I wish I were Nathaniel Parker Willis. Not just because he was the highest-paid magazine writer of his time — that time being the mid-19th century — though there is that. And not just because he belonged to an over-achieving family of editors and publishers and poets and musicians, though that would be nice, too. And not just because he hung with the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, shared rum and oysters with Charles Dickens, and was praised for writing “by far the best play from the pen of an American author” by his friend Edgar Allen Poe, though, come on.
Nathaniel Parker Willis
No, why I really wish I were Willis, who was born in 1806, in Portland, Maine, was because he took a boat ride about 40 miles up the Hudson River from his New York home and spotted a patch of land near the banks of Canterbury Creek in the town of Cornwall. The property’s owners told him it was virtually worthless, “an idle wild of which nothing could ever be made.”
Willis bought it anyway, in 1846, and hired the most famous architect of the day, Calvert Vaux, to design a 14-room house, sited at the edge of a plateau by Moodna Creek next to a 200-foot drop into a gorge, that would afford him glorious river and mountain views. (Did I mention that Willis was the highest-paid magazine writer of his time?)
He called his home Idlewild, of course, and from there he edited his new magazine, the Home Journal; you may have a copy on your coffee table, though it is now known as Town & Country. Willis often wrote about his new home in the magazine, about the clean country air and vast natural beauty and healthful climate, at a time when privileged New Yorkers, his readership, were growing especially tired of the dirty city air and vast, ugly unhealthiness of urban life. Travel was generally hard in those days, but boating to Cornwall Landing was relatively easy, and Willis’ friends and readers came to check it out.
The property owners told him it was worthless, “an idle wild of which nothing could ever be made.”
Many liked it so much, they came every year, and in time bought their own idle wilds, and for a short while Cornwall was perhaps the nation’s first health retreat. Boarding houses took visitors, and modern conveniences like a telegraph office and library sprang into being. “Many made it an annual trip and eventually bought property and made Cornwall home,” says Village of Cornwall Historian Colette Fulton. In a very real sense, this began the migration to the suburbs that has resulted in the region we all know and live in today. “To this very day,” Fulton says, “There are people who own property in both places and others who live here but commute to New York to work.”
That’s why I wish I were Nathaniel Parker Willis, the father of the Lower Hudson Valley.
I certainly don’t wish for Willis’ other legacy. His magazine nearly failed during the Civil War; he grew very ill from epilepsy, and he died, in 1867, with a diminished reputation that has faded such that his biographer, in 2001, noted that he is now merely a footnote to his more lasting friends and acquaintances.
But in turning Cornwall into a health haven and, further on, a suburb, Willis lives on. The town itself had humble beginnings. It was settled in the 1740s by two branches of a family named Clark, who bought 500 acres to farm, Fulton says. Their children purchased more land and slowly built the town, but it was still very much a rural community in the 1840s. The city to the south, meanwhile, was becoming ever more crowded and dirty. “Doctors were aware of the fact that the mountain air, the elevation, and being away from city smog was healthful,” Fulton says. At the turn of the 19th century, though, it was hard to reach from distant Manhattan, because the roads, if they existed at all, were lousy. Commercial traffic trawled the river, however, and, “passengers on those boats saw how beautiful the area was, and that they could get out of the city and relax,” Fulton says. “Then steam ships made it easier for passengers to travel.” Regularly scheduled departures allowed for a manageable day trip for those looking to escape city life.
Willis’ articles spurred many to visit, though it wasn’t Club Med. “There were no big hotels,” Fulton says. “A few small hotels and boarding houses advertised mountain air and access to fresh fruits and vegetables. People would clear out rooms and rent them in summer. It was a common practice, and a nice little income.”
The Smith House, for instance, boasted of “Large, Airy Rooms, Elegant Shade, Extensive Verandas,” a view of “the broad bay of Cornwall,” and convenient access to the post office and bowling alleys, for $8 to $16 a week. The Moodna Mansion, in Orr’s Mills, advertised “Fine spring water running through house.”
As its popularity grew, Cornwall saw smaller and larger hotels open to cater to the new health-conscious vacationer. For example, the Cornwall Mountain House, a large hotel that resembled the Mohonk Mountain House, sat on the west side of “famous Storm King Mountain, commanding a river and landscape view not surpassed in this country for beauty and extent, air pure and dry, nights cool, malaria and mosquitos unknown.”
These hotels also offered music and dancing, and the town built a bandstand at which members of John Philip Sousa’s band, who were frequent visitors, gave concerts. The library hosted plays and lectures. It was a scene. “A couple hundred visitors came every summer, maybe more,” Fulton says, and while that’s not exactly Cancun-at-spring-break busy, it was very upstate-1850s busy, as one local guide wrote:
“With the advance of summer, the usual change has come about, in the character of our population. The farm-houses are peopled with city-boarders—butter scarce; horses in great demand; a tree an exception which has not a nurse and baby under it; and the roads, at evening, quite holly-hocked with young ladies in gay ribbon.”
Like all good scenes, this one had only a short fine time of young ladies in gay ribbon. After the Civil War, the railroads were built, allowing travel to more distant lands, and Cornwall’s days as a health retreat “fell by the wayside,” Fulton says.
But many of those who had visited decided to stay. They built homes and raised families. Some were artists and musicians who, like artists and musicians today, found the area inspirational. Others became early commuters, taking the morning train or boat into Manhattan and returning in the evening. They started schools and opened local businesses. In 1885, the Village of Cornwall-on-Hudson was incorporated. The rest, as we all know, is Hudson Valley history.
For good (and, yes, ill), we can thank Nathaniel Parker Willis for that.