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.

A Van Cortlandt Manor Treasure—on eBay!

The first page of Cartwright’s notebook.

The first page of Cartwright’s notebook.

For the second time in a month we are pleased to have helped the Westchester County Historical Society acquire an important piece of Croton-related history.

Last month WCHS purchased an 1804 bible owned by Abraham I. Underhill, one of the three Underhill brothers who started the flour mill on the Croton River.

Today the organization purchased something that may prove to be more significant—a 22-page notebook kept by surveyor George W. Cartwright when he conducted a detailed survey of Van Cortlandt Manor in 1837–1838.1

Historic Hudson Valley (the organization which manages Van Cortlandt Manor, Philipsburg Manor, Kykuit and other historic sites) has in its collection a Cartwright survey which we believe was made from these notes. By comparing the notebook and map we may be able to glean new information about the area, which Cartwright called “Van Cortlandt Manor Farm” in the first entry.

Detail of the lower Croton River from Cartwright’s survey map, likely based on his 1837-1838 notebook. Van Cortlandt Manor is in the C-shaped area in the top left. The yellow road running diagonally above it is today South Riverside Avenue.

Detail of the lower Croton River from Cartwright’s survey map, likely based on his 1837–1838 notebook. Van Cortlandt Manor is in the C-shaped area in the top left. The yellow road running diagonally above it is what we know today as South Riverside Avenue.

George W. Cartwright was a civil engineer whose maps and surveys are a treasure-trove of information about the Croton and Ossining area in the early to mid 1800s. Records show that he made a map of the “Villages of Sing Sing and Sparta” as early as 1820. In the 1820s he also surveyed and gauged the entire Croton River and his data—particularly his calculation that twenty million gallons of water a day flowed in the river near Pines Bridge—was later used in planning the Croton Aqueduct.2 The Westchester County Clerk Historical Maps collection has several by Cartwright maps online, including this map showing downtown Sing Sing in 1835.

Pages recording the survey of the creeks in the marsh on Croton Point—now the capped Westchester County dump. Click the image to enlarge it.

Pages recording the survey of the creeks in the marsh on Croton Point—now the capped Westchester County dump. Click the image to enlarge it.

We hope to have additional details about this exciting discovery soon. In the meantime, if you missed our previous posts about the Underhill bible, click the links below.


  1. The notes begin on October 2, 1837 and the last entry is dated October 1, 1838.
  2. See Water for Gotham: A History by Gerard T. Koeppe, page 151.

Van Cortlandt Manor in Miniature

Van Cortlandt Manor Mini

One of the many miniature New York landmark replicas at the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show is this rustic version of Van Cortlandt Manor—made entirely of plant parts such as twigs, bark, and leaves.

The show runs until January 12 and if you’ve never been it’s a great trip for all ages. See details here.

Underhill Bible—on eBay!

Picture 2

A seller on eBay is currently offering—and has graciously allowed us to feature—a bible bearing the bookplate of Abraham I. Underhill, one of the three Underhill brothers who started the flour mill on the Croton River in 1792, under a lease from the Van Cortlandt family. 1

The bible contains 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 according to the order of the said society,” along with the birth of their son, Edward Burrough Underhill, four years later.

Picture 3

Also included is something odd, which the seller describes as “a folded paper in an unknown hand, possibly shorthand.”

Picture 4

Here is a link to the item. If you buy it, please let me know.

UPDATE! We alerted the Westchester County Historical Society that this was available and are happy to report that they have purchased it for their collection. If they manage to decipher the “paper in an unknown hand” they have promised to let us know.


  1. Details about Abraham Underhill and his family can be found on this page of Underhill genealogy, edited by Josephine C. Frost, volume 2, The Underhill Society of America, 1932.

Motoring Across the Croton, 1912

The Van Cortlandt Bridge over the Croton River in 1912. Courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society.

The Van Cortlandt Bridge over the Croton River in 1912. Courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society.

1912 Car from Scientific American

It’s a beautiful day and you’ve decided to take a jaunt in your newfangled automobile, going north along the scenic Hudson River. You can’t count on good, well-marked roads, so you’ve brought along the GPS system of the day—a copy of Photo-auto maps . . . New York to Albany which features “photographs of every turn . . . showing railroad crossings, bridges, school houses and all landmarks.”1

Thus equipped, you drive north on the historic Albany Post Road. You pass through Ossining and soon come to the next landmark, a fork in the road with a brick schoolhouse on the left. You hang a left at the fork, following the road downhill, and you see a huge chimney towering over an industrial building on the right. You wonder what it is but you can’t stop to look because a narrow iron bridge looms ahead, crossing the wide Croton River.

You pass the building, thinking about lunch. Should you stop at the Nikko Inn, in Harmon, or push on to Peekskill? As you zoom across the old bridge you don’t notice the person with a camera down below, who snaps a picture as you pass by. . . .

