History of the Town of Rochester
Aboard his 85-foot wooden sailing ship the Halve Maen (Half Moon), Henrik Hudson entered the river that now bears his name on September 11, 1609. He had been sponsored by English merchants to find a Northeast passage to India for the Dutch East India Company.
Because he was searching for India, he called the native people whom he saw “Indians.” The encounter was to change the way of life of all involved. Soon Dutch citizens were being encouraged to settle in the Hudson Valley.
What we now call The Rondout Valley was occupied by the Delawares or Lenni-Lenape when the Europeans arrived. The Native Americans lived near streams where the land was fertile, where they could fish and plant crops. They cleared the woodlands nearby with great fires each year after their harvest. Their tools were made of stone and bone. Hoes were the shoulder blades of large animals. They raised corn, beans and squash.
The Native Americans chipped away at flint and other stone to make deadly projectiles, arrow heads and spear heads, which are still found today along the banks of the Rondout and other streams, as well as in fields nearby. Stone hatchet heads and stones for grinding grains are also found.
There were many skirmishes and attacks between the early Dutch settlers and the Native Americans of our area. Two wars, called The Esopus Wars, occurred in 1659 and 1663, and are well-documented. Captain Martin Kreiger of the West India Company, was commander of the expedition against the Esopus tribe. His Journal of the Esopus War in 1663 describes the battles of that year in detail. Some of those battles took place in or near what is now Kerhonkson.
A roadside marker of historic facts located near the junction of U.S 209 and Ulster County Road 3 (Samsonville Road) indicates the location, on Deyo Hill, of a colonial fort that protected the settlers from Native American attacks.
The Native Americans also were said to have had a fort near that area. Many Native villages were surrounded by palisades for defense and were often called forts. Captain Kreiger destroyed one such substantial village, said to be in the Pataukunk area, in his 1663 expedition. The expedition was disastrous for the native population.
In 1703, forty years after Captain Kreiger’s expedition, the Crown of England, then Queen Anne, granted the Rochester Patent, in honor of the Earl of Rochester, to the area the Dutch called Mombaccus. Later, in 1788, Rochester was incorporated as a town… the Town of Rochester.
The patent was an enormous tract of land, thousands upon thousands of acres. The Queen directed that the town’s trustees, who were Captain Joachim Schoonmaker, Moses DePuy, and Colonel Henry Beekman at the time, parcel out the acres of land upon the request of the settlers, many of whom had made previous arrangements with Indians to settle the area.
Dutch Settlement and Growth of Agriculture
When the Rochester Patent was conveyed in 1703, what is now the Town of Rochester had a population of 334. These early settlers, mostly Dutch, lived on farms they had laid out, and corn (grist) mills and saw mills were up and running, powered by the local streams. The crops raised by these settlers were mostly for family consumption. Like the Native Americans before them, the families fished and hunted game, large and small.
Eventually some of the small farms joined together to form larger ones of hundreds of acres, notably in the fertile valleys bordering the Rondout, Esopus, and other streams. Acres and acres of sweet corn, beans, and peas and other vegetables were raised for metropolitan as well as local sale. Many farmers also had herds of dairy cows. The agrarian economy was to remain in place into the 1800s and beyond.
“A Canal Runs Through It…”
With the advent of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the economy of the Town of Rochester turned toward commercial enterprises.
The ambitious idea for the D&H Canal was conceived by brothers William and Maurice Wurts, merchants in Philadelphia, who had acquired land in Carbondale, Pennsylvania containing seams of “hard,” or anthracite coal. The purpose of the canal was to move this coal to the New York City market, where its sale, the Wurts brothers hoped, would make them wealthy.
The building of the canal, an amazing feat of engineering, took place between 1825 and 1828. It provided work for many hundreds of men, who worked with only picks, shovels, and dynamite. Mules and horses pulled carts of the displaced earth and stone. Men pushed wheelbarrows of debris.
The small towns along the 108-mile canal route prospered. Town of Rochester villages with Locks, notably Alligerville Lock 21, Port Jackson (later Accord), Lock 23, and Middleport (later Kerhonkson) Lock 24, were bustling ports.
Alligerville and Middleport shipped millstones and bluestones brought to the canal from the surrounding mountain ridges by horse and wagon. Port Jackson shipped millstone also. Other local products, such as lumber, grain, and hides, were loaded onto the barges at the ports for shipment to Kingston and New York City.
By 1898 the D&H Canal Company had been struggling for some time. It could not compete with the railroads, which more and more had been taking over the transportation of Honesdale coal, and other products. In 1899 The D& H Canal Company obtained permission to abandon the canal. The canal right-of-way in the Town of Rochester was sold to the New York, Ontario, and Western Railway.
The Era of the Railroad and Tourism 1902-1940
In 1902, The Ontario and Western (O&W) Railway extended service from Ellenville to Kingston, through the Town of Rochester. Vacationers from New York City could come up the Hudson on steamboats and connect to the O&W at Kingston, from there to Accord and the Town of Rochester.
Not only could the mail be delivered by rail, but the newly established O&W creameries could receive, pasteurize and ship milk from the Kyserike, Accord, and Kerhonkson railroad stations. Dairy herds were enlarged, and new barns were built to house them. Barrels of eggs and butter and other local products were sent to New York City markets.
Young people who had completed eight grades in their local one-room schools could take the train to Ellenville or Kingston to attend high school, sometimes boarding with a local family for the week.
Tourism flourished as families found it easy to escape the summer heat in the city by boarding the train. The railroad had brought new prosperity to the Town of Rochester.
“Taking in boarders…”
Early in the days of the railroads, as farmers and others realized that money could be made by providing rooms for visitors to the area, country people with larger houses would rent out a room or two to accommodate them. Sometimes they would advertise their homes, calling them “Ivy Cottage,” or “Brook Farm.” Amenities were few, as many farmhouses were without plumbing. Fresh air and food were plentiful, however!
Sometimes children in the family slept in the barn to provide a room for a paying guest. It wasn’t long before some homes were enlarged in order to accommodate more guests and came to be known as “boarding houses.”
Soon a new industry, “the bungalow colony” came about. Most consisted of the farmhouse surrounded by a dozen or more simple buildings of one or two rooms and a kitchen, each of which would house a tourist family during the week. The father, who had been working in the sweltering city, arrived on the weekend.
Tourism has continued and is encouraged in every way.
Improved roads and transportation make it a simple matter for NYC or NJ residents to spend the weekend or longer in our hamlets.
Airbnbs are the current trend, whereby local residents advertise their home or a room in it on the web for short term occupancy. This practice is sometimes controversial.
Barns, many of which are available since the decline of the dairy industry between 1998 and 2007, are barns no more! They have been repurposed into unique homes or are turned into “event spaces” rented out for weddings, parties, and other notable occasions.
We still have a few large farms and farm stands selling a variety of things. NYS ranks high in the production of apples, grapes, onions, sweet corn, and tomatoes. Wine and cider are showing up as new “crops.”
There is a new appreciation of our historic heritage. In 2017 the hamlet of Alligerville was designated as the Alligerville Historic District on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
In 2018, at a recent referendum, Town of Rochester residents approved a plan to install “solar arrays” to bring solar power to our town.