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Vol. 2: Pine Plains: Its Unique Natural Heritage

Five Essays


1969

§7 Stissing Mountain Revisited

by
Laurence G. Paul


On the Salt Hill Forest Fire Observer's regional map it existed only as a name; an isolated Dutchess County summit, the highest, perhaps, between the more spectacular Catskills west of the Hudson and the Taconic Range of the Berkshires to the east. But I had long neglected New York's eastern counties, and so was curious. Moreover, the observer added his enthusiasm.

"Take 199 toward Pine Plains," he told me. "You'll find access from a road running south just this side of the village. Run up and take a look sometime. You appreciate good scenery and you'll like Stissing Mountain for sure!"

On the final bitter day of 1962 we struck the steep mile up the northerly slope to the summit. More than a few will recall that day, with its brilliantly clear skies, sub-zero cold, and raging northwest winds. The hardwood forest, cloaked with a heavy snowfall the night before, was magnificent in wild winter solitude. The wind roared. All about us whipped the flying, dry snow, stinging our faces and filling our tracks only minutes after we had left them. At the barren crest we encountered two other hikers, ruddy-faced and heavily clothed, hardly less irrational than ourselves! After a premature exchange of New Year's greetings, all fled to the sheltered porch of the observer's cabin where we devoured copious amounts of hot chocolate and coffee. Over our heads the tall fire tower shrieked and rattled against the blast. Two of us, courting frostbitten cheeks, decided to climb it. I reached only the third level and had no need to go higher. From there the superb panorama fell away fifty miles in every direction, over Hills and lakes, wintry pastures, forests and villages, to the high mountains which rose somber and cloud swept on either distant horizon. It was a view, which for its great scope of variety and interest, has few equals in southern New York. Thus did Stissing Mountain, an insignificant little peak as mountains go, become infinitely more to me than another location on a forester's map.

picture - click to enlarge
Stissing Mountain Area

About 15,000 years ago, during the recession of the continental ice front, there emerged the familiar sharp profile of the mountain as we know it today. It is a long mass, composed of gneiss, shale, limestone and quartzite, rising abruptly from its valleys to the east and north. The entire range, including the lower, but hardly less prominent summit of Little Stissing on the north, is roughly four miles in length, attaining an elevation of nearly 1,500 feet at its highest point. Nearly all of the mountain lies within the town of Pine Plains, with only about a half mile of its southern tip extending into Stanford.

Below the mountain, directly at the base of its steep easterly slopes, lies a small, but beautiful chain of glacial lakes. Of these, Stissing Lake, with an elevation of 453 feet, is the largest. On the north it is flanked by Mud (Twin Island) Pond, and to the south by the wilder, uninhabited Thompson Pond. From this source rises the main branch of Wappinger Creek, famous for its trout fishing, which flows southwesterly some forty miles to the Hudson at New Hamburg.

Pine Plains, a pastoral farming community of approximately 1,608 persons, is dominated by a splendid view of the mountain less than two miles away. The entire area, including the towns of Milan and Northeast, was previously part of the Little Nine Partners Patent granted by the Crown in 1706. Its earliest settlers were of Germanic stock, removed from the Palatines of the upper and lower Rhine districts. Pine Plains, named to commemorate pine trees that once grew on those vast plains of the eastern valley, received its charter in 1823. It is not generally known how Stissing Mountain attained its present name, although it is undoubtedly of Indian origin. One possible explanation has it that the peak originally bore the name of "Teesink" after a particular tribe, or that of its chieftain, which inhabited the region at the time. This was later changed to "Stissink," and eventually "Stissing." The Indian Pulpit, a crude stone altar and flight of steps, which it is said still exist somewhere on Little Stissing Mountain, would give evidence of other activity by the aborigines of the area.

Isaac Huntting, the principal historian of the region, leaves us with these notes from his volume, "History of Little Nine Partners," published in 1897. The first is an account by Charles Clinton who, in 1743, ran the original surveys of the Little Nine Partners Patent. It hints strongly at the practical attitude of the pioneer who struggled for a hand-to-mouth existence with little thought toward the scenic values of our more leisurely times.

