Peekskill’s Origins, Development and Highlights
Peekskill was established as a distinct locale by travelers from the Hudson River in the 1600s. The English sea captain and explorer, Henry Hudson sailed up and down the river in the autumn of 1609 onboard the Dutch ship Half Moon. This voyage of exploration began the land claims made by the countries of Holland and England to the river valley.
The first European person recorded to set foot on this territory was Jan Peeck. He was a resident of New Amsterdam (later New York City). He lived in the east Wall Street area of Manhattan, just south of the current Brooklyn Bridge. On his various sloop journeys to this region at about 1650, Peeck exchanged various manufactured items with native tribal people living along Peekskill Bay and Annsville Creek. These residents identified themselves as “Kitchawank.”
Jan Peeck was a recognized citizen of the New Amsterdam settlement, where he worked as an official translator between the Dutch and English merchants in Manhattan. He also served in a militia company that protected Fort Amsterdam. Mr. Peeck donated towards building a wooden palisade wall around their community. That area was later identified as Wall Street.
Jan and his wife Marie de Trieux had family of ten children. Jan Peeck’s name; Peeck, Peak, or Peek (according to various spellings), and the Dutch wor d for stream or creek, “kill” or “kil,” were combined as “Peek’s kill,” meaning Peek’s creek. The Kitchawank people called this location “Sachoes.”
A formal deed transfer of useful products by the Europeans to the Kitchawank tribal representatives took place in 1685. The “Ryck’s Patent” land agreement for 1,800 acres created Peekskill as a distinct geographic location. Among the exchange items given by the six Dutchmen to the natives were: eight brass kettles, one thousand fish hooks, fifty-two knives, two swords, eight muskets, 40 bars of lead and five bullet molds, 15 pounds of gun powder, three pistols, two hundred needles, 15 axes, 15 hoes, 100 tobacco pipes, rum, quantities of beer and tobacco.
Another section of territory was added to Peekskill with a land grant given to Hugh Magregere (original spelling) in 1691 by the King of England. MacGregory’s (to use contemporary Scottish spelling) Brook marked a boundary line of that real estate transaction.
The first settlers arrived in the mid 1700s as members of the Lent, Cronkite, Johnson, Hall, Hawes, Travis, and Brown families. Other early residents in Peekskill before the Revolutionary War were the families of Birdsall, Conklin, Horton, Depew, and Weeks. Their primary activities were agriculture, river transport, small industrial and commercial businesses.
Religion was important to these first settlers. Nathaniel and his son Stephen Brown were active Quakers in the mid-1700s. Caleb Hall helped form a local Baptist Church in 1772. The Hudson River passageway between New York City and Albany allowed enterprising people to establish commercial docks, wharves, warehouses, industries, farms, trades and businesses before the time of the American Revolution. These wealth generating activities marked early Peekskill’s distinctive style.
Annsville Creek and McGregory Brook were useful locations for sawmills and grinding mills convenient to river shipping. Mechanical processes were set up to turn wheat and corn into flour, tallow into candles, leather into shoes, and rags into paper. African-Americans have had experiences with Peekskill from its earliest days.
There evidence indicating the use of Negro slavery from about 1750 through 1825. By the time the Revolution in 1776, this population could serve in the Continental Army as a condition of their freedom. Peekskill saw several “free blacks” well established in the community before the end of the Civil War. Peekskill was an Important Location During the War of Independence Peekskill was a significant Revolutionary War military base. It served nearly two years as a Command Post for the Continental Army in the Hudson Valley from 1776
through 1778. General Washington used the former Birdsall house on Main Street as his headquarters. Among the generals based at Peekskill were William Heath, Alexander McDougall and Israel Putnam, who supervised the regional Hudson Valley military activities. This area was important for its hilly defensive location, its views of the bay, and its industries applied to military purposes. The overlook locale, now identified as “Fort Hill” in Peekskill, was the site of five large barracks buildings and two redoubts. Several river fortifications were garrisoned by thousands of soldiers dispersed mostly from Camp Peekskill, such as forts Independence, Montgomery, Clinton and Lafayette.
The locally raised 2nd New York Continental Regiment was commanded by Col. Philip Van Cortlandt. This unit saw decisive battle action at Saratoga, New York in 1777 and Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. They were also in Peekskill during the March 1777 raid by British naval and infantry forces.
