In 1776, the population of New York City was 25,000, second only to Philadelphia in the 13 original American colonies. But that changed quickly. By 1830 more than 185,000 people called themselves New Yorkers.
With growth of that magnitude, it was essential to maintain a steady supply of food coming into the city. This was great news for the farmers of the Hudson Valley and Berkshire regions, who produced an abundance of crops and livestock. And these farmers had, in effect, a superhighway for transporting their goods to the city: the Hudson River.
The only problem? Getting from east to west meant traversing a tree-stump ridden cart path that was icy in the winter and muddy in the spring. In 1799 the New York State legislature passed a bill authorizing the establishment of a corporation whose mission was to build and maintain a road from the Massachusetts state line to the Hudson River. The corporation was funded with $25,000 ($475,000 in 2018 dollars) in investment capital for construction; ongoing maintenance and investor dividends would be funded through toll collection.
The legislature authorized the construction of three toll houses along the 20 mile length of what became known as the Columbia Turnpike. These included the East Gate Toll House in Hillsdale, one mile west of the Massachusetts line, and the West Gate Toll House, 1.5 miles east of the Hudson River in the city of Hudson (the area is now Greenport). Both of these structures still exist. A third toll house, known as the Middle Gate, was built somewhere between the East Gate and the West Gate, but it vanished long ago.
The Historians of Hillsdale took on the challenge of identifying the location of the long-lost Middle Gate. It has been a fascinating puzzle to assemble, and we still may be missing a few puzzle pieces, but here is what we discovered.
Finding the toll house location on old maps was not difficult: it’s plainly shown on 1851 and 1858 maps of Columbia County. (The full-size 1851 map is in the Hillsdale Town Hall, and can be seen on the “History” tab at http://www.hillsdaleny.com.) Interestingly, the 1851 map shows the projected path of the New York & Harlem Railroad, which didn’t actually arrive until 1852. The Martindale Depot wasn’t built until 1854. That’s why the 1851 map does not show the Martindale depot, but the 1858 map does. Here’s the portion of the 1858 map that shows both.
So we knew the location of the toll house, but we didn’t yet know the “location of the location.” It’s almost impossible to transpose features from the 1858 map onto a contemporary road map, such as the 2014 Jimapco map of Columbia County.
To find the Middle Gate Toll House, we first had to find the Columbia Turnpike. Many people believe that the Columbia Turnpike faithfully followed today’s Rt. 23 from end to end. But the original turnpike diverged from today’s Rt. 23 in several places. One of those places included the location of the Middle Gate.
The locations of the Martindale Depot and railroad tracks on the 1858 map were significant clues. The depot was eventually taken apart and rebuilt as a house in Philmont, but the evidence of the railroad, in the form of a track bed, remains.
As we said, the railroad came through Hillsdale in 1852 and continued on to Chatham. But from Hillsdale to Martindale, the railroad followed the course of the Columbia Turnpike. There is a good reason for this: steep hills are anathema to both turnpikes and railroads. A helpful resource is a topographical map. If you are unfamiliar with topo maps, the brown wavy lines are called “contour lines” and in this map the space between any two lines indicates a rise or decline in elevation of ten feet. The closer the contour lines are to each other, the steeper the grade.
Here is a section of a 1904 topographical map that shows both the railroad and turnpike meandering between steep hills and staying on relatively level ground, following a course that corresponds with the 1858 map.
In 1972, the PennCentral Railroad (successor to the New York Central Railroad, which itself was the successor to the New York & Harlem Railroad) rather abruptly terminated service north of Dover Plains. We say abruptly because there was no forewarning of the closure. People from Philmont who got on the train in the morning to head into the city were gobsmacked to discover that their return commute would end in Dover Plains! No way to run a railroad, we say.
While passenger service ended at Dover Plains, freight traffic continued northward until 1980. Sometime after that, the railroad began the task of pulling up the rails, ties, signals and other equipment. What remained was the track bed, which for a while served as a footpath. Eventually, it became overgrown in most places, but fortunately not everywhere. (Over the ensuing years, a lot of the track bed has been purchased by the Harlem Valley Rail Trail — more on that later.)
