ALL ABOUT … PEEKSKILL
According to the Peekskill edition of the “Images of America” series, written by city historian John J. Curran, the city is poetically described as “A delightful place nestled into three surrounding hills, where the Hudson River spreads into Peekskill Bay, approaching the Bear Mounting highlands.” And so it is. But, that’s not the only reason why most River House residents enjoy living in this community, as Peekskill is also very historic and played a major role in our country’s fight for independence and other wartime efforts. Accordingly, a number of plaques and markers throughout the downtown and riverfront areas commemorate both dramatic events and pivotal moments in the early years of our colonial past. For instance:
- Henry Hudson sailed up what would become known as the Hudson River and anchored at Verplanck Point in the village that now bears that name.
- By the mid-1600’s, and according to an historic plaque located at the downtown Gazebo, Dutch explorer, businessman and fur trader Jan Peeck established a promising post and wharf on the area that is now called Annsville Circle. In the years that followed, Peeck’s family of 12 prospered, as did the strategic bay area of the Hudson where his trading post was located, so much so, that the city that grew up around it is now called Peekskill, meaning Peeck’s “Creek” or “Stream” in Dutch. And, while Peeck was also an official translator for Dutch and English merchants, he was also said to have been instrumental in the building of the wall in downtown New York City that gave Wall Street its name.
- By the late 1700’s, Peekskill was the first “West Point” when it served as the base camp for General Washington’s Continental Army—with headquarters right on Main Street (1776-1777) where the Birdsall House now stands.
- During the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington frequently visited the Peekskill military camp, as well as other sites in the area.
- Around the time of the Civil War, newly-elected president, Abraham Lincoln, made a famous railroad stop here when he was railing his way from Illinois to New York to make his inauguration speech. A plaque at the site of the old train depot commemorates that occasion and his brief but memorable speech.
- In the years that followed, Peekskill grew as a leading industrial center, home to a variety of companies including Union Stove Works, Fleishmann’s and the Peekskill Chemical Company, which would one day become Binney & Smith, creator of Crayola products, now headquartered in Pennsylvania.
- In 1903, the Lincoln Society was first established, making it the first such society in the United States.
- During the “war years” that followed during the 20th Century, Peekskill would also show its support in those efforts with citizens like Rose Bonavita Hickey or Rosie the Riveter who received a letter from President Roosevelt commemorating her outstanding achievemets at the local defense plant.
- Mid-20th Century was marked with a prelude of the civil rights movement that would sweep the nation, followed by urban renewal programs of the 1960s.
- By the end of the 20th Century, Peekskill had turned a somewhat decaying downtown into a Downtown Artists District, and its riverfront into a major highlight of the city and center of annual celebrations, concerts and festivals.
More than this, a famous and diverse group of people have lived here, at one time or another, including Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin); Peter Cooper who founded Cooper Union; Rose Bonavita Hickey of Rosie the Riveter World War II fame; 20th Century composer Aaron Copland; L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz;” one U.S. Senator (Chauncey DePew); one NYS Assemblyman and Senator, George A. Pataki, who went on to become Governor of New York for three terms; and Elton Brand, NBA basketball star who attended high school here.
As one of the northern most communities of affluent Westchester County, the City of Peekskill was originally a part of the Town of Cortlandt, an expansive region which today encircles the city and includes “two incorporated villages, Croton and Buchanan, as well as several hamlets including Montrose, Crugers and Verplanck” (www.cityofpeekskill.com, www.townofcortlandt.com).
In the early 1940s, however, Peekskill officially broke away from the Town of Cortlandt and reinvented itself as a separate municipality, at which time it was a burgeoning center of commerce and retail—a real “poster child” for Main Street, USA.
Decades later, and particularly with the advent and competition of nearby shopping malls, centers, strips and outlets that steadily emerged during the 1980s, the pace in Peekskill slowed down as the city reinvented its 19th Century downtown sector once again, this time as an artists’ community highlighted by galleries, shops and studios. Complimenting what is now the Downtown Artists District are trendy restaurants, SoHo-style shops and other places of interest. There is also a special complex called the “Work/Live Art Lofts,” a co-op residence for qualified artists; as well as Westchester Community College’s Art Workshop extension located on North Division Street (www.sunywcc.edu).