That raid resulted in a full day of destruction. Barracks able to hold 1,200 soldiers were burned, along with a few mills, several houses and considerable American war supplies. A spirited counter attack successfully persuaded the British to leave this area. Due to its proven military vulnerability, Peekskill, the regional command center was relocated to West Point site in early 1778. Parts of the Benedict Arnold conspiracy events took place at Peekskill in 1780. Gen. Arnold there received the official command of West Point and other river fortifications from Gen. Washington inside the former Birdsall house on Main Street.
Soon afterwards, the British warship Vulture delivered John Andre on a secret mission to consult with Arnold at Haverstraw. John “Rifle Jack” Peterson and Moses Sherwood instigated a rifle and cannon attack that helped foil the conspiracy. One of the cannons believed to have been involved in that action is now mounted on an inscribed base in front of the Peekskill Museum.
John Paulding, who later lived just outside Peekskill, interrogated and captured the spy Andre at Tarrytown. Many Revolutionary War veterans are buried locally at old St. Peter’s Cemetery in Van Cortlandtville. Hudson River Gave a Boost to Early Industrialization With Peekskill’s first legal incorporation as a Village in 1816, industrial, commercial and civic activities continued to grow. The first village president elected was Samuel Strang in 1827. Westchester County’s first bank opened at Peekskill in 1833, as did the Peekskill Academy, that later became a military school.
A second 1839 Act of Incorporation saw 230 buildings and about 1,300 residents in the village. The new legal status within New York State attracted President Martin Van Buren to Peekskill that year. Steamships and sloops made numerous stops at the three available riverfront docks. The arrival of the railroad and telegraph systems in Peekskill indicated the beginning of the modern age. Peekskill was developing in an industrial style similar to other lower Hudson River communities such as Yonkers, Nyack, Haverstraw, Ossining, Cold Spring and Newburgh.
Starting with Steven Gregory’s small iron casting foundry in 1829, plow and stove making operations begin to prosper. The Peekskill Iron Molders Union No.6 was formed in 1858. By the year 1895, seven Peekskill iron foundries were producing and selling more than 200,000 heating and cooking stoves of all sizes and models. The Annsville Wire Company became active in 1830s until a devastating fire ended its operations about 50 years later.
Several of Peekskill’s fire companies were organized during the early 1800s: Columbian Engine Company (1826), Cortlandt Hook & Ladder (1831). The Peekskill Military Academy, organized in 1833, remained as a private school until 1968. President Lincoln and the Underground Railroad President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a railroad stop at the first Peekskill train station on Water Street on February 19, 1861. He delivered a short statement while on his way to inauguration in Washington, D.C. Mr. Lincoln’s only address to people in Westchester County is still recalled by Peekskill’s Lincoln Society.
Peekskill participated in the national Underground Railroad system that assited refugees from Southern slavery. Spearheaded by Harriet Tubman, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Park Street was established in 1852. African-American property owners Hawley and Harriet Green allowed their house at 1112 Main Street to be used as an Underground Railroad safe house, which was a transit location for those passing through on their way to Canada.
Abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher lived at his East Main Street mansion in the later 1800s. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who certainly was in Peekskill at some time, authored “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the powerful anti-slavery work. Moses Beach was publisher of the New York Sun newspaper who shared Rev. Beecher’s views as a Main Street neighbor. Early resident Peter Cooper went on to become of one most influential people in New York City. Peekskill’s own Chauncey M. Depew, acting as New York’s Secretary of State, persuaded the War Department in Washington to allow New York’s soldiers then stationed in other states to vote for Lincoln as president in 1864. Frederick Seward, Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of State, lived in nearby Montrose New York after the war.
A sizable portion of Peekskill and Cortlandt men participated in civil war military actions in many regiments. Of a total resident population of 4,000 people, about 700 saw military service, including about two dozen African-American soldiers and sailors. Re- unions by the 6th Heavy Artillery and the Harris Light Cavalry regiments were held locally many years afterwards.
Business Was Good After the Civil War Manufacturing cast iron cooking and heating stoves became the village’s leading business following the Civil War. Seven foundries manufactured 200,000 such stoves in year 1895 alone. The Peekskill Iron Company blast furnace at Annsville was sold to Cooper, Hewitt Co. of New York City in 1887. It then produced about 30 tons of pig iron daily. Peekskill Chemical Works was started by Joseph Binney, a Main Street resident in the 1800s. As the Binney & Smith Company, factory operations relocated to Easton Pennsylvania in 1900 where they later made and sold Crayola brand products.
