—hundreds of barrels crushed, a thousand bushels of feed destroyed—and the estimated cost, roughly $55,000 in today’s dollars.
Philip Van Cortlandt (1749-1831) by John Ramage. Watercolor on ivory, circa 1783. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library.

Philip Van Cortlandt (1749-1831) by John Ramage. Watercolor on ivory, circa 1783. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library.

The mills were then owned and operated by Philip Van Cortlandt, (who was often referred to as “General Van Cortlandt” due to his rank at the end of the Revolutionary War) but they had been built by the Underhills in 1792 and operated by them until their lease with the Van Cortlandt’s ended acrimoniously in 1813.

It’s unlikely this was the first freshet to damage the mill complex and it was certainly not the last. Indeed, the Great Freshet of 1841—which caused the partial collapse of the earthen embankment of the old Croton Dam—destroyed the Van Cortlandt mills, along with all the bridges and buildings on the banks of the lower Croton River.3

What’s remarkable is that the water power produced at the site was so valuable that despite the continued destruction something was always rebuilt there. The site was used for more than 80 years and by the 1840s iron had replaced wheat as the material processed at the location.

Remains of the mill complex on the Croton River. Photo courtesy of Carl Oechsner.

Remains of the mill complex on the Croton River. Photo courtesy of Carl Oechsner.

Iron bolt in a boulder at the edge of the river.

Iron bolt in a boulder at the edge of the river.

Sadly, little remains of the mill complex remain today. If you paddle up the river—and you should—when you get near Fireman’s Island you’ll see a graceful brick archway, marking the end of the long race. Drilled into a boulder at the edge of the river there’s a large iron bolt where boats tied up. On the shore you can search for chunks of slag metal among the leaves, explore what’s left of the mill building foundation, walk along the top of the overgrown wall of the race and imagine what the mills must have been like in their heyday.

Multistory mill buildings towering over the river, the constant sound of millstones grinding together, the creaking waterwheels, hammering sounds of barrels of flour being sealed, then the clattering of heavy barrels being rolled on planks into the hold of a waiting ship.

One hundred ninety seven years ago today the sounds would have been very different, as a huge flood of water and “ponderous shoals of ice”—high enough and powerful enough to move a two-story building off its foundation—swept down the Croton River to the Hudson.


  1. The Westchester Herald began publishing in Sing Sing in Feburary, 1818—one month before this article was published—and continued to 1829.
  2. For more information on merchant mills see this article.
  3. At that time the mills were in a state of disrepair and were not in use.

Harmon, the New City

Surveyors working along the tracks at the Harmon Shops, circa 1906. Courtesy of Carl Oechsner.

Surveyors working along the tracks at the Harmon Shops, circa 1906.
Courtesy of Carl Oechsner. Click the image to enlarge it.

Sometimes what’s most interesting about an old photograph is a tiny detail, not necessarily the main image itself. This photo is a perfect example.

In the foreground we see two surveyors, working along the tracks at the Harmon Shops, circa 1906.

Behind them—hard to make out because of the damage to the print—are some workmen leaning nonchalantly on a wooden railing.

Harmon-Sign-Detail-Men

But in the background, on the hill, if you look closely you can see what master salesman Clifford B. Harmon wanted everyone riding the Hudson River line to see—his sign for “Harmon, the New City” which he modestly called “the most important and extensive suburban development in the history of New York.”

Harmon Sign Detail

Below are links to some previous posts about Harmon’s innovative marketing campaign, but before we get to that there’s another significant detail in the photo.

Sand dune at the Harmon Shops construction site, circa 1906.

Sand dune at the Harmon Shops construction site, circa 1906.

Behind the bridge on the left you can clearly see an exposed sand dune in the area where the upper parking lot is today. Although it looks like an isolated feature it’s not. The flat land for the entire Harmon Shops facility was created over a period of almost a century by removing a massive amount of sand and gravel which once formed the “neck” of Croton Point.

For another view of what was still left of the “neck” take a look at the first photo in this post. See the sand dune behind the Harmon Shops? Most of that land is gone today.

Here are the links to previous posts about marketing Harmon. Many thanks to Carl Oechsner for sharing this rare photograph.

Harmon Shops of the New York Central Railroad

Harmon Shops looking southeast, 1914.

Harmon Shops looking southeast, 1914.

Here are some photos of the “Harmon Shops” in 1907, when they were brand new, and in 1914, when they became the terminus of the innovative “electric system” from New York City—one of the main selling points for Clifford Harmon’s real estate development.

Harmon Shops looking south, 1907.

Harmon Shops looking south, 1907.

The photos come from articles in two industry publications—the Street Railway Journal and the Electric Railway Journal—which describe the facility in great detail and include maps, schematic drawings, and additional photos. Click the links below to read them. You can also click the photos to enlarge them.