One of the minor miracles afforded to historians is Google Maps. Here is screen shot showing the ghost of a track bed:
The vestiges of the old Harlem line are still visible, and they lead right to our next landmark: the Rt. 11 overpass.
This is a picture of the overpass looking north as Rt. 11 continues up to Philmont.
Based on measurements of both the 1858 and 2014 maps, we are confident that the depot was located on the north side of the overpass and slightly to the east. (If anyone knows the location of that house in Philmont built from the old depot, please let us know.)
Back to Google Maps. Note the beaver pond that sprang up about 15 years ago. Much of the land in Martindale where the railroad (and turnpike) used to run was designated an official wetland by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the late 1980s, which may be why no effort has been made to, if you’ll pardon the expression, drain the swamp.
The railroad (and turnpike), however, were there, right on the edge of the land now swallowed up by the pond. We know this because you can clearly see in the photo below the telephone (telegraph?) poles partly submerged in the water. Obviously, they were not installed that way — the beavers had not yet arrived, evidently. But telegraph lines were often placed along a railroad right-of-way. We assume that these wires are no longer in use, since if one came down in a storm it would require a boat to access the pole from which it fell. But getting information from Consolidated/Fairpoint/Taconic Telephone is as difficult as getting good service from them. (Rim shot. We’re here all week.)
The photo below shows a pole and wires mysteriously disappearing into the woods. They are immediately adjacent to the old train bed.
We were denied access to walk the property along the rail bed, where we thought we might come across the foundation of Middle Gate. Undeterred, we found the December 9, 1891 issue of the Chatham Courier, which had an item on the history of the Columbia Turnpike. The excerpt reads, “Another [tollhouse] at what was once known as “Todd city,” a small settlement of half a dozen houses, a mile east of Martindale.” We believe that the author was generalizing and that Todd City (and thus the Middle Gate) was a mile southeast of Martindale. By the way, this is the only reference to Todd City we’ve come across, and we have found no records of anyone named Todd in the area.
We believe we have located the site of the Middle Gate Toll House to within 100 feet. X marks the spot on this map. It is disctinctly possible that the foundation of the toll house, if it still exists, lies beneath the waters of the beaver pond.
Look at the dotted line that cuts through the first “a” in Martindale and continues in a southeasterly direction, tracing the route of the railroad. According to the legend on the Jimapco map, it is a “bike path/trail.” Well, we’ve been there and in the words of poet Ron Chappell, “There ain’t no trail.”
Since the 1980s, there has been an association working to build a rail trail from Wassaic to Chatham (46 miles). We rang up the folks at Jimapco and asked if it is possible that Jimapco might have included the projected route of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail in their most recent map (2014), even though the trail does not yet exist in the marked location. The representative said, “Very likely,” especially if the plan for the trail was well along at the time the map was printed (Jimapco maps have a five-year lifespan). “We work with communities and organizations to understand what’s happening or what will happen,” the representative told us. “Otherwise our maps could be out of date as soon as they roll off the printing press.” It is extremely likely that Jimapco inserted the projected path of the rail trail.
The inclusion of the “trail” on the Jimapco map confirms that in the Martindale vicinity, the railroad — and thus the turnpike — were several hundred yards north of today’s Rt. 23. The turnpike took similar diversions in Craryville and Hollowville, then known as Smokey Hollow.
As always, if you have any thoughts or additional information on any of this, we welcome your comments below.
A note on our methods: You may be curious about how we were able to extrapolate locations and distances from the 1858 map to the 2014 map.
The 1858 map includes a scale. Not all old maps do. Modern maps, like the 2014 Jimapco map, always have a scale bar. You can use a ruler to measure distances, but it’s incredibly tedious and the arithmetic can be brutal. Thankfully, we have a device called a map wheel, which has an adjustable scale. One preset scale is 1:63360, or one inch to one mile (there are 63,360 inches in a mile). But it is also possible to simply trace the scale bar and tell the device that (in the case of the Jimapco map) the distance traced is five miles. From there, it’s fairly simple to move from one map to another by constantly adjusting the scale. We wouldn’t use it for surgery, but it’s pretty accurate.