by Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
Today, July 21st, 2017, it was hot. But, since the air was fairly dry and the sky was sunny, I thought I would take a brief walk… And it occurred to me that I hadn’t been on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail for many months.
So I drove over to McKeel Avenue in Tarrytown and parked at Croton Avenue, just behind the Chase Bank. This section of the aqueduct was the one I used most often when I was growing up in the village. My parents’ family had just moved from one neighborhood in Tarrytown to another. We started out in the Tarry Crest area and moved, maybe half a mile north, into a district known as Wilson Park. Our street was new, a cul-de-sac named Walden Road. You took McKeel Avenue up the hill from Broadway to Beech Lane, and then made a left on Walden Road.
The houses were newly-constructed there—what you would call “modern” in 1962. My parents’ house was a roomy split-level with dramatic, birds-eye views of Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, and the Hudson River. But, you probably would have to say that nice appointments like river views were wasted on the kind of teenaged boy I was back then. I’m quite sure my young mind was consumed by a variety of other matters that had nothing to do with the expansive panorama that unfolded beyond my parents’ living room picture window.
On any summer day—or a weekend day in just about any season—I could arrange to play football or baseball with some of my buddies at any of the modest-sized fields around Wilson Park. At times, though, we got the bright idea of using one of the three athletic fields down at Washington Irving Junior High School, the school I was attending at the time. Today, the beautiful old building houses a grade school, and before my junior high school days there, it was a high school. The school was built for the good people of Tarrytown, about 1924, to serve as a high school—the second Washington Irving High School. But, in my time there, it was a seventh and eighth grade junior high school. The building is still impressive, of classic American design, with a formal, spacious auditorium, and impressive vistas of the Hudson River from its several athletic fields. It is now only a few years short of its centennial anniversary.
At that time I was about twelve or thirteen years old, so I was not yet driving, and the easiest way to get to the school (under my own power) was to walk there. I would exit the backdoor of my house and take a steep, dirt trail down through the
woods toward Hillside Place. Once there I could see the the C-Town parking lot below, which in those days was called the A&P parking lot. Then I started my walk along the aqueduct trail south (parallel to Hillside Place), and I soon came to McKeel Avenue.
That’s where I parked today, on Croton Avenue behind the Chase Bank, and I picked up the aqueduct trail heading south. In the old days, the bank would have been known as the The County Trust Company. Long ago, in 1914, the very same building served as the headquarters of Frank Romer Pierson’s “flower empire.”
Pierson had been the longtime mayor of Tarrytown and the enduring force on the Tarrytown School Board. In the early summer of 1914, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a demonstration at the corner of McKeel Avenue and the aqueduct. The assembled demonstrators were harassed and attacked by disaffected
Tarrytowners loyal to John D. Rockefeller (senior and junior). In the nick of time, the Croton Aqueduct Police turned out to escort the endangered IWW demonstrators to safety. Mayor Pierson was on that occasion called away from the annual school commencement proceedings at Washington Irving School (the old one which was subsequently named Pierson School and which now serves as the Landmark Condominiums) to survey the unpleasant violence and keep an eye on his new, expensive building. But I digress…
In my early teenage days, I would continue south on the aqueduct, and maybe look out over at the homes of Croton Avenue to the east. To the west one passed the Post Office, then the Second Reformed Church, and then Pierson School before coming
to the intersection with Hamilton Place. From there, the trail continues south—a bit narrower and curving slightly from the encroachment of some houses. You pass an ancient stone ventilator, a welcome and evocative reminder of the aqueduct’s antiquity. The
aqueduct ventilators were installed at intervals along its path at the time the aqueduct was constructed (circa 1838). Their purpose was to release toxic gases that tended to accumulate in the aqueduct’s tunnel.
Next I would come to Neperan Road, and, crossing that street, I continued on. Through this next stretch one feels like you are wondering
through backyards. But the narrow dirt path seems to show the way as you cross East Elizabeth Street and finally come to East Franklin Street. Today it was a pretty “civilized” walk for a hot day, for the path is of course level and nicely shaded for most of the way. On that last leg I passed St. Marks Baptist Church, an old, picturesque, stone building.
Finally, I turned right on East Franklin to cross Broadway, and I then approached Washington Irving School, my old junior high school. In days gone by I would have
continued down past the school building to the main athletic field below and met up with the “usual suspects” to play an ad hoc football game. We would normally use
only a portion of the field. But, today I was struck by the care with which the field was “dressed up” with formal line markings in a colorfully gaudy gridiron pattern. There was a sign too, warning all to stay off the field. I wonder if we would have heeded that warning back in 1962?
It was warm out there in the sun and I was thirsty. I continued walking around the school building, admiring it from a distance as I headed down to Franklin and Washington. Then my steps turned toward Main Street. Once there I
settled into Coffee Labs with a copy of Adrian Vander Donck’s, “A Description of New Netherlands,” and I sipped a large iced tea from a tall cup dimpled with condensation. Loitering at the coffeehouse for a while, I sat dreaming of old school days and the fleeting glories of pick up football games with school chums and neighborhood friends. After a while I walked up Neperan Road and slowly took the aqueduct trail back to where I started. I was glad I did not have to play football on that hot summer day…