I had hoped this column would include photos that reflect the sunshine of summer, as this coming Memorial Day weekend is the informal opening shot of the summer season of 2012.
I ventured to the bluffs atop Fort Lee’s Palisades this week and was greeted with very gloomy and wet weather. Somehow this weather led me to a story about the steps of Fort Lee that led generations of Fort Lee kids to many glorious summers on the Hudson River for over 100 years.
How does one get to the hidden staircase along the cliff face? This trip is worthy of any story you can read in Weird NJ magazine. Forget the GPS; this location is hidden even from modern day mapping technology.
The trip to the Thousand Steps starts on Hudson Terrace in Fort Lee – proceed north to the Palisades Interstate Park behind Fort Lee High School – then climb the stairway on Hudson Terrace up to the Palisades Interstate Parkway and take the footbridge east over the Parkway to the Palisades. Once across, turn right and follow a short trail to the famed and aptly named "Thousand Steps of Fort Lee."
This is the traditional avenue generations of northern Fort Lee/Coytesville residents took to get to the Hudson River below. As you slowly descend these ancient steps, you walk through gothic tunnels and through wonderful natural woods. The history of these steps dates back to the time when the then newly formed Palisades Interstate Park acquired the Hazard property in 1902.
The name Hazard came from the Hazard Powder Company, an explosives manufacturer that in the 1890s operated a dock for delivery and storage of high explosives for the massive Carpenter Brothers’ Quarry nearby.
This information appears on the Palisades Interstate Park website. The Thousand Steps were then built to allow people from Fort Lee, Englewood and Tenafly access to the river below. Of course you can take your vehicle to this location. Just park at Ross Dock and walk south along the trail toward the George Washington Bridge. This stairway is formally called Carpenter’s Trail, and you can use this link for in-depth hiking info on this area:
I was of a generation of Coytesville kids of the late 1960s and early 70s – all of us who lived on the narrow streets atop the Palisades in this northernmost section of Fort Lee spent much of our time exploring these cliffs and areas along the Hudson River.
Many a summer day saw us carry our crab nets and our lunch as we climbed down the steps to the river below where we sat on rocks on the remnants of the Hudson River beaches and whiled away the summer hours of our youth. Perhaps our generation was the last in Fort Lee connected directly to the Palisades and the Hudson below. It seems that the ensuing years have cut off the kids of Fort Lee from the cliffs, the bluffs and the river below – and most adults for that matter, form this part of Fort Lee that stills exists in all its glory.
The Fort Lee Historical Society and the Fort Lee Historic Committee work closely with the Palisades Interstate Park and their Historical Interpreter Eric Nelsen, and we hope this work will lead to a reconnection of this land and this heritage to the residents of Fort Lee today. Fort Lee is a riverfront community and our riverfront is preserved in its natural state by the Palisades Interstate Park.
Once you find the steps atop the Palisades in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, you slowly begin your descent - take a camera if you can for you will want to snap some shots of this beautiful natural setting.
About halfway down the cliffs, the steps will lead to two wonderfully gothic tunnels that run below the roadway of the Henry Hudson Drive. As kids, we would run through these tunnels and imagine that they led to Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. We fully believed that as we exited the tunnels we would be greeted by the Frankenstein Monster himself!
These gothic tunnels of Fort Lee will transport you to another time, and the only reminder of the present day will be the occasional image of the George Washington Bridge that will peek through the leafs of the many trees along the path.
The base of the stairs lead to the walkway along the river. Turn right and you will walk to the George Washington Bridge, and you can continue all the way to the end of the trail near the Edgewater Colony, where you can take another staircase up to River Road.
Or you can turn left at the base of the Thousand Steps and walk to Ross Dock that has a wonderful picnic and barbecue area with amazing vistas of the New York City skyline, the Hudson and the George Washington Bridge. The cliffs of the Palisades loom over Ross Dock in