Interior view of the machine shop, 1914.

Interior view of the machine shop, 1914.

  • “The Electrical Maintenance Plants of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Company,” Street Railway Journal, vol. XXIX, June 8, 1907.
  • “Harmon Shops of the New York Central Railroad,” Electric Railway Journal, vol. XLIII, June 6, 1914.
Harmon Shops looking north, with the inspection shed in the foreground, 1907.

Harmon Shops looking north, with the inspection shed in the foreground, 1907.

Harmon Yards car shop, 1907.

Harmon car shop, 1907.

Hidden in the Trees

Sanford Robinson Gifford, American, 1823–1880. Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson, 1866. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery. Click the image to enlarge it.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, American, 1823–1880. Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson, 1866.
Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery. Click the image to enlarge it.

This magnificent Hudson River School painting, Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson by Sanford Robinson Gifford, shows the view looking west from the southern shores of Croton Point. Hidden in the trees in the foreground is the rooftop and cupola of Richard T. Underhill’s Italianate villa, which he built in 1846 and christened “Interwasser”.

Detail showing the rooftop and cupola of the Underhill mansion on the southern tip of Croton Point. Click the image to enlarge it.

Detail showing the rooftop and cupola of the Underhill mansion on the southern tip of Croton Point.
Click the image to enlarge it.

The image is courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, which has made “thousands of images of works in the Gallery’s collection . . . available for free download . . .”

For a similar view from higher up, showing the Underhill vineyards, see this previous post of a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly.

You should also check out the Hudson River School Art Trail, which includes this painting in an effort to encourage people to “hike in the footsteps of Hudson River School artists . . .” to “see the locations that influenced famous American landscape paintings of the 19th century.”

Croton Landing, 1872

Croton Landing from plate 44 of the County Atlas Of Westchester New York, published by J.B. Beers & Co., 1872. Click the image to enlarge it.

Croton Landing from plate 44 of the County Atlas Of Westchester New York, published by J.B. Beers & Co., 1872. Click the image to enlarge it.

Here is a detailed map of what Croton looked like 142 years ago. Known then as Croton Landing, the village consisted mainly of houses and businesses along what we know today as Grand Street, Brook Street, and Riverside Avenue.

If you look at the top left side you can see that Riverside Avenue got its name because it did once run right along the side of the Hudson River. That area to the right of the railroad tracks was filled in long ago, altering the original banks of the river. The pond-like area at the bottom left between the tracks and Riverside—which is probably the depressed area where the farmer’s market is held today—was also filled in.

Other interesting features include:

  • The brook along Brook Street, now covered over.1
  • In the top right the label “Friends Ch.” is the Quaker Meeting House which was located at the intersection of Grand Street and Mt. Airy.2
  • The house labeled “Mrs. Barton” in the triangular area bounded by Old Post North, Brook Street, and Terrace Place still exists today and is said to be the oldest house in Croton.

The entire map and the rest of this 1872 Westchester County atlas can be seen at the David Rumsey Map Collection.


  1. Although not labeled on this map, Brook Street was then called Upper Landing Road.
  2. See this previous post for an 1850 map showing the Quaker Meeting House in more detail.

Winter on the Hudson River

The Peek's Kill

The Peek’s Kill. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Here are excerpts from Benson John Lossing’s classic book, The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea, recording in words and pictures a winter on the Hudson River very different from what we experience today.1

From his first night visiting “Peek’s Kill Bay”—where the river was “cold, silent, glittering . . . except a group of young skaters, gliding spectre-like in the crisp night air”—to the next morning when “the bay was alive with people of all ages” and “fun, pure fun, ruled the hour,” Lossing describes the Hudson “bridged with strong ice” allowing “skaters, ice-boats, and sleighs [to traverse] the smooth surface of the river with perfect safety . . . and the counties upon its borders, separated by its flood in summer” to be “joined by the solid ice, that offered a medium for pleasant intercourse during the short and dreary days of winter.”

Let’s strap on our skates and join the fun.

“A few weeks after my visit to the Donder Berg and its vicinity, I was again at Peek’s Kill, and upon its broad and beautiful bay. But a great change had taken place in the aspect of the scene. The sober foliage of late autumn had fallen, and where lately the most gorgeous colours clothed the lofty hills in indescribable beauty, nothing but bare stems and branches, and grey rugged rocks, were seen, shrouded in the snow that covered hill and valley, mountain and plain. The river presented a smooth surface of strong ice, and winter, with all its rigours, was holding supreme rule in the realm of nature without.

