Historic Fishkill: It’s Time To Preserve Its Revolutionary Past
Saving The Supply Depot And Griffin’s Tavern–
By Mike Virgintino
Since America’s earliest days, all references to a significant military installation on the Hudson River north of New York City have been reserved to describe West Point. This strategic position, first occupied during the Revolutionary War and almost lost by “treason of the blackest dye,” was critical to America’s independence. But, so was the lesser known Fishkill Supply Depot.
The Fishkill military depot occupied 70 acres about 23 miles north of West Point. Mostly gone after it was trampled upon during the 1960s and 1970s, the Fishkill Supply Depot today rarely is recalled except by historians and by the dedicated regiment of people concerned about preserving its few remaining acres of undeveloped land.
The depot is a unique site that was critical to America’s success against Britain. It was a key strategic supply center, established and visited often by General George Washington. This “military nerve center of the Continental Army” was one of three major encampments for the patriot soldiers, with the others in Morristown, New Jersey, and Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
The depot protected the Hudson Highlands and prevented the British from dividing New England from the middle and southern colonies. The site encompasses hallowed ground with possibly hundreds of American and French soldiers, inflicted with injuries, battle wounds and diseases such as small pox, interred in unmarked graves.
Fishkill 250 Years Ago
Today’s Village of Fishkill is located within the Town of Fishkill in the southwest corner of New York’s Dutchess County. As of the 2010 census, the population is 2,171 residents.
The village is situated about three miles east of the Hudson River. Scouted and selected early in the war as a natural protective location for the Continental Army’s military supplies, the depot operated from the beginning (1775) until the end (1783) of the conflict. The secure position at the north end of the Hudson Highlands offered a direct route of communication with New England. Significant quantities of military stores were gathered from nearby counties and from those eastern states.
At the time of the war, the village consisted of about 50 houses. The nearby depot featured large barracks and huts, magazines and an armory, artillery placements, a hospital, a blacksmith shop, a prison, stables and storehouses. About 2,000 troops were stationed at this location at any one time. Some families accompanied the soldiers and settled in the area. The military installation actually became a small town with the addition of a wigmaker, baker, tent maker and wheelwright. One laborer, William Gardiner, is believed to have crafted wagon wheels commissioned by General Washington. Nearby Dutch and Episcopal churches served as additional military hospitals and prisons, and both churches hosted the meetings of a provincial congress.
Almost all traces of the Fishkill Supply Depot have been obliterated over recent time. Despite the area’s designation on the National Register of Historical Places, the large footprint of the depot that featured the barracks and parade grounds was covered by the Dutchess Mall during the early 1970s. The mall was demolished during 2006 yet several commercial buildings remain on the property. However, within the depot site and in its extended shadows, several structures—the Continental Army’s military headquarters, two churches and the remains of a tavern—still continue to stand as witnesses to almost 10 years of bustling war activity in the area.
Van Wyck Homestead
The Van Wyck Homestead, the only remaining structure from the depot, is owned by the Fishkill Historical Society. The representative property that now surrounds the structure traces its history to 1683, when New York City merchants Francis Rombout and Gulian Verplanck received a grant of 85,000 acres in Dutchess County and purchased the land from the Wappinger Indians. During 1732, Cornelius Van Wyck purchased 959 of these acres and built a three-room house that is the east wing of the homestead. The west wing was added before 1757 and the home has maintained its Dutch colonial construction.
When the war with Britain commenced, the homestead was requisitioned by the Continental Army as officers’ headquarters. General Israel Putnam established his command center. General Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Henry Knox, Horatio Gates, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay frequently conducted military business at the homestead. The home witnessed military trials, the outfitting of troops by the quartermaster department and the dispatch of orders.
Non-military activity at the home also served the glorious cause. Samuel Loudon, the publisher of the New York Packet, moved his press from British occupied New York City to the house, allowing him to continue to print his pro-liberty newspaper. Loudon’s press also was commissioned to print orders for the army.
The homestead possibly has a connection to an early American literary tale, writer James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel The Spy. The assumed model for the main character of the book, Enoch Crosby, was imprisoned in a nearby church and his mock trial was conducted in the house before he was permitted to escape following the issuance of secret orders.
Following the war, the house we reoccupied by the owners and it remained in the family for the next 150 years. Structures associated with the military gradually were razed as the area returned to its bucolic state close to the river.
Despite the significant military history within the greater Fishkill area and specifically in and around the Van Wyck Homestead, the house almost was lost during the 1960s. Interstate 84 was built immediately behind the home. Original blueprints for the highway included razing the house to install a cloverleaf for the new road. The roadwork propelled local residents to create The Fishkill Historical Society, with its patrons rallying to save the structure. Nearby, where the cloverleaf was relocated, archeologists discovered the remains of the depot’s blacksmith shop.
