The view: The Helderbergs attracted European pioneers in the 1700s and wealthy Albanians in the 1800s

The Helderbergs form a purple contrast to the brilliant green of the Orchard Creek golf course.

The Helderberg escarpment is a singular natural landmark. This is the first of a two-part series examining how views of — and from — this landmark have shaped our development and how this asset continues to provide unique definition to the communities that share the Helderberg viewshed.

Before anything was built, there was the setting. And there were the views. Before the bucolic farms, before the fancy gingerbread trim added to ornate Victorian homes, before the gazebos and the steeples and the spires on the station, there were the views. And the views inspired all that followed.

Native Americans and early settlers understood that the Helderberg landscape was unlike any other: More unique than the rolling monotony of New England, more lush than the sparse, sandy scrubland found elsewhere in Albany County, more grand than the table-like flatness of southern Saratoga. This setting was dramatically different — majestic, but inviting.

A large palisade rising from the valley floor formed the backdrop. A natural wall of limestone, called an escarpment, was exposed and layered, as if a giant had built a colossal version of one of the many stone farm walls that came to criss-cross the landscape.

The great mountainous spine that started in the Carolinas and which hemmed in all of America’s East Coast, ended here, in dramatic and beautiful fashion at Altamont’s High Point. Here was an opening to the West, the only one for hundreds of miles.

Millions of emigrants would eventually pour through the northern part of that opening via the Mohawk River and later the Erie Canal to build and populate the farms and cities of the West. But earlier travelers, including native Americans, first used a primitive foot trail over the escarpment, surmounting the last barrier by climbing a strategically placed tree that was known as the “Indian Ladder.”


Laura Shore painted the escarpment from Dunnsville Road.


The first white settlers who, in the 1700s, ventured west on horse or ox, used a nearby trail that began its climb over the hill at present-day Altamont. They started at Albany and, with their backs to the Hudson River, they aimed for High Point. Like modern-day tourists, they followed the view.

They called it Helleberg which in low Dutch means “clear mountain.” For the entire journey, through sandy plains and pine forests, it loomed there in front of them, guiding their way west.

After a rugged climb up modern-day Helderberg Avenue, the view that had beckoned them, became views that beguiled them. Turning back towards the Hudson there spread before them a vista unlike anything they had ever seen. Spanning from the Adirondacks on the north, through the Green Mountains, the Berkshires and the Taconics to the south, was a natural panorama that encompassed four of our present-day states.

Time spent enjoying this sublime view was momentary for most early travelers as they pressed on to new homesteads in Schoharie and beyond. But others, perhaps finding the setting too enticing to leave, decided to stay put.

Beginning around 1740, a small community of German- and Dutch-speaking settlers took root there at the Helderberg. Some settled up top on a long slope nestled beneath High Point. They cleared farmsteads in the vicinity of today’s Leesome Lane, using the land’s primary crop to construct their sturdy fieldstone houses.

Most settled below the Helderberg in a sweeping arc from Settles Hill to the north to the Black Creek marshes to the south. These early Dutch and German settlers were practical but they were also sentimental, romantic folk. Their homes and even their churches and cemeteries were situated to capitalize on the gorgeous physical setting.

The Dutch Reformed built first, placing their log church in the bend of the Black Creek. Later the Lutherans placed their house of worship at the top of Besser’s Hill with a full panorama of the Helderberg serving as a dramatic backdrop. The Lutheran Cemetery was placed nearby and it still carries the apt name of Fair View.

The picturesque setting sheltered the small Dutch community in isolation for the better part of the century. Nearby Albany was becoming a cosmopolitan seat of British power but, at the Helderberg, the people were low Dutch; they spoke Dutch, built Dutch houses and barns, and lived by Dutch ways and customs.

The quaint habits and superstitions of these rural Dutch folk were later made legend via the stories of novelist Washington Irving. Likewise the dramatic settings and landscapes that sheltered them inspired the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who set the opening of his epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” here, in the nearby Vale of Tawasentha.

The quaint old-fashioned ways of the Helderberg Dutch ultimately gave way when, after the Revolution, waves of enterprising New England Yankees swarmed over Albany County and the rest of upstate New York.

