It’s likely that the early farmers, millers, colliers, lumberers and teamsters helped spread the word of the springs and waterfalls on the Poesten Kill, but it was the early artists and travelers whose record remains. One of the first depictions of the beauties of the Poesten Kill High Falls was an engraving made in Paris in 1817. As the 19th century wore on, changing attitudes about nature combined with regional guides and maps led to increase in American travel for travels sake.
The coming of regular stage coach and later railroad service to Troy meant more visitors to the natural wonders along the Poesten Kill. Of course the economics of the early national and antebellum periods meant that only the wealthiest could afford leisure travel to more remote locations like the Barberville Falls, the Poesten Kill Gorge, or the medicinal springs in the hamlet of Poestenkill.
Guidebooks in the 1820s remarked of the natural beauty, and often noted the location of the Mount Ida and the falls. Sterling Goodenow noted the presence of “Mount Ida Falls” in his 1822 Topographical and Statistical Manual of the State of New-York. Horatio Gates Spafford’s 1824 Pocket Guide for Tourist and Traveler acknowledged Mount Olympus on the north side of Troy, but of the Poesten Kill only noted that it was home to “Mills & c.”
Mount Olympus became a regional attraction that was exploited for tourism at an early date. In 1823, W.D. Vanderheyden (by then most of the family had accepted the shortened spelling) built a large octagonal building on the highest point to accommodate sightseers. A walkway was built along the hill from the roadway at the bottom. The building included a concession that was staffed day and night and markers were installed to direct visitors to the views. The building was destroyed by fire in 1830.
Mount Ida was similarly noted for its scenic views. In 1832, one visitor to its summit reported that “every house and store may be seen with perfect distinctness, while the eye is likewise gratified by a very extensive view north and south embracing the nine locks at the junction of the western and northern canals [the Waterford Flight of Locks]… two streams, which afford an immense quantity of water power empty into the Hudson… and one of them [the Mohawk River] rolls down a beautiful cascade… [at Cohoes Falls] which is frequently visited as an object of curiosity.”
In July 1837 the English naval officer and novelist Captain Frederick Marryat visited Troy and climbed Mount Ida. “I remained two hours perched upon the top of the mountain,” he wrote, “I should have not have staid so long, perhaps, had they not brought me a basket of cherries, so that I could gratify more senses than one.”
The British artist W.H. Bartlett climbed Mount Ida and sketched a view of Troy that was published in London in American Scenery in 1840. In the 1850s, other views were issued from the same vantage point. Already in 1835, however, visitors were bemoaning the development on Mount Ida and beyond. A writer to the New York Commercial Advertiser said that the “delightful situation” of Mount Ida “has been invaded.”
The editor of the 1851 Wilson’s Hudson River Guide remarked favorably on the beauty of the Poesten Kill gorge describing it as “very narrow and lined with almost perpendicular rocks overhung with trees and shrubs of various hues… the scenery is wild, picturesque and beautiful.”
Throughout the 19th century visitors brought picnics to the Poesten Kill’s most popular wild place; the base of the High Falls in Poestenkill Gorge, the top of Mount Ida, and also to Buttermilk and Barberville Falls upstream to the east.
“As the weather was fine, we again took the streetcar up Mount Ida and stood atop the northern bank of the gorge. The waters are powerful there, and quite awhile ago Mister Marshall drilled a long sluice through the solid rock in order to drive his mill. One can still see the tunnel from above. My chums thought it would be grand to throw my hat into the falls below (I am the underclassman!). When we finally descended the mount, they attempted to douse me with water. I know it’s all in good fun. We bathed in the gorge for most of the day and walked back to the club soaked to save our fare.”
In 1903, the City of Troy purchased the Nathanial B. Warren and D. T. Vail properties at the top of Ida Hill, off Congress Street, and Garnet D. Baltimore, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s (RPI) first black graduate, designed Prospect Park atop Mount Ida. He had previously (in 1897) designed the now much-neglected, but then picturesque 200-acre Forest Park Cemetery on Pinewoods Avenue in Troy.
Prospect Park’s winding roads once included fountains, a band shell, playgrounds, flower gardens, tennis courts, and a public pool. The former residences of the Warren and Vail families were turned into a museum and a casino and towers and lookouts provided lengthy views along the Hudson below.
Areas were designated for croquet and ball games, but no games were permitted in other areas of the park, and no games whatsoever could be played on Sundays. Dogs were required to be leashed, fires and alcohol were banned, as was laying “in indecent positions,” telling fortunes, playing games of chance, fishing, bathing, and disturbing fish, birds, or other animals.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s the Poesten Kill gorge, Prospect Park, Mount Ida Cemetery, and Belden Pond fell into disrepair. Many of the remaining buildings (particularly in the park) were either destroyed by fire or torn down, cast iron railings that once graced the area were removed, and the area was all but abandoned to trash, industrial waste, and graffiti.
In 1972 the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway was established to advocate for the historic preservation and adaptive reuse of the area’s industrial heritage, but by then it was largely too late. In the 1980s and effort was made to clean-up the gorge, but it failed when vandals destroyed new split-rail fences and signage.
Another more successful effort was made in the gorge and at Prospect Park and Belden Pond in the late 1990s. Since then, volunteer organizations such as the Friends of Prospect Park and the Mount Ida Preservation Society have been slowly working to bring the gorge, pond, and park back to their old grandeur.
This essay was drawn from John Warren’s The Poesten Kill: Waterfalls to Waterworks (History Press, 2009) copies of the book are available here.
Illustrations: Henri Gaugain, “Falls of mount Ida, above the town of Troy,” in Amerique Septentrionale (hand colored from an 1828 engraving by Jacques Gérard Milbert); A colored copy of W.H. Bartlett’s “View from Mount Ida,” originally an 1838 steel engraving; “Northern View of Troy, NY from Mount Olympus,” showing Mount Ida in the distance, from Historical Collections of the State of New York by Henry Howe and John W Barber (1841); a late 19th century map showing Mount Ida and the homes of Nathanial B. Warren and D. T. Vail where Prospect park would be established; the former Warren home in the newly established Prospect Park; and an early 20th century view of a crowded Prospect Park.