Up On Preston Mountain - Purple Mountain Press


by John and Richard Polhemus

From the first chapter:

Preston Mountain is a massif—-a high upland. It rises between the Housatonic River valley in Kent, Connecticut, and the TenMile River valley in Dover, New York, split nearly in half by the state border. The northern tip of the Mountain lies in Amenia, New York. It is roughly eight miles in length, from north to south, and three and a half miles in width at its widest point. Thick in the middle, the Mountain narrows at both ends, like an upside down lifeboat.

The name, “Preston Mountain,” is a name of convenience. People in New York call it “East Mountain,” and so it is named on the Geological Survey map. In Kent, it was called “West Mountain” or “Dover Mountain.” The Indians called it “Schaghticoke Mountain.” Each of these names has a legitimate claim for primacy. Another old name that is never used today, and, in fact, is almost entirely unknown is “the Hoveout.” So, using the name “Preston Mountain” is a compromise to avoid confusion, but there are reasons for the name. The Preston family arrived early and stayed the longest; the highest point is “Preston Hill,” 1,450 feet on the topographical map; the largest landowner in both states is the Preston Mountain Club.

From the valleys on either side, the Mountain rises seven or eight hundred feet in a steep escarpment around its entire perimeter. The only public road runs north and south in a narrow valley from Dogtail Corners to a dead end near an old farmhouse. This road is also the only gradual approach to the Mountain. All other roads (none of which are open to the public) climb steeply from the valleys. Some follow streambeds through ravines between the hills. Others zigzag up the face of the escarpment. All of these roads were laid out for travel by foot, horses, or oxen. Some are still passable by Jeep or all-terrain vehicle. Most are closed and gated.

The Mountain is, in a sense, a plateau—an elevated tract of more or less level land. However, the upland is pierced by even higher hills rising four or five hundred feet above the surrounding countryside. The tops of these hills are less thickly forested than the lower land, clad with stunted and wind-twisted oaks and conifers. From the highest of these hills, on a clear day, one can see the Catskills. Mountain laurel overruns the steep, boulder-strewn hillsides, forming impenetrable thickets, and providing cover for deer, bear, wildcats, and coyotes.

Ponds and swamps dot the landscape. All of the ponds are manmade. Crane Pond, the largest, is a long, riverlike lake in Dover and Amenia. The Crane family dammed it at the north end early in the twentieth century. The east side of the lake is bounded by unbroken forest from one end of the pond to the other. There is one log cabin on the west shore. A road crosses Crane Pond on a bridge and causeway at the site of a much older bridge known as “Kennedy Bridge” (which was often misspelled as “Canaday Bridge”). Before the stream was dammed, its name was “Kennedy Bridge Brook.” Today it is called “Roaring Brook” for its noisy descent into the valley to the west.

Depression Pond lies in a bowl beneath high peaks, southeast of Crane Pond. Chapel Pond rests in a similar valley just over the border in Kent. Parts of old farms lie submerged beneath all three ponds. Considerable streams spring from the ponds and swamps. Roaring Brook springs from Crane Pond. Bolt Brook (also called Preston Mountain Brook) rises at Depression Pond and flows first north, then east, through Duck Pond, and down the steep, rocky ravine to Macedonia. Thayer Brook issues from Chapel Pond and rushes to the Housatonic, south of Mount Algo. Several streams rise in swamps, including “Mortmeadow Brook,” which runs west within a rod of the doorstep of the Mountain’s first settler. Wolf Swamp, east of Crane Pond, is unnamed on the topographical map. Old deeds confirm that it has been called “Wolf Swamp” for almost two centuries, and, likely, much longer than that. Tamarack Swamp occupies a deep hollow in the hills near the south end of the Mountain. In recent years, beaver have made a strong comeback. Their dams enlarge the swamps, spilling them over roads and trails and flooding the surrounding woods. Many former bogs are now ponds, spiked with the whitening trunks of dead trees.

The Mountain is heavily forested from the valley floors almost to the crests of the highest hills. Most of the forest is oak and beech, sprinkled with clumps of birch. Sugar maples line old roads and fields. White pines soar over the ridge tops. North of Wolf Swamp is an extensive hemlock forest. Some of these hemlocks are very large, and the ground beneath them is shaded and silent.

It is tempting to think that some isolated pockets of this forest might be first growth timber were it not for the presence everywhere of leveled rings of earth. These rings mark where stacks of wood were burned into charcoal in the iron-making days. Those who made them called them “coal bottoms” or “coal pits”—leveled circles of earth twenty to thirty feet in diameter. No part of Preston Mountain is without them.

These coal bottoms cover all the mountains in the old iron region of northwest Connecticut and eastern New York. Near Bull’s Bridge, the Appalachian Trail climbs the southeast flank of Preston Mountain behind the Schaghticoke Indian Reservation. The distance to the top of the mountain from Schaghticoke Road is about a mile. In that mile, the trail crosses six coal bottoms and is within sight of ten more. The abundance of these places suggests that there was a time when the forests were clear-cut and the land was bare on Preston Mountain and elsewhere in the iron region.

Of necessity, a road passed near each coal pit. Colliers, woodsmen, and teamsters loaded the charcoal into four-wheeled, oxen-drawn, charcoal wagons to be hauled to the forge or furnace. Today it is difficult to distinguish these roads in the forest; but they are there. The best charcoal roads angled up the mountains at a moderate pitch. Boulder fields, swamps, and cliffs often compelled the roads to be built straight up and down the slopes. Many of these roads became watercourses during heavy runoff. Freshets and meltwater scoured the soil, leaving sunken, rock-strewn channels.