Less sentimental than the Dutch, these hard-charging men of business were nevertheless drawn to the stunning setting and views of the Helderberg. Typical was Benjamin Knower, a native of Boston, who had made a fortune manufacturing hats and as a bank director and financier of the Erie Canal.

In the early 1800s, Knower built an imposing summer home under the escarpment near the Bozenkill Creek. The community that grew up around Knower’s estate took the name Knowersville and it was thus known until the name was changed to Altamont later in the century.

In addition to his business interests, Knower was also New York State treasurer and an important member of the first Albany Regency, a group of Albany Democrats who came to control New York and national politics under the direction of their leader, President Martin Van Buren.

Benjamin Knower was the first, but by no means the last, prominent political leader who would be drawn to make a home at the Helderberg.


In 1936, Congressman Peter Ten Eyck’s orchard at Indian Ladder Farms was newly planted. A.J. Stein’s photograph appears in Arthur Gregg’s “Old Helleburgh.”


Enterprise file photo
Albany Mayor John Boyd Thacher built a grand country home near High Point.


Country retreat for rich, powerful

The arrival of the railroad in the 1860s enabled more people to experience the charms of the Helderberg. In a nationally published article in Harper’s Weekly in 1869, noted author Verplanck Colvin explained the allure: “It is its romantic wooded rock scenery, dark caverns and sprayey waterfalls, its varied landscape and accessible mountain grandeur that render the Helderberg interesting to artist, author, poet, tourist or rusticator.”

This was the era of the “country place,” when wealthy Americans who had made fortunes in the cities built enclaves of seasonal mansions at pastoral locations that featured scenic beauty and proximity to urban centers. As in England, the American upper classes came to identify the ability to socialize together in beautiful natural settings as a true mark of wealth and gentility.

According to author Mark Hewitt, most of the new country places were used “as retreats for short sojourns form the city but sometimes became primary residences when patrons became attached to the picturesque environs.”

The rich and powerful of Albany soon became attached to the picturesque environs of the Helderberg. At the time Albany was a leading industrial and financial center. Of course, it was the political capital of what was then America’s largest, wealthiest, and most powerful state. Like their counterparts in Boston and Philadelphia, the industrial and political elite of Albany wanted a break from the city and looked for a suitable place to develop their own fashionable country enclave.

The area around Altamont fit the bill. It was just a short train ride from downtown Albany but, when it came to landscape, natural environment and scenic beauty, Altamont was a world apart.

Soon a new clique of financial and political leaders was drawn to the Helderberg. While Benjamin Knower had chosen to build his home in the valley looking up, these new power brokers chose to take advantage of the views from above where they could look down at the city and region that they controlled. The newcomers proceeded to construct massive Queen Anne and Colonial Revival “cottages” on the bucolic slope beneath High Point, where the first settlers had erected their stone farmhouses a century earlier.

At the center of this developing enclave was Hardscrabble Farm, a nearly 200-acre tract with prime top-of-hill views that also included an historic stone farmhouse surrounded by dramatic gorges and waterfalls. Despite its rustic name, Hardscrabble was a gentleman’s farm.

It belonged to William Denison Strevell, the local Democratic leader. Strevell, who commuted to Albany by train each day, was a member of the so-called Second Albany Regency, a group of influential businessmen, publishers and politicians who, like Benjamin Knower a generation before, exercised immense influence over state and national politics.

Strevell was a great Helderberg booster. When his associates expressed a desire for a place in the county, he induced a number of them to build in the area immediately surrounding Hardscrabble Farm.

The first to build was James Wasson, son of one of the founders of American Express. Wasson selected a site with the very best views and there constructed his country home, which he called Mira-Vista, Spanish for “see the view.”

Next came Judge Rufus Peckham. He built “Coolmore,” a large Victorian estate and surrounded it with a model farm.

Lucy Rochefort Cassidy, the widow of the publisher of the Argus, Albany’s primary Democratic newspaper, selected a cottage site immediately to the south. She later was instrumental in convincing President Grover Cleveland to rename the area “Altamont,” literally meaning “high mountain.” President Cleveland was no doubt happy to oblige as he owed his rapid rise in politics — from being the mayor of Buffalo to the presidency in just two years — to the patronage and power of the Albany Regency.

