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.

John Quincy Adams Sends His Regrets

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

On October 11, 1842 former President John Quincy Adams realized he had neglected to respond—several times—to an invitation to be an honored guest at the Croton Water Celebration. In his diary he wrote,

“. . . on turning over my letters recently received, to endorse and file them, I found one which I had totally forgotten, from . . . New York . . . inviting me to a festival to be held on the 14th of this month, in celebration of the introduction of the Croton water into the city. There was on the note a twice-repeated request for an answer, which I had overlooked till now. I answered the letter, declining the invitation, and sent [my reply] . . . so that it may reach New York on Thursday, the day before the feast.”1

Many important dignitaries were invited to the great Croton Water Celebration, but contrary to some books and a number of online sources (including—perhaps not surprisingly—Wikipedia2), former Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren, then-President John Tyler, and Governor of New York William H. Seward did not attend. [UPDATE: We have corrected the error on Wikipedia. Depending on whether our changes are accepted the error may or may not still be present.]

It’s difficult to determine how this error crept into the historical record.

The contemporary newspaper accounts of the event exhaustively list every participating fire department, trade organization, temperance society, and civic official but say nothing of the President of the United States, two former Presidents and the Governor of New York. It seems unlikely—though not impossible—that newspapers published within days of the celebration would have missed these historic figures.

A year later Charles King even published the letters of regret from all four men in his book, A memoir of the construction, cost, and capacity of the Croton Aqueduct . . . together with an account of the civic celebration of the fourteenth October, 1842 . . .3

The President of the United States sends his regrets.

The President of the United States sends his regrets.

King has a long section of replies to invitations to the Croton Water Celebration. One of the most interesting appears long after the letters from officials like the Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller and Attorney General of the State of New York; after letters from diplomats like the Counsels of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Greece—even after the letters from the mayors of cities like Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Troy.

Writing from Peekskill on October 8, 1842, Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr. replied,

”I have this day received your polite invitation from the Common Council of the city of New York, to join with them on the 14th instant, to celebrate the introduction of the Croton water into the City of New York. With pleasure I accept your invitation, and will be in New York at the time appointed.”4

If anyone at that time had a plausible claim to the water from the Croton River it was Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr. Indeed, the Van Cortlandt family had engaged in extended litigation against the Croton Water Commissioners over the diversion of water.5 Even if he had come to accept New York City’s diversion there was the matter of the Great Freshet of 1841, when part of the Croton Dam gave way. The torrent of water and debris destroyed bridges and businesses, silted out the mouth of the Croton River and is said to have come within 8 feet of destroying Van Cortlandt Manor.6

The Old Croton Dam after reconstruction.

The Old Croton Dam after reconstruction.

Did Van Cortlandt actually attend? What did he really think of the great event? Unfortunately his published correspondence contains just three letters from 1842 and none of them mention the Croton Water Celebration.


  1. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, compiled by Charles Francis Adams. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott & Co., 1876. Volume 11.
  2. The current Wikipedia article for the Croton Aqueduct states “Among those present were then-President of the United States John Tyler, former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren, and Governor of New York William H. Seward.” See here.
  3. A memoir of the construction, cost, and capacity of the Croton Aqueduct . . . together with an account of the civic celebration of the fourteenth October, 1842, on occasion of the completion of the great work . . . by Charles King. New York, Printed by C. King, 1843.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See Correspondence of the Van Cortlandt Family of Cortlandt Manor, 1815-1848, compiled and edited by Jacob Judd. Volume IV, pages 291-292.
  6. For more on the Great Freshet of 1841 see here.