About Peekskill

Peekskill's Origins, Development and Highlights

European Discovery and Settlement
Peekskill was established as a distinct locale by travelers from the Hudson River in the 1600s. Henry Hudson, the English sea captain and explorer, 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 New Amsterdam resident (later renamed New York City), and lived in the east Wall Street section of Manhattan, just south of the current Brooklyn Bridge. On various sloop journeys to this region at about 1650, Peeck exchanged various manufactured items with native tribal people located along Peekskill Bay, or what is now Annsville Creek, and possibly some distance up Peekskill Hollow Brook. The resident people identified themselves as "Sackhoes," according to the phonetic transcription from their language.

Jan Peeck was a reputable citizen of the New Amsterdam settlement. He was appointed to work as an official translator between the Dutch and English merchants in Manhattan. He served with the local militia in one of the four companies that protected Fort Amsterdam. Peeck also donated money towards the building the wall around that community, from which the name "Wall Street" has endured. Jan and his wife Marie de Trieux had ten children altogether. Jan Peeck died in early 1660.

The Peekskill region, and specifically what is now Annsville, was first identified by European immigrants as "Peeck's Kill." This name was adapted from the explorer and fur businessman Jan Peeck. Thus, Mr. Peeck, or Peak, or Peek (according to various spellings), and the Dutch word for stream or creek, (which is "kill" or "kil") were combined as this place name. The area was known to the Dutch as "Jan Peeck's kill," and to the English as "John Peak's Creek."

While once unofficially known as Jan Peeck's Creek, it was the formal transfer of itemized useful products by the Europeans to the Sachoes and their tribal representatives in 1685 that created Peek's Kill as a distinct geographic location, recognized as a land deed. Among the items given to the Sachoes by the six Dutchmen 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, beer and tobacco.

The written deed transfer of land for these items was the Ryck's Patent. The document was signed with appropriate marks by four members of the Sachoes tribe, and the English governor at that time. In return, six New Amsterdam residents representing three families were given title to 1,800 acres. Peekskill then became a territory distinct from the surrounding Van Cortlandt lands.

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. A local landmark, McGregory's Brook marks a boundary line of that real estate transaction. These first entrepreneurs later resold the total land area land of Peekskill to buyers in smaller sections, mostly for commercial purposes.

The original settlers in the mid 1700s were members of the Lent, Cronkite, Johnson, Hall, Hawes, Travis, and Brown families. Other early settlers in Peekskill before the Revolutionary War were Birdsall, Conklin, Horton, Depew, and Weeks. Their primary activities were agriculture, river transport, various domestic and commercial industries.

It is interesting to note that religion was very 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. Those commercial and industrial activities marked early Peekskill's distinctive style.

Annsville Creek and McGregory Brook were recognized as ideal locations for using water transport, and water power. Sawmills and grinding mills were located on these streams, convenient to river shipping. Industrial processes were set up to turn wheat and corn into flour, tallow into candles, leather into shoes, and rags into paper. Docks and wharves allowed sloops and other vessels to carry flour, leather, and manufactured material to other locations while importing necessary supplies. The years between 1685 to 1776 saw a steady increase in the settlement and industries of Peekskill.

African-Americans have had experiences with Peekskill from its earliest days. There is some evidence indicating the use of Negro slavery from about 1750 through 1825. By the time the Revolution in 1776, blacks could serve in the Continental Army as a condition of their freedom. Peekskill saw several free blacks well established 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, and at times used as a headquarters for American army officers in the Hudson Valley from 1776 through 1782. The 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. An average of 1,000 Continental soldiers were stationed at Camp Peekskill on and off through the eight years of war.

Gen. Washington established Peekskill as the regional command center for the Hudson Valley following a personal inspection tour here in November 1776, immediately aftter the battle at White Plains. Officers used the former Birdsall house on Main Street as their headquarters. Among the Continental Army generals based at Peekskill were William Heath, Alexander McDougall and Israel Putnam. These officers commanded the regional Hudson Valley military activities.

