A  Brief History of the Town  of
Kingston, New York



The Town of Kingston is a small municipality nestled in the Hudson Valley between the City of Kingston and Woodstock.

The First Settlers

During the 1600’s Holland discovered the Hudson and claimed land on both sides of the river.  They established trading posts to trade goods with the Indians.  In 1614 a trading post was built at the

mouth of the present Rondout Creek.

In 1652 a group of settlers were given permission to buy land from the Indians on the lands of the Esopus – also known as Sepe or Sopus.  Thus the Whiteman came to live on the

rich farm land along the banks of the Esopus near the present City of Kingston.  In 1661 the land became known as Wiltwyck and a charter was bestowed on the settlement.  In 1664

the Dutch surrendered to the British and the name was changed to Kingston.  In 1673 Kingston was retaken by the Dutch and the name was changed to Swannenburg.   Finally, in 1674

the land was retaken by the British once again and the name was permanently changed to Kingston.  Troubled by the Indians the settlers were forced to move and build their houses into

a stockade.  By 1687 the population in the stockade greatly increased.


Governor Dongan granted to the people in common, then residing about Kingston, a piece of land extending from the Hudson River near Little Esopus Creek, to and along the bounds of

Hurley to the mountains, thence along the mountains to the County of Albany, now Green County, along the county line of the Hudson and south along the Hudson to the place of the

beginning.  The land granted became known as the “Kingston Commons”.  The grant was approved May 17, 1688.  This is the date the Town of Kingston was founded.  Twelve trustees

were elected and given the power to sell land or plots to the Freeholders and Commoners.


The Establishment of the Town of Kingston

In 1788 the State legislature passed a law establishing more than 100 towns and villages. Earlier, the legislature decided towns, not counties, would be polling places.  The Town of Kingston was one of those Towns

established that March 7, 1788.

One of the first purchases in the present Town of Kingston was made on January 1, 1695.  William Legg bought 100 acres of land lying on both sides of the Sawkill Creek from the Trustees for 50 schipples of wheat. 
The deed permitted the building of a sawmill and required the payment of “a half bushel of good winter wheat yearly to ye Trustees and their successors forever”.  This mill was located near the Powder Mill Bridge. 
The house and mill were destroyed by fire in the 1880’s.  The Legg family lived there for 88 years.  Their mill was reported to have ground wheat for the Continental Army.

After the Legg family, the property belonged to William DuBois, next to the Brink Family; and the 1875 census shows the mill was owned by James Gaddis.  Three men were employed and the products were

shingles and barrel heads. Though Bluestone in the bed of the Creek was wanted by the quarrymen, the owners of the property wished to continue using the mill so refused permission to quarry the stone. 

This continued until Mr. Gaddis, in need of money to rebuild after a fire destroyed the stone house, gave permission for quarrying on the creek ledge.  This went on until 1902 and moved the falls some 300 feet

to its present location near Sweet Meadows.

 

Another mill complex was situated across from Sawkill Park Road.  Howe’s Mill was run by water power from a dam at the Little Falls.  Lack of information on making gun powder caused many explosions, sometimes

twice a month.  The Kingston Journal dated December 19, 1849 stated “Howe’s Mill blows up again”.  On February 15, 1850 it reported, “On Saturday night last, between 10-11 o’clock, James Howe Powder Mill on

the Sawkill was blown up. There was only 600 pounds of powder burned, and though the buildings were scattered to the winds, the machinery was not destroyed.  Loss $400.  Mr. Howe will be at work again in 10 days.

This is the seventh blow up there within 15 months.”  William Bonesteel told his family that when the mill blew up in 1857 the trees about the place were so filled with pieces of iron blown into them; they couldn’t

be used as saw logs for lumber.  The Howe Mill continued to blow up throughout the 1860’s …. until it was finally hit so badly by lighting that it was damaged beyond repair.

Farming

In addition to the mills, farming was an important means of support.  Most people had gardens, cows and chickens to provide for their family. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the Town was primarily a

self-sufficient community that was engaged in some commercial trade on the Hudson River. 

 Bluestone Quarrying

This changed dramatically with the discovery of Bluestone and the influx of immigrants who came to live in the Town and work the quarries.  Extensive quarrying of Bluestone began with the opening of the

Delaware and Hudson Canal in 1828.  In Sawkill and the surrounding areas many of the quarries were owned by Rondout businessmen.  The owners hired unskilled, immigrant laborers and built houses for these

workers and their families, thereby creating small communities with distinct and independent characters such as Stony Hollow, Jockey Hill and Dutch Hill.  Many of these houses are still in existence but have been modified.

You’ll know they’re quarrymen’s houses by the small windows on the second floor.





Schools in the Town of Kingston

The Jockey Hill School District was formed in 1865.  It was said that a teacher by the name of Ford was so cruel to the children that they and their parents tried unsuccessfully to have him fired.

