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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Once and Future Eden: a Brief History of Croton Point

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

[This article was published in the magazine “The Westchester Historian", Spring 2001]

The first time I came to the “Clearwater Revival” music festival, in 1985, my eye was caught by the “Underhill Ave.” exit sign, where I was to turn off for Croton Point. This was my first inkling that the sense of homecoming I felt at Croton had roots that went back further than my connection with Clearwater. The better I get to know the Point, the more I appreciate its unique natural and human history and delight in its recently reclaimed beauty. Croton Point has many stories to tell, and one of them- an ongoing one- is ours.

Croton Point is a very special place. At various times over the past 400 years it has been an abundant larder for the indigenous tribes of the area; a thriving brick manufactory; the first commercial vineyard in North America, with extensive orchards, fisheries and cultivated fields; and a massive garbage dump leaching toxic effluent into the Hudson. The Croton Point we know today is an idyllic and beautiful spot, surrounded on three sides by the river’s bays, where Hudson Valley denizens can enjoy the natural surroundings and of course listen to some great music, especially around Father’s Day weekend when the Clearwater Festival is held there.

The first inhabitants of Croton Point were Native Americans of the Kitchiwac tribe, a subtribe of the Mohegans. They referred to the point as “Senasqua”, which translates appropriately enough as “the point”. Evidence of their massive ongoing oyster feasts may be seen in the shell middens which erosion has revealed at various points along the shoreline. Carbon-14 dating of the shells shows that these early clambakes were being held as far back as 6,000 years ago.

With the arrival of Giovanni Verrazano in 1524, and Henry Hudson in 1609, the neighborhood began to change. The Kitchiwacs sold the point to a Dutchman, Cornelius Van Bursum of New Amsterdam, in 1682. The Van Cortlandt family of nearby Van Cortlandt Manor acquired it next, and it became the property of their son-in-law, Andreas Teller. His children, William and Sarah Teller, traded in furs with the Native Americans as well as farming on the point. During the Revolutionary War the area was known as Teller’s Point or Sarah’s Point, and is thus labeled on contemporary charts.

On the evening of September 20, 1780, Major John Andre, of Benedict Arnold conspiracy fame, joined the British ship of war “Vulture” as she lay anchored in the Hudson off Teller’s Point. Some of the “Vulture”’s crew rowed ashore to the point to try and discover whether the area was in the Whig or Tory camp. They were driven off by musket fire from two citizens who had been making cider there. This action of the Croton settlers, according to some historians, was one of the factors in Benedict Arnold’s decision that Andre should return to New York by land. He was subsequently captured and the conspiracy brought to light. [author’s note: Andre’s last meal eaten in freedom was served to him at the home of another Underhill, who had a wayside inn near Mt. Kisco.]

In 1804 Croton Point was purchased by a Quaker gentleman named Robert Underhill [my great-great-great-great grandfather, but who’s counting.] Along with his brothers Joshua and Abraham, he operated a grist mill on the Croton River, and he began to cultivate vineyards on the southern slopes of the point. His 250 acres yielded crops of watermelons, apples and grapes for the New York City market. During the War of 1812, old Mr. Underhill shrewdly planted huge fields of watermelons and had a fleet of cargo sloops waiting off the point for the crop to ripen. The melons were in great demand in the city at this time, as all coastal shipping was being blockaded.

His sons Richard and William inherited the property, dividing it between them. William, who received the northern half, concentrated on developing a brick industry around which grew the village of Croton Point. Bricks with his initials, “W.A.U.” and others with the very un-Quakerly self-promoting cryptogram “IXL” may still be found on the beaches at low tide. These were used to build the brick barns which still stand: a three-story barn for fruit and a large carriage and horse barn, as well as a brick schoolhouse for the children of the employees of the brickyard and farm. Three vaulted brick wine cellars, still in excellent condition, were built into the hillside, where at least one former Clearwater executive director has used them to chill the refreshments for the Revival volunteer party. There is a growing interest in having these brick buildings restored and researched as a historical archaeological site.