A notable author lived a few of his formative years at Peekskill. Lyman Frank Baum was a student at the Peekskill Military Academy 1868-70. A plausible case can be made that several elements such as the “yellow brick road” in the fanciful stories and books created by Mr. Baum, including the Wizard of Oz, were inspired by some of his experiences here at Peekskill.
Peekskill’s first telegraph office was located in the corner brick building at Main Street and Nelson Avenue, variously known as Dramatic Hall, Durrin Brothers and Kurzhals hardware store through the years since 1849.. The first local telegraph operator was Alonzo Cornell, related to the famous family associated with Cornell University and the Western Union Company. Also active were profitable lumber yards, nickel plating works, boat builders, a hat factory, a shirt and underwear factory. Important in providing inexpensive transport for factory workers, the 13 mile electric trolley system, from 1899 to 1927. Extension lines reached into Mohegan Lane, Putnam Valley, Buchanan, Verplanck and Annsville.
The Fleischmann Company’s industrial complex was established at Charles Point in 1900. This factory developed several yeast by-products, helping to improve the quality and availability of American yeast breads. The Fleischmann Company merged with Standard Brands in the 1920s. During World War II, the factory laboratories created dry packaged yeast that was recognized by the U.S. Army and Navy with five “E” for Excellence awards. Fleischmann’s brand gin and whiskey can still be found for sale, but are no longer processed at Peekskill, as the company totally vacated its former Charles Point site in 1977. Generations of local men and women had relied on unionized jobs with the Peekskill branch of Standard Brands. Its departure was a severe setback to the area’s economic base.
Peekskill native Chauncey M. Depew became President of the New York Central Railroad Company, and served 12 years as a United States Senator (1899-1911). Local banker Cornelius Pugsley filled one term as U.S. Congressman (1901-1903). These two local individuals donated their private land for public park purposes, such as Depew Park and Pugsley Park. Peekskill’s political influence extended to Albany with James W. Husted’s 12 years as Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and 44 years altogether in that Albany legislature.
Beginning in the late 1800s, Saint Joseph’s Home provided housing and schooling for more than 1,000 orphaned boys and girls at its peak, as operated by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters. These Sisters also began the Assumption School. Saint Mary’s School operated since 1872 as an Episcopal girlsschool. It was apparently the setting for the popular TV show “Facts of Life.” St. Peter’s boys school was once active on East Main Street.
Several Peekskill businesses begun in the 1800s continue into the 2000’s, such as Dain’s & Sons Lumber Company, Dorsey-Carlone Funeral Home, and Weeks Jewelers. Peekskill as a City Peekskill was incorporated City on July 29, 1940. Two years of difficult legal wrangling finally settled the separation from the Town of Cortlandt. The local government would consist of a two-year term elected Mayor, six Councilmen each elected to four-year terms. The City Charter was revised in 1967 to allow for a City Manager form of government.
The first Peekskill City Mayor was James MacKay, followed by William Horton. The next mayor was Ralph Hopkins. As a professional architect, Mr. Hopkins previously designed the City Hall building in 1937, the former Masonic Building on Brown Street and the former “Genung’s, Howlands, Steinback” department store building at Main and Division Streets, now home N.Y. State Compensation offices. With large areas to accommodate parking, Beach Shopping Center opened for business in 1958. The new City of Peekskill welcomed its role in the federally funded
Urban Renewal Program of the 1960s that physically transformed much of the downtown area. The former busy commercial riverfront area was acquired by the City from the railroad, and developed into the Riverfront Green Park in 1975. Peekskill was Active During World War 2 The people of Peekskill were well represented in all branches of military service during World War 2, from 1941 into 1945. A total of 2,354 resident men and women wore military uniforms through those years. The numbers were 1,627 in the Army, 603 with in Navy, 93 Marines, and 31 with the Coast Guard. Of these, forty-seven died in service. Locally raised war bonds were used to build four B-17 bombers. These were given names: “Peekskill Avenger,” “Peekskill War Eagle,” “City of Peekskill,” and “Peekskill American Legion.”
