Chasing The Past In the Hudson Valley

One local’s historical fantasies come to life in the Valley.

In history class, instead of memorizing dates, I liked to wonder how people lived in other times. What kind of food did they eat? What kind of homes did they live in and how did such elements of daily life shape the way they saw the world?

That desire to experience the past explains my fondness for both historical novels and time travel stories, since both seek to replicate other eras. It’s also one of the reasons I love living in the Hudson Valley. Living here offers many opportunities to escape the present and imagine myself in other times.

In Jack Finney’s time travel novel Time and Again, the hero Simon Morley travels back to the 1880s by obscuring all traces of his 1970s present. He rents a room in the Dakota Apartment Building, circa 1884, that overlooks an almost unchanged view of Central Park, and is transported to 19th century Manhattan.

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Like Simon Morley, I sometimes block out the present to lose myself in the past.

Whether it’s hiking to reach the vistas that inspired the Hudson River School painters or visiting a Gilded Era mansion, the past is all around, patiently waiting for my imagination. As well as mountains and mansions, there are streets and entire neighborhoods that seem distinctively set in another time. Early in the morning, before traffic becomes a background noise and my phone starts buzzing, it’s lovely to walk down such pedigreed streets, to delve into sleepy towns, and escape the present.

On a snowy day or in the distractingly giddy flush of spring, it’s easy to pass the fieldstone houses on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz and imagine I am one of the original 17th century settlers, delirious to now live in a place that allows me religious freedom.

On a bright morning, wandering along a Rhinebeck street lined with pristine Victorian homes, I envision myself living there during the 1890s. In that last decade of the 19th century, the town became infatuated with cultivating violets. I almost catch their sweet powdery scent while picturing suffragettes sipping tea on a meticulously painted porch.

A little closer to my Kingston home I often walk past the only corner in the US with four intact pre-Revolutionary War buildings to stand before the Ulster County Courthouse, where former slave Sojourner Truth fought for — and won — her son’s freedom. I imagine what it must have been like to stand outside the court as the news was first announced, quietly celebrating that victory.

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In nearby Hurley, a long street of stone houses provides another opportunity to slip into history. The village is home to the oldest concentration of privately-owned stone houses in the US. At an important turning point in the Revolutionary War, General George Clinton temporarily made his headquarters there. It also became a haven for Kingston residents when the British burned that city to the ground. Every year in July, Hurley’s stone houses open their doors to honor the nation’s successful fight for freedom. The event is fun for history buffs, but I prefer to visit on a hazy morning when the streets are not crowded with visitors and fog obscures the added details of subsequent centuries.

Why do I still want to wander through the past? I’m not sure. Perhaps the past has something to tell me, but I never stay long enough to satisfy my curiosity. My phone rings, a car passes, a deadline looms, and I have to return to my laptop and the 24-hour news cycle.

Fortunately, the past will wait. In the Hudson Valley, it’s all around me.

Joan Vos MacDonald is a journalist and an author, who is equally interested in history and cutting-edge media. She lives in Kingston, a city that is rich in both. 

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