Van Cortlandt Bridge 1912 WCHS-M-277_detail_619px

We’ll never know if this is an accurate description of what was happening when this wonderful photograph was taken, but it’s certainly plausible. Thanks to the Westchester County Historical Society—which has preserved this “decisive moment”2 and graciously allowed us to share it—we get a rare look at what was then known as the Van Cortlandt Bridge, at the dawn of the age of the automobile.

Let’s retrace the route this driver would have taken and see what the area was like in 1912, long before Route 9A and the bland “Crossining” bridge were built. Here’s a map of the area, published just a few years earlier.

Detail from map 12 of E. Belcher Hyde's 1908 Atlas of the rural country district north of New York City . . . Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Detail from map 12 of E. Belcher Hyde’s 1908 Atlas of the rural country district north of New York City . . .
Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.

A. Crotonville School

Below are two details from the Photo-auto maps book showing the intersection where the Crotonville School was located. The first shows the intersection going north, the second—with the side of the brick school building clearly visible—is the same intersection from the route going south.3

Detail from the Photo-auto maps book showing the route going north. In the same spot today, the road in the middle goes under Route 9A to Crotonville.

Detail from the Photo-auto maps book showing the route going north. In the same spot
today, the road in the middle goes under Route 9A to Crotonville.


Detail from Photo-auto maps showing the route going south, with the Crotonville School (today the Parker-Bale American Legion Post No. 1597) on the right.

Detail from Photo-auto maps showing the route going south, with the Crotonville School
(today the Parker-Bale American Legion Post No. 1597) on the right.

Next is a photo of the front of the school building. If it looks familiar that’s because today the old Crotonville School is the Parker-Bale American Legion Post No. 1597 at 11 Old Albany Post Road. The road that once went down to the Croton River was was cut-off when Route 9A was constructed, but if you drive by to look at Parker-Bale (and you should) you will see a small strip of the old road surface to the right of the building.

Crotonville School. Courtesy of Carl Oechsner.

Crotonville School. Courtesy of Carl Oechsner.

B. Croton Bay Pumping Station

The brick building on the Ossining side of the bridge was the Croton Bay Pumping Station. It was built in 1890 and originally housed two large hydraulic engines that took water from the Indian Brook Reservoir in Crotonville (shown east of the letter “B” on 1908 the map, above) and pumped it to a storage reservoir in the village of Ossining. Today the building is owned by Anthony L. Fiorito Inc., which specializes in water, sewer and drainage services.

Long Bridge Pumping Station.

Long Bridge Pumping Station.

C. Van Cortlandt Bridge

The Van Cortlandt bridge across the “mouth of the Croton River” was built sometime after April, 1860, as a result of state legislation authorizing “the board of supervisors of the county Westchester . . . to construct a bridge at or near the mouth of Croton river . . . at such point as they may select between the Hudson river railroad bridge and the present bridge commonly known as the “High Bridge.”4

This detail from a rare, badly damaged stereoview shows the Van Cortlandt bridge from the Ossining side. The building on the far side of the Croton River stood at the end of the long causeway, in front of the Van Cortlandt Manor house.

This detail from a rare, badly damaged stereoview shows the Van Cortlandt bridge from the Ossining side.
The building on the far side of the Croton River stood at the end of the long causeway,
in front of the Van Cortlandt Manor house.

The bridge they constructed—actually two bridges, connected by a long causeway—shows up in maps in the 1860s, going from the Ossining side of the river to a point just west of Van Cortlandt Manor.5 Like all bridges on the Croton River during the 19th century the Van Cortlandt Bridge (also known as the Long Bridge and the Wagon Bridge) suffered regular damage from storms, ice and spring freshets and it was repeatedly repaired and rebuilt. Until at least 1871 the long bridge on the Ossining side was a drawbridge, to allow boats to sail up the lower Croton River.6

This detail from an 1871 survey of the mouth of the Croton River shows that at one point there was a drawbridge on the southern end of the Van Cortlandt bridge. The strip in the river marked with dotted lines was a channel for ships. Also note the small building at the end of the causeway on the left. This is the building shown in the stereoview above.

This detail from an 1871 survey of the mouth of the Croton River shows that at one point there was a drawbridge on the southern end of the Van Cortlandt bridge. The strip in the river marked with dotted lines was a channel for ships. Also note the small building at the end of the causeway on the left. This is the building shown in the stereoview above.

By 1912 the drawbridge had been removed and the simple iron bridge carried early automobiles over the river until 1922 when the state removed the old span and replaced it with an elegant Beaux-Art reinforced concrete structure. What happened to that bridge? That sad story will be the subject of a future post.


  1. Photo-auto maps.(New York to Albany and Saratoga Springs, Saratoga Springs to Albany and New York) . . . Compiled by Gardner S. Chapin and Arthur H. Schumacher. Published by the Motor Car Supply Co., Chicago, Ill., 1907.
  2. See Henri Cartier-Bresson.
  3. The Photo-auto maps book provided two versions of every route, with photos taken from each direction.
  4. For the act see Laws of the State of New York Passed at the 83rd Session of the Legislature. Weed, Parsons and Company, 1860. Chap. 268. For photos and information about High Bridge see this previous post.
  5. See this detail from Lloyd’s topographical map of the Hudson River . . ., published in 1864.
  6. The railroad bridge had a drawbridge section until 1899.

