Cold Climbing in Cat Creek, Day 3 • Visiting Attractions in the Hudson Valley — Written by Curtis • January 8, 2017
Our initial goal for the weekend was to finish hiking the five fire towers in the Catskills for the Fire Tower Challenge. We had previously hiked Hunter Mountain back in September and the first two days of our trip knocked off Overlook and Red Hill. However, as the weekend progressed, the temperatures continued to drop and the two remaining peaks were longer and steeper. While our motivation for hiking in spite of the cold was great the first 2 days, we just couldn’t work up enough to get up and take on another hike.
So, needless to say, we are saving the last two towers for warmer weather. But just because we didn’t go hiking on this trip doesn’t mean we threw in the towel and went home, who do you think we are? In our research we had discovered that there were several National Monuments/Historic sites on the east side of the river. More specifically these were three Hudson valley estates once belonging to the Vanderbilt family, FDR, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
While living in AZ, the National Park sites we visited were almost exclusively natural; preserving the beauty of the landscape like at Chiricahua or Zion. After moving to SC, the National Parks were primarily military; preserving American history by preserving forts and battlefields like Fort Sumter and King’s Mountain. Here in the Northeast, the parks (in my opinion) preserve people and by doing so preserve periods of American History; places such as Marsh-Billings and Saint-Gaudens. There are of course still battlefields and natural places, but these places are in the minority.
We initially considered leaving Charlotte at the cottage and taking several of the house tours to get the “full experience”. But after considering the potential cost, how much we would enjoy house tours, and the time constraints, we opted instead to simply view the homes from the outside with Charlotte. We left the cottage later in the morning, and crossed the Hudson into Dutchess County (check!) and then headed South towards the first mansion of the day: the Vanderbilt Estate.
In a (sorta) brief history, Cornelius Vanderbilt built up massive wealth in the booming railroad industry around the Civil War. On his death in 1877, his entire fortune passed on to his eldest son William Henry Vanderbilt who in his nine remaining years doubled the fortune. This considerable fortune (the largest at the time) passed to his 8 children in 1885. Unlike their father and grandfather, who worked to expand their wealth; the Vanderbilt grandchildren lived in opulence, giving rise to the so-called Gilded age. They spent their money in lavish parties, frivolous spending, and giant palatial homes. Frederick William Vanderbilt, director of the New York Central railroad, built one of his many homes along his railroad and the Hudson. This estate included a modern mansion of 54 rooms with electric lighting (provided by a hydro-electric generator on the estate) and indoor plumbing, terraced gardens, and a working farm. Frederick spent considerable time here (there was a station on his railroad very near by), and spent much time cultivating a legendary rose garden. But….it turns out that maintaining multiple huge estates, throwing lavish parties, the decline of the railroad, a giant financial crisis, and overall not making as much money as you spend is not sound financial advice, and by his death in 1938, the family could no longer afford to maintain Hyde Park. Fortunately for the inheritors (a niece of Frederick William), their friendly neighborhood president Mr. Franklin Roosevelt offered to take the estate (read: buy with political favors?) as part of the National Park Service as an example of Gilded Age Architecture. (Fortunately for the Vanderbilt family they had plenty more homes – and still do – across the Northeast.)
Our second stop was the home and library of the friendly neighborhood president FDR himself. Called Springwood, the estate was not only the residence of Roosevelt during all of his political life, but also where he was born and raised. He organized the construction of the FDR Library and Museum on his property, in order that future generations may research and judge the works of his life for themselves, a tradition that has been repeated by many subsequent presidents. The estate is also the final resting place of the President and his wife, one of his final wishes.
While the residence is not as palatial as the Vanderbilt estate, it is still rather sprawling and encompasses many acres of working farms which abut to the personal residence of Eleanor Roosevelt: Val Kill. This small cottage was personally owned by Ms. Roosevelt and was where she lived following the death of the president. Much smaller than her neighbor’s homes, the cottage is nonetheless beautiful in its own quaint way.
As mentioned, we visited simply to walk around the grounds, view the architecture, and learn some of the history preserved here. While we only spent a half hour tops at any one estate, I am sure the grounds and scenery are much more beautiful when it isn’t as grey and cold. There is actually a 10-ish mile walking path that connects all three estates with shuttle stops on either end.
One thing that we noticed were the gardens. Obviously there was nothing growing this time of year, but it was more the fact that each estate had one. And not only a rose garden or flower garden, but vegetable gardens and orchards. Since it is both of our goal to garden and perhaps one day homestead, this really encouraged us somehow. Sometimes we think that gardening is a dying art, fortunately we both have grandparents that are master gardeners and have quite the green thumbs. It also made these people, with their massive sums of wealth, a little more relatable.
Following our visits to the Hudson homes, we weren’t entirely sure what we wanted to do. There were still a couple hours of daylight left, and it would seem such a waste to not do anything. There was a mountain/bluff on the west side of the Hudson so we decided to cross the river and try it out. Along the way, Jessica noticed on the map that there was a walkway over the Hudson called Walkway Over the Hudson. (They call it like it is up here). Figuring that it’s not everyday that you get to walk across the Hudson, we pulled over.
The bridge in question was the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, a 200 foot cantilever bridge extending over a mile. At its construction in 1889 until 1924 it was the only permanent bridge across the Hudson between NYC and Albany. At its peak during the second world war, 3500+ cars crossed the bridge carrying vital war supplies and soldiers to the Atlantic seaboard to be taken to Europe. With the decline of the railroad, the bridge saw less and less use and ultimately was condemned after a fire in 1974. Over the next 35 years, it changed ownership several times until town committees on both sides of the Hudson raised funds to restore the bridge and much of the connecting track into a marvelous walking trail.
I would love to say that we actually walked fully across the Hudson and back, a distance just over 2 miles. But we didn’t. That bridge was COLD!! It is very easy to underestimate the wind chill factor, and all exposed in the middle of a river, there is quite a bit of it. We did make it halfway across and took the requisite amount of pictures before fast walking back to the car. We still had some daylight but the cold finally won out and we headed to a nice warm cottage….after grabbing Five Guys.