Assorted Ideas

Ghost Town Hike: An Empty Suburb of New York City

Doodletown, suburban ghost town, tucked so deep in an abandoned valley, we found it only by accident. It’s perfect as a hiking destination and a place worth discovering for several reasons.

The day we stumbled on Doodletown, I rented a Hertz for the easy drive across the Hudson and into Rockland County. “Stumbled on” might be the wrong term.

We spotted the ghost town’s remains just an hour outside the city while sharing lunch at the top of Dunderberg Mountain. It was such a sight from up there, deep in a valley, it begged for an explanation. Like, why was there a ghost town so close to New York City?

Climbing Dunderberg Mountain

Doodletown_orientation_sign

The hike up Dunderberg Mountain was eerie, all by itself. An abandoned, half-finished railway climbs the hill, in fits and starts, parallel to the trail.

And there was a shrill buzz growing louder as we climbed higher, following blue blazes toward the rocky crest of “Thunder” Mountain.

An alarm triggered by someone stealing our rental car?

My New York City paranoia influenced guess haunted me until we crossed paths with an experienced hiker.

“No, it’s the 17-year cicadas,” he told us, and I kept my mouth shut. I hadn’t a clue about what “17-year cicadas” were. Back in the city, a Google search educated me about these peculiar insects.

After the cicadas, the most interesting features on Dunderberg Mountain were traces from an incline railroad. Never completed, left behind from an early 20th Century spa project that ran out of cash.

There are still well-defined rail beds and spooky entrances to tunnels going nowhere.

Doodletown, a Suburban Ghost Town On Top of Dunderberg Mountain

When we stopped for sandwiches we carried up from Manhattan at a clearing near the peak. Just ahead, the blue blazes looped back down, and the views spread down across the valley along the Hudson.

Other peaks framed a rib-like sequence inside Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks. Between us and the next, my wife discovered, flipping through our guidebook, were the remains of Doodletown.

Fifty years ago, New York ordered its last residents out.

Doodletown’s Birth and Death

Doodletown’s history goes back to  before the Revolution. Most think its name came from the Dutch words for “Dead Valley,” an ironic title and strangely predictive.

For two-hundred years, descendents of pioneering French Huguenots lived in Doodletown. Redcoats marched through to attack American rebels during the War.

Winters harsh with cold and snow passed without much change until early in the Twentieth Century. That’s when the authorities first bought up the hamlet, planning it as part of a new state park.

In 1965, New York finally sacrificed Doodletown for skiing. They evicted the last residents through eminent domain, the tool of choice for confiscating private property.

Wasted, Doodletown becomes a suburban ghost town

The ski trails were never built, but it was too late for Doodletown.

The church, the school and the homes were uninhabited. Almost all the buildings knocked down or hauled away. Only the lingering stencils of roads and what nature had not reclaimed from the left behind foundations remained.

A school stood as a shelter for hikers until vandals ruined it.

Doodletown’s claim as a suburban ghost town is not entirely accurate.

The Parks Commission allowed the graveyards untouched, and former residents and their relatives visit at will.

In this odd sort of way,  Doodletown’s not quite a town of ghosts, but they’re nearby.

The Doodletown Trail

Our interest in a trip back out to Rockland County was strong, and after some research, we thought of Doodletown as irresistible.

Doodletown book image 2
Abandoned in Doodletown

Paved roads lead to a reservoir built after the demise of Doodletown, but we wanted the feel the original pioneers had.

We drove to the trailhead in Bear Mountain State Park and found the blazes that signal the start of the three mile trek into the hills.

New York State developed Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks, and both are crisscrossed with serpentine hiking trails. Many are rich with history, used by settlers and soldiers for centuries.

The Doodletown Trail isn’t as heavily forested, rising along ridges where tougher grasses remain.

We weren’t lonely, surprisingly.

The hike is not difficult or long, but it’s scenic, especially in autumn. And we soon joined a handful of others sharing the walk through a managed area around the small reservoir.

A cluster of large and small vehicles parked nearby, having taken a road we missed as we followed the unpaved trail.

More about the vehicles later, but for now, we quickly accepted the call of curiosity. We started up what’s left of the artery into, through and out of Doodletown.

Doodletown, Suburban Ghost Town Skeletons

The Parks Commission left visible reminders of the little village that once was, home to many as 700 residents.

The old road is not much different from any trail through the Bear Mountain woods. It’s wider and, for most of us, infused with curiosity about (and a little sadness for) lost families and homes.

Here, you sense the literal truth of never going home, not even for a nostalgic drive by.

Doodletown is a few foundations, driveways and staircases, but not much else.

The Doodletown you hike through feels evacuated in a hurry. There were rattlesnakes and copperheads to watch out for.

With impressions all along the road of spaces once occupied by families in close contact, you get a sense of community where members felt at home for over 200 years.

Many descended from the first settlers.

Sets of stairs that provided a grand entrance softened through many autumns rest in empty spaces. A foundation filled with water, once someone’s cellar used for storing preserved foods for a long winter.

The road is a straightaway in the place that once was the center of Doodletown, but it curves abruptly with the slope of the hill as you walk out of the old village.

The lasting impression of Doodletown

Doodletown became more strange and lonely by how much — and how little — they left behind when plans for more ski trails died on the planning boards.

You get no sense of ski trails, started or finished, but a nagging sense of sorrow, knowing the history.

We live in a society coolly governed by laws and community planning and oversight.

While the Parks Commission now posts signs and welcomes visitors along the trails that pass the ghost town, there is no indication of regret or any implication that “We really screwed up here.”

Families with deep roots were displaced and lives irrevocably changed for what turned out to be no good reason or no reason sound enough to have resulted in better than a handful of foundations in want of surface structures and unpaved roads.

The People at the Reservoir

The people at the reservoir?

There are plenty of old, no longer used mines in the area, including one owned by Thomas Edison, but neither the mines nor Doodletown seemed to have coaxed the gathering of a couple dozen beyond their campers and vans.

When one of the nosier hikers arriving around the time we did decided to figure out what the group was about, we discovered these were some of the last living residents of what became their personal ghost town.

They came here every year, they said, to reminisce and to visit the cemetery one of them pointed out in a nearby grove.

“We loved growing up here,” a woman sighed, glancing over toward the trail we’d hiked.

What a place that must’ve been, I thought, a place that drew them back fifty years later where only no more than 5% of the structures survive the rigors of nature’s retaking.

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