The Regency was increasingly making the Helderberg its de facto summer headquarters and Altamont became the Hyannis Port or Mar-a-Lago of its day, a pleasure spot teeming with the rich and powerful.

In explaining the area’s unique appeal, the Albany Sunday Press noted: “The many Albanians who have summer residences at this delightful village are loud in their praises of the pure air, pure water and picturesque scenery afforded and the excellent facilities of travel to and from the city … Altamont ozone seems to have one property peculiar to itself. It is said to engender an unquenchable desire to talk politics. At any rate all one hears on the morning and evening trains to and from the city is politics — politics of every shade and each shade red hot.”

President Cleveland himself is said to have visited Altamont on several occasions; so did a rising Republican star named Theodore Roosevelt. Mrs. Cassidy’s business partner, Albany’s James Manning, visited Altamont when he wasn’t running the nation’s financial system as secretary of the treasury.

Altamont’s Judge Peckham was a close ally of the president and was rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the United States Supreme Court. Peckham served on the high court for more than 15 years until his death at his Altamont estate.

Altamont’s renown as a picturesque retreat for men of power increased significantly in 1886 with the opening of the Kushaqua — a rambling, shingle-style resort hotel, encircled by waterfalls, at the brow of the Hill. The Kushaqua was built and run Colonel Walter Church, a member of Albany’s famed Schuyler family who had increased his fortune and his prominence when he purchased all the remaining leases held by the van Rensselaer estate. Church was a member of the Regency and was in fact the leading financier of the state’s Democratic Party.

Colonel Church sunk much of his fortune into the construction of the Kushaqua. “I don’t know but what I have gone in too strong,” Church was quoted in The Enterprise regarding his investment in the grand structure. “But I guess I can make it a go,” he added.

While political intrigue and gossiping on the 90-foot-long porch was a hallmark of the Kushaqua, it was the setting and the views in particular that brought the guests and filled the rooms. There was no lake to enjoy, no sea in which to bathe.

Here the guests came to simply take the view. In fact, the centerpiece of the hotel was a large, four-story viewing platform, enclosed and attached to the main structure, where guests could take in the panoramic views.

Visitors came from throughout the East Coast for a few days, a week, or the entire season. The increased economic activity stimulated the growth of supporting resorts at nearby Warners Lake and Thompsons Lake. The view had become an economic engine for the greater Helderberg region.

Meanwhile, below the Hill, the small picturesque village boomed. Hotels, homes, churches, commercial buildings, and public uses sprang up overnight, giving the place a cohesiveness of design and style that it enjoys to this day.

Views from below the escarpment became prized and valued as well. Prime parcels below the Hill were purchased and converted by Albany’s elite as gentlemen’s farms or smaller summer retreats. Banker Thomas Van Antwerp built on Maple Avenue and banker Charles McElroy, nephew of President Chester Alan Arthur, built on Euclid Avenue.

Albany developer George Coonley erected a beautiful model Queen Anne villa on a large tract bordering the Bozenkill, with the intention of selling a number of “villa lots.” However, his children were so taken with the house and setting that they convinced him to move into the house and keep the entire tract as a private family retreat.

Further out of the village, renowned illustrator Victor Anderson, whose work graced the covers of Saturday Evening Post, converted an old farmhouse on the Voorheesville Road into a charming retreat and studio. Albany physician Daniel Cook and Congressman Peter Ten Eyck each maintained country homes amid commercial apple orchards they developed with the Helderberg escarpment forming a stunning natural backdrop.

As the century drew to a close, Altamont continued to attract people of means who desired to be closer to nature and in the company of other powerful people. The Kushequa changed hands after 1900 and was reopened as the Helderberg Inn.

Interest in developing country estates — especially among Albany’s political elite — intensified. The inn, which added a nine-hole golf course to take advantage of the views, continued as the center of social activity. In time, the Helderberg Inn was ringed by more grand “cottages” as well as by more restrained shingle-style retreats constructed in the newly fashionable Arts and Craft style.

Congressman and distiller William Tracey, attorney Willam Bayard van Rensselaer, Judge Lewis Parker, publisher Luther Tucker, industrialist Charles Pruyn and District Attorney Rufus Burlingame all created fashionable country estates on the Hill during this period.