A vivid picture of life in the 19th-century village of Croton may be found in the recollections of the late Henry Gourdine, an African-American Croton resident whose father, born around 1840, worked for the Underhills. Henry recalled his father’s stories of attending Quaker Meeting with the Underhill family at a place called “Quaker’s Bridge”. He describes the bustling life of the brickworks, where each morning Henry as a three-year old child would be lifted up by his dad to ring the big bell which sent brickyard workers to their day’s labor. A small-gauge railroad at one time ran the length of the point, and Henry’s father was its engineer, another source of exciting childhood memories for his son.

An early 19th century incident, the wreck of the “Bluebird” off Croton Point in a violent storm, was described in detail by Mr. Gourdine, Sr. The vessel went aground, and no rescue could be attempted, although the crew could clearly be seen lashing themselves to the rigging in order to remain on board. The weather did not abate for three days, by which time the crew had all perished from exposure.

The orchards and vineyards flourished during the latter half of the 19th century, and Queen Victoria was a noted customer, although most of the wine was described as being “for medicinal or sacramental use.” Dr. Richard Underhill was the vintner, orchardman and farmer of the family. He had a horse which was so well trained that he could just drop the reins at the end of the workday and say “home”, and the animal would head back to the stables from wherever they were on the farm. It is said [by Chris Letts, who may or may not have been making this up on the spot] that on a still summer evening at twilight, the hooves of a horse can sometimes be heard as Dr. Underhill and his horse finish their evening rounds.

A fishery with nets for harvesting shad and sturgeon was part of the seasonal operation. In 1868, James Wood, Sr., witnessed “the greatest haul of shad on record” at one of the seining spots where the fish would be racing up the Croton River to spawn. He writes:

“There were over 1200 shad and as many herrings beside the usual proportion of striped bass and other fish. It was an immense delight for us boys to see ‘a haul’. The fish were shad, herrings, striped bass, sturgeon, eels [both common and lamprey], catfish galore, white perch and sunfish. Sometimes an immense sturgeon was caught, six or eight feet long and weighing 200 pounds…It was the delight of my boyhood to spend considerable time at Croton Point. Boating on the river, fishing, crabbing, duck shooting, the grapes, etc. made a wonderful combination.”

Fish were sold fresh or salted, and a rich mulch for the orchards was produced systematically by composting layers of dead fish and swamp muck.

Nearby Sing Sing Prison had been constructed by its inmates of a local white stone known as Ashlar marble. The convicts became skilled quarrymen and the marble was exported and sold. It was of this material that Dr. Richard Underhill had constructed a beautiful “Italianate” villa in 1846 out on the end of the point. He planted four yew trees around the house, which still stand today. The house was named “Interwasser”, or “Between-the Waters,” as it was situated between Haverstraw and Croton bays. The boyhood diary of my great-great-grandfather, Alfred A. Underhill, describes visits to this house in 1856. Alfred, a 16-year-old student at Westtown School in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, spent part of a school vacation that year at Croton Point. His diary relates the experience, which began in New York City:

7th day:10thmo:11th [ In the Quaker way the days and months are numbered rather than named; Sunday is 1st day and so on.] This morning after eating breakfast I accompanied Cousin James to Uncle George’s store [a clothing or cloth store at #53 Warren Street], and went from thence in the Sixth Avenue Cars, up to the Crystal Palace to attend the American Institute & spent most of the forenoon there very pleasantly. The exhibition of articles are very fine. I left there about one and a half P.M. for Uncle George’s store, where I waited for Reuben who was to go with me up to the Point in the three o’clock train. We arrived at the Point about dusk, and found the persons returning from Uncle Doctor’s [Dr. Richard T. Underhill], where they had been invited to dinner.

The following persons were at Uncle William’s [William A. Underhill], Father [Alfred Mott Underhill of “the Meadows” Farm at Clinton Corners], Robert [brother, three years older], Uncle Robert R., Aunt Sarah, cousin Indie [ their child, Indiana Underhill], cousin Anna, Stephen Wood U. [ cousin, son of William Underhill and Abby Wood], Wm. Henry, Sarah S [Sutton?], and Reuben, and myself.

