Headless Horseman Blog

About historic Sleepy Hollow and its environs…

Twenty Years Later—Recapturing Sleepy Hollow

by Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow

Just a few personal thoughts…

I reflect with gratitude on an important date in Sleepy Hollow history, something particularly meaningful to me. Twenty years ago this month, along with many other dedicated folks, I helped to recover Sleepy Hollow’s identity. It was lost and we found it. That I am able to say this means a lot to me.

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Henry Steiner and Christopher Skelly, Co-Leaders of the 1996 Sleepy Hollow Renaming

December 10th, 1996, was the rewarding culmination of a significant struggle. Through it, we were able to reinstate the legacy of Sleepy Hollow as an important historic and legendary American place. My colleagues and I saw the thing that we had worked so long and hard for finally come to pass. Many committed women and men joined in the campaign, and among them was my friend and Renaming Campaign co-leader, Christopher Skelly.

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The Holiday Fish …or… Mutants in the Hudson

By Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Introducing the tomcod

Before we suburbanites came to Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, and the other river towns, there were the millionaires—our neighborhoods are carved from their estates.  Before them, there were farmers—they displaced (to put it nicely) the Native American farmer/hunters who inhabited these lands for thousands of years. But even before the native people there was the humble tomcod, swimming in the Hudson.

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Sleepy Hollow’s December Fish

December has long been the month for tomcod (Microgadus tomcod), also known as the Atlantic tomcod, tommy cod, frostfish, poulamon (French), or winter cod. I wonder how many hungry, bygone residents of our community have sustained themselves on tomcod when there was little else at hand? Few of us give these small creatures a passing thought, or even know that they exist at all. Be that as it may, they are out there now, along the edge of the Hudson—a modest little fish. It is described as an “in-shore fish,” rarely swimming into deep water, sticking to shallows, estuaries, and tributaries. And it loves the cold, being able to tolerate extremely cold temperature and significant fluctuations in water salinity.

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Native American Fish Fire-17th century

The similarity and dissimilarity of the tomcod to the codfish

A first sight the tomcod appears to be a miniature codfish. Like the cod, it has a marked “overbite,” with the upper jaw protruding beyond the lower. Both types of fish share a small barbel or filament projecting downward from the chin; both fish also display a pale lateral line along the sides. The most obvious differences between the adult tomcod and the adult cod have to do with size and girth. The tomcod is very much smaller; in fact the record weight of this species is little more than a pound and a quarter, whereas the record size of an Atlantic cod was in excess of 200 pounds before it was commercially fished to less gargantuan proportions. Also, the tomcod is considerably more slender than the cod. There are other subtle differences too. At the risk of getting too technical, in the tomcod the origin of the first dorsal fin aligns approximately with the midpoint of the pectoral fin, while in the codfish this point aligns further forward on the pectoral fin. Additionally, the tomcod’s caudal fin (or tail fin) is more rounded than that of the cod and the tomcod’s eyes are smaller in proportion to the whole.

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The Mouth of The Pocantico River in Late Fall

In recent Hudson River lore

In the past six years, there has been important scientific news that affects the desirability of tomcod as quarry. I will get to that in a moment, but first let us reflect a bit on how our community related to the fish in decades gone by.

Whatever local knowledge one needed about fishing—or tomcod—once safely reposed with the late Tony Morabito. Tony was the proprietor of the now extinct Hudson Valley Rod and Gun Shop, formerly located on Beekman Avenue in Sleepy Hollow. He was born-and-bred in Sleepy Hollow and was one of the last to know anything about the lore of tomcod fishing in the Hudson River towns. He and his family fished here and catered to local fishermen for two long generations.

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Tony Morabito

Years ago when I first approached Tony on the subject of tomcod, I think he was a little surprised at my sudden curiosity about the “December fish.” It had likely been a long time since anyone had raised the subject with him. Within the last fifty years the tomcod season still figured on the fishing calendar, but today I imagine it would be a rare occurrence to spot even one hardy fisherman angling for them.

