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Peekskill's History

The article below was written by by John Curran,
Peekskill City Historian ~ Class of 1963,
and was Published as part of the Program Book
for the “All Classes” Peekskill High School Reunion
organized by Bob Howles (‘53) in the Summer of 2000

 

 PEEKSKILL IS A PLACE YOU DON'T FORGET

If you need someone to take the credit, or the blame, for Peekskill, you can start with the Dutch. If they had minded their own business, and stayed in Europe, we might still have Indians all over the place. But it wasn't really that simple.

The English (who were in New England and the South) had the Dutch surrounded (who were then in Manhattan, Albany and the Hudson Valley). The old squeeze play force the Dutch to give up, and New Amsterdam became New York City in 1664. But what is interesting, old "Jan Peeck's Creek" stayed known as "Peek's Kill" even after the English took over. There was an attempt for a while to name this place "Brookfield" but it didn't work.

Guess who stayed, and who moved in? The native tribal people in the locale called themselves "Sachoes." They mostly left. People with Dutch names of Lent, Conklin, Denike, and Cronkite moved in first. Soon after came the English families of Hall, Haws, Travis, Brown, and Weeks. Add the Birdsall's and Mandeville's.

Peekskill was created as a place to live and make a living in the 1740s and 1750s. Then came Nelson, Divert, and Montross. The Depew family was originally French. The rest is history.

Guess what? After more than 100 years of British control, the new breed of people known as "Americans" wanted everything. They wanted their own land, laws, money, and country. A fight broke out that lasted eight terrible years. A lot of activity took place right here in the lower Valley region between 1776 and 1783.

Tiny Peeks Kill found itself occupied by soldiers from all over the world. First, and mostly, Americans held the place throughout the war. But soldiers from England, Germany and France also occupied this land for short intervals. General G. Washington himself thought Peekskill would be the best place for the Command Center in 1776. Other American generals, like Putnam, Heath and McDougall ran operations for the other forts on the river from this camp and their headquarters at Peekskill.

Because it became so important, the English then holding New York City raided the place with a good size military force of boats and soldiers in March 1777. There was some fighting, cannon fire, advancing and retreating. Meanwhile, almost all of the settlement at Peek's Creek at that time was wrecked, burned down or looted. Some people died.

After that war, Peekskill people moved ahead with the business of life. Sloops gave way to steamboats, and horse carriages to the railroad. Telegraphs and printing presses spread the news. Someone started mining rocks. Then someone started melting the iron in the rocks. Then someone else figured how to pour the liquid metal into molds that could be used in different ways when it's cooled. Peekskill became a stove making town. Union Stove Works, Southard Robertson, Peekskill Stove Works and many other companies kept workers busy for nearly 100 years.

The Fleischmann brothers showed up in 1900. They bought the entire Charles Point area, and started what became the biggest dry yeast manufacturing plant in the world. They later merged with Standard Brands, and did good work for all the allies during the second world war. The factory closed in 1977.

Meanwhile, some big shots had grown from little seeds here in the village. Chauncey Depew became head of the entire New York Central railroad system. Then he got himself elected two terms in the U.S. Senate, for six years each. And he made a lot of speeches.

A little earlier, a businessman and inventor named Joseph Binney started Peekskill Chemical Company. This later became the worldwide CRAYOLA company of today, which is now in Pennsylvania.

The writer of the Dorothy's adventure in OZ attended the old Peekskill Military Academy. That was Mr. Baum.

Jumping ahead a little, Richard Jackson (class of 1963) became the first African-American person ever elected as mayor in this State. His buddy, George Pataki (class of '63) became governor in 1994, and was reelected in 1998. This was another Peekskill first.

Meanwhile, a meteorite rushing in from outer space decided to aim itself at a small red car on a Wells Street driveway in 1992. This became a big deal, and rock collectors emerged with open check books for $67,000.

Also, Peekskill became an art town in 1990s, and a big colorful mural was painted on the side of the old Masonic building.

The old Peekskill Theatre is gone, and the Paramount made into an arts center. The Urban Renewal of the 1960s and 70s wrecked 4 lot of stuff, but also brought in a new library, apartments, police station and courthouse.

Of course, when the 1949 Roberson concert events at VanCortlandtville had their 50" anniversary in 1999, a lot of people still couldn't tell the difference between the Town of Cortlandt and the City of Peekskill. And they still have no idea where VanCordandtville might be.

The old waterfront that used to be covered with factories is now a great place to take in the scenery across the river. The view is almost as good as that from the top floor of the Ringgold Street school building.

How many of you remember seeing the Giant Ball of String, or remember the name of Chester Smith, or know the Drum Hill School colors and song?

The days of Memos and Millers, Tullers, Genung's , Kittengers and even Woolworth's are parts of the past. Weeks Jewelers, Dorsey Funeral Home, Dain's, E.O. Curry Funeral Home, Nardone Bros. Furniture, Peekskill Paint and Hardware are still in business. The "Evening Star" ran out of ink in 1985. The weekly "Herald" started soon after.

The old Oakside School is gone, but the new high school on Elm Street is sleek and modern and has just about everything. One thing is for certain, to which we can all agree our old Peekskill teachers are still alive within us. They had ways of becoming memorable. We can remember their faces, their voices and movements, and almost something of what they were talking about.

This old Peekskill town is a steady landmark on a distant hill. The details may change, but the steady beacon of its guidance has already lasted many lifetimes.

Click HERE to view Peekskill’s Prominent Citizens

 

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