Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Day in Beacon

The city blahs had me last week. I felt weighed down from too much asphalt and car exhaust. My blood vessels felt as constricted as the traffic by the Holland Tunnel. I was gasping for air. Sunlight. Green things. And it was my birthday, damn it. So even though I was broke and had a rehearsal to attend on Sunday night, I convinced Z to steal away with me and head upstate to Beacon.

I've been there before, but only to Dia: Beacon and the waterfront park. This time, I wanted to see the town. And I thought it would be nice to climb Mount Beacon. Except I didn't really have the proper shoes for that, but I figured, well the West was won with women wearing low heels, no?

Beacon was originally two small towns: Fishkill Landing, a busy port, and Matteawan, a manufacturing center. The area was "bought" from the Wappinger natives in 1683 by former New York City mayor Francis Rombout, who died shortly after and left the 85,000 acre estate to his four-year old daughter, Catheryna.  She single-handedly developed the area, carving out farmland, building a major grist mill on Fishkill Creek, and creating the first produce cooperative in the Hudson River highlands. Beacon was a stronghold for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and it became a major manufacturing center in the 1800s, with factories producing paper clips, biscuit wrappers, coats, air brakes, and especially hats and bricks. There were purportedly over 500 hat factories in Beacon at one time. Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building were built with bricks from Beacon. The town boomed until after World War II, when the factories began to close and it went into a sharp decline that only changed when Dia: Beacon opened in 2003. Since then, it's become known as an arts destination, but most people, like me, day trip it to the museum and never really get to know the town.

We set off from Grand Central Station and arrive at around 10:00 in the morning. Getting out at the Beacon Station, you cross the overpass, hike up the hill, and cut across the police station to get to Main Street. Beacon shows its history as a factory town. It's not as pretty as the Saugerties or even Cold Spring. I was reminded of the town of Catskill, which is also solidly working class. But there's a nice authenticity about the town. It's definitely not an artificial suburb. And I was surprised how multi-ethnic it is.
Beacon's Main Street with Mount Beacon in the distance. 

Pinoys in the town. 

Apparently there's a Muslim contingent too. 

Wait, I thought I left Chinatown...
Halfway down Main Street, antique stores became ubiquitous. Z and I prowled through most of them, although we couldn't really afford anything. But wow, prices are really fantastic.

Antique shops on Main Street. 

A 1950s bubble bath on Main. 

Gorgeous cupboard in basement of Studio Antiques for $265.

Lovely dresser from the 1800s for $225 at Studio Antiques.

Great display of antique bottles at Dickinson's Antiques.

Hoosier Cabinet at Dickinson's Antiques with tambour door and flour bin for $275. 
Then we made out way to Bob's General Store where the trail for Mount Beacon begins. It was actually called Fishkill Mountain until Beacon was incorporated in 1913. Interestingly, the original name of the town was Melzingah, after a local Indian tribe, but when New York City newspapers mocked the name, the townspeople chose the name Beacon instead, after the beacons that were lit on the mountain to warn the Continental Army of British troop movements during the Revolutionary War.

In 1902, the mountain became a tourist destination when an incline railway opened to take tourists up to a casino and hotel. Built by Otis Elevator, it was the steepest funicular railway in the world, going up 1,540 feet on a 74 percent grade. The railway ran until 1978, when it closed due to a financial difficulties. Then in 1983, a huge fire destroyed the railway from top to bottom. In 1996, a restoration society was founded to bring the railway back, but it still remains a steep climb to a marvelous ruin and a beautiful view.

Along the East side of Main.

Main Street railroad tracks.
The bottom of Mount Beacon - this is the remains of the old Station House where people would get on the funicular. 

After walking a couple hundred yards, a stairway up the mountain appears.

200 steps, then it's a steep climb along a rocky trail.
Nearly at the top!

Ruins of the old power house at the top of the mountain.

Z in front of the ruins of the power house.

The view at the top. Turkey buzzard wheeling in the sky.
The climb back down was harder for me in my utterly wrong shoes. It was pretty darn steep and I picked my way down carefully as Z in his flat sneakers took a few spills. We made it down in 40 minutes and had enough time to check out another antique store and stop for an ice tea before getting to the station to catch the 5:13 back to the city. But just as we arrived at the platform, I realized that I left my phone plugged into the wall at the coffeeshop. With Z's goading, we managed to race up the hill to Main Street and back with just a minute to spare.

We caught our breath as the train slid into the station, and this time, we made sure to sit on the water side of the train. It was gorgeous, especially seeing Bannerman Island gliding past us on our way back. I love islands and exploring an abandoned island with the ruins of a 19th century mansion and arsenal sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon. One day when we have more time and money, it would be great to kayak over there. We could also take a sail on the Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger's sloop. And visit Dia: Beacon again. And have dinner in one of the restaurants. With so much to do, one day in Beacon is just not enough.

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