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.

The Hudson Highlands, 1776

Jeffreys-1776-2

Detail of the Hudson Highlands from Thomas Jeffreys’ magnificent map, The Provinces of New York, and New Jersey; with part of Pensilvania, and the Province of Quebec. Drawn by Major Holland, Engraved by Thomas Jefferys, Geographer to His Majesty. Corrected and Improved, from the Original Materials, by Governr. Pownall, Member of Parliament 1776. London. Printed for Robt Sayer & John Bennett … 17 Augt. 1776.

The entire map is available online at David Rumsey Map Collection.

The “Mannor of Cortland,” 1779

Manor_of_cortlandt

Detail from the 1779 map titled “A chorographical map of the Province of New-York in North America, divided into counties, manors, patents and townships; exhibiting likewise all the private grants of land made and located in that Province; compiled from actual surveys deposited in the Patent Office at New York, by order of His Excellency Major General William Tryon, by Claude Joseph Sauthier, Esqr. Engraved and published by William Faden.”

There are several notable features of this map:

  • Although generally accurate, there are several errors and distortions. For example, look at the location of White Plains relative to Ossining and Bedford.
  • “Croton Bridge” is actually Pines Bridge and is several miles west of where it should be.
  • This is one of the few maps to show “New Bridge,” the short-lived Revolutionary War bridge that was built near the mouth of the Croton River.

The complete map can be found at the Library of Congress.

Croton Area in 1776

Frogs_point_to_croton_detail

Detail from the map A plan of the country from Frogspoint to Croton River shewing the positions of the American and British armies from the 12th of October 1776 until the engagement on the White Plains on the 28th.

Since this map was made for military purposed it notes the location of Croton Ferry, at Van Cortlandt Manor.

Croton Area, 1778-1780

Westchester_detail_150dpi

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.

Westchester_full_150dpi

Sarah’s Point, 1776

Des_barres_detail_1

A sketch of the operations of His Majesty’s fleet and army under the command of Vice Admiral the Rt. Hble. Lord Viscount Howe and Genl. Sr. Wm. Howe, K.B., in 1776.

Detail from a British military map depicting the Battle of White Plains in 1776.

The detail shows Sarah’s Point, one of the many early names for Croton Point—named for Sarah Teller. The map is interesting for its size and detail, but it is greatly distorted. The area to the southeast of Sarah’s Point (due east of modern day Ossining) is meant to be White Plains.

The bridge crossing the lower Croton River appears to be where Quaker Bridge is today, but there was no bridge over the lower Croton in 1776. The bridge is actually Pine’s Bridge, which was several miles east of where it is depicted.

A similar map with the same distortion is below. Note that it refers to Croton Point as Enoch Point and moves “Terrytown” up to Ossining.

Sources: Library of Congress, New York Public Library

661px-white_plains_battle_plans

The “Mannor of Cortland”, 1776

Sauthier_1776_detail

Detail of the “Mannor of Cortland” from A topographical map of Hudsons River, with the channels depth of water, rocks, shoals &c. and the country adjacent, from Sandy-Hook, New York and bay to Fort Edward, also the communication with Canada by Lake George and Lake Champlain, as high as Fort Chambly on Sorel River. The map was made by Claude Joseph Sauthier and was published in London in 1777 by Willian Faden.

Although the scale of the map is somewhat distorted, it contains two valuable labels not found on many maps of the period.

  • “Courtland Mill” appears to locate the mill of Van Cortlandt Manor on the stream going from Colabaugh Pond to the Croton River, rather than on the river itself.
  • “Old Mill” stream appears to have been the name of what we now know as Furnace Brook.

Source: Library of Congress