1st day:10 mo:12th: This morning we all went to meeting [Quaker meeting for religious services] except Sarah S. who was slightly unwell. After meeting, Edward Underhill [Alfred’s great uncle ?] and part of Moses Sutton’s family came to Uncle William’s which together with those that were there before, made a large company. After dinner we all went a sailing on the Hudson. Part went in Uncle Doctor’s boat; part in Uncle Robert’s, and part, including myself in Uncle William’s. We had a sort of a race, and the one I was in beat the others, and Uncle Robert’s came out second best. We had a very nice sail. The Suttons and Edward went home in the evening. Uncle Robert’s family intended to start for New York tomorrow but they have concluded to wait til third day.

2nd day: 10 mo:13: This morning Reuben and Charlotte’s brother, who came here yesterday started for New York. They went over to Sing Sing in a row-boat. Towards noon Uncle Wm., Uncle R., Father, Robert, Wm. Henry; Stephen U. and myself went over to Sing Sing in Uncle Wm.’s sailboat. After dinner I went with Stephen U. a fishing, but we did not catch but a few small ones.

This evening all the folks at Uncle Wm.’s were invited to Richard Talcott’s to tea.

A few staid [sic] including Stephen U., Mary, Phebe, and Anna and I so as I thought I could enjoy myself as well if not better with them I concluded to stay, and we had a nice time. I went to bed before the party got back. Uncle George came here today.

3rd day:10 mo:14th: This morning there was quite a change in the weather, from a warm to a very cold degree of temperature. After bidding all of our Cousins and Uncles farewell, Father, Robert and myself left the Point for home….”

By 1895 the Underhills had much competition in the grape and apple business, and the brick-making business was no longer profitable. During the depression years of 1893-1895 the family was unable to meet the mortgage obligations and ownership of the property went over to the county. By 1924 it was taken over by Westchester County’s Parks Commission, and the old house was used as a retreat for low income mothers with young children, to get them away from the stifling heat and disease of summers in New York City. A summer camp for boys and girls, Camp Echo, was built out on the point, and by the early 1940’s the old manse had fallen into complete disrepair and had to be torn down. Its yew trees, one Ashlar marble hitching post, and part of its marble foundation, remain.

One of Westchester County’s other uses for Croton Point was to establish a garbage dump there. By 1966, half a million tons of trash collected in the county was dumped at Croton each year, in the open landfill style of the mid-20th century. Sea gulls were attracted to the area, but the growing mountains of garbage did not add to the use of the park as a recreation spot. A “New York Herald Tribune” article from that time includes wistful plans from a Mr. Pound, then Westchester County’s Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, to cover over the dump and turn it into an 18-hole golf course. This particular vision for the point has not come to pass, but the era of open-pit landfilling is over and the cleanup of its aftermath is underway.

Clearwater held its Revivals at Croton for many years, until the unsettling revelation that the improperly maintained dump was leaking toxic discharges into the soil and river. Under these circumstances, Clearwater felt it impolitic, if not downright unhealthy, to continue using the site, well-loved though it was. After years of remediation, the dump is now capped with a blanket of thick plastic covered with topsoil and plantings of wildflowers. Rumbling garbage trucks and acrid fumes no longer assail Revival-goers. The rationale that, if no rainwater could get through the thick plastic covering, no liquid would leach out the bottom of the dump, is a basic one. Unfortunately, it did not take into account a local resident that has been at Croton longer than any human occupant: the humble woodchuck. A burrowing animal by nature, the woodchuck has no difficulty in penetrating the protective plastic cap over the dump, and families of them have done so on numerous occasions. The county’s response- hiring a woodchuck trapper to remove the pests- is an imperfect solution, woodchucks being wily and prolific. The story continues. We’ll keep you posted.

Author’s note: Thanks to Chris Letts of the Hudson river Foundation, Jim and Frances Wood, John Underhill, Harry Macy, Harry M. Dunkak and the Westchester County Historical Society for information used in this article.

The original version ended with woodchucks and Underhills both being described as wily and prolific, but this reverse anthropomorphism was later removed either by me or the editors.

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