Americans established a series of river fortifications along the Highlands. These were Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery at Bear Mountain, Fort Lafayette at Verplanck's Point, Fort Independence in Annsville, Fort Putnam at West Point, Fort Constitution and Stony Point. Those forts were garrisoned by New England soldiers dispersed mostly from Camp Peekskill. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and New York soldiers were stationed at the Peekskill camp for transfer to other forts and

military locations. The locally raised 2nd New York Regiment of Continental soldiers was commanded by Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt. This unit saw action in battles at Saratoga, New York in 1777 and Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.

To Peekskill's immediate south was the vital King's Ferry river passageway at Verplanck. Directly to the north was the military camp at Continental Village.

Peekskill was by 1777 an important and vulnerable military location for the Hudson Valley. Arriving with a warship and several support vessels, 500 British infantry and a contingent of sailors bombarded the Peekskill camp with artillery in the early springtime of 1777. More than full day of destruction resulted in burning the barracks and accommodations for 1,200 soldiers, a few mills, and considerable amounts of vital American war supplies. Portions of two Continental regiments temporarily withdrew further north to Continental Village, until an American counter attack was staged the following evening.

Another enemy attack force arrived at the Hudson Highlands in the fall of 1777. Due to the easy access of attack from the Hudson River, Peekskill was replaced in its role as regional command center by the West Point garrison in the spring of 1778.

Peekskill also became significant for the Benedict Arnold conspiracy events in 1780. Gen. Arnold had received the official command of West Point and other river fortifications from Gen. Washington while both were present at the Birdsall house on Main Street in Peekskill.

The area also became significant in foiling the conspiracy between Arnold and the British officer John Andre. The British warship Vulture, that delivered Andre on a secret mission to consult with Arnold at Haverstraw, came under rifle and cannon attack by John Peterson and Moses Sherwood from Croton Point. Peterson was an African-American, with descendants in Peekskill. The cannon believed to have been involved in that action is now mounted on an inscribed base outdoors at the Peekskill Museum.

John Paulding, who later lived just outside Peekskill, had interrogated and captured the spy Andre at Tarrytown.

The River Gave a Boost to Early Industrialization
Beginning with Peekskill's first legal incorporation as a Village in 1816, industrial, commercial and civic activities continued to grow. This New York State legislative act established Peekskill's working government as a Village within the Town of Cortlandt. The 1816 law allowed Peekskill to elect five Trustees, have elections and to raise taxes. Also authorized was the appointment of four fire wardens with a company of 18 firemen.

It took a few years for the village to vitalize this incorporation. The first village president elected was Samuel Strang in 1827. A further 1839 Act of Incorporation affirmed, expanded and clarified the previous powers and responsibilities. By this time, there 231 buildings and about 1,300 residents in the village.

Even in those early days, steamships and sloops made numerous stops at the three available riverfront docks. Various foods, lumber and processed materials were exchanged and transported. The appearance of the railroad and telegraph in Peekskill assisted this development and indicated the beginning of the modern age.

Vibrant and growing, the village attracted President Martin Van Buren for a visit in 1839. Starting with Steven Gregory's small iron casting foundry in 1829, plow and stove making factories begin to flourish in number, capacity and revenues. The Annsville Wire Company became active in 1833.

In days before any government planning and zoning regulations, or any environmental concerns, factories were located throughout the small village, on Main and Division Streets, and down Central Avenue. The waterfront area was completely covered with business structures, and the foundries would discharge black smoke day and night. The Peekskill Iron Molders Union No.6 was formed in 1858, one year before the National Molders Union was established. By the year 1895, seven Peekskill foundries were producing and selling more than 200,000 heating and cooking stoves of all sizes and models.

The Hudson River Railroad appeared at Peekskill in 1849 and by 1850 was connected between New York City and Albany. Some of the steamboat passenger and freight services continued into the 1900s. Peekskill was developing in an industrial style similar to other Hudson River communities such as Yonkers, Nyack, Haverstraw. Ossining, Cold Spring and Newburgh.