The children wrote a poem and egged Myron Gaddis to recite it to the school trustee.  It went:

           Lord of love, look down

                                        Upon us poor scholars.

                                        They hired a fool,

                                        To teach the Jockey Hill School,                   

                                        And paid him fifty dollars.

 When this had no effect on the Trustee, Mr. Brophy, the parents held a secret meeting.  Mr. Brophy was voted out and a new Trustee elected.  The new Trustee discharged Mr. Ford and hired a new teacher.  The salary for

a teacher in Sawkill in 1897 was $143.26 a year.

Between 1921 and 1922 a new school was built because the Jockey Hill School was destroyed by fire.  The new school stood behind the present Town Hall.  It was used as aschool until January 1960 when the

classes were merged into the Kingston Consolidated School System.  The building was deeded to the Town for use as a Town Hall until its demolition in 2010.   Other schools that operated in the Sawkill District

were Stony Hollow, Brabant, and Dutch Hill.  All were closed by 1960.



The “Undesirable Town of Kingston

In 1869, intense competition and cut-throat operations, coupled with the slowing of the Canal economy due to the challenge of the railroads, began to have an impact on the Bluestone workers.  Unified by their common

backgrounds, trade, low social status and poverty, the Irish quarrymen banded together and became a strong political machine on Jockey Hill.  This boisterous group overwhelmed the older, more traditional government

of property owners.  The Irish leaders (sometimes called the Molly Maguires or Red Shirts because they wore long red underwear) used strong-armed tactics to support corrupt officials of the Democratic Party.  In return,

the loyalty of the Irish was rewarded by politicians, but not out of their own pockets.  Tax money was used to finance an extensive “Pauper List” providing merchandise or cash to each who was owed a favor.

By 1879, the Town of Kingston’s expenses for assistance to the poor was $15,976.99 compared to the County-wide average town cost of $484.00.  After a bitter and violent election night in 1879, the State commenced

a long and thorough investigation into the corrupt activities of the “Undesirable Town of Kingston”.  The “Election House” which was one of the four polling places in Town, still stands on Hallihan Hill.


Division of the Town of Kingston

This led to the demise of the Democratic Party and the merciless division of the Town.  The towns of Saugerties, Esopus, Ulster and Woodstock annexed parts of the Town of Kingston.  Also, the villages of Kingston

and Rondout and the communities of Ponckhockie and Twaalfskill were incorporated into the City of Kingston.  It is said when the old town was divided it left  the present Town of Kingston a territory small in extent,

feeble in population and mountainous in character, rocky with thin sterile soil, poorly watered and with scarcely an acre of tillable or grazing land.  The quarries, which for many years had been the main source of revenue,

were nearly exhausted.  The population diminished year to year; the young people, as such, who could get away, moved to other places where they could make a living.  The taxes were now so great and heavy, being

nearly 107 on a fair valuation, as to bankrupt them, their homes being confiscated.   The Town struggled and survived and became a smaller, quieter force intended by State officials.  Bluestone quarrying continued on

a lesser scale, typically by local residents who also farmed and did “piecework” as a means of support.

Summer Boarders

During the early part of the century “taking” summer boarders became a popular pastime with the town’s people as well as a boost to the economy.  Some of the former boarding houses that operated in the Town were:

Reiff’s Inn near Wintergreen Hill; Thendara Lodge, former home of Harry Siemsen, located on the property now owned by Arold Paving; The Jockey Hill Boarding House which was comprised of two quarrymen’s

shantys and is still standing at the end of Jockey Hill Road.


There is a story former Historian, Harry Siemsen, told of “The Face in the Falls.”  Mr. Siemsen explained that a Mrs. Meyer of Brooklyn was recovering from an illness at Thendara Lodge in the winter of 1926 when

she discovered the appearance of a face in the falls that strongly resembled her dead father.  They had no photo of her father so they had the section with the face retaken and enlarged.  Family and friends all agreed

it was a very good likeness of the man.



St. Ann’s Church

For the Irish families and other Catholics who remained in Sawkill, St. Ann’s Church continued to be an integral part of the community.  The original St. Ann’s was built in 1869 on Jockey Hill Road and served the

community until 1878.  It was built along the lines of a quarryman’s shanty and was called the “long shanty”.  In 1868 property was acquired for a cemetery and a second St. Ann’s Church was constructed.  The

present site of St. Ann’s was purchased specifically to fill the need for a closer place to inter the dead of the outlying area.  St. Ann’s became the social hub of the area where dances, plays and dinners were held. 

It was also at one time a polling place.  In 1913 the second St. Ann’s was destroyed by fire and rebuilt the same year on its old foundation.  There is a cave located in the bank beneath St. Ann’s and legend has it that

this is the home of the “Lady in Black”, seen many a night wandering around St. Ann’s Cemetery.”