Resolved, Unanimously, July 9, 1776

On the afternoon of July 9, 1776, at the Court House in White Plains, Colonel Pierre Van Cortlandt voted to approve the Declaration of Independence. He was one of eleven deputies from Westchester County at the meeting of “the Provincial Congress of the Province of New-York.”1

A rare copy of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence, printed by John Holt for the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York, after their meeting of July 9, 1776. Courtesy of the Westchester County Archives.

A rare copy of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence, printed by John Holt for the
Convention of Representatives of the State of New York, after their meeting of July 9, 1776.
Courtesy of the Westchester County Archives.

The meeting took place at a time of high drama. As the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia to declare independence (on July 2) and to approve the text of the declaration (on July 4) the British were assembling, in the harbor in New York City, what historian Wilbur C. Abbott called “the most formidable force yet used by any European power outside of Europe.”2

“On July 2,” he wrote, “they were in the harbor; and even while the Declaration of Independence was being adopted, the army which was designed to make independence impossible was being disembarked on Staten Island . . . It was enough to give the hardiest patriot pause. A hundred and thirty vessels, carrying six thousand veterans from Halifax; troops from the British garrisons in the West Indies, Gibraltar, and the British Isles, and eight thousand seasoned soldiers from Germany, well-officered and well-supplied, experienced in war, supported by a fleet—such was the great argument presented by the British government against a hasty decision by New York in favor of independence.”

New York’s decision on independence was crucial, not only because of the size and strategic importance of the colony, but because New York’s delegation in Philadelphia—lacking instructions from the Provincial Congress—had been the only delegation to abstain from the July 2 independence resolution—preventing the vote from being unanimous.

The Provincial Congress began the July 9 meeting in the morning by electing officers. They then allowed deputies from New York, Albany and Orange counties "take their seats", but asked that they take measures to procure a copy of their missing "Credentials." They also took "the general oath of secrecy"—with the exception of Mr. Benjamin Smith, who "refused to take the oath" and "accordingly withdrew."

After dispensing with other business “a Letter from the Delegates of the Colony at Continental Congress of the 2nd July . . . on the subject of Independence, and requesting Instructions from this Congress, was received and read.”

Because events had been moving quickly they then read a second letter from the delegates in Philadelphia—this one “enclosing the Declaration of Independence,” the full text of which they recorded in the minutes. The letters and the Declaration were then referred to a committee chaired by John Jay.

When the Provincial Congress reconvened that afternoon “the Committee appointed to take into consideration the letter from our Delegates in Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence, reported the following, which was unanimously agreed to, and is in the words following, that is to say:

In Convention of the Representatives of the State of New-York, White Plains, July 9, 1776.

Resolved, unanimously, That the reasons assigned by the Continental Congress for declaring the United Colonies free and independent States, are cogent and conclusive; and that while we lament the cruel necessity which has rendered that measure unavoidable, we approve the same, and will, at the risk of our lives and fortunes, join with the other Colonies in supporting it.”

The Representatives (of what they now referred to as the State of New-York) also resolved that the Declaration of Independence be published “to the beat of a drum” in White Plains and throughout the “State of New-York.”

They finished by resolving that “the Delegates of this State in Continental Congress, be, and they are hereby, authorized to consent to and adopt all such measures as they may deem conducive to the happiness and welfare of the United States of America.”

The Westchester County Archives has graciously allowed us to use an image of their exceedingly rare copy of the broadside, printed in New York City by John Holt as a result of the July 9 resolution.3 The Provincial Congress ordered that 500 copies be printed and “sent to all the County Committees in the State.” Today, there are only four known copies.4

There is one significant word missing from this and all the other July 1776 broadsides and newspaper printings. When the engrossed copy of the Declaration was made on vellum in early August5, 1776, the heading was changed as a result of the actions Pierre Van Cortlandt and the other patriots took in White Plains. The heading of the vellum copy reads “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America.”

Reading of the Declaration of Independence, White Plains, July 11, 1776. From a painting by George Albert Harker. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Reading of the Declaration of Independence, White Plains, July 11, 1776. From a painting by George Albert Harker. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


  1. All quotes from the minutes of the July 9 meeting are from Peter Force's American Archives, volume 1, fifth series, pages 1385-1392.
  2. Abbott, Wilbur Cortez. New York in the American Revolution. New York, London: C. Scribner's Sons, 1929.
  3. Holt also printed the Declaration as a full-page in the July 11 issue of his newspaper, the New-York Journal. The opposite page had a note which read “The Declaration of the United States of America, is inserted in this paper . . . to oblige a number of our Customers, who intend to separate it from the rest of the paper, and fix it up, in open view, in the Houses, as a mark of their approbation of the INDEPENDENT SPIRIT of their Representatives.”
  4. The other copies are at the New York Public Library, the Huntington Library and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives.
  5. It was not signed on July 4th and some signatures were not added until years later.