There was a time when I carried with me the impression that the best time to hunt tomcod was at night. Tony corrected my notion, indicating that there was nothing magical about nighttime fishing in this case, “When people got out of work it was dark at this time of year—so they fished after sunset.” According to Tony, Thanksgiving signaled the beginning of the season for tomcod, and the season continued until the Hudson iced over. They begin to spawn in late November with their numbers increasing during December. The height of egg production is in January. Their eggs are laid in salt water or brackish water in stream mouths or estuary shoals.

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Kingsland Point in the Cold

Local old-timers can still envision the General Motors workers of another era donning their hats and gloves after sunset, grabbing their fishing gear, and heading across the railroad tracks to the Hudson River shoreline. As trains clattered along in the darkness, dosing commuters glanced out of the windows to catch glimpses of silhouetted figures. The tomcod fishermen warmed themselves over driftwood fires lighted in dented, rusty, fifty-gallon drums. During the 1950s, many of the workers at GM were French Canadians who already possessed a well-developed appreciation for this sleek little fish. It was a love they carried with them from their home fishing grounds in Quebec.

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GM Workers

I think it was Tony who told me that, in season, tomcod frequent docks and other kinds of under-water structure. To catch them one needs bait, some small hooks, and a lightweight rod. The preferred baits are bits of sandworm or clams. In olden days often two hooks were used to form a tandem rig. The angler must be sure to hide the hook with the bait—evidently the little fish have a well-developed sense of smell that warns them away from metal. A small weight takes the rig to the bottom, and then it is raised up very slightly. When you feel something dancing gently at the end of your line, it is time to pull up.

What emerges looks like a miniature codfish but unlike the imposing cod the tomcod seldom weighs more than a pound. The fish look olive-brown to green on top, with paler coloring underneath; the sides are darkly mottled with spots and blotches.

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The Hudson Icing Over

These days anglers have fewer options about what to do with their catch. They can let their fish go, or take them home and put them in an aquarium to watch them for a day or two. In years gone by you could also eat them, but today it is plainly not advisable to eat tomcod from the Hudson River. In the old days, Tony prepared his catch by heading and gutting them, and then frying them in breadcrumbs. I also came across an old Native American recipe that called for simmering the fillets in water seasoned with salt and diced onion.

The tomcod—a mutant rock star

For a number of decades, one of the major concerns with the health of the Hudson River has been the presence of a toxic, chemical pollutant, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The lion share of this pollution originated from two General Electric plants which dumped PCBs into the river in the period from 1947 to c1976. For State of New York advice on what Hudson River fish to eat and what not to eat, see this easy-to-read state pamphlet at:

https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/2794.pdf

Hudson River fish contain PCB contamination to a greater or lesser degree. The toxins present in certain species are more likely to be a threat to humans whom consume them. Particularly dangerous are high-fat bottom-dwellers such as eels and catfish. Certain people are more at risk to the effects of eating PCB-affected fish: women of childbearing age and children under fifteen years of age.

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The Mutant Rock Star

These days the tomcod is not a very prominent “sports fish,” nor is it considered commercially significant. Most consumption of tomcod is by the anglers who catch them and, as a result, state advisories do not feature specific information about the fish, but tend to lump them in the category known as, “all other species.” But the tomcod is not just another species. Since 2011 it has emerged as a kind of evolutionary rock star. A study from that year published by researchers from New York University and Boston University revealed that tomcod are the first known vertebrates to manifest high-speed, evolutionary, genetic adaptation. In other words, what normally takes vertebrates millennia to accomplish the tomcod has done in the course of half a century. The little fish is a scientific and natural marvel—a natural marvel living under unnatural environmental pressures.

So what has the tomcod done in record-time to the awe of modern science? It has produced with “lightning speed” a genetic modification or mutation, one that favorably affects the fish’s resistance to PCBs. Tomcod in the Hudson River overwhelmingly bear this genetic mutation, and this how it works. Virtually all tomcod in the Hudson River are missing two amino acids in their AHR2 protein. The AHR2 receptor mitigates toxicity in early life. The missing amino acids interfere with the metabolizing of the toxic compound PCB. This enables the fish to store unusually great numbers of PCBs in its fat without becoming ill. Good news for tomcod, bad news for humans who eat tomcod.