A short distance from the depot site—on the north side of Route 82 east of its intersection with All Angels Road in the hamlet of Hopewell Junction that is in East Fishkill—stands the remnants of an 18th-century house where patriots met during the war. Owned by Colonel Jacob Griffin, the private residence was known as Griffin’s Tavern, or “The Rendez-vous.” Among the high-ranking Continental Army officers to visit the property were Washington, Lafayette, Putnam and von Steuben.
An electrical fire that began in the attic during the January 1995 restoration left only the structure’s brick and stone walls. The property subsequently was purchased by Watch Hill Holding Company, which owns Royal Carting, a waste removal company that operates just steps away.
Preservationists led by Julie Diddell are concerned that the structure could be neglected or razed by the owners. According to Diddell, a plan has been created to preserve the site as a ruin in tribute to its role during the American Revolution. A plaque on the roadway was dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution during 1928.
Update April 8, 2020:
Operating in a stealth mode that included failure to communicate intentions with the local preservation organization, a bulldozer under the direction of Royal Carting Service Company and with permission from the Town of East Fishkill destroyed the remnants of the historic Griffin’s Tavern during early April. A plaque is all that remains at the historic site in the hamlet of Hopewell Junction.
“It’s hard to believe that the Town of East Fishkill issued a demolition permit to Royal Carting on March 10 and Royal waited until sometime between Friday, April 3, and Saturday, April 4, while we are engaged in a national emergency with the COVID-19 pandemic, to flatten the legendary tavern and the birthplace of liberty in East Fishkill,” commented a disappointed and angry Julie Diddell of the Friends of Griffin’s Tavern. “I sent a letter on March 9,” added Diddell, “asking to meet so I could show a wonderful and unique conceptual plan to preserve the site as an historic ruin.”
Buildings of worship on Main Street in Fishkill that were built prior to the war are located nearer to the Van Wyck Homestead.
Trinity Episcopal Church traces its founding to 1756. The original church building, constructed by October 1768, continues to offer services. The building was occupied by New York’s Third Provincial Congress during 1776. The congress recommended that New York’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress oppose independence. The church served as a military hospital for Washington’s army.
The Fishkill Reformed Church was organized during 1716 and the building was erected during 1725. This church also was occupied during 1776 by New York’s Third Provincial Congress. The delegates had abandoned Trinity Church when the lack of glass window panes in that structure allowed birds to fly about the building. The church also served as a prison. One of its occupants was the alleged double spy Enoch Crosby.
Depot Preservation Battle
Within the last few years, a new battle has emerged over the remaining 20 acres of open space within the National Register-designated site for the Fishkill Supply Depot. The conflict pits preservation against development and it involves historians, preservationists, local government and a company that proposed building a retail development known as Continental Commons.
The Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot claim the development will destroy archaeological features and artifacts documented in studies of the remaining open space. They claim the land includes the military burial ground.
Originally, the specific location of the supply depot cemetery had been a mystery. While a memorial had been erected south of the Van Wyck homestead by the Daughters of the American Revolution and dedicated on October 14, 1897, the designation was relocated to the home’s property during subsequent road construction.
More recent studies by preservationists about the cemetery location possibly have misled people. The claim of a burial ground at the depot has been disputed with research while the preservationists don’t appear to acknowledge an important detail — military installations such as forts and depots, historically, interred personnel beyond a facility’s boundaries, especially if the deaths were associated with disease. A colonial cemetery about a mile east of the Fishkill Depot site possibly is more likely the final resting place for Americans who died at the installation.
Ongoing verbal and written sparring, including accusations of deceit, have been traded between the developer and preservationists. Court hearings have been held and a solution remains unsettled as of early 2020.
Preservations have outlined several goals for the hallowed ground:
- Prevent further disturbance and development of the properties within the 70-acre Fishkill Supply Depot site.
- Pursue support for the remaining undeveloped property to be purchased by a private organization, the town, New York State, or the federal government.
- Develop a plan to preserve, restore and maintain the depot as a Revolutionary War historic site as the country moves toward the Semiquincentennial (or Quarter Millennial) of the American Revolution.
These battles to save the properties within the Fishkill Supply Depot and the remnants of Giffin’s Tavern remain fluid. Updates about the issues can be obtained by accessing the records of town hearings, locating media articles and from the information disseminated by the organizations that support preservation of the depot and the tavern.