"'The end of the sixth mile is on the west brow of Stissing mountain, nearly west from Attlebury station, on the N. D. & C. R. R. Eighty rods further he came to the top, 'a high Stony Hill good for little, the land to this is Indifferent Good.' The east side 'is poor pitch pine land,' then met a swamp 'exceedingly Briarly,' crossed 'Whapings Creek which runs southerly, and twenty-eight rods beyond this is the end of the eighth mile.1'"

A second note by Mr. Huntting depicts the hardships of a few of those who followed.

"In addition to early settlers, a tradition comes to me by Robert Ter Bush Eddy, of an immigration to this town about 1760. ... A man named Hubbell and one Roger Sherman were two of the men in the company and all, about twenty-five, came into New York state from Massachusetts by way of Egremont, Mount Washington and Copake. They camped at Boston Corners. It was then about the middle of March and snow fell during that encampment about three feet deep. Among their belongings was an iron cannon, a six pounder, which they there took from its carriage, put it on a boat sled and came down through Hiserodt-Strever Valley2 and camped near the Graham-Landon, now Robert Thomas settlement. The Grahams had not yet come. Hubbell went on the north side of Little Stissing and built a cabin near the spring at the watering trough, as the road runs now to Mount Ross. Hence it was called the 'Hubbell Spring'.3 No road there then. The road, such as it was, to Mount Ross was north of that. Hubbell lived there to the time of the Revolutionary war. The Tories from Clinton and the west side of Stissing invaded Pine Plains through this pass, and Hubbell's was a post for rallying to drive them off. He protected the frontier and had several chases after Tories west of the Stissings, but it is not reported that he ever killed one.4"

Such are a few glimpses into the history of the mountain and its people. The "high, stony Hill good for little" later proved useful for the manufacture of charcoal, much of which went a few miles east to Hammertown in 1776 to the fires of Silas Harris' "Grinding Works" for the production of grass scythes. Ambrose Wiltsie, one of those who cut and burned the forests of Stissing, delivered his product to the steel works in Lime Rock, Connecticut. One curious tale has it that this enterprise was constantly plagued by the hundreds of black snakes, which after every rainstorm found their way into logging flumes on the mountain that they might better enjoy the warmth of the sun! After the forests disappeared thus did the charcoal burner. The flumes collapsed and vanished. Gradually nature reclaimed the land. A new forest rose where the old had once stood, and Stissing Mountain became the densely wooded peak of hardwoods, pines and hemlocks that we know today. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who on picnic trips from Hyde Park to Silver Mountain, was so impressed with the view of the Stissings across the valley, that he suggested the Taconic State Parkway be extended to follow along their very crest. Although this project never materialized, the mountain is none the less beautiful for the lack of it.

In 1959 the Nature Conservancy of Washington, D. C., together with the Dutchess County Bird Club and a committee of interested citizens led by the Register-Herald of Pine Plains, succeeded in purchasing and preserving in its natural wild state all of Thompson Pond at the base of the mountain. This area, which abounds in wildlife, now enjoys the same protection already given to preserves such as Bergen Swamp, Genesee County, the Arthur Butler Memorial Sanctuary in Westchester, and Smokey Hollow Bog and the Sunken Forest, both on Long Island. In New York City the American Museum of Natural History has devoted a large section of its Warburg Hall to the Pine Plains area. Here one may study a giant relief map as well as a magnificent autumn diorama of Stissing and its lakes. Other exhibits enable the visitor to follow in understandable terms the geological history of the mountain. During the winter of 1963-64, the newly formed Little Nine Partners Historical Society succeeded in moving the Harris-Husted House, a lovely 1790 saltbox, from the path of a new highway at Hammertown. This building, once restored, will be the home of the Society, a place for the exhibition of its books, maps and paintings of the area. These agencies, together with the New York State Conservation Department, are seeking constantly to create interest in this beautiful unspoiled region, and to protect for the enjoyment of future generations those places so deep in aesthetic and historical value. It is hoped that within the near future all of Stissing Mountain will be thus preserved.

