One hundred years ago this past May 15, the city of Beacon was forged by merging the two bustling villages of Matteawan (a factory town on the creek) and Fishkill Landing (a port city). The city was almost called Melzingah, after the local native tribe. But ultimately “Beacon” was chosen by the citizens of the two villages. The name is a reference to the signal fires built on the mountaintop during the American Revolution, which warned Gen. George Washington, stationed across the Hudson at Newburgh, that the British were coming.
The newly formed city continued to thrive. The world-famous incline railway was already schlepping tourists to the top of the mountain, where a hotel and casino were built to entertain the masses. At the same time, Beacon became a manufacturing hub, with several brick and hat factories setting up shop and employing thousands. The good times lasted through the late 1960s; after that, the factories shut their doors, residents ran for the malls, and the city’s long Main Street fell into years of decline.
A 1913 Main Street banner (left) celebrates the joining of Matteawan and Fishkill Landing; above right, Main Street in Matteawan, circa 1910
But with the opening of DIA:Beacon in 2003, the burgh began an arts-fueled transformation that shows no signs of slowing down. A new generation moved into the Victorian housing stock, renovated old buildings, set up businesses, and once again created a thriving community. And so last month, the city kicked off a slew of celebrations for the centennial with concerts, parades, time capsules, and more. This month, the hoopla continues with events and anniversary exhibits. But before you join the party, here are 10 things you should know about Beacon’s one-of-a-kind history.
1. The land which the City of Beacon would eventually occupy was purchased in 1683 from the Wappinger Indians by New York City fur traders Francis Rombout and Gulian Verplanck.
2. Upon his death, Rombout left his share of the land, about 28,000 acres along the Fishkill Creek, to his daughter Catharyna, who later married Roger Brett, an officer in the Royal Navy. After her husband drowned in 1718, Catharyna Brett continued to manage her holdings, becoming a well-respected businesswoman. The Madam Brett Homestead — believed to have been constructed about 1709, it’s Dutchess County’s oldest building — is now owned by the Melzingah Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and is a historic site open to the public.
The Incline Railway in 1902
3. The Roundhouse at Beacon Falls — a posh restaurant and boutique hotel that opened in 2012 — began life as a factory and machine shop. During the 1860s and 1870s, it produced some of the first lawnmowers made in America.
4. The Mount Beacon Incline Railway was built in 1901 at a cost of $100,000. At the time, it was considered the steepest railroad incline in the world. “Between 1902 and the 1960s, over three million visitors took the incline,” says Bob Murphy, president of the Beacon Historical Society. It closed in 1978 due to financial problems; five years later, a fire destroyed the tracks, the two cars, and the railway’s powerhouse.
5. Beacon was an early center of the movie industry. In 1909-1910, pioneering film director D. W. Griffith made three short films on Mount Beacon, two of which were cowboy-and-Indian movies. “He came here because the mountain reminded him of his home in Tennessee and Lookout Mountain,” Murphy says. Hollywood returned again in 1992 when the movie Nobody’s Fool, starring Paul Newman, was shot in Beacon’s East End.
An early postcard image of Bank Square
6. In the 1920s and ’30s, Denning’s Point, a 64-acre peninsula jutting into the Hudson, was known as the “Coney Island of Dutchess County,” thanks to the completion of a new waterfront in 1916.
7. With about a dozen hat manufacturers in the 1920s, Beacon was once New York State’s hat-making capital; in in U.S., it was second only to Danbury, Connecticut in hat production. This heritage is celebrated each year with a Hat Parade down Main Street.
8. On November 2, 1963, the 1.5 mile-long Newburgh-Beacon Bridge was dedicated. The following day, 220 years of ferry service between Beacon and Newburgh came to a halt when the two 30-car ferries, the Orange and the Dutchess, saluted each other on the 5 p.m. run. Limited ferry service was resumed in 2005.
9. From 1967 to 1975, downhill skiing was offered on 1,531-foot Mount Beacon. Three double chairlifts served 11 trails (all of which were lit for night skiing); a weekend day pass cost $9 in 1972.
10. In 1969, Beacon resident and folk singer Pete Seeger founded the Beacon Sloop Club to welcome the newly built sloop Clearwater and to organize a festival to help spread awareness of environmental issues. The club helped get Riverfront Park built and opened in 1980, and their sailing programs have taught hundreds of landlubbers the art of sailing. Today, the Clearwater Festival is the largest environmental gathering of its kind in the country. (See our Fairs and Festivals coverage for more details about this year’s event.)
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Beautiful vista: A view from the ruined powerhouse on Mount Beacon
Photograph courtesy of the Beacon Centennial Committee
In the 1990s, Scenic Hudson saved Mount Beacon from developers by purchasing the land, and the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration Society was formed to restore the historic railway. Beacon’s centennial exhibition, “Beacon Re-Imagined” — which runs June 1-July 6 in the River Center at Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park — showcases both the railway restoration project as well as the plans to develop the Fishkill Creek Greenway and Heritage Trail. Using 3-D animation, archival footage and photos, ambient sounds, group activities, and guest speakers, the exhibit presents the scope and potential significance of the two projects. “The new railway will have a huge positive impact on the community,” says Jeff McHugh, the exhibition coordinator. “A centennial is as much about looking forward as it is about honoring the past, and this exhibition provides a unique opportunity to show the public how the past and future connect.”
In addition, the Howland Cultural Center’s exhibit, “A Celebration of Beacon’s History,” featuring photographs, artifacts, films, and more, continues through June 30.
A 170-page coffee table-style book celebrating the centennial is available for $25. A committee headed up by Beacon resident and fashion designer Gwenno James asked members of a number of community groups to submit information about their organizations. “The response was overwhelming,” says James. The book showcases black-and-white historical photographs, contemporary full-color images, and articles written by more than 100 community members.