Women on the home front took over many factory jobs. Rose Bonavita Hickey, and partner Jennie Florio, drilled 900 holes and placed 3,300 rivets in an air plane tail end within six hours at the former General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division in North Tarrytown. Mrs. Hickey was recognized with personal letter from President Roosevelt, and became identified as our own and perhaps first official “Rosie the Riveter.” The 1949 Concert Events at Van Cortlandtville Immediately after the end of World War 2, the Soviet Union changed from being an ally to an enemy of the United States. The tensions and activities of the era roughly from 1950 to 1980 became a Cold War, with nuclear weapons aimed by both sides. African American singer and celebrity Paul Robeson remained with a mind-set of the previous era when international cooperation existed. With the explosion of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union in 1949, and a Communist victory in China that year, political sides were taken nationally and locally. That year, these political attitudes and world tensions exploded into violence at Van Cortlandtville, New York, a few miles north f Peekskill within the Town of Cortlandt.
A summer concert was planned from New York City to take place along Oregon Road in August 1949. The keynote entertainer was to be Paul Robeson. Area veteran’s organization protested the concert and the motives of those who promoted it, and staged a parade protest in the area between the local cemeteries and the concert location. Close contact between the two groups resulted in disorder that prevented the concert from being held. A second concert event was organized a week later further north on Oregon Road. This event also resulted in personal and property damage, although no one was killed on either side. One third of the entire New York State police force was on the scene, but did not contain the disorder or violence. The result was national publicity indicating as Peekskill the scene of violent clashes between pro-communist and anti-communist forces. Considerable bad feelings were generated that have persisted in the 2000’s. Peekskill is still often misidentified as the location of those historic events at Van Cortlandtville in the summer of1949.
The “urban renewal” Era Peekskill was an active participant In the federal, state and local program usually identified as “urban renewal” between the years 1960 to 1975. Despite the reality that Peekskill was a successful continuous village up to 1940 when it reincorporated as a city, local decision makers advocated “urbanizing” big city styles. The first phase was to replace private housing with subsidized apartment buildings. The second phase was to target the downtown core area and prepare the way for public parking, a new public library, neighborhood center, police and court complex. A third phase spread to particular neighborhoods and targeted buildings, mostly with meaningless destruction.
A severe “budget crisis” was announced by City Hall in 1975, and a proposal to install a local sales tax. There are several significant empty lots remaining in years 2012 that have not yet been “re-developed” for public or private use. The shock to the physical structure and community by these dramatic programs resulted in a 6% decrease in Peekskill’s population during those years. The Peekskill Planning Department was created in 1975 as City Hall controlled branch of the original urban renewal programs.
Peekskill Still Making Firsts Peekskill was the first community in New York State to have an African-American mayor. Councilman Richard E. Jackson was appointed to serve an unfinished term of Mayor George Pataki. The city elected Paula Tronto Bennett as its first woman to the Council in 1983, and Frances Gibbs as its first female mayor in 1994. With the 1994 election, 1998 and 2002 re-elections of George E. Pataki of Peekskill as Governor of New York State, Peekskill demonstrated its contribution of outstanding individuals to the State. The newly formed New York Jets football team trained at the Peekskill Military Academy campus from 1963 to 1968. An annual Jan Peek Road Race has taken place on Peekskill streets since 1978. The modern technology of trash incineration and recycling has been an on-going operation at the Resource Recovery incinerator at Charles Point since 1984.
Peekskill High School graduate Haywood Burns was a distinguished lawyer who later helped formulated the new constitution of South Africa in collaboration with President Nelson Mandela. The National Maritime Historical Society has published their magazine Sea History at Charles Point since 1991. The downtown Business Improvement District B.I.D. has been in operation since 1996. The Paramount Center for the Arts was organized in the 1970s by the Peekskill Area Arts Council.
The completion and occupancy of the High Tech Art Loft complex in 2002 is a structural fulfillment to the City’s commitment to an Arts District. This project was a fulfillment of advocacy of the Peekskill as an arts community by mayors Vincent Vesce and Frances Gibbs. Complementing these efforts was the creation of a Downtown Historic District in year 2001. Other projects proposed in recent times have been the Lincoln Depot Museum on Water Street, and a proposed unified Central Fire Station complex on Broad Street in 2010.