Transportation and commerce were enhanced by the convenience of the Albany Post Road passing through the village in a North-South route. Main Street reached directly from Travis Dock on the waterfront, and stretched westward into Danbury Connecticut along what is now Route 6, and was originally a paid toll road as the Five Mile Turnpike.

Several of Peekskill's distinguished fire companies were organized during this era. Columbian Engine Company began in 1826, the Peekskill and later Cortlandt Hook & Ladder in 1831. In addition, the Peekskill Military Academy was organized in 1833 and remained in continuous operation as private school until 1968. Westchester County's first bank of 1833 was organized at Peekskill village.

President Lincoln and the Underground Railroad
President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a stop at the old Peekskill train station on Water Street, and delivered a short speech on February 19, 1861. A memorial marker on South Street, named the Lincoln Exedra, overlooks the site of that original railroad depot. The stop at Peekskill was Lincoln's only living appearance in Westchester County. That event is still commemorated by the Lincoln Society of Peekskill.

Peekskill also served as an "Underground Railroad" station in the system that helped refugees from slavery. Spearheaded by Harriet Tubman, the African Methodist Episcopal {A.M.E.} Zion Church on Park Street was established in 1852. Prominent African-American property owners before the time of the Civil War, Hawley and Harriet Green were active residents active in the Abolitionist cause, and allowed their house at 1112 Main Street to be used as an Underground Railroad safehouse.

The prominent abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, lived at his East Main Street mansion. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who certainly was in Peekskill at some time, wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a tremendously powerful anti-slavery work.

Moses Beach, publisher of the New York Sun newspaper, shared Beecher's views, and settled on an adjacent East Main Street property in the 1860s.

Peter Cooper, who spent 17 years of his childhood in Peekskill, invited the Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln to speak in New York City in 1860. Lincoln's address at the Cooper Union provided his first popular forum as a presidential candidate in the east.

Lawyer and former Congressman William Nelson of the village invited President-elect Lincoln to stop at the Peekskill train station in 1861.

Peekskill's own Chauncey M. Depew, 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. This action helped re-elect Lincoln as president in 1864. William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, once lived in nearby Montrose.

The participation by residents from the village of Peekskill and town of Cortlandt in the Civil War is notable for their wholehearted service to the Union cause. Of a total resident population of 4,000 people, 690 saw military service. About two dozen African-American residents served with the Union Army. Reunions by the Grand Army of the Potomac, and the Harris Light Cavalry Regiment are held locally for many years afterwards.

Business Was Good After the Civil War
Peekskill Village in the era after the Civil War saw an economic and population expansion. The Peekskill Iron Company at Annsville was sold to Cooper, Hewitt Co. of New York City in 1887. That factory then produced about 30 tons of pig iron daily.

The primary industry was the fashioning of cast iron cooking and heating stoves. Peekskill in 1895 had seven foundries and manufactured 200,000 stoves in the one year. There were also lumber yards, nickel plating works, boat builders, a hat factory, a shirt and underwear factory.

Peekskill is notable for bearing the name of the first factory that later developed into the international CRAYOLA Company. The Peekskill Chemical Works was formed by Joseph Binney in 1864 as an early maker of inks, dyes and paints. The factory was located in a former tobacco warehouse at Annsville. This company created the first "Crayola" product after 1900, when operations had relocated to Easton, Pennsylvania as Binney and Smith Co.

By 1900 the large Fleischmann Company yeast and yeast by-products industrial complex was established at Charles Point. This factory innovated several yeast and yeast by-products, and became the largest maker of such products in the world, helping to improve the quality of American breads.

The Fleischmann vinegar operations also became quite large. Fleischmann's merged with Standard Brands in the 1920s and expanded the brand names manufactured. During World War II, the factory laboratories innovated a dry packaged yeast 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 economic base Peekskill had previously enjoyed.

Just after the civil war a young man named Lyman Frank Baum was sent by his family as a student at the Peekskill Military Academy. This student found adjusting to strict military schooling difficult, and instead indulged his imagination during his two years here, between 1868 and 1870. It is possible that several elements in the fanciful stories and books created by Mr. Baum, including the Wizard of Oz, were inspired by some of his experiences here in Peekskill. As several downtown streets were surfaced with white or yellow brick, or that sensational air balloon races passed overhead, or perhaps some of the personalities he encountered were incorporated into the popular writings.

