Yesterday was such a glorious day – November 6 and over 75 degrees! – that we decided to take what may be one of our last kayaks of the season. The moon was almost full and the tide was almost high, so we felt confident that we could get all the way up to the old Underhill Mill without getting our feet wet.
What, you say? A mill on the lower Croton River? What sort of a mill? When did it operate? What did it mill? And WHERE IS IT??
Now, at one time, just after the American Revolution, the Croton River was a site of industry, far different from today’s glistening, bucolic paradise. There may in fact have been more than one mill operating along the Croton.
In 1792, brothers Robert, Abraham and Joshua Underhill bought a tract of land bordering the Croton River from Pierre Van Cortlandt. (Yes, the Pierre Van Cortlandt of today’s Van Cortlandt Manor that hosts the wildly popular Great Jack O-Lantern Blaze every fall.)
Now in 1947, Robert Underhill’s great-grandson Frederick Underhill wrote a fairly exhaustive article in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Westchester County Historical Society outlining the history of this mill. In it, he states that the Underhill brothers developed, then owned and operated a flour and grist mill on the banks of the Croton River for over fifty years. He even provides the deed information for the 1792 sale of the land by Pierre Van Cortlandt (Liber L, p. 216)!
Underhill notes that while his ancestors did mill locally grown wheat, they primarily relied on wheat brought in by boat. According to family lore, none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt personally captained many of these boats up the Hudson and Croton Rivers. These shallow-drafting, two-masted, flat-bottomed schooners were called “periaugers,” and before 1841, the Croton River was deep enough to permit such boats access.
A Periauger (Source: http://www.freetraderscooperative.com)
Here’s a small advertisement from the 1836 Long-Island Star indicating that Joshua Underhill & Sons was still in the wheat business, purchasing the commodity for “10s. 6d” per pound – British currency-speak for 10 shillings, 6 pence. (The old ways died hard, and the newly-minted Americans were still using the British names for their coins decades after the Revolution.)
Source: The Long-Island Star (Brooklyn, New York) · 22 Feb 1836, Newspapers.com
The flour produced was called “Underhill’s Croton Mills Superfine Flour” and must have enjoyed high marks for its quality because after the Underhill Brothers ceased production, George Hecker took over the “Croton Mills” trademark for his flour, a flour you can still buy today (although, sadly, without the Croton Mills appellation.)
Source: The Library of Congress, https://lccn.loc.gov/2018696487
Source: My baking cabinet
According to Frederick Underhill, the Underhill flour and grist mill was a casualty of the January 1841 dam collapse, when the original, earthen Croton Dam was washed away by “a great water and ice flood,” (Underhill 40) destroying the mill and just about every house downriver. Perhaps more significantly, this great flood filled Croton Bay with enormous amounts of silt and debris, making it impassable for all but the smallest, lightest skiffs. No more could Vanderbilt and his ilk pilot their periaugers filled with grain up the Croton. To this day, all that can paddle up the Croton are kayaks and stand up paddle boards, and even those must time the tide just right.
Today, you can still see ruins of the mill – this arch, near Fireman’s Island, is the remains of the old brick-lined mill race:
And here you can see an iron bolt affixed to a boulder where periaugers are said to have tied up:
And here’s a view upriver of the still-intact stone foundation of a mill building:
And finally, here are the signs that tell you this is all off limits:
I feel I must note that some of the above information is contradicted in this 2015 blog post.
This post states that the Underhill brothers had stopped their milling operations “when their lease with the Van Cortlandt’s ended acrimoniously in 1813.” Further, there was an earlier flood in March 1818 where the “merchant mills owned by General Cortlandt” were heavily damaged. According to this post, there was not only a flour/grist mill then, but also a sawmill – useful for making the barrels needed to transport the flour, I imagine. And by the 1841 flood, iron was being processed at this mill site instead of wheat.
It is of course possible that there were several mills operating along the Croton River in the 19th century. And we do know that Robert Underhill purchased much of Croton Point in 1804, relocating there to develop the land, so he likely was no longer actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the nearby mill.
But I’ll leave it up to you to decide which story you like better.
“A Croton River Disaster – 197 Years Ago Today.” Croton – Histories & Mysteries, March 10, 2015, https://crotonhistory.org/2015/03/10/a-croton-river-disaster-197-years-ago-today/
“From Pounds to Dollars – Money During the Revolution.” March 2013, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/03/from-pounds-to-dollars-money-during-the-revolution/
Underhill, Frederick. “The Underhill Mill on the Croton.” Quarterly Bulletin, Westchester County Historical Society, Vol 23, July – Oct. 1947, pp. 40 – 47
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