Preserving landscape

Foremost amongst this new wave of Altamont country squires was Albany Mayor John Boyd Thacher. Thacher purchased and substantially enlarged an estate that sat directly south of the Helderberg Inn and which encompassed several dramatic gorges that dropped to the village below.

In addition to serving as mayor, state senator, and a World’s Fair commissioner, Thacher was an historian and a naturalist. He fell in love with the dramatic setting of his new country home and became concerned that the landscape and the iconic views could be forever marred by haphazard development.

There being no planning or zoning ordinances at the time, Thacher began to buy up large tracts of farmland between his property and the Indian Ladder to ensure that the landscape and viewshed would be protected.

By this time, the Helderberg viewshed had attracted the interest of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, a national organization created in 1895 as public consciousness about nature, conservation, and preservation first began to stir.

The society had been instrumental in the protection of natural gorges at Watkins Glen and Letchworth Park and had played a role in protecting the Palisades along the lower Hudson from unsympathetic development.

At the Helderberg, stakeholders feared that, as farmers increasingly gave up their struggle to wrest a living from the marginal, overworked soils, their lands would overgrow or, worse, be converted to uses that detracted from the iconic Helderberg views.

After Mayor Thacher’s death, his widow worked with the state and with the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society on a plan to combine the lands that Thacher had protected along with new purchases to create a state park, forever protecting the lands in the immediate area of the Indian Ladder.

The Thacher Plan succeeded in protecting the Indian Ladder landscape. The creation of John Boyd Thacher State Park also enabled thousands of New Yorkers, who did not have the means to build a summer estate or to stay at a fancy inn to nevertheless experience and enjoy the stunning views from the top of the escarpment.

At the same time, the small colony of business and political leaders who had developed country houses on the Helderberg were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their properties and their lifestyle. In 1914, the year that Mrs. Thacher donated the Indian Ladder lands, the national income tax was introduced and the Internal Revenue Service was created.

The discretionary income of wealthy Americans took a massive and sudden hit. Tax rates approached 80 percent with America’s entry into the First World War and domestic workers, needed to staff the large houses, became scarce and prohibitively expensive.

Maintaining a place in the country became a luxury very few could continue to afford. The Helderberg Inn closed its doors for good in 1917 and, one by one, the grand cottages were either boarded up, became full-time residences for families of lesser means, or were converted to schools or institutional uses.

Fortunately, because of poor soils, poor water, and sometimes challenging winter access, development pressures on the Hill that could have negatively impacted the landscapes or views have been minimal.

Along the main view corridors near High Point only a few single-family homes have been added in the last 75 years. More recently, the erection of large communications towers in the vicinity have caused some consternation, while at the same time proposals to develop solar farms in the historic viewshed have been rejected.

Today the viewshed and landscape on top of the hill are, for the most part, largely as they were when Mayor Thacher with foresight, acted to preserve them.

Beneath the Hill, the landscape changed more dramatically and iconic Helderberg viewsheds faced more significant threats. With its resort and Summer Colony days largely behind it. Altamont was nevertheless able to retain enough unique character to remain a desired place to live.

Surrounding farmlands that once provided a completely open tableau from which to view the escarpment, have largely been given over to residential development or have reverted to second growth of brush and trees. The result has significantly reduced and narrowed the iconic views of the escarpment from Route 146, the views that first led settlers to the clear mountain so many years ago.

Fortunately, some key landscapes and valued viewsheds on Route 156 (Altamont-Voorheesville Road) and Route 397 (Dunnsville Road) remain to be enjoyed, by virtue of the open space maintained by sympathetic orchard and golf-course development.

Indian Ladder Farms and Altamont Orchards, each developed over 100 years ago by prominent Albanians, were originally operated as model livestock and dairy operations. They were later converted to large-scale orchards. In that state, these locations continue to afford the public the opportunity to view and experience the Helderberg escarpment largely as it was seen and experienced by Native Americans, the Dutch, and earlier generations.

In Part Two of this series, the author will examine more fully the present role that iconic Helderberg views play in the aesthetic and economic lives of our communities, along with discussion of the various measures taken by local towns and other stakeholders to protect and preserve this unique natural asset.

Jeff Perlee is an Altamont native who currently represents the region in the Albany County Legislature.

More Letters to the Editor

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.