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The Hudson River’s Tappan Zee

Tomcod range from Virginia to Newfoundland; only Hudson River tomcod appear to have this mutation in such overwhelming numbers. One source suggests that 99% of Hudson River tomcod are “mutants,” whereas only about 5% of Long Island Sound tomcod possess the mutation. This means that the survival rate of Hudson River tomcod to PCB exposure has significantly improved; it also means that that people and fish (such as striped bass) that consume the tomcod are potentially at greater risk. One could say that,more than ever, humans ought not consume tomcod taken from the Hudson River.

So now rather than hunt and eat tomcod, we can hunt and admire them. They go back a long way with us… or we with them. We always knew there was something special about them; we just didn’t know what other special qualities they possessed. No matter what your holiday traditions, it is unlikely that they predate December dinners that human beings have long taken near the Hudson with tomcod as a table offering. This was one of the legacies we were given as residents of the lower Hudson Valley, and with any luck one day it will be a legacy we can enjoy again.

A happy holiday season to all!

 

©2007-2016 Henry John Steiner

Monhegan Island — an addendum to the Rockwell Kent post

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Native Tarrytown artist, Rockwell Kent, was both a productive artist and a talented writer.  From time to time I enjoy dipping in to his wonderfully descriptive and often provocative prose.  The other day I stumbled upon his short account of his first visit to Monhegan Island in Maine.  It is taken from his 1955 autobiography, It’s Me O Lord.  In it Rockwell Kent conveys the excitement and anticipation he felt as he stepped ashore and began to explore the island as a young artist in the summer of 1905.  I have never been to Monhegan Island, but Rockwell Kent’s description coupled with his many paintings of the island makes his experience there startlingly vivid for me:

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MONHEGAN

The Island, 1905

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Captain Mackenzie’s Sleepy Hollow Home

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Talented, well connected, intelligent, mild, affable, diligent, pious, and, above all—controversial.   All these things could be said of the man whose order inspired Billy Budd, the dark, short masterpiece of American literary giant, Herman Melville. Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was born in New York City and began his naval career before he was twelve years old. During the last eight years of his life, 1840-1848, he made his home at the northern limits of Sleepy Hollow. Today that place is called Rockwood Hall or Rockwood.

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Mackenzie the Writer

Mackenzie was a productive writer and an accomplished naval officer. His literary friends included Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Fennimore Cooper (until Mackenzie and Cooper fell out). A few hundred yards to the south of Mackenzie’s Sleepy Hollow farm was the estate of the wealthy and influential newspaperman, James Watson Webb—a place that was once called Pokahoe, or later, the Fremont estate. Ocean-going writer, Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, was another literary acquaintance of the commander. Mackenzie’s second in command at the most critical moment of his career was Guert Gansevoort—the cousin of American novelist Herman Melville—author of what many scholars believe to be the “Great American Novel,” Moby Dick.

Washington Irving in later years

Washington Irving in later years

It was in Spain between 1826 and 1827 that Mackenzie began close friendships with Washington Irving and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. With Irving, Mackenzie discussed the notion of turning his personal journal of Spain into a first book. Irving endorsed the idea and the result was A Year in Spain (1829). Irving would generously assist the younger author in producing a successful London edition of the book. America’s leading author of that age actually took pen in hand to make stylistic improvements to Mackenzie’s manuscript. Irving wrote to his friend that these changes were “petty corrections which will be of service to you hereafter in point of style.” The unselfish Washington Irving, acting as a copy editor! But Irving had already garnered a service from his friend; Mackenzie, then a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, had provided Irving with valuable nautical information to be used in an ambitious biography of Christopher Columbus.

