July 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Lost History of the Beaches of the Hudson River

Over the past few months I have been exploring the Palisades Interstate Park. It’s mind boggling to me that this gem of a natural area, also chock full of so much history, has been within five miles of my home for my entire life! I also think it’s really something that it took a pandemic and economic downturn for us all to turn inward and really explore our local surroundings. To begin with, the development of this area is tied to another famous pandemic and economic downturn, the 1918 flu epidemic and the Great Depression. It’s almost like it’s right out of a historical fiction novel, juxtaposing a modern world with a historical one (Hey, maybe I should write this book! It sounds good!). I’ve done a lot of internet research on random websites since visiting these sites in an attempt to understand the history of this amazing area.

When we were at Bloomer’s Beach over Sukkot I came across this sign, and this is when it really sunk in what a gem of a piece of lost history this is. This is when I began doing research and uncovered all of this information.

As I already alluded to, the beaches of the Hudson River started to become popular in the 1920s, when people did not have the means to travel far for summer escapes. At that time, which was before the construction of the George Washington Bridge, the beaches were mostly accessed via the Dyckman Ferry. Also remember that during this period the New Jersey suburbs were not densely populated like they are today, so crowds flocked in from New York more than from New Jersey.

The Hudson River swimming beaches of the early 20th century were Alpine, Undercliff, Hazard’s and Bloomer’s beaches. Ross Dock was another option, though it was a private campground beach, as I will delve into later. Each beach area had a large sandy area next to the water, a bathhouse with changing rooms and showers, and a concession stand (the concession stands were built later on, in the 1930s). The beaches also had swimming fountains next to the bath houses. These really were fun destinations (my kids would have LOVED these places)!

In 1933, the Hudson River beaches started charging admission for the first time, 10 cents a person for anyone over 12, in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from Dyckman Ferry since the GWB opened in 1931. This decision to start charging admission was probably the beginning of the end of the beaches. In 1933, almost 100,000 people paid this admission fee to use the beaches, but by 1936, this number dropped to 60,000. By 1938, the beach at Hazard’s was closed. Numbers continued to dwindle as the Dyckman Ferry stopped running and the economy improved, probably leading to people traveling further to use beaches. Municipal pools also opened at this time in Manhattan. In 194,1 only Bloomer’s and Alpine were still open. In 1943, Bloomer’s closed, and in 1944, it was decided that all the Hudson River beaches should be closed due to “river pollution caused by war conditions.” The war effort produced massive amounts of industrial waste, which was finally the bitter end of summers relaxing on the sand at the Hudson River.

Now onto the fascinating history of Ross Dock!

Ross Dock, the beach closest to the GWB, has a very different history than the rest of the Hudson River Beaches. Unlike the other beaches, Ross Dock was never a public swimming beach. It actually started out as a quarry to excavate stones from the Palisades cliff. In 1880, Sanford Ross of Newark, New Jersey purchased the area and developed this quarry. By 1917, he sold it to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which removed the quarry equipment and transformed it into a dock, for use as a “camp colony.” The idea of a camp colony was so foreign to me that I had to read several descriptions to really grasp what it was. In the 1920s, the Ross Dock camp colony opened for business. “Big canvas tents were set up on wooden platforms, and the Commission rented them out by the week. By 1922, the Commission issued over a thousand permits a year for families to make Ross Dock their summer vacation spot.” (From the Palisades Interstate Park website.) In 1927, Ross Dock was rented by the Port Authority to house workers from the GWB construction project, and during this time there were no camp colony rentals. The bridge was completed by 1931, when public rentals resumed. In 1932, the year pictured above, “Seven hundred and thirty-one permits for camping at Ross Dock were issued … It is estimated that 2,924 persons enjoyed this privilege for periods ranging in length from one week to the entire camping season, May 15th to October 1st. Ross Dock Camp is equipped with many conveniences such as city water, hot and cold showers, sanitary sewerage, street layout, trees and shrubs, a rustic cabin housing the resident camp manager and camp store. The entire area, including private bathing beach, is enclosed by strong wire fence, thus excluding the general public.” (This is from a Park Commission report from 1932.)

The Palisades Interstate Park Commission shared an amazing email that was sent to them in 2013 from a man who spent his childhood summers at Ross Dock:

I am now 85 years old, but remember the years, prior to World War Two, when our family, along with many, many others, paid $3.00 a month to erect and maintain tent sites at Ross [Dock], on the Jersey side of the Hudson. … At the end of the season, after Labor Day, we would drop the canvas tops down on the wooden side walls, lash them down securely, and leave till the next year, to again enjoy the facilities. …

There was a log-cabin store where the campers could purchase non-perishables, candy, etc. My favorite was Cracker Jack—if I was ever fortunate enough to get 5 cents to spend.

By 1936, attendance started to drop, however, and the Park Commission decided to replace the canvas tents with 30 three-room log cabins.

Of course, like the other beaches, the popularity of Ross Dock began to dwindle due to the cessation of the Dyckman Ferry, as well as improving economic conditions and worsening river pollution from the war. By 1942, the campgrounds were closed to the public. In 1944, the cabins were dismantled and the area was repurposed as a picnic area, which is what it continues to be today.

I hope this survey of our local history provides more meaning to you as you too explore our local treasures!

Abby Cooper is a mother of five amazing kids and lives in Bergenfield.

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