Of Floods and Picnics: Mysteries Abound

July 23rd, 2018 was 130th anniversary of the Great Flood of Hillsdale. On that morning, a cloudburst dumped 12 inches of rain in one hour on Austerlitz and North Hillsdale, and as far west as Craryville. By comparison, during the worst of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston, TX, received four inches of rain per hour (although obviously for a much longer period). The point is that 12 inches in an hour is a lot of rain, and almost instantly, all of the creeks and rivers in Hillsdale were inundated.

At the time, there were quite a few structures dotting the banks of these waterways, including sawmills, gristmills and other industries that required hydropower. As the waters rose and picked up speed, virtually every one of these structures was washed away. The water carried debris into Copake, where the flood’s sole casualty drowned.

One would be tempted to think that such a dramatic event would be big news. But after searching the digital files of the Hillsdale Harbinger and the Register Star, as well as The New York Times, almost nothing appeared in print about the flood. The only reference we found was an historical mention some years later in a news clipping from an unnamed newspaper on file at the Columbia County Historical Society.

Considering that the Harbinger devoted quite a lot of space to covering whose Aunt was visiting from New Jersey and who was recovering at home from a nasty chill, one might expect that a flood would be worthy of at least a mention. And in fact, floods were covered extensively in the Harbinger. Search the archives for “flood” and you will learn all about the Johnstown Flood in 1889, which admittedly did kill 2209 people, but also of floods in Kansas, Texas, and many other unfortunate places. But not in Hillsdale. Go figure. (If anyone has more extensive information, please add it as a comment below.)

Meanwhile, one of things we enjoy about researching a given subject is that you come upon so many things that are completely unrelated but really interesting.

While digging around for information about the 1888 flood in the achives of the Columbia County Historical Society, we came upon a photocopy of an undated article from an unnamed newspaper with the headline, “Time Has Erased All Signs of Once Popular Hillsdale Picnic Grounds.” The article was written by Hillsdale resident Palmer Vincent, who worked as a postal clerk in the early years of the 20th century. He was also a noted local photographer – a selection of his photos can be found on the Hillsdale town website in the “History” tab.

In the article, Mr. Vincent recalled that White’s Hill, the highest point of land in Hillsdale, took its name from John White, who farmed the hill for many years. At the top of the hill, one was treated to a spectacular vista. A twelve-foot high tower was erected and from its perch it was said that one could see five states.

“A trip to White’s Hill was as exciting to yesteryear’s teenagers as a visit to Radio City Music Hall for today’s sophisticated youngsters,” said Mr. Vincent. “Preparations were made for days as picnics were planned and dad was asked if the Morgan mare and a rig might be available for the Sunday outing.” (Because of Mr. Vincent’s reference to Radio City Music Hall, one can infer that he wrote this remembrance after 1932, the year the Music Hall opened.)

Mr. Vincent recalled that one of the more daring things to do, if you were a boy, was to carve a heart in the wall of the tower with a jackknife and put your initials and those of your girl within its borders. “And that old tower, its sidewalls and benches were well carved!”

Why was the picnic ground abandoned?  In all likelihood, we’ll never know for sure. Alas, the tower and picnic grounds have vanished, but if you or someone you know has any recollections of White’s Hill, please add them in a comment below.

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