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Peebles Island State park evokes Revolutionary era

Bill Buell
April 27, 2008

Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish engineer they named the Northway’s twin bridges after, knew how to build things to make them last. Take the earthworks at Peebles Island, for instance, more than 230 years old.

“Where else in the area can you see the original remains of earthworks from the American Revolution?” asked Paul Huey, an archaeologist with the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation whose headquarters are on Peebles Island. “They haven’t been restored, enhanced or improved for interpretation. They’re unchanged, just the way they left them. That’s pretty unique.”

Kosciuszko’s handiwork, also referred to as breastworks, are large mounds of earth used to give an army a strong defensive position against an attacking foe. They are just one of many reasons to visit Peebles Island, one of a series of small bodies of land formed by the four “spruyts” or outlets of the Mohawk River as it flows into the Hudson near Waterford.

Beyond history

Linked by bridges to both Van Schaick Island to the south and the town of Waterford (of which it is a part) to the north, Peebles Island is much more than just a haven for history lovers, its 138 acres offering a host of rewards for bird lovers, botanists, hikers and geologists. Although the (weekends only) visitors center won’t open until May, Peebles Island is still busy with people walking its trails enjoying views of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers you won’t find anywhere else.

“The short hike around the entire ring of the island is very popular, but you do have to be careful near the cliffs and stick to the trails,” said Huey. “The long trail is about a mile, but there are shorter trails, too. It’s a wonderful island for outdoor lovers.”

It was also a great place to set up defenses during time of military conflict, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Kosciuszko in 1777 as the British army under Gen. Burgoyne was marching south through the upper Hudson Valley on its way to Albany. As it turned out, the battle that changed the tide of the American Revolution wasn’t at the confluence of the New York’s two major rivers, but instead a few miles north in the town of Stillwater just south of Old Saratoga (Schuylerville).

Encampment site

“Just prior to the Battle of Saratoga, the American army was encamped on Peebles and Van Schaick Island, and after the battle, the army had to rush south because there was news that [British] General Clinton was heading to Albany up the Hudson River with more troops. I think Peebles remained a major location for encampments right through 1781.”

Even though there was never any kind of engagement at Peebles Island, a French visitor, the Marquis de Chastellux, observed while touring the island and Kosciuszko’s fortifications in 1780 that any British plan to invade the Albany area would have been folly. Chastellux wrote: “Thus the more you examine the country, the more you are convinced that the expedition of Burgoyne was reckless, and must sooner or later have miscarried, quite apart from the engagements which decided the event.”

It was sometime during the American Revolution that the first house on Peebles Island was built. It was inhabited by General John Glover, who complained that he “led the life of a military monk,” and that his quarters were “but one small log house, about 12 feet square, the door of which is my window.”

Before Glover put up his “house,” Peebles Island, originally called Haver Island, was used as grazing ground for cattle belonging to Goose Van Schaick and his descendants, longtime owners of the island. It was Augustus Peebles, a cousin of Herman Melville’s, who married a Van Schaick woman and had the land named after him midway through the 19th century.

Before the European invasion, mostly by the Dutch, Peebles Island was the site of Menomines Castle, a Mahican chief during the early part of the 17th century.

“We believe there was a Mahican village there, and that it was on the bluff on the north end of the island overlooking a very fertile low flat land,” said Huey. “It was most likely used by the Indians to grow corn.”

The Indians initially used Peebles Island to cross over the Mohawk and Hudson to points north and west, respectively, as did the Europeans after them.

“Where the river divided into four branches, it was much shallower than the entire river would have been,” said Huey, “and Peebles Island was one of the stepping stones to get across both rivers. From Green Island, you could walk to Van Schaick, then to Peebles, and then to Waterford and probably be in water no more than ankle deep. That’s the reason they named the village to the north Waterford, because you could ford the river. It wasn’t until the Troy dam was built for the canal channel that the water  level raised up sometime in the 1820s.”

By the 1860s, a handful of houses had appeared on the island, belonging to factory workers in Cohoes and Waterford. But in 1910, those houses were torn down to make room for Cluett-Peabody and Co., the shirt manufacturer that took over the island and mostly thrived from 1911 to 1972. Its big factory buildings are the structures now housing the visitor center and the state parks offices.

“Cluett and Peabody were the largest manufacturer of detachable collars and cuffs in the world,” said P. Thomas Carroll of the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway in Troy, a museum that specializes in the Capital Region’s industrial history. “They were the people that made the famous Arrow collars and created the marketing for the image of the Arrow Collar Man, the smartly dressed guy who looked like he just graduated from Princeton.”

It was Hannah Lord Montague who created detachable collars in 1825 and gave Troy its nickname, the Collar City. Nearly 150 years later, after Arrow was passed by Van Heusen as the top shirt manufacturer in the world, the Cluett-Peabody factory stopped operations. But not before Sanford Cluett (1874-1968), a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute alumnus and president of the company during the 1930s, had made a huge impact on the business.

“Sanforization was done for the first time ever at Cluett and Peabody on Peebles Island,” said Carroll, referring to the process of shrink-proofing clothes. “Today, almost all cotton goods use that process and you don’t see a label anymore saying you’ve been ‘Sanforized’ because the patent has expired. But they Sanforized your blue jeans so that when you threw them in the washer for the first time, they didn’t shrink two or three inches. It was a brilliant idea, sometime between the two World Wars, and I guess the owner and president named the process after himself.”

Becoming a park

Peebles Island was bought by the state in 1973 and soon after became Peebles Island State Park, its 191 acres including a portion of the northern part of Van Schaick Island. The park officially opens for the season on Saturday. While there is no admission fee during the week, visitors on weekends and holidays will be charged a $6 fee per vehicle.

“I love the history of the place, and as a professional historian I enjoy all the resources they have there for you,” said Brad Utter, Waterford Town Historian and director of the Waterford Historical Society and Museum. “Hikers also love the place. The access to nature is great.”