[Andrew Jackson Downing], "American Highland Scenery. Beacon Hill," New-York Mirror 12 (Mar. 14, 1835): 293-94.
West Point and Pine Orchard are familiar names to nearly all lovers of the grand, the beautiful, and the picturesque among us. Thousands have climbed to the latter and felt themselves well repaid by the magnificent prospect from the dizzy precipice of the "Mountain House," and none of the fashionables think their summer's tour complete until they have loitered away a day or two at "Cozzens," falling in raptures with the captivating though (at that place) stern and majestick beauty of the Highlands. West Point seems to be the only resting-spot at which the traveller forms his estimate of this most lovely and picturesque neighbourhood. The prospect from the summits of the rough and broken chain of Alleghanies which here crosses the Hudson, and to which the name of the Highlands has been given, are full of the most sublime beauty, and if they were more easily accessible, would be enjoyed as rich banquets to the eye by hosts of tourists. As it is, these hills are gazed at with wonder by the traveller as he passes in the steamer close under their rocky basis, without a farther attempt than perhaps to imagine the glorious coup l'oil, which must be visible from their towering heights.
But two of the loftiest of the eminences of these Highlands can be approached by a very tolerable mountain road, and most surely it is only because the exceeding grandeur and beauty of the landscapes seen from their summits, are not known to admirers that they are not more generally visited. Beacon Hill, (as the most celebrated of these heights is called,) is sixty miles from New-York, and nearly opposite the large and thriving town of Newburgh; it receives its name from the fact that it was chosen by our ancestors in the revolution for its commanding situation as a proper locality for the burning of those beacon lights and bonfires which were to serve the inhabitants of the vast surrounding country as telegraphick signals of the events of the war.
The tourist wishing to visit this hill lands from the steamboat at Newburgh, and crosses in a steam ferry-boat to the opposite landing at Fishkill. Here he mounts his horse or seats himself in his carriage, (the former is preferable, from the difficulty of driving a loaded carriage to the top,) and driving for a short time over a pleasant road, bordered with pretty villas and snug farm-houses, he finds himself at the foot of the mountain. From this place the road assumes its proper character. The faint breeze murmurs like gentle music through the thick foliage of the trees which border it, and if it happens to be the month of June, nothing can be more delightful in the way of mountain passes. The air is loaded with the delicious perfume of the young summer wild-flowers, and the margins of the first half of the road are composed of dense thickets of laurels, whose delicate bouquets of pink blossoms are thickly sprinkled over the dark rich verdure of their foliage. The birds are sporting their gay carols joyously among the branches; and in the depths of that ravine, some distance below the level of the road, you hear the gentle murmur and tinkling of the limpid mountain stream, while pure as crystal it leaps from rock to rock downward on its rapid course to the plain below. A little more than half way up the mountain is a sort of landing-place, a log cottage, and a clear spring gushing where you may refresh yourself by a cool draught and a glimpse at the half-perfect, though charming prospect around you. Parties who come in carriages often leave them here in charge of the cottager, but we have yet half a mile of ascent, so montes. After this the way becomes more winding, the thicket on either side more impervious, and you lose sight of every thing but the hills around you. Half a dozen different curves and sinuosities in the road, afford you no estimate of the distance you have passed, nor any signal of the termination of your journey, until suddenly rising an eminence in the path, you feel rushing past you and infusing new life in your veins the cool, invigorating mountain breeze -- and you are on the summit. How beautiful! How magnificent! How sublime! Seat yourself on one of those fragments, apparently intended by nature as a resting-place on this, one of her most majestick thrones. That mighty stream immediately before you is the Hudson -- the prince of rivers! It appears to you that you see it rising like a silvery rivulet, thirty miles north of you in those distant hills, gradually widening, meandering, spreading life and freshness around, until her it loses itself, a deep, broad, powerful torrent in the rent chasm of the Highlands at Butter Hill. It bears upon its bosom a thousand vessels. Sprinkled over its surface the white sails of the sloops and schooners break upon the vision, and now the proud steamer, gliding swiftly along, sends up its wreaths of dark vapour to mingle with the clear blue of the summer sky. A little to the right, and as it were immediately beneath you, is the charming little village of Matteawan, with its silvery creek and large manufacturing buildings in the middle of the group, and the neat white and yellow cottages, all uniform, of the workmen, scattered round. Across the river on the very bank, looking, for compactness and size, almost a city, is the bustling town of Newburgh. Cornwall, New-Windsor, Canterbury, Fishkill-landing -- half a dozen handsome villages, are scattered over the vast and lovely expanse, and following with the eye toward the north, that same broad river, you see nearly twenty miles distant the fine level town of Poughkeepsie, and just distinguish its spires pointing upward through the thick mass of foliage which appears to surround it.
