Magical History Tour: Taking in the Hudson Valley's Historical Sites | Historic Sites | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Magical History Tour: Taking in the Hudson Valley's Historical Sites

Last Updated: 01/14/2022 1:33 pm
Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park. - PHOTO BY FELIX LIPOV / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Photo by Felix Lipov /
  • Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park.

Long before Henry Hudson sailed up the river known then as Mahicantuck, Lenape and Mahican people lived, hunted, and traded in this valley. Unfortunately, not much in the way of landmarks remains to depict this rich indigenous heritage, while remnants of Colonial times abound.

One of the few places where you can see the intersection of history of the Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and European settlers who all coexisted in the region is in New Paltz at Historic Huguenot Street (aka “the oldest street in America”). At this National Historic Landmark District, docents in period costume give tours of the 17th-century stone houses and public buildings built by Protestant French Huguenots who fled persecution back home from the Catholic majority. Dedicated rooms and exhibits paint a picture of life for the area’s indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and, later, free Black citizens.

The Hudson Valley was the backdrop for several significant events surrounding the Revolutionary War and the founding of the nation. (Benedict Arnold’s attempt at betrayal involved handing over the fortress at West Point in exchange for 10,000 pounds and a British military commission.) Kingston was the state’s first capital, and the historic Stockade District includes some of the country’s oldest buildings, including the intersection of John and Crown streets, which has pre-Revolutionary stone houses on each corner. Don’t miss the Senate House, which is open for guided tours, and the accompanying gardens. Also, every other October there’s a spirited historical reenactment of the Burning of Kingston, the 1777 Redcoat campaign that destroyed over 300 buildings.

If you’re a Revolutionary War buff, scoot down to George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh (notably where the general declined a request by army officers in 1782 to become king). Military history continues at the nearby campus and museum of the US Military Academy at West Point, established in 1802 along the banks of the Hudson.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the Hudson Valley is a veritable playground to the nation’s rich and powerful, who snatched up sprawling riverfront lots to build ornate mansions. Today, many of these antiques-laden, old-money estates have been designated historic sites and are open to the public. A few highlights include the Franklin D. Roosevelt estate—dubbed Springwood—and its adjacent presidential library and museum in Hyde Park. There’s over 1,000 acres of gardens, lawns, and trails, so bring the wine and cheese and a good pair of walking shoes. Just a couple of miles away is Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill “cottage,” a lady cave of sorts where she was free to do and see who she pleased, away from the trappings of the “Summer White House.”

That’s not all Hyde Park has up its historical sleeve. The Beaux-Arts-style Vanderbilt Mansion has a whopping 54 rooms and 44,000 square feet, dripping in marble and mahogany, which makes the nearby 25-room Mills Mansion (designed by McKim, Mead, and White) seem modest by comparison.

Head up to Columbia County for the breathtaking, Persian-inspired Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, designed by Calvert Vaux and Hudson River School darling Frederic Edwin Church as Church’s family home. The 250-acre landscape alone makes you think you could paint masterpieces, serving up sweeping views of the river and the Catskill mountains. The house-turned-museum is an eclectic mix of artwork, furnishings, and objects from around the world, befitting the cultured, globetrotting family that occupied it.

Just across the river in Catskill is the home of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, which is now preserved as a historic site devoted to Cole’s legacy and is also the site of exhibitions of contemporary art that references Cole’s legacy.

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