Growing up in the North Jersey suburbs in the 1960s, I never thought of my family as makers of American history. But looking back on our weekend trips to Bear Mountain and the banks of the Hudson River, I realize that we participated in an important chapter of the 20th century: the flowering of the Palisades Interstate Park as a place for swimming, picnicking, hiking, skiing, and education. The rich have always had their wilderness resorts, but places like Bear Mountain gave ordinary people a place of their own in the great outdoors. It’s a lesson worth recalling as population growth and sprawl redefine the New York metropolitan area and proper funding for parks can be hard to find. It’s also a history that’s recounted in the current New-York Historical Society exhibition Hudson Rising.
I grew up in a family where, to paraphrase the author Norman Maclean, there was no clear line between the outdoors life and religion. My father was the son of working-class Russian Jewish immigrants, but hours of reading Jack London stories in public libraries primed him to seek wider horizons. My mom, whose ancestors included Dutch settlers, chafed at the restrictions her transit worker father put on her as a young girl. It seemed entirely appropriate when they met after World War II in the Hudson River canoeing scene.
My father, an ardent New Deal Democrat, was quick to credit the best in regional state parks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In fact, the groundwork for their pleasure grounds was laid long before the New Deal by 19th-century women’s clubs who fought to protect the Palisades from quarry operators and by some the richest men in America—among them J.P. Morgan, the Rockefellers and the Harriman family. Mixing civic altruism and the desire to preserve the beauty of their own backyards, they purchased or donated land in New Jersey and New York that became—with public contributions—the core of the Palisades Interstate Park.
But it was the New Deal, as the historian Neil Maher points out, that dramatically expanded the park’s facilities for working-class people and inculcated a generous vision of environmentalism that embraced both the preservation of natural resources and the expansion of outdoor recreation. Even when New Deal conservation programs ended, their animating ideals persisted because they fit comfortably with what the journalist George Packer calls “the Roosevelt Republic,” a vision of America that valued publicly supported prosperity, health, education and recreation.
Extending the full benefits of the Roosevelt Republic to African Americans and Latinx Americans remains the United States’ unfinished work. But at its best, the Roosevelt vision inspired demands for justice and inclusion that endured long after FDR’s death in 1945. In the Empire State, it was endorsed by Republican and Democratic governors alike and bore fruit in Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks. The Anthony Wayne Recreation Area—a large complex of pools, picnic grounds and parking lots in Bear Mountain—opened in 1955. In 1962 in Harriman State Park, a swimming beach, campground, and picnic area opened at Lake Welch. These areas, made possible by private donations and public works, preserved the belief that the wealthy and government officials alike had a responsibility to maintain parks for everyone, regardless of their economic status.
Born into this world in 1955, I took for granted the value and permanence of public parks. On weekends, when my father put down his tool bag, and my mother stepped away from her typewriter at a local courthouse, the Palisades Interstate Park gave us opportunities for recreation and adventure. Picnics in the deep shade of the forests at the foot of the Palisades were the easiest way for my family to beat the summer heat. I thrilled to watch ski jumpers at Bear Mountain, skied for the first time at Silvermine Lake, and took my first backpacking trip without adult supervision on the trails between Lake Tiorati and Silvermine Lake. And canoe trips on the Hudson River with my father, launched from beaches at Alpine and Englewood in New Jersey, introduced me to a lifetime of paddling.
Into the 1980s, this world seemed as familiar and enduring as the soaring heights of the Palisades. But I began to notice changes—and not all of them were for the good. Silvermine ski area closed in 1986. Ski jumping at Bear Mountain also ceased. The enormous Anthony Wayne swimming pool, where I summoned the courage to jump off a high dive, was shuttered; only its picnic grounds and parking lots remain. More recently, the picnic area and beach at Lake Sebago has been closed indefinitely. The Undercliff picnic area, nestled between the Palisades and the Hudson River, remains one of my favorite picnic spots, but when I go there, I have to look closely to make sure that my picnic table has two functioning benches.
To be sure, the story of the Palisades Interstate Park is more than a tale of decay. Major environmental victories were won when Minnewaska State Park and Sterling Forest were added to the park system. The subtitle of Palisades, a history of the Palisades Interstate Park by Robert O. Binneweis, former executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, sums up an admirable history: 100,000 acres in 100 Years. Today, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission presides over nearly 125,000 acres, and in 2018, the parks welcomed about 6.5 million visitors, more than celebrated national parks Yosemite or Yellowstone.
Despite the hard work of volunteers and staff, the parks supervised by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission suffer from uneven and erratic levels of support, rising during election years, then dropping in off years to a point that makes even routine maintenance difficult. Politicians, Binneweis argues, boast when new parks are added, but “left in the wake of the creation of each new park and historic site are the professional managers struggling to make the case for continuing financial support once the excitement is over.”
The Palisades Interstate Park would benefit from a revival of the kind of vision, energy, and generosity that animated its founders. In the meantime, the public keeps faith with an inclusive and democratic vision of outdoor recreation. People may drive to the park on roads that need repaving, use restrooms that need a new coat of paint, and speak different languages than the ones I heard at Bear Mountain decades ago—but when they take to the trails or gather around a picnic table, they remind me of my parents and my sister and me. And they deserve no less from our parks than our family has found.
To learn more about the history of the Palisades, check out New-York Historical’s immersive exhibition Hudson Rising, on view through August 4.
Written by Robert W. Snyder, professor of Journalism and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark
Kathleen LaFrank, “Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks” in Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse: Syracuse university Press, 2005)
Robert O. Binnewies, Palisades: 100,00 Acres in 100 Years (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001)
Daniel Bluestone, Buildings, Landscapes and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011)
Neil M. Maher, “Playing Politics at Bear Mountain: Franklin Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and State Park Design During the New Deal Era,” in Ethan Carr, Shaun Eyring, and Richard Guy Wilson, eds., Public Nature: Scenery, History, and Park Design (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013)
Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
George Packer, “Decline and fall: how American society unravelled,” The Guardian, June 19, 2013.
Ronnie Clark Coffey, Harriman State Park (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 101, 98.
Barbara H. Gottlock and Wesley Gottlock, New York’s Palisades Interstate Park (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007)