It was evening when I arrived at Peek’s Kill—a cold, serene, moonlight evening. Muffled in a thick cloak, and with hands covered by stout woolen gloves, I sallied out to transfer to paper and fix in memory the scene upon Peek’s Kill . . .

The frost bit sharply, and cold keen gusts of wind came sweeping from the Highlands, while I stood upon the causeway at the drawbridge at the mouth of Peek’s Kill, and made my evening sketch. All was cold, silent, glittering, and solitary, except a group of young skaters, gliding spectre-like in the crisp night air, their merry laughter ringing out clear and loud when one of the party was made to “see stars”—not in the black arch above—as his head took the place of his heels upon the ice.

Skaters on Peek's Kill Bay

Skaters on Peek’s Kill Bay

On the following morning, when the sun had climbed high towards meridian, I left Peek’s Kill for a day’s sketching and observation in the winter air. The bay was alive with people of all ages, sexes, and conditions. It was the first day since a late snow-storm that the river had offered good sport for skaters, and the navigators of ice-boats.2 It was a gay scene. Wrapped in furs and shawls, over-coats and cloaks, men and women, boys and girls, were enjoying the rare exercise with the greatest pleasure. Fun, pure fun, ruled the hour. The air was vocal with shouts and laughter; and when the swift ice-boat, with sails set, gay pennon streaming, and freighted with a dozen boys and girls, came sweeping gracefully towards the crowd,—after making a comet-like orbit of four or five miles to the feet of the Donder Berg, Bear Mountain, and Anthony’s Nose,—there was a sudden shout, and scattering, and merry laughter, that would have made old Scrooge, even before his conversion, tremulous with delight, and glowing with desires to be a boy again and singing Christmas Carols with a hearty good-will. I played the boy with the rest for a while, and then, with long strides upon skates, my satchel with portfolio slung over my shoulder, I bore away towards . . . the shores of Tomkins’s Cove, on the western side of the river, four or five miles below.

Winter Fishing

Winter Fishing

On my way to Tomkins’s Cove3 I encountered other groups of people, who appeared in positive contrast with the merry skaters on Peek’s Kill Bay, They were sober, thoughtful, winter fishermen, thickly scattered over the surface, and drawing their long nets from narrow fissures which they had cut in the ice. The tide was “serving,” and many a striped bass, and white perch, and infant sturgeon at times, were drawn out of their warmer element to be instantly congealed in the keen wintry air.

These fishermen often find their calling almost as profitable in winter as in April and May, when they draw “schools” of shad from the deep. They generally have a “catch” twice a day when the tide is “slack,” their nets being filled when it is ebbing or flowing. They cut fissures in the ice, at right angles with the direction of the tidal currents, eight or ten yards in length, and about two feet in width, into which they drop their nets, sink them with weights, and stretching them to their utmost length, suspend them by sticks that lie across the fissure. Baskets, boxes on hand-sledges, and sometimes sledges drawn by a horse, are used in carrying the “catch” to land. Lower down the river, in the vicinity of the Palisades, when the strength of the ice will allow this kind of fishing, bass weighing from thirty to forty pounds each are frequently caught. These winter fisheries extend from the Donder Berg to Piermont, a distance of about twenty-five miles.

Sleigh Riding on the Hudson

Sleigh Riding on the Hudson

The winter was mild and constant. No special severity marked its dealings, yet it made no deviations in that respect from the usual course of the season sufficient to mark it as an innovator. Its breath chilled the waters early, and for several weeks the Hudson was bridged with strong ice, from the wilderness almost to the sea. Meanwhile the whole country was covered with a thick mantle of snow. Skaters, ice-boats, and sleighs traversed the smooth surface of the river with perfect safety, as far down as Peek’s Kill Bay, and the counties upon its borders, separated by its flood in summer, were joined by the solid ice, that offered a medium for pleasant intercourse during the short and dreary days of winter.”

Thanks to the Oechsner Archive for allowing us to scan the 1866 edition of Lossing’s book.


  1. Lossing’s book was published in 1866, but most of the material was first published in magazine form in 1860 to 1861, so Lossing’s trip to the area described in this excerpt probably took place sometime in the 1850s. The wood engravings illustrating the text are all based on Lossing’s own drawings.
  2. In a footnote, Lossing describes the ice-boats: “The ice-boats are of various forms of construction. Usually a strong wooden triangular platform is placed upon three sled-runners, having skate-irons on their bottoms. The rear runner is worked on a pivot or hinge, by a tiller attached to a post that passes up through the platform, and thereby the boat is steered. The sails and rigging are similar to the common large sail-boat. The passengers sit flat upon the platform, and with a good wind are moved rapidly over the ice, oftentimes at the rate of a mile in a minute.”
  3. Tomkins Cove is on the west side of the Hudson River, opposite Verplanck.