Peekskill 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 storein 1849. The first local telegraph operator was Alonzo Cornell, related to the famous family associated with Cornell University, became a New York State Governor.

After rising to become President of the New York Central Railroad Company, Chauncey M. Depew served 12 years as a United States Senator (1899-1911). A local banker, Cornelius Pugsley served one term as U.S. Congressman (1901-1903). Both of these individuals were local philanthropists, donating private land for public park purposes which bear their names as Depew Park and Pugsley Park.

Peekskill's political influence was also significant in Albany, with James W. Husted's 12 years as Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and 44 years altogether in that Albany legislature.

During this era, the Peekskill water supply and distribution system was established with operations independent of the Catskill and Croton watersheds.

Electric trolley service began towards the end of the 1800s, with service and connecting lines into Mohegan Lane, Putnam Valley, Buchanan, Verplanck and Annsville. The low fare and regular schedules allowed workers to commute from outlying areas to Peekskill's factories.

The Saint Joseph's Home began during this era for orphaned boys and girls by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters, who still operate the Assumption School.

Several Peekskill businesses begun in the 1800s continue on into the 2000's, such as Dain's Lumber Company, J.J. Dorsey Funeral Home, and Weeks Jewelers.

Peekskill as a City
Peekskill officially became an incorporated City on July 29, 1940. Two years of difficult legal wrangling had finally settled the issue, and a legal 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 following mayor was Ralph Hopkins. As a professional architect, Mr. Hopkins had previously designed the City Hall in 1937, the former Masonic Building on Brown Street and the former Genung's Department Store building.

The Beach Shopping Center opened for business in 1958. Beginning in the 1950s and early 1960s, Peekskill welcomed participation in the federally funded Urban Renewal Program, which transformed much of the downtown throughout the 1970s.

During this era, the former commercial busy waterfront was acquired by the City and developed into the Riverfront Green Park.

Peekskill Was Active During World War 2
The people of Peekskill were well represented in all branches of military service during World War 2 against Germany and Japan, from 1941 into 1945. There were a total of 2,354 resident men and women in the armed force uniforms throughout 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.

The local Fleischmann's Company (which was a branch of Standard Brands) received several U.S. Army-Navy "E" Awards for the production of dry yeast used by the American and allied soldiers. The "E" was for Excellence.

The locally raised war bonds were used to build four B-17 bombers. These were named the "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 airplane 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 afterwards identified as our own "Rosie the Riveter."

Peekskill Still Making Firsts
Peekskill was the first community in New York State to have an African-American mayor. The former Councilman was appointed to serve the unfinished term of George Pataki. After serving eight years as mayor, Richard E. Jackson was later selected as New York State's Commissioner of Motor Vehicles. The city elected its first woman to the Council in 1983, and its first female mayor in 1994.

With the 1994 election and 1998 re-election of George E. Pataki of Peekskill as Governor of New York State, Peekskill continues to contribute outstanding individuals as leaders in American events. Gov. Pataki established the Hudson River as a National Heritage River in 1999.

The newly formed New York Jets football team trained in Peekskill from 1963 to 1968. The annual Jan Peek Road Race has taken place on Peekskill streets since 1978. The modern technology of trash incineration and recycling has been on on-going operation at Charles Point since 1984.

The National Maritime Historical Society has published their magazine Sea History at Charles Point since 1991.

Among other recent accomplishments was the celebration of 15 years of continuous operation by the Paramount Center for the Arts in 1996. The downtown Business Improvement District [B.I.D.] has been in operation since 1996.

The completion and occupancy of the High Tech Art Loft complex in 2002 is structural fulfillment to the City's commitment to an Arts District. Complementing these efforts was the creation of a Downtown Historic District in year 2001.

Summary of Peekskill's History
Written by John J. Curran - City Historian
January 2002