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.

Croton Area, 1778-1780

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Detail from an engraving based on one of Robert Erskine’s military maps, showing the Croton Area in 1778-1780. The full map is below.

Since this was produced for military purposes it notes the location of Cortlandt Furnace (as well as the Sing Sing silver mine).

This copy was printed and folded into Washington Irving’s multi-volume Life of George Washington, published in 1859.

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Cortlandt Furnace

Cortlandt-furnace

A photo of the Cortlandt Furnace on Furnace Brook—though by the time this photo was taken it had long since ceased to be used as an iron furnace.

Here is an account of the furnace from Robert Bolton’s History of Westchester, published in 1848:

“In the vicinity of Boscobel house is situated the small hamlet and landing of Crugers, a name derived from the Cruger family, who have long possessed estates in the immediate neighborhood.

A small mountain stream enters the Hudson at this place called the Mill brook, upon which stood the manorial mills long since superseded by Ramsay’s mill. Above Crugers, crowning the bold banks of the mountain torrent, is situated the Cortlandt furnace which has given name to an extensive tract of forest (consisting of 1500 acres) called the furnace woods.

In the year 1760 a mining company was established in England, and German miners employed for the purpose of obtaining and smelting iron ore in this vicinity. It would appear, however, that the ore was not found here in sufficient abundance, for, at a vast expense, we find it subsequently transported from the Queensbury mine, in the forest of Dean, Rockland county, (by the route of King’s ferry) and smelted in this furnace.

But even in Rockland County the ore was not found in sufficient quantities to render it of any importance, so that prior to the Revolution the enterprise was wholly abandoned, and the property sold to Mr. John Ramsay whose daughter married John Cruger, father of Nicholas the present proprietor of the furnace woods. Mr. Benjamin Odell occupies the Ramsay residence and mill. The Cruger mansion is delightfully situated near the landing commanding from its elevated position, most extensive views of the river. The present occupant is the Hon. Nicholas Cruger who for several years represented this County in assembly.”

Here is additional information from the historic property listings the Westchester County Historical Society has compiled on their website. Sadly, they note that although the site is “archaeologically significant as site of eighteenth century iron furnace and a much later (19th-20th century) grist mill. . . . all buildings associated with either venture are now long gone.”


Property Cortlandt Furnace
Municipality Cortlandt
Community
Street Number
Street Address Off Furnace Dock Road

Historic District Name
Local Landmark Status? Yes  05/21/92
Local Landmark District Status?
National Register District Status?
County Register Status?
National Register Status?
National Historic Landmark Status?
National Historic Landmark District Status?
State Register Status?
Eligible for National Register?

Owner Mario Velardo
Institutional Owner Mario Development Corp
Tax Map Available?
Tax Map Image Available?
Tax Section       Tax Block       Tax Lot

Architect unknown
Builder unknown
Building Type Industrial: iron furnace and mill complex
Building Type, Details
Architectural Style NA
Architectural Style, Details
Current Use
Current Use, Details woodlands
Original Use
Original Use, Details iron furnace; later grist mill (1860s-)
Structural Condition Deteriorated
Neighborhood Residential
Threats to Building Possible development of property
Site Integrity Original Site
Date Moved
Year Built c.1765-1766
Structural System NA
Structural System, Details
Photograph Available? Yes
Alterations NA, all buildings gone
Date of Alterations

Significance Archaeologically significant as site of eighteenth century iron furnace and a much later (19th-20th century) grist mill. However, all buildings associated with either venture are now long gone.
Description Cortlandt furnace was one of many iron extraction and founding ventures established in Westchester County during the 18th and 19th centuries. Located just off Furnace Brook Road in the Town of Cortlandt, it was situated on the present Furnace Brook which was damed to provide water for the manufactory. The furnace was built, c. 1765-1766, by Peter Hasenclever, a German iron master. The site was considered good as it lay within a half mile of the Hudson River, allowing easy shipment of the product. However, the iron ore proved inadequate, and the furnace was shut down sometime before the Revolutionary War. Before 1800 a grist mill was located on the site, its buildings apparently built, at least in part, of stones scavanged from the furnace ruins. This business also was gone by 1879, and the area now is wooded and overgrown with only foundation stones and walls to mark the location of the furnace and mill. For further information see files maintained by the Westchester County Historical Society.