 
The outdoor shrine was built in 1944 when the parish was 75 years old, and St. Ann’s became famous throughout New York, New England and Canada.  Many people made pilgrimages to the shrine during the

Feast of St. Ann particularly during, the novena held every year in August. Mass was celebrated outside on the stone altar and chairs set up on the grounds for the many people who attended.  It is said that a disabled

girl was cured at the shrine during one of the services when she stood up from her wheelchair and walked to the altar.  The church closed in 1961 and became the mission church of St. Catherine Laboure in Lake Katrine.

In 1971 the “Friends of St. Ann’s” was formed by a group of residents to preserve the church and its traditions.

  

Fire Destroys Town Records

William Charlton was the Town Clerk in 1876.  When his house was destroyed by fire, the Town lost most of its records which were stored there.

In 1885 Henry Brink was appointed Post Master for Sawkill.  His home became the Post Office and General Store.  Before that peddlers sold their wares travelling house to house.

Legends and Folktales

There are many legends and folktales which have been recorded by Harry Siemsen.  One of Sawkill’s favorites is “Hallihan’s Hill Headless Barber”.  It seems there was a headless body of a man, fully clothed, walking

about with a bloody stump protruding from the collar of his coat.  Held securely upright underneath his left arm was his head.  In that hand he carried a lantern.  In his right hand he held a large open-bladed razor.  Some

said the lantern was burning and the razor was bloody.  Most said they never got close enough to find out.  There were, of course, individuals who doubted this.  One of the McGuire boys said that if he ever met this

headless fellow, “He’d have all the answers or else!”  His chance came a short time later and to his word he stood his ground til the apparition was but a few feet away from him.  As Mr. McGuire later stated, “I could

stand the glare of his eyes, but when I see’d his lip move and heard the head say, “McGuire, ye be needing a shave”, I got out of there!!”

Bridges of Sawkill

Sawkill has two bridges which are quite important to the Town.  The first one is by the Town Hall.  It was once a covered bridge.  It became quite old and dangerous until it was finally replaced by an iron bridge.

Between the time the iron bridge and new bridge were built the creek had to be crossed by walking over a wooden footbridge.  The new bridge was built and dedicated in 1958.  Since then, Sawkill has acquired a

new modern span bridge that you see today.

The Powdermill Bridge, which is located near the falls in Sweet Meadows, is approximately in the area of the old “Leggs Mill”.  In 1911 the Powdermill Bridge was destroyed by ice and high water.  It, too, was replaced

with an iron bridge.  In 1970 a new modern bridge was built.



The Sawkill Fire Company

In the late 1940’s serious consideration was given to the creation of a fire department for the Town.  After two failed attempts, the fire district was formed in 1950, due to the donation of a Maxim 1919 cabless pumper to

the Holy Name Society of St. Ann’s Church.  Unfortunately, during a test of its capabilities, the crankshaft broke.  Undaunted by this misfortune, the fire company was incorporated on January 8, 1951.  They borrowed

$6,000 and began construction of a firehouse.  It took more than a year and was built entirely by the volunteer labor of the members.  The new firehouse was dedicated July 4, 1952.  It was expanded in 1972 and again

in 1986.  Around 1960 The Ladies Auxiliary was formed.  Its purpose was to support the work of the firemen and to promote entertainment and social activities for its members and the community.

Businesses in the Town

There have been many changes over the years.  Local industry turned from the mills and quarries since most had closed, to services…..summer retreats, camps, stores and small businesses.  Some of the small

businesses that once operated in Sawkill were:  Camp Woodcliff, the Armscraft Gun shop, The Village Store, The Sawkill Snack Bar, Avalon Nightclub, the Dasie Bus Line (circa 1920), Smith’s Truck Equipment,

Central Cabinet Shop, and the Dress Factory.

Sweet  Meadows

Along came another era.  Sawkill saw growth of suburban life.  Flooding which had always been a problem became a bigger issue with the development of Sweet Meadows, along the Sawkill Creek.  In 1981, the residents

of Sweet Meadows banded together to have a rock-picking party.  This action drew some county-wide attention to the flooding problem and led to a clean out of the creek.  However, this did not solve the problem and

some flooding still persists during heavy rains.  As Sawkill continues to address this problem and the continued growth in other areas of the Town, environmental challenges will have to be met.


Time Changes Everything

As the past merges with the present changes must be made.  The Town Hall, which was once the one-room schoolhouse, was remodeled to become a Town Hall in 1960.  In 2010 the old schoolhouse was demolished due

to structural problems and a new Town Hall built.  Though, for many, it was sad to see it go we continue to cherish the memories of the many children who once walked through its doors.  Pictures remain and the old

school bell is still a reminder of our special little Town and the history it entails.



The Town of Kingston founded in 1688 and established by the State in 1788 has gone through many changes over the years but the Town still retains its essential rural character and close knit community spirit.