Denning’s Point: A Hudson River History

Denning’s Point, a peninsula that extends into the Hudson River to the east and south of the modern city of Beacon, New York, was acquired as parkland by the state office of Parks, Recreation and historic Preservation in 1988and selected as the site of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and estuaries in 2003. Denning’s Point traces this land’s history over some 6,000 years. Various chapters investigate the lives of the native peoples who lived there; colonial owners, most notably Catheryna Brett, whose homestead has been a historic site in Beacon for years; and the Revolutionary era, when Alexander Hamilton briefly resided at the point and wrote early versions of ideas he later incorporated in the Federalist papers. There are two centerpiece chapters. “The Glory Years” focuses on the Denning family, which owned the property beginning in 1821and lived there until 1889. “The early years of the Denning’s Point Brick Works, 1882-1920” describes Homer Ramsdell’s development of a prosperous brickyard on the point. Taken together, these chapters juxtapose eras of stewardship and environmental degradation, of mercantile and industrial capitalism.

These chapters are keys to the book because they present the authorial theme of declension. Photographs in “Glory Years” capture a handsome dwelling and extensive pleasure grounds. The author portrays a genteel family living grandly on an income-producing property (the making of hard cider was the most profitable enterprise), yet he does not appear to recognize that the Denning era was one of significant environmental change for the peninsula, however benign when compared with later uses. Moreover, the public who might otherwise have crowded the point’s beaches and walked its paths stayed away, Heron explains, out of respect for the family. By contrast, when an outside capitalist like Ramsdell (a resident of Newburgh, Beacon’s sister city across the river) took control of the property, Heron presents him as a conniving entrepreneur who extracted profit from the land in the form of clay and sand transformed into bricks—a fate that befell many similar landscapes along the Hudson. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the brick-making enterprise, Ramsdell forbade public access to the land, even though bathing and other activities occurred without harassment.

Heron vilifies Ramsdell by quoting from a history of brick making in the Hudson Valley, which in turn quotes a passage from Walter Barrett’s nineteenth-century Old Merchants of New York City. It describes Ramsdell as someone who married his way to wealth (a time-honored American tradition) and then brought the Erie Railroad to near bankruptcy. Ramsdell had been president of the Erie, but resigned in 1857, more than a decade before Jay Gould and Jim Fisk issued thousands of shares of watered stock and bribed state legislators in the attempt to wrest control of the railroad from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt in the notorious “Erie War.” These actions, concluded Gould biographer Maury Klein, left the railroad “a sinking and abandoned ship.” Newburgh historian John J. Nutt predictably described Ramsdell in more favorable terms, as that city’s foremost citizen.

What would enrich Heron’s account is a clearer explanation of what change has occurred to the land. Throughout the book, the author describes Denning’s Point as a 64-acre peninsula, yet he also recounts several occasions when the property expanded through filling in portions of the Hudson River or Fishkill Bay, and another period when acreage was lost to sand dredging. It would be useful to learn how large Denning’s Point was at various stages of its history, how tall its rolling hills were before excavation of clay for the brickworks—in short, how much physical change the peninsula experienced over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, Heron sometimes falters in interpreting the very sources he presents. For example, he quotes at length from an 1881article published in the Fishkill Standard that describes the “former wild and deserted character” of the Denning’s Point landscape and notes approvingly that “trees and unsightly shrubbery” were being transformed into buildings and a site of industrial production. Yet Heron does not use this quote to explain how the financially strapped owners had allowed the estate to go to seed. Instead, it’s meant to show how Ramsdell inflicted irreparable harm on the land by exploiting its natural resources.

There are other points that need greater or more careful, elaboration. Heron presents Denning’s Point as a lawless place in the 1920s and 1930s, yet also as a “safe haven” for unemployed people during the Great Depression. He never establishes who owned the “People’s Pleasure Ground”—an entertainment pavilion at the point—or even when it was built (although he does identify the operator of the concession stand). This leads to questions about public access throughout the course of his account and to the changing nature of public recreation. And there is no clear sense of who the brickyard workers were by race and ethnicity, even though manuscript census schedules would enable heron to present a clearer sense of their lives and livelihood.

Eighty years ago, Lewis Mumford published an essay celebrating the value of local history as the foundation of all history and for contributing to a sense of identity in place and time. heron, a former teacher and retired Episcopal priest who is project historian for the Beacon Institute, understandably presents the state’s acquisition of Denning’s Point and the development of an environmental institute there as redemption for the exploitation of the land. Denning’s Point may not accomplish all that Mumford envisioned for local history, but general readers will enjoy the excitement of discovery that enlivens every chapter of the book.

-- David Schuyler, Franklin & Marshall College