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Open Houses at the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse

Open Houses at the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse in 2016

With Sleepy Hollow Village Historian Henry John Steiner

Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse

Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse

Alternate Sundays,  May – October 2016

2016 Open House Dates:

May 8, 22                  August 14, 28

June 5, 19                  September 11, 25

July 3, 17, 31              October 9, 23

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The Mystery of “M. E. J.” or Insanity, Suicide, and Grief in the Gilded Age

 

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

About 9:30 PM, Friday night, June 20, 1891, a home owner named Abraham Anderson saw her walking by his house in Croton. Whether she walked directly to the Hudson River, or waited until morning is unclear. Shortly after 9 AM, Philip Schnell arrived at his waterfront brickyard and noticed a woman’s straw hat and veil out on the dock. He dragged the water with a rake and discovered the clothed body of a “handsome” young woman.

Our ideas of the 1890s in America tend to call up images of decadence and high living among the “captains and kings” of industry and society. There is, however, another less familiar side to that picture, one that reveals the lives of workers and “ordinary people.” These are lives referenced in the period literature of novelist Theodore Dreiser and journalist Jacob Riis among others. The Gay Nineties predated the development of modern psychiatry and the use of antibiotics; it was the height of the industrial revolution, confronting Americans with accelerating social changes.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

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Native Son—Rockwell Kent

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

The solitary figure in an austere landscape is the emblem of Rockwell Kent’s rugged individualism. Kent’s work is homage to the mystic power and beauty found in both man and nature. The “elemental” reigned supreme in the artist’s view of life, nature, and his art. One familiar example of this theme is the bookplate he designed for the Warner Library about 1947. A man stands, book in hand, near the crest of a hill; the wide Tappan Zee and the hills of Nyack lie in the background. This image and Kent’s distinctive artistic style were etched into my memory from the time I first borrowed a book from the Warner Library as a young child. As I recall, there was a time when Kent’s bookplate was pasted into the endpaper of nearly every book in the library.

 The scenes of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown are no match for the stark drama of Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, Newfoundland, and Greenland, which fills much of Kent’s work, but these Hudson Valley hills served as the artist’s spiritual incubator. The man was a set of contradictions, a sociable introvert, a cantankerous sentimentalist, a mix of Victorian formality and radical non-conformity, an avowed socialist whose patrons included corporations and the wealthy. This strange mix would lead to a kind of artistic and political rejection during his lifetime; some might call it a suicide, others a crucifixion.

young Rockwell Kent

Young Rockwell Kent

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The Last Days of Washington Irving

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

 

A Genius for Writing

Washington Irving

Washington Irving

 

I tend to see Washington Irving as a master of Literature’s Classical Age as well as its Romantic Age. His style might be called a hybrid of those two epochs. It is difficult to say exactly how Irving emerged in Federal America with such a strong and polished voice on only a basic education. He seemed to have been born fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, a product of the American consciousness, but with unmistakable British overtones. These he took no pains to conceal. I think Irving can hardly be censured for turning to British models when we consider the spare American literary legacy that was his—the moralizing of Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin. Washington Irving’s youthful, satirical writings in Salmagundi and Knickerbocker’s History of New York displayed a brilliant and confident style indebted to Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, and perhaps Pope and Johnson. Those who do not think of Irving as also a Romantic need only turn to his writings on the Hudson River and spirit of Christmas. His achievement was greatly admired by the writers of his time, both home and abroad.

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“Seven Dollars in My Pocket”

JameskPaulding

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Some time between 1796 and 1797, eighteen-year-old James Kirke Paulding boarded a market sloop at Tarrytown with seven dollars in his pocket. He was headed for Manhattan to seek his fortune. Paulding was a homegrown Tarrytowner, and he knew the people and the landscape by heart. His family lived by Tarrytown Bay. The Pauldings were forced to flee from Tarrytown during the Revolutionary War years and settle into self-imposed exile in northern Westchester. James K. Paulding was born at Great Nine Partners near Peekskill, in 1778.

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Just In… A Note from the Past… Rockwood Hall

Rockwood Hall about 1911

Rockwood Hall about 1911

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

My friend Ed Murphy just sent me a message from Las Vegas.  It’s always great to hear from him, because, whenever Ed gets contemplative about his hometown, he generally fills in another piece of the Sleepy Hollow picture.

Rockwood Hall is one of Sleepy Hollow’s wonderful scenic assets, and a favorite with many of us:

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