Hudson Valley Chronicles

Your digest of history, anecdotes and images of our beautiful Hudson Valley

Chris Letts – Master Storyteller of the Hudson

I was privileged to attend this talk given by the legendary Chris Letts at the Croton Point Park Nature Center on Saturday, November 19, 2022.

The day was chilly and the wind was brisk, despite the roaring fire around which we were all gathered.  

For those of us lucky enough to be there, it was a magical afternoon.  

Chris is a spellbinding storyteller.  Listening to him, I had an inkling of what it must have been like to be sitting on a fishing boat on the Hudson, waiting for the tide to change and listening to tall tales and swapping fish stories to pass the time. Back when fishing on the Hudson was still a lucrative endeavor. 

The throughline of his stories was, as the flyer says, tales of winter (and the warming fires he had enjoyed.)

His first story gave us great insight into the world of Hudson Valley fishermen.  To avoid detection (ahem!) they’d put out their nets at 2am.  Using no lights, for same reason, they’d just feel their way in the dark to get the nets in the water.  

The particular night he was telling us about, it was “blowing like stink,” and he and his fishing buddy, through a series of mishaps, ended up beaching on Mother’s Lap (today’s beach area all the way over to the side of Enoch’s Point.)  There, they managed to collect some driftwood and build a roaring fire to dry and warm themselves up enough to fix their engines and get back to Verplank, where Tucker Crawford ran the dock.

(Fun fact, this Tucker Crawford is the one and the same who caught this gigantic sturgeon back in those halcyon days of Hudson River fishing.)

Photo courtesy of Scott Craven

Chris’ next story was about the Tarrytown Lighthouse.  Until the Tappan Zee Bridge was built in 1953, the Tarrytown lighthouse was run by a series of lighthouse keepers.  Chris told us the story of Lauret LeClair, a pre-WWII lighthouse keeper, his wife and their three children. The kids went to school in Tarrytown, and were rowed to and from shore by their father every morning and afternoon.  But some days, the river was too choppy and their mother would stand on the top of the lighthouse waving a big white sheet.  That was their signal that they had to stay in town for the night (or three) and they’d head over to a friend’s house and stay over.  Daughter Marie told Chris that this family had 12 children, so they hardly noticed three others staying over.

But back in those days there was voluminous shipping up and down the river.  At the end of the season, as the boats made their last trip past the lighthouse, they would toot their horns, to be answered by the lighthouse keeper’s children who would rush to the top of the lighthouse to ring a bell in response. And they’d do the same in the spring when they came back again.

Photo courtesy of Scott Craven

After the bridge was built, the lighthouse stood empty until it started being used for school groups.  And none other than Chris Letts gave the tours of the lighthouse. (Lucky kids!)  One night he decided to sleep over in the lighthouse.  Built up a big fire in the stove, and roasted a chicken (“Oh, nothing tastes as good as a chicken roasted in a wood stove!”) while feeling like he was floating above the inky black river.

Chris also told us what it was like when the Hudson froze over.  It’s certainly not something we’ve seen this century, partly because the Coast Guard sends down its icebreakers to keep an open path for fuel barges nowadays.  But back in the day (not quite sure what day, but no matter) the ice was so thick from Nyack to Tarrytown that a seasonal ice highway of sorts was created – one lane for walkers, one for horses, one for sleds (or maybe cars?)

Oh, there were so many stories and as I write them out, I can see how this just isn’t doing him justice – you really have to hear him tell them. 

But one more icy story . . .

He talked about the ice making industry that thrived all along the Hudson. (See this link for more info on the Rockland Ice Company, located right across the river from Ossining.)  

But the most fascinating thing was the icehouses that dotted the Rockland side of the river long after ice making was no longer a viable industry.  These things were apparently the size of a Home Depot.  So big, in fact, that ship captains would navigate by them in the days before GPS and sonar.  They’d toot their horns and listen for the echoes from the icehouses that would tell them where they were on particularly foggy days when visibility was low.  

(That can’t possibly be true, can it?? But Chris wouldn’t lie . . .)

I’ll end this here, although he told so many other fascinating and entrancing stories!  If you should ever have the opportunity to hear him spin a tale, run don’t walk to get a seat.  You will be spellbound!

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