In every direction the country is full of beauty, and presents a luxuriant and cultivated appearance, which is rare in mountain views in America, for the lands directly before us are the old agricultural counties of Orange and Dutchess. Neat farm-houses are profusely scattered over the green and fertile fields, and here and there along the river is seen the beautiful and costly villa, imbosomed in the thicket of trees and shrubbery, which looks from our high situation like a dark setting to the lustrous whiteness of the buildings. But ah! the eye wanders to that glorious spectacle, the noble chain of hills which forms the boundary, the frame, the setting to this superb picture. To the south, sufficiently near to have lost scarcely a shadow of its frowning grandeur, is that deeply-furrowed, perpendicular ridge, Butter Hill; uniting with another chain and carrying the eye round upon their varied eminences, until far in the west they seem to mingle with the deep violet of the hills of the Shawangunk. To the north-west and north Pine Orchard and the outline of the high peaks of the Catskills are distinctly visible, and the eye wanders beyond them until the last faintly-tinted height is so softened away by the distance that it is scarcely distinguishable from the mild blue of the horizon. Reader, you have doubtless heard, perhaps seen the boasted sunrise at Pine Orchard, but oh! it is tameness itself compared to the gorgeous splendor of the sunset at Beacon Hill in the Highlands, for as the former fronts the rising, so does the latter the setting of the sun. Here before sunset the whole plain is bathed in the flood of golden light. Some of the hills are in the deepest shadow; some in the full sunshine, while others are suffused with the darkest purple. Just as the disk of the fiery orb has sunk behind that chain of mountains in the west, their tops, for half the circle of the horizon, are crowned with the most gorgeous border of purple and gold, gradually fading and melting away, as it steals upward into the pure azure of the midsummer sky. The broad river before us, which a moment ago dazzled the eye with its dancing sparkles of sunlight, now borrows an exquisite glow of subdued crimson shade from those vermeil clouds in the west, hanging like rich curtains over the landscape. Several of the hills around and near, still catch the last rays of the sun upon their tops, and form a brilliant contrast to the dark picture beneath. The tout ensemble is one of the most enchanting loveliness, sublimity and grandeur.
A walk of twenty-five minutes to the south-east from this spot brings you to another eminence, South Beacon, more than a hundred feet higher; the view from which, though not so picturesque and beautiful, is still highly interesting, and perhaps more romantick. The scene from this place, together with that from Beacon-Hill, completes nearly the whole circumference of the horizon, so that of course it is looking toward the east and south. But the landscape is quite a different one. You exchange the Hudson for two or three beautiful little crystal lakes, and the broad cultivated plain for a pleasing undulation of hills, clothed in all their native loveliness of thick woods and bright verdure. Here and there an occasional hamlet, with its farms cut out of the surrounding green wood, is situated in the quiet valley between two or three hills. But the whole scene bears but little mark of the hand of man, and remains in all its pristine wildness and simplicity. It is a rich mass of verdure distributed over an immense surface, which takes every variety of form and position. Here is a deep vale, there a quick succession of beautifully-rounded hills; and farther, a high rugged summit, curious in its outline, like the great tower of an ancient castle, has ambitiously raised itself above its neighbours. Europeans have been struck with the resemblance of the scenery from this hill to that of some of the views from the Alps in Switzerland, and certainly it lacks nothing in materials or in their distribution to exclude it from a recollection among the most powerfully-striking and impressive landscapes on this continent.
Comparing the two summits, Pine Orchard and Beacon Hill, as places remarkable for their splendid prospects, we cannot but think that the palm must be at once surrendered to the latter. The Catskill view is magnificent, it is sublime; but as a late writer of taste has remarked, it is a "bleak grandeur and a savage sublimity." It strikes the beholder with amazement at the vast extent of country before him, but upon looking leisurely around, he sees none of the lovely luxuriance which meets his eye at Beacon Hill. The bright village, the smiling grain fields, are too distant to make a distinct and pleasing impression upon him; and the proud Hudson, which expands into a broad bay at Newburgh, the most captivating feature of the landscape, is only faintly seen as a bare line in the distance at Catskill.
It is rumoured that a company of gentlemen of the neighbourhood are about forming an association for the purpose of building a large and commodious boarding-house on the summit of Beacon Hill the ensuing season. If this desirable object should be carried into execution, the publick will have an opportunity of residing at a situation within six hours' journey of the city of New-York, where they can inhale the pure mountain air and enjoy at the same time one of the most lovely, picturesque, and magnificent prospects in the world.
Note: West Point, the site of the United States Military Academy, is located on the west bank of the Hudson in the midst of the Highlands; Cozzens Hotel, a popular resort on a cliff overlooking the Hudson, was nearby. Pine Orchard was the site of the Catskill Mountain House, a fashionable resort in the Catskills noted for its spectacular scenery.
copyright 1997 David Schuyler
June 9, 1997