Poughkeepsie’s Historic Waterfront: 1670-1900

By Miller Dauk, Geography & Science, Technology, and Society Majors, Class of 2024.

Waryas Park, Upper Landing Park, and Kaal Rock Park all have legacies embedded into their landscapes. Poughkeepsie’s historic waterfront has undergone centuries of changes, but how did it begin? The contemporary Poughkeepsie waterfront is drastically different from that of five or ten years ago, let alone a century or more. It is important to connect the past to the present, acknowledging the different shapes and functions that Poughkeepsie’s Waterfront has taken historically. In this essay, I review the waterfront’s early beginnings and evolution from approximately 1670 to 1900. 

The patterns of indigenous settlements in and around Poughkeepsie remain unclear, although the Wappinger people were known to inhabit nearby areas. Other Algonquin-speaking communities from the Mahican, Lenape, and Munsee nations also historically resided in the Hudson Valley area. Near the Wynakee Creek waterfall, a group of people known as “Pooghkepesimgh,” affiliated with the Wappinger and the Lenape nation, left traces of their existence in the form of a marked footpath adorned with distinctive landmarks like springs and the Wynakee Creek. The Wappinger’s decision to settle near the Poughkepesignh Falls was likely influenced by the abundant fishing and hunting opportunities offered by the river and stream, complemented by the protective terrain of the neighboring hills.

During the 17th century, the Dutch Colony of New Netherland gained prominence, establishing settlements along the Hudson River, which they deemed promising for trade. Their focus revolved around the river mouth, a northern port, and various landings on the western shoreline, known today as New York City, Albany, and Kingston. By the late 17th century, European interest had turned toward Poughkeepsie.

The industry’s roots can be traced back to the surroundings of Wynakee Creek’s waterfalls, following the early settlements by the Wappinger people. The first colonial transaction concerning Poughkeepsie’s waterfront occurred on May 5, 1683, when Massany, a Wappinger native, transferred land control to Dutch settlers Peter Lansingh and Jan Smeedes. Subsequently, the growth of the Poughkeepsie settlement expanded along the Hudson River, with Myndert Harmense and Robert Sanders obtaining a land patent in 1687 for the area surrounding Fall Kill Creek and the Hudson River, soon known as Upper Landing. Their generous support of materials and labor for prospective settlers, coupled with the establishment of a mill by 1699, led to increased activity and the transformation of Upper Landing into a pivotal hub for travelers and traders, significantly boosting Poughkeepsie’s economic activity.

During this phase of economic progress, the continued presence of the Wappinger tribe was overlooked as European settlers arrived in Poughkeepsie, leading to conflicts and compromises over land. In 1710, Leonard Lewis acquired Upper Landing, where he established a stone house and mill, serving as gathering places for the townsfolk and potentially as unofficial meeting locations in the absence of an official town hall.

Following Lewis’s passing in 1730, the property underwent several transitions over the next twenty-five years before falling into the hands of Martin Hoffman, a local entrepreneur. Hoffman’s ownership ushered in a period of thriving waterfront development in Poughkeepsie during the 18th century, marked by the rise of various industries and the affluent businessmen leading them. When Hoffman assumed control in 1755, he initiated the construction of a dock at Upper Landing, not only to facilitate the mill’s operations but also to attract ships for port services. Additionally, Hoffman oversaw the construction of several residential and commercial structures on the property, complementing the mill and docks.

Poughkeepsie Village, 1858 (Old Maps)

In 1772, John Schenck Jr., an officer of the Continental Army, purchased the Upper Landing docks. Under his ownership, the area evolved into a pivotal supply depot for the Hudson Valley and Poughkeepsie. Subsequently, Walter Livingston assumed control in 1778, expanding the premises by constructing the Hoffman House and additional offices. The property transitioned to Robert Livingston almost 20 years later. It’s worth noting that, as slaveholders, the Livingstons extensively employed slave labor to expand their infrastructure, including the construction and maintenance of docks and stores. This reliance on slave labor fortified their enduring influence and prominence in Poughkeepsie.

Later, in 1795, George Everson obtained a deed to the land, taking charge of operations at the dock, shipyard, and one of Poughkeepsie’s earliest general stores. The Union Store and Landing, presently known as Kaal Rock Park, played a crucial role in facilitating the exchange of goods and services for travelers arriving by boat, promoting the export of crops and lumber. Additionally, Union Street, originally named Union Store Road, served as the original termination point of the docks. The roads extending to Kaal Rock served as a strategic lookout, enabling individuals to scan the horizon for any signs of British ships during the Revolutionary War. 

Shipyards and freighting became at its height in Poughkeepsie at the beginning of the 19th century, inciting a lot more changes to the landscape. The docks at Union Street and Upper Landing were highly trafficked and well-used. The shipbuilding industry was taking off, especially when the Continental Navy Shipyard was designated in Poughkeepsie during the Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress selected the city to construct two frigates, the Congress and Montgomery, in 1775. Then, to defend against further British advances up the Hudson River, additional fire raft, galley, and gunboat construction was allocated to Poughkeepsie. This intensive construction initiative not only attracted new residents but also drew the attention of leaders involved in the war effort, consequently adding new names to the burgeoning list of influential industrialists in Poughkeepsie.

