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.

The Mystery of the Underhill Bible

Picture 4

Can you help decode this 19th-century document?

Bookplate from the Underhill Bible.

Bookplate from the Underhill Bible.

Last month we posted pictures of a bible offered on eBay, bearing the bookplate of Abraham I. Underhill, one of the three Underhill brothers who started the flour mill on the Croton River in 1792.

We were thrilled (and proud) when the Westchester County Historical Society immediately purchased this treasure, after we alerted them that it was available.

In addition to a handwritten page recording Abraham Underhill’s marriage “in a publick Meeting of the people called Quakers at Croton in the Town of Cortlandt, the 19th day of the 12th month, 1805 . . . ,” the bible also contained something unusual, which the seller described as “a folded paper in an unknown hand, possibly shorthand.”

What does it say? Is it simply a mundane document, slipped into the family bible? The minutes of a Quaker meeting in Croton? A document relating to the long-running legal battle between the Underhill and Van Cortlandt families over the Croton River mill?

If you happen to have expertise in 19th-century shorthand please contact me. Below are high-resolution black-and-white scans of the pages. Click to enlarge them.

Thanks to Patrick Raftery, Librarian of the Westchester County Historical Society, for providing these images.

Page 1


Page 2


Rum-running Submarines off Croton Point?

An aerial photograph, taken by a Manhattan map-making firm June 11, 1924, near Croton Point, purports to document two submarines (possibly rumrunners), each about 250 feet long and 600 feet apart, below the surface.

An aerial photograph, taken by a Manhattan map-making firm June 11, 1924, near Croton Point, purports to document two submarines (possibly rumrunners), each about 250 feet long and 600 feet apart, below the surface.

A recently published book, Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City by Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, contains an amazing 1924 aerial photo, purporting to show rum-smuggling submarines in the Hudson River near Croton Point. The photo appears in the chapter “Rum Row”—the name of the smuggling area of the Atlantic coast from Nantucket to New York City and New Jersey. Lawson writes,

“News of a submarine being used on Rum Row appears to have some substance to it. One smuggler testified in court that he saw a submarine emerge on the Row with a German captain and a French crew. Newspapers in 1924 reported that submarines were smuggling liquor to New Jersey and Cape Cod. An aerial photo, taken by a commercial Manhattan map-making firm that same year, suggested submarines were thirty miles up the Hudson River near Croton Point. (German submarines were kept out of the river during World War I by a steel net strung low across the bottom of the Narrows.) The photo purported to document two submarines below the surface of the Hudson River, each 250 feet long and 600 feet apart. The aerial firm sent the photograph to the U.S. Navy, which had no submarines in the area, and the startling image was given to Coast Guard Intelligence and filed away.”

Here’s a link to the book on Amazon, which includes the Rum Row chapter.

Thanks to the New York History Blog, which alerted us to this book with their recent review.

The Mystery of the Lost High Bridge Watch

Ad from the Troy Daily Times, January 17, 1883.

Ad from the Troy Daily Times, January 17, 1883.

On January 17, 1883 the Troy Daily Times ran an ad for a lost watch that will quicken the heart of anyone fascinated by High Bridge, the covered wooden bridge that once soared above the Croton River.

LOST—A small sized hunting cased, gold English watch. On the upper case is an engraving of High Bridge, Croton river, N.Y. The owner prizes the watch as a family relic, and not for its intrinsic value. The finder will be handsomely rewarded by calling on JOHN E. THOMPSON, Jeweler, &c., Mechanicville, N.Y.

Who would have commissioned an engraved watch depicting High Bridge? As much as we are interested in the bridge it wasn’t unique or famous in its day—certainly not like the other High Bridge, the one that carried the Croton Aqueduct over the Harlem River. Opened in June, 1842, our High Bridge lasted just 37 years—collapsing into the river from neglect in October, 1879. 1

Why was the watch a prized “family relic”?

And why was the ad—which apparently ran in no other newspaper—published so far up the Hudson River in Troy, New York?

Wooden Tubular Bridge Over Croton River, published by the London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Wooden Tubular Bridge Over Croton River, published by the London Stereoscopic Company.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A tantalizing clue may be found in an article, “Croton Bridge Meeting,” published in the Sing Sing newspaper Hudson River Chronicle on October 26, 1841. Earlier that year what we now call the Old Croton Dam had collapsed, sending a deluge of water and debris down the Croton River Valley. When it roared through the gorge near Quaker Bridge the torrent was said to be 50 feet high and it destroyed all the bridges from Pines Bridge to the Hudson River.2

By the end of the year the towns of Cortlandt, Newcastle and Mount Pleasant were making plans to build a new bridge on the lower Croton. The Chronicle reported that it would be built “upon the point . . . known as ‘the Deep Hole,’ ” which “from its height above the River” would be “the most secure from destruction by the risings of the River, or any outbreakings of the Dam above.”

At a meeting on October 22, in the Ferry House at Van Cortlandt Manor, interested citizens and representatives of the three towns met to discuss plans to build the access roads on each side of the river and the bridge itself, “a Lattice Bridge (after the manner of the Harlem Rail Road Bridge).” The cost of this wooden bridge would be $16 per foot (not including a roof) and the contractor selected was “Mr. Joseph Haywood, Architect, of Troy.”

A postcard of the Van Cortlandt Manor Ferry House, circa 1907.

A postcard of the Van Cortlandt Manor Ferry House, circa 1907.

Before we speculate that the watch may have belonged to Haywood we need to correct some of the errors in the article to learn more about the man responsible for our beloved bridge.

“Mr. Joseph Haywood” was actually “Mr. Joseph Hayward” and he wasn’t really an architect, but more of a builder or construction supervisor. The “Lattice Bridge” he was proposing was not “after the manner of the Harlem Rail Road Bridge,” but based on his experience building a far more important bridge—the first railroad bridge across the Hudson River, which he had helped build in 1834–1835 at Troy.

The location of High Bridge on a map published in 1868. Click the image to enlarge it.

The location of High Bridge on a map published in 1868. Click the image to enlarge it.

In his recently published book, Crossing the Hudson, Donald E. Wolf writes that the wooden Troy bridge “marked a change in the course of history in the Hudson Valley. The Age of Steam had arrived, bringing with it the power for industry in the valley, speed and reliability for vessels on the river, and railroad connections to the rest of the country. The bridge at Troy was the first to carry a steam railroad across the Hudson, and as such it was the agent of historical change.”3

Unfortunately, despite Hayward’s association with such an important project, research to date has turned up little information about him. The fact that he was from Troy may answer the question of who originally owned the lost watch, but assuming it was his there are other mysteries. Why did he have a picture of High Bridge engraved on a watch? Was it significant because it was his first independent bridge construction contract—or was it particularly challenging to construct? Was the watch a gift from the grateful citizens of the three towns which paid for its construction? Does the fact that the ad says the watch was a family relic mean that Hayward had given it to a loved one?

There’s one last question. Did anyone ever find the lost High Bridge watch?

  1. As early as the late 1850s, in his classic book The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea, author Benson Lossing described High Bridge as “a wooden, rickety structure, destined soon to fall in disuse and absolute decay”. Read the section about the Croton area here.
  2. See the article The Great Freshet of 1841, the Day that Changed the Croton River Forever on the Croton Friends of History website.
  3. Crossing the Hudson: Historic Bridges and Tunnels of the River by Donald E. Wolf. Haywood’s involvement in the bridge is also mentioned in Covered Bridges of the Northeast by Richard Sanders Allen. Both books are available through the Westchester library system.

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.