When many Rockland County residents think of Rockland Lake, they think of the lake itself and the surrounding state park in Congers. But in fact Rockland Lake used to be a village in Clarkstown until around 1964, when the Palisades Interstate Park Commission acquired the land and bought out most of its current residents.
“When people hear of Rockland Lake today they primarily think of just the park, but actually all along 9W, from Lake Road to Lake Road, the two Lake Roads, was all part of Rockland Lake as well,” said Robert Maher, President and Co-Founder of Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain.
Some descendants of these residents, along with other local historians, have come together to try to preserve this history through the Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain, a non-profit organization, all-volunteer that is part of a group of state-wide Friends programs that aim to preserve local history. This organization in particular focuses on the history and preservation of Rockland Lake, Hook Mountain, and Nyack Beach state parks. On Wednesday night some of the board members and other interested parties met at the Congers Train Station in a public forum to discuss the organization as a whole and how to raise funds and awareness for future projects.
“We’ve been around for over six years at this point, and [Wednesday night’s forum] is really just a focus on opening ourselves up to the community, to say, ‘Here we are, we’re here to support you, we’d like you to help us get involved’” said Maher. “[…] We need people to bring any information they have about Rockland Lake so we can archive it. It’s really about a community effort to bring people together.”
Some of these projects include several events throughout the year, such as Hudson River clean-up days, nature walks, and history talks. The clean-up days are meant to ensure that the beauty and history of the park itself remains intact.
“As all of us know, with all the funding costs, it’s harder and harder to keep the parks in good shape and going, so one of our missions is to develop and is to support the infrastructure of the park and is to help get everything maintained as much as we possibly can,” said Maher.
The group also puts a focus on educating the public about the village’s history and sometimes even goes to local schools to talk to the students.
Maher founded the organization around six years ago because he was interested in the area where his family grew up. However his parents never really told him much about their lives back then, so he started this chapter of Friends to help him learn about his family’s past.
Before the village of Rockland Lake was turned into a park, it was an area known for its ice business. According to an essay written by Maher for the Historical Society of Rockland County, three competing companies merged together in 1855 to form the Knickerbocker Ice Company, which collected and preserved the ice and sold it to New York City and other areas. The Knickerbocker Ice Company was consolidated in 1896, when the creation of artificial ice decreasing the demand for natural ice. However the ice harvesting continued at the Lake until the 1920s.
Also in 1872 a stone crusher was built alongside the Hudson River, creating a quarrying operation that kept the members of the ice company employed during the off season. The quarrying spread to Hook Mountain and Nyack Beach and provided rocks that were used to create buildings and streets in New York City.
Once these two businesses ended in the 1920s, Rockland Lake continued to survive as a tourist area with hotels and bungalow colonies. Sue Linen of Congers, who attended the public forum Wednesday night, said her father used to own one of these hotels, so she would stay in them all the time. She came with some old photos of the area that she had gotten from St. Paul’s Church in Congers that the organization could scan and keep for its records.
“It’s so interesting, and people don’t know about it, and it’s part of our local history,” said Linen after the forum. “It’s a fascinating part. All that happened there, and most people don’t know. They know it as a walking trail, but they don’t know that there’s huge industry there and there’s recreation there.”
Because of this hotel and bungalow business, many families in New York City came to Rockland Lake for vacations during that time. Some of these families, like that of Puerto Rican Victor Castro of Valley Cottage, spoke languages other than English. Thus Castro, who attended the forum, suggested that the members of Friends try sending out information on the organization in different languages to appeal to these people of various nationalities.
“There’s a resource of people who have always used Rockland Lake, and I think as Friends of Rockland Lake, we need to see that as a resource […],” Castro clarified after the forum. “It’s amazing when you go to Rockland Lake during the summer you can see people of almost every single niche around that lake that are there with their families, enjoying being out of the city, and many of them speak other languages, not English. So I’m only concerned that we tap that as a resource and begin to send out our literature in a language that communicates with them.”
Other ideas suggested at the meeting included printing up business cards with information on Friends and its various projects, distributing information to participants in various run/walks throughout the County, and creating reusable shopping bags with the organization’s name and information on them.
Some of this money the organization is trying to raise is to help restore the Hudson House, a project the group has been working on for several years. The House is located on Lake Road in Congers and is the former residence of Josephine Hudson, who was born there in the 1890s. She attempted to get a job working for the Knickerbocker Ice Company in the early 1900s but was rejected because she was female. So instead she dressed up like a male and ended up getting a job with the company as Joe Hudson, making her the only female who ever harvested ice at the Lake.
The building is one of the few remaining examples of a Second Empire-style house in the County. Thus the organization wants to restore the house and possibly even turn it into a museum honoring that time period in the County’s history. It’s a process that will take several hundred thousand dollars to complete.
“We just think it’s the last house that represents the last people of Rockland Lake […] because her family was here for such a very long time […],” said Dennis Poole, vice president of the organization. “It’s just a great cost, but we really would like to try and save it.”
For more information on the Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain, go to www.rocklandlakeandhookmt.org.