In 1800, Robert Livingston transferred ownership of Upper Landing to Martin, Isaac, and Robert Hoffman, who were relatives of the earlier-mentioned Martin Hoffman. Building upon the legacy of their predecessors, the Hoffmans persisted in expanding their operations on the site. Operating their sloop, which ferried both goods and passengers to New York City, the Hoffmans played a significant role in initiating the movement of people, marking one of the pioneering ventures in the city that spurred subsequent passenger ship enterprises. Around 1816, James Reynolds and Aaron Innis assumed control of the business area and docks at Upper Landing. This period witnessed competition between the docks, similar factories, and between freight and passenger vessels.

To the south of Upper Landing and Union Store, there was William Davies’s store and docks. These facilities were established during Upper Landing’s flourishing period, as featured in the 1799 map of Poughkeepsie. The store and docks that encompassed Davies’s enterprise set the stage for this dock to eventually become the most prominent part of the waterfront. The site formerly occupied by Davies is now the present-day location of Waryas Park. As Main Street extended down to the docks in 1800, Davies’s dock started to be referred to as Main Street Dock. While the freighting industry remained primarily situated in Upper Landing, Main Street Dock evolved to serve the sectors of steamboats, brewing, and passenger transportation.

Poughkeepsie waterfront mid-19th century,
Main Street dock in the foreground (Historical Waterfront Marker)

The arrival of steamboats in Poughkeepsie in 1814 marked a significant milestone as the city became the first steamboat terminal between New York City and Albany. This progress encouraged more interaction between Hudson Valley settlements. The steamboat industry quickly gained momentum, finding a home at Main Street Dock. As the dock’s importance for local industries continued to grow, it caught the attention of Matthew Vassar and his company.

Matthew Vassar assumed control of his family’s brewing business in 1812, and two decades later, in 1834, he entered into a partnership with his two nephews. In 1836, they established a new complex just north of Main Dock along the waterfront. This location became the epicenter of the Vassar Brewing Company’s success, eventually growing to become the largest brewery in the country. In his newfound success, Matthew Vassar then became one of the local industrialists to spearhead whaling industry projects in Poughkeepsie. For a short three years, the Poughkeepsie Whaling Company and Dutchess Whaling Company sailed out on endeavors to bring back whale oil. It was lucrative but went under soon after it started. 

Matthew Vassar and his fellow investors succeeded in building a regional railroad. Initially planning an East-West route in 1832, they shifted focus to a North-South line. Concerns arose among riverfront businesses regarding the Hudson Line, now operated by Metro North, as they feared a decline in water-based commerce. Matthew Vassar played a pivotal role in ensuring the North-South line ran close to the Hudson River and waterfront industries. Following the introduction of the rail line to Poughkeepsie, many industries arose along the waterfront, such as Sherman and Innis’ Dye Wood Factory, the Chichester Chair factory, Bushnell Blast Furnace and Poughkeepsie Iron Works, Ice House, hotels, Adriance Platt and Co., the Vassar Brewery, the Railroad Bridge, and Poughkeepsie Glassworks. Each of these became prominent in the late nineteenth century.  

Poughkeepsie has grown and changed around the waterfront, industry, commerce, and the people who have occupied the site. This essay, offering a glimpse of the distant past, is the first installment of a three-part series on Poughkeepsie’s waterfront. The second part covers the early 1900s through the impacts of Urban Renewal after World War II. The third installment will examine contemporary changes and new plans for the revitalization of the waterfront. 

Getting there: 

The Poughkeepsie waterfront area spans several miles along the Hudson River. To visit the historic places mentioned above, there is a walking path from Waryas Park that runs north to Upper Landing Park and the Walkway Over the Hudson, where an elevator climbs to the top. The waterfront path is disjointed south of Warays Park due to Kaal Rock, but from there moving south there is another walking path. 

As for public transportation, the Poughkeepsie Train Station services MetroNorth and Amtrak. Additionally, the Dutchess County bus service stops at the Poughkeepsie Transit Hub (outside the train station). 

For drivers, from either the East-West Arterial or the Mid-Hudson Bridge one can navigate to Route 9 . Upon exiting Route 9,  drivers can be directed to Kaal Rock Park, Waryas Park, Upper Landing Park, and the Walkway Over the Hudson through a series of smaller streets. 

To Learn More: 

Diaz, M. (n.d.). A Short History of Poughkeepsie’s Upper Landing, last accessed Dec. 1, 2023. 

Flad, H., Tate, A., & Rubbo, J. (n.d.). A Natural Resources Inventory for the City of Poughkeepsie, Chapter 7: “Historical Resources,” accessed 28 November 2023.

Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). Preservation as a tool for social inclusion in Poughkeepsie, NY. Spring 2017 HP Studio II, accessed 28 November 2023.

Gurganus, R. Shipyard Point Historical Marker. The Historical Marker Database. 11 June 2022), accessed 28 November 2012. 

Mariner, C. (2019, September 30). Poughkeepsie Waterfront Historical Marker. Historical Marker Database, last accessed 28 November 2023. 

Poughkeepsie Public Library District. (2021). A History of the Poughkeepsie Waterfront: The First 200 Years [Video], last accessed 28 November 2023. 

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