Erosion became a problem on the Mountain, perhaps even a catastrophic problem. There are deep, V-shaped ditches, slicing down the steeper hillsides. Such ditches are common throughout the iron region. They were probably seasonal streambeds, dry most of the year. At some point, extraordinary volumes of water raced down them, carving out great scars in the mountainside. They rarely run water today.

Stone walls penetrate the woods on the Mountain. Constructed by years of labor from men, boys, and oxen, the walls outline old meadows, pasture, and tillage. The pioneers called them “fences,” not “walls,” emphasizing their use in an agricultural society. Ancient plow land still reveals the back furrows—sunken trenches running down the center of a field or a wave of plowed ground resting against a wall. Deep in the hemlock forest, a stone fence blocks one end of a steep, wild ravine. Walls seem to end for no apparent reason; the connecting wooden bars or brush fence have long since rotted away.

Swamps and rough, rocky hillsides separate one system of walls from another—one abandoned farm from another. Usually, a cellar hole remains near the center of each pattern of walls. These are shallow, leaf-filled depressions, sometimes containing the tumbled remains of the stone chimney and foundation. The cellar was usually smaller than the house above it. Sometimes, the outline of the old house can be seen in the patterns of foundation stones, doorsteps, and cellar stairs. Of the poorer cabins, with earth floors and stick-and-mud chimneys, nothing remains. Around the homesites, walls outline the locations of the dooryard and the nearby barnyard. None of these homes were far from some kind of road, no matter how rough. It requires imagination to find the roads today.

Sugar maple trees appear near the abandoned farms. They line the roads and fields. There is a living maple tree, fully six feet in diameter, across the road from the ruins of Martin Preston’s house. There are few maples in the outlying, predominant oak forest. On Preston Mountain, the maple is a marker of human presence, perhaps descended from trees the settlers planted to make sugar.

Apple trees also appear near the ruins. These trees are the descendants of those planted generations ago. Some of them bear sizeable yields of fruit—big green apples with a blush of red at the stem. Some of the trees in the dooryards carry old grapevines, thicker than a man’s arm. During the eighteenth century, the predominant tree on the Mountain was the American chestnut. It figured as a corner marker in almost every deed. Chestnut was the lumber of choice for home building, barns, and furniture. But the blight carried off the chestnut tree. Today, saplings spring from soil where an ancestor tree rotted but the young chestnuts all die before maturity.

People rarely visit the wood and hills of Preston Mountain. During the fall, a few hunters seek game birds, turkeys, and deer. They rarely venture far from the roads. Few people are lucky enough to see the wildest inhabitants. In 1700, the Mountain was home to wolves, panthers, and every other native wild beast. Wolves and panthers may be the only such beasts that have not come back. Wildcat and deer, which had probably disappeared by 1900, mounted a comeback in the 1930s. Since then, the beaver, wild turkey, coyote, otter, raven, and black bear have returned.

One creature never left. From the time of first settlement, a thriving population of rattlesnakes made Preston Mountain notorious. At one time, herpetologists collected rattlers on the Mountain. Settlers located snake dens and mounted forays to massacre the reptiles. The den sites are kept secret now to protect the endangered rattlesnakes

Though it is barely seventy-five miles north of Manhattan, Preston Mountain seems as wild as the Catskills or the Adironadacks. While the animals have come back, the human community founded there in the 1700s has disappeared. Preston Mountain is a ghost town.

In 1731, the colony of Connecticut conveyed a strip of land to New York known as “The Oblong.” New York granted the Oblong lands to wealthy investors. But this grant failed to include a rugged mountain in eastern Dutchess County—Preston Mountain. Poor yankees soon discovered that Preston Mountain was free for the taking. By 1766, the Preston family carved out a homestead there in defiance of the claims of wealthy aristocrats. Other settlers soon followed. In a few years, families of freed black slaves formed a community in the midst of the white settlers. Their neighbors on the Connecticut portion of the mountain were the embattled Schaghticoke Indians.

A new book by brothers John and Richard Polhemus chronicles the struggles of these three groups to establish homesteads on the mountain and to hold onto their land as the iron industry grew strong in the towns around them. The iron furnaces required charcoal; men cut the mountain's forests to supply it. Between the furnaces and the charcoal stacks, the land was wreathed in smoke.

The authors tell the stories of the settlers who fought the British in the Revolution and of the lone Tory who returned to live among his former enemies after the war. Men from the mountain fought in the Civil War, and some of them died. One man escaped from the notorious Andersonville Prison with a companion who wrote an account of their adventures.

By the late 1800s, the mountain farms were played out. The demand for charcoal disappeared when the iron industry moved west. By the 1920s, only an elderly hermit remained, known for his toughness and his hospitality. When he died, Preston Mountain became a ghost town.

Included are photos of the mountain as it appears today and maps to locate the old homesteads and cemetery. There is an appendix of 19th-century agricultural statistics to document the impoverished farms.

John Polhemus, a retired aeronautical engineer, and Richard Polhemus, a lawyer, grew up in sight of Preston Mountain.

198 pages, illustrated, 6 x 9, index, 2005
$12.50 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

Copyright © 2005 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.