By WILLIAM SHANNON
On May 11, 1914, Robert M. Clark, land and tax agent of The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company, sat down for a hearing at the railroad’s Appraisers of Land Office at Croton-on-Hudson to explain his recent dealings along the river in Germantown, N.Y.
Clark detailed how he’d secured a 0.74-acre parcel of land on the riverside of the tracks about 300 feet north of the site of the Germantown train station at lower Main Street.
The woman who sold the land, Katharine K. Parsons, had insisted though on retaining a strip of land two feet in width, running 150 feet along the shore. “Being withheld for sentimental reasons,” Clark said, “Mrs. Parsons wishing to reserve something in the way of a grant which her ancestors had secured according to her claim in 1823.”
Parsons also retained her ownership of a property on the east side of the tracks, “on a bluff or knoll, possibly 20 feet above the level of the roadbed of the railroad,” with “a large white homestead, barns and other outbuildings,” Clark said.
On the 0.74 acres west of the track that the railroad purchased in 1913, Clark described a bulkheaded dock about a hundred feet long running in a north-south direction, with an additional bulkhead dock at the north end about 25 feet in length running in a northeasterly direction.
“This dock was apparently very frequently used, and I had occasion to inspect it possibly twenty times,” Clark said. “On most all of the occasions I saw most anywheres from eight to nine boats tied up at that dock. Row boats, and occasionally a power boat.”
The railroad that year also acquired the small strip of land inland of its tracks, where Amtrak now proposes to erect a seven-hundred foot long, eight-foot tall fence.
Acquiring that strip and the associated deeded rights to cross to the river, according to Clark, “was particularly important as there was an established grade crossing at this location.”
“The chances were not remote that if the crossings had been permitted to remain, we would have had to dispose of it by construction of a bridge. Had we built the ordinary footbridge, the expense of contracting it would have been say $5,000. I contracted to pay for the 0.74 acres, including the dock which was bulkheaded and filled, and including the triangular parcel of land on the east side, a release of all crossing rights, the elimination of the grade crossing, and the payment of consequential damages to the remainder of the property caused by the taking away of all water rights, riparian rights, and access to the river, the sum of $10,000.” That’d be about $250,000 when translated to today’s buying power.
Clark described for the appraisers the course of Germantown’s lower Main Street, how it curved southward before again running westerly toward the Hudson River, and how it crossed the railroad tracks and continued “thence to the dock, which they have now lost. The fence is closed up, and they have no means of access to the river.”
Somewhere over the decades, as the railroad companies merged and re-formed and became less profitable, blocking Germantown residents from this particular area of the river became less of a priority. The fence Clark mentions eventually ceased to exist. Now wooden docks dot the shore there and the area is used again as an unofficial river park with stored boats and areas to relax along shore.
Coincidentally, the Germantown Waterfront Advisory Committee has floated the same idea Clark considered in 1913—erecting a pedestrian bridge over the tracks at that location. For those who worry about the safety of people who walk across the tracks to access the river at Germantown’s lower Main Street, a bridge would be, philosophically and practically, a contrasting solution to Amtrak’s current proposal, which aims to again fence people from the river.
In the 1914 hearing, Clark also said that he entered into a contract on March 8, 1913 with the Germantown Ice Company for their 18 and three-fifths acres of mostly underwater land, also including their ice house on about a half-acre of filled land for $20,000—or more than a half-million dollars in today’s money. This land is between lower Main Street and Cheviot Landing, about 1,100 feet south of lower Main Street’s terminus.
Employees of the ice company had been crossing the railroad lines and riding alongside the tracks to its ice house, “for a great many years,” Clark said.
“The $20,000 included 18 and three-fifths of water grant, all of which was under water except 24,000 square feet, which was filled and bulkheaded,” Clark said. “Upon this fill and bulkhead was a 10,000-ton ice house, with the necessary machinery and appurtenances for operating an ice house. At the time we purchased it there was a considerable tonnage of ice in the ice house, on account of which we gave a lease back for a short term to the parties in order to enable them to dispose of it. We destroyed at the end of the lease a going concern.”
The ice house, Clark said, “was a comparatively new house, had been constructed about six or seven years previously, the house formerly standing on the site having been destroyed by fire.”
Clark, in front of the appraisers, justified the amount of money paid to the ice company by stressing the importance of buying out the company’s crossing rights and the ability to raze the ice house and by doing so, eliminating a fire risk.
“I might say that it was not a comparatively easy task to secure that contract, as the Germantown Ice Co. was a corporation consisting of twelve women and one man, and each woman held her own opinion, and we had several meetings which were more or less riotous before we got through,” Clark said.
In 1993, the Owasco River Railway, Inc., a company linked with New York Central, citing a 1985 board decision to allow the president of the company to sell lands “which may be considered to be no longer needed for any future corporate or business purpose of the company,” sold, through a quitclaim deed, the 18.77 acre former icehouse parcel, in addition to five other parcels in the county, to John and Edward Boll and Dudley Ray Meyer for $5,693.
Following a series of county tax foreclosures, the town of Germantown acquired title to the half-acre or so of land on the river and its underwater acreage. The piece of land, according to local sportsmen, has been used for staging duck blinds and for scap-netting herring for decades. It now also has a stone firepit, many of the stones probably from the former ice house's foundation or the bulkheading mentioned by Clark, and is a stop-off point for many who use the access road.
The Germantown Waterfront Advisory Committee has begun preliminary planning based on public input for a primitive boaters’ campsite or two on the former Germantown Ice Company land—a potential addition to the Hudson River Water Trail and one of just a handful or so of boaters’ campgrounds on the tidal Hudson River.
Aside from water access, the parcel is only accessible via the access road that runs along shore, which will be gated off if Amtrak’s current proposal is approved.
Almost a century after Robert Clark helped the railroad do everything in its power to keep Germantown residents from crossing its tracks to get to the river, CSX, in 2001, erected gates that blocked the access road in Germantown, which elicited much controversy and prompted a rally that summer at Ernest R. Lasher, Jr. Memorial Park in Germantown.
The gates in 2001 also prompted a substantive response from Governor George Pataki, who then negotiated with CSX over their plans relating to river access. Pataki, who was then championing the new Hudson River Water Trail program, created a process for future proposals from the railroad that could limit public access. The access road for many years now, has been open again, for fishing, birdwatching, jogging, for emergency first-responder access and for the group of citizens who have removed tons of garbage from the shore each spring over the past twenty years.
But Amtrak’s proposal, now being reviewed by the New York State department of state, calls for the blocking off with fencing of 700 feet along the tracks at Lower Main Street in Germantown and the gating off of the popular access road that runs along shore for more than two miles. Many other communities in Columbia and Dutchess counties would be affected by the proposed access restrictions as well. Citizens have until May 1 to comment on the proposal to the state.
The latest page in this history—of public river access and the railroad—will be this Sunday at Noon when a riverfront rally is scheduled to take place at Ernest R. Lasher Park, with a slew of elected officials, first responders, sportspeople and environmental advocates exploring the philosophical question of public access along the Hudson River shore.
Note: Full disclosure—I’m a member of the Germantown Waterfront Advisory Committee, a group which has, for the past year and a half, been researching and holding public visioning sessions, and coming up with plans for the future of Germantown’s rich waterfront resources. The railroad hearing minutes, cited heavily in this story, came to the committee following an inquiry with the New York State Office of General Services. This story reflects my views and doesn't necessarily reflect the committee's or anyone else's views. Those seeking more information relating to Sunday’s rally and on the Amtrak proposal should visit gatesgate.org.