To ascend the mountain, one should best use the principal trail approaching it from the northeast. This route, marked either by red metal squares nailed to trees or red paint blazes on the rocks, begins at a small brook (often dry in summer) on Lake Road, 1.40 miles south of Route 199. Another route up the westerly side of the mountain may be reached from Stissing Mountain Road, but it is more difficult to find and subject to restriction. Cars may be left on Lake Road at the foot of the red-blazed trail. Ascend steeply for a short distance to the saddle between the main peak and that of Little Stissing. From here the trail turns south over more gradual terrain until a fork is reached, thus offering the hiker the choice of a circular route in either direction over the summit. Turning left, one soon begins climbing the steep north ridge of the mountain, from which there is at least one excellent outlook over the road and lakes far below and the distant Taconic Range of the Berkshires. At the top of this long pitch the observer's cabin and steel fire tower of the Conservation Department are reached. An open grassy spot just north of the cabin offers a fine view over the shaggy, wooded crest of Little Stissing to the rolling country below and beyond. The red-marked trail continues over the summit and down, following the telephone line in a series of zigzags. Leaving the wires it then returns through a beautiful hardwood forest containing many birches as well as a few pines and hemlocks to the main trail at the division noted above.

While on Stissing, the walker should not fail to climb the observers' tower, which commands probably the finest view in New York State east of the Hudson. From early April until November the observer is usually on duty and will prove friendly and helpful in answering questions. Immediately below, one first glimpses the lovely Stissing chain of lakes. Pine Plains, framed by the majestic summits of Mount Alander and the Taconics in the distance, lies diminutive in the valley. At the crossroads of this pleasant little village may be found the Stissing House, built in 1801, still in operation, and probably second in age only to the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, said to be the oldest hotel in America. Immediately south of the village are the rolling acres of Briarcliff Farms, where around 1918, capitalist Oakleigh Thorne brought continuing fame to the town by his breeding of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle, which he imported from Scotland and Canada. Looking westward across the Hudson, the panorama becomes increasingly more rugged and spectacular. In a single sweeping glance one may follow the vast progression of highlands from the craggy Shawangunk Ridge to the Catskills; from Slide Mountain to the imposing three thousand foot wall of the Front Range surmounted by the even higher Blackhead peaks. Farther north stretches the long, dark expanse of the Helderberg Plateau, and on a clear day, with the aid of good binoculars, the State Capitol is visible at Albany.

One may spend only a few hours, or an entire day on Stissing Mountain. The climb to the summit and return is only slightly over two miles, but there is much enjoyment to be had in exploring the many abandoned old wood roads along the ridge. The wild trails around Thompson Pond also provide attractive rambles, especially to those interested in nature study. As a matter of courtesy, it should be remembered that most of these lands are still privately owned and are open to the public only through the generosity of those in control. Any damaging of trees, flowers, the building of fires, rubbish left along the trails, or any other ungentlemanly conduct, will not long be tolerated. But for those who love the woods and highlands, seeking only the aesthetic joys our few remaining wild places have to offer, they will find them here, as did Isaac Huntting in 1897:

"Stissing Valley, with its lakes and fields, is a beautiful gem of creation; and conversely from this valley the surrounding Hills and varied elevations are altars in a grand unwilled temple of nature, where the soul finds joy and inspiration.5"

Notes:

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  1. << Isaac Huntting, History of Little Nine Partners, of North East Precinct and Pine Plains, New York, Dutchess County (Amenia, N. Y.: Chas. Walsh & Co., 1897), p. 25.
  2. << Stissing Valley
  3. << This spring may still be seen, marked by a sign of the State Education Department, on Route 199, approximately one mile west of Pine Plains. [here (ed.)]
  4. << Huntting, pp. 135, 136.
  5. << Ibid., p. 118.


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