Columbia County History: The Greendale Ferry

SAY THE WORD “FERRY” to many New York State residents and for large numbers of them, even upstaters, the Staten Island Ferry will come to mind. But until a few years after 1935, for many thousands of people on both sides of the Hudson near Catskill, the word brought to mind the Greendale Ferry, which operated for about 200 years until about 1937.

The 1935 opening of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge began a new era in crossing the Hudson River, soon putting the Greendale ferry out of business. In its heyday, the ferry had battled the tides, wind, rain, storms, fog, snow and ice while attempting to provide comfort and safety to its passengers and cargo. Protected from competition within a mile by the State Legislature, the ferry, coupled with an inn and eventually a railroad stop, had been a lucrative endeavor.

The ferry crossing had been located for generations near the hamlet of Greendale, just south of Olana. One of its earliest mentions in historical records was in 1788, when Henry Van Gordon leased it (and provided a license for a tavern called Oak Hill) to John B. Hollenbeck for two pounds, ten schillings.

The ferry called the A.F. Beach in its slip in Greendale, a once thriving community in the Town of Greenport. Photo contributed

The ferry boat was, for many years, a heavy scow, moved by a pair of long oars, and aided by a rudimentary sail. A third oar, broad-bladed, was used for steering. Later, on-board horses on treadmills (as many as three horses), turned side paddle wheels to power the ferries. By 1854, steam power replaced the horses, speeding up the travel and increasing reliability.

In order to avoid turning the ferry around in the Catskill Creek on the western side, the area now called Catskill Point was created from an island by filling in the marshes and building first a trestle, and then docks.

Greendale was not only a river crossing point. It became a busy and impressive stop on the New York Central Railroad. Starting in 1845, the entry into the tourism trade of Charles L. Beach and his family, caused the number of visitors to soar. Ready transportation became the key to their success as proprietors not only of stagecoach lines, steamship freight lines and ferry boats but of the beautiful 3,000-acre Catskill Mountain House resort. Thousands of visitors arrived by train at the Greendale station to be ferried across the river and swept off to the glories of the prestigious resort via a Beach enterprises stagecoach line. Additional mountain hotels were built in the years before the Civil War, adding to the popularity and economic prosperity of the area. In 1892, the Beaches created a sensation with construction of the Otis Elevating Railway drawing even more guests to the Catskill Mountain House.

Greendale itself had grown to be a busy little community, with a raft of attractive railroad buildings, a post office, a tavern, a hotel, elementary school, general store with gasoline pumps, Reformed church, and multiple dwellings.

Ferry service was perhaps a pleasant experience on a sunny summer day but not necessarily so when the weather turned foul. In addition, once the Hudson River froze, the ferry stopped running until the ice broke up. The boat was moved out from the docks to prevent hull damage and anchored further out in the river. Columbia County archives contain many accounts of persons walking or sledding to cross the river on the ice when the ferry was not running.

The last and most famous of the Greendale ferryboats, the A. F. Beach, was in service for over 50 years. The “A.F. Beach” had been built in 1878 in Athens, NY, by Van Loan and Magee shipbuilders, specifically for the Greendale crossing. With a crew of five, modified in later years, she could carry up to 14 automobiles. She had closely scheduled crossings of about 49 round trips per day at 10 cents per passenger, 40 cents per car and driver, and discounts available for frequent travel.

Beach family enterprises began to feel financial stress with changing times and the death of Charles Beach in 1894 at the age of 94. The A. F. Beach, its ferry slips and business, were sold and continued in operation, passing through several hands by the end of World War I. The thriving enterprises in Greendale were greatly diminished, the Post Office having been closed in 1910. By 1919, the Village of Catskill had purchased the ferry operation for $15,000 to continue it as a municipal service. With the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, the ferry traffic dramatically diminished and the Village voted to discontinue the service and sell the A.F. Beach. Sold after a last trip on September 30, 1936, the new owner salvaged her engines. By December, she had burned and sunk in her slip, her hull later being raised and converted to a scow. The New York Central closed the Greendale railway station through which thousands of passengers had passed, which helped to all but erase the story of the Greendale ferry.

To contact Jo von Bierberstein, president of the Greenport Historical Society, email .

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