The day we stumbled on Doodletown, the suburban ghost town, I rented a Hertz that let us to our hiking range outside New York City, across the Hudson and into Rockland County. “Stumbled on” might be the wrong term. We spotted the remains just an hour outside the city while sharing lunch at the top of Dunderberg Mountain. We had to find out more.
Climbing Dunderberg Mountain
The hike up Dunderberg Mountain was strange and not only because of the elaborate, aban
doned railway climbing the hill in picturesque fits and starts.
A dense, shrill buzzing followed, intensity increasing as we climbed higher, following the blue blazes toward the rocky crest.
I kept wondering if it was an alarm triggered by someone trying to steal our rental car, a New York City paranoia influenced guess, and it wasn’t until we crossed paths with an experienced hiker that we learned that the 17 year cicadas were in town.
Probably the most unforgettable feature up on Dunderberg Mountain, a place rich with hiking trails and history, are the traces of an incline railroad, never completed, leftover from an early 20th Centyry project that ran out of cash.
There are rail beds, clearly unnatural in the environment and, most exciting, entrances to tunnels that never go anywhere, all this out in a wooded setting that, even before Doodletown, contributed a ghostly ambience.
When we stopped to eat sandwiches carried up from Manhattan in a clearing near the peak, about where the blue blazes started the loop back down, the views were as breathtaking as promised.
There were other peaks across from us over the rib-like sequence valleys in the area set aside for Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks, and embedded in one, as my wife discovered, flipping through our guidebook, was the ghostly skeleton of Doodletown, fifty years after the last residents were ordered out.
Doodletown’s Birth and Demise
Doodletown’s history stretches back to before the Revolutionary War, and the consensus is that its name derived from the Dutch words for Dead Valley, an ironically appropriate future title and strangely predictive.
For two-hundred years, descendents of the original French Huguenots who pioneered Doodletown remained. British soldiers marched through on the way to attack American rebels during the Revolutionary War, and winters of deep cold and deeper snow passed without much change until early in the Twentieth Century when the authorities started buying up the hamlet with the intention of expanding state parks.
Finally, in 1965, having made the wise decision that Doodletown ought to be sacrificed to provide greater skiing opportunities, the government evicted the last residents through eminent domain proceedings, more often the tool of choice for confiscating urban spaces.
The ski trails were never built, but before that became clear, it was too late for Doodletown.
The church, the school and the homes had been abandoned, almost all the buildings knocked down or removed, and only the lingering stencils of roads and what nature had not reclaimed from the left behind foundations remained.
A school was left standing to shelter hikers until vandalism ruined it.
Its claim to being a ghost town is not entirely accurate because the Parks Commission allowed the graveyards to stay where they were, and former residents and their relatives are still allowed to be buried there.
In this odd sort of way, Doodletown’s not quite a ghost town.
The Doodletown Trail
The inspiration for a trip back out to Rockland County was strong. From what we’d read, Doodletown was irresistible.
There are maintained roads to a reservoir built nearby after the demise of Doodletown, but we wanted to get close to the feel the original pioneers had.
So, we drove only as far as the trailhead in Bear Mountain State Park and found the blazes that signal the start of the three mile trek into the hills and the snug valley in which Doodletown’s remains are settled.
The mountainous area where the New York State developed Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks is crisscrossed with serpentine hiking trails, many of them rich with history from having been used by settlers and soldiers as far back as before the Revolution.
The Doodletown Trail isn’t quite as heavily forested as some as it rises slowly along ridges where tougher grasses find it easiest to survive.
We weren’t lonely.
The hike is neither difficult nor long, and we soon found ourselves and a handful of others with whom we shared the walk entering a managed area around a small reservoir.
It was a little strange too as there was a small cluster of large and small vehicles parked nearby, having taken the road we hadn’t seen as we followed the unpaved trail.
More about the vehicles later, but for now, we quickly accepted the call of curiosity and started up what remained of a road that once carried the main traffic into, through and out of Doodletown.
The surprising thing is how much the Parks Commission left to mark the little village that once was, home to many as 700 residents.
The old road is now not much different from any trail through the Bear Mountain woods, except wider and, for most of us passing, infused with curiosity about (and a little sadness for) the people who lived here.
I shared a sense with them about the literal truth of never being able to go home again, not even for a nostalgic drive by the place where I grew up. Half of the little town where I grew up has been overwhelmed by a developer of junkyards. Not even the maples where we tapped for sap in our front yard remains.
Doodletown has a few foundations, driveways and staircases, but not much else.
The Doodletown you hike through has the feel of a place evacuated in a hurry, maybe because of the rattlesnakes and copperheads that were a hazard.
With impressions all along the road of spaces once occupied by families in close contact, you get a sense of community member that felt at home over its 200 years. Many were descended from the first settlers.
Sets of stairs that provided a grand entrance are softened from multiple autumns as they as they arrive at an empty space. A foundation is 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.
Doodletown is a place made strange and lonely by how much — and how little — was left behind when plans to build more ski trails were abandoned.
You get no sense of ski trails, started or finished, but a nagging sense of sorrow, knowing the history.
We live in a society 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.