Downtown Peekskill is also very business-oriented, offering all types of professional services for its residents, from insurance to legal, and from medical to financial. Heavily supported by BID (Business Improvement District), a non-profit organization to promote commerce in downtown Peekskill, there are, consequently, many festivals, annual events and activities in the community throughout the year (www.peekskillbid.com).
At the downtown core is a popular Gazebo located on Park and North Division Streets. The structure often serves as a centerpiece for political speeches, holiday ceremonies and other festivities. Also located in this neighborhood are City Hall, the Field Library, the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, the Paramount Center for the Arts, the Peekskill Museum and Historic Society, Westchester Community College’s Art Workshop and the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce, which also represents and promotes Peekskill as a tourist destination, as well as Cortlandt, Croton and Putnam Valley (Putnam County).
By the mid-1990s, and with the opening of the Cortlandt Town Center, Peekskill went through another change when the area that is now officially known as Cortlandt Manor broke away from the city and created its own township and zip code. Still, no matter how many changes the city goes through, Peekskill has proven that it has the unique knack of picking itself up and marching on, time and again.
Routes 6 (Main Street) and 202 cut through the city and, when traveling west towards the river, they bring visitors to the city’s treasured riverfront. Here, on perhaps one of the most strategic points of the legendary Hudson is Riverfront Green, a popular park and bay area with marina and yacht club, an oversized gazebo, a children’s playground, a variety of walking paths and hiking trails, picnic areas, restaurants and pleasant spots to sit and watch the river come to life with mallards, geese, gulls and even baldheaded eagles, as there have been an increasing number of sightings in recent years. Dragon Boat Races, July 4th Fireworks, summer concerts under the stars that often feature headline entertainment, and other events are just some of the city’s many annual celebrations located “down by the river.”
Always a city on the cusp of change, Peekskill has often caught the interest of “the big screen,” as well as TV and cable networks. One movie, “Unfaithful,” starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere, had its closing scene with the Hollywood duo parked outside the architecturally striking “Standard House,” a former 19th Century hotel and saloon located by the river (Standard House is also on the State and National Register of Historic Places).
“Along Came Love,” starring Westchester resident Vanessa Williams, was also filmed here and its closing shot featured the actress sitting at a café table just outside the Peekskill Coffee Shop, located in the historic Flat Iron building and directly across from the recently restored Paramount Center for the Arts (also on the National Register of Historic Places).
Not to be forgotten is “The Facts of Life,” a 1980s TV sit-com about a girl’s boarding school which plays out in Peekskill (although it was not filmed here); and, more recently, in 2010, HBO filmed part of its “Mildred Pierce” miniseries-remake of the classic Joan Crawford film right here on Bank Street. Kate Winslet was its leading lady.
While the city was once home to a number of hotels including the former Empire Hotel (1885) which became then became the Kentora Hotel (1907), located in the building with the turret overlooking the downtown Gazebo, as well as the Standard House and Union Hotel down by the train station, Peekskill today has only one lodging facility for overnight visitors and that is the recently renovated Inn on the Hudson (the former Peekskill Motor Inn). Beautifully situated at a strategic point high above the Hudson, it is clearly visible as a familiar landmark when driving north along Route 9. It is also well known for its popular restaurant “Henry’s on the Hudson,” which affords wonderful views of the river and surrounding countryside from its outdoor terrace (see Dining section).
More than anything else, the mood in the city has been, for many years and through various administrations, to preserve Peekskill’s intriguing past, and there are many historical signs, markers and monuments at several locations throughout the city to signify that point. These are located both downtown and at Riverfront Green, as well as Depew Park, Annsville Park and Charles Point Park, all revealing some aspect of Peekskill’s unique story.
For more historic information, facts, tales, details and descriptions, visit John J. Curran, city historian and curator of the Peekskill Museum located in the Herrick House (736-0473). He loves to talk about all things “Peekskill,” past and present. Also visit www.peekskillmuseum.com, www.cityofpeekskill.com. And, be sure to pickup a copy of the previously mentioned Peekskill edition of the “Images of America” series authored by Curran and published by Arcadia (www.arcadiapublishing.com) at the nearby downtown shops or over at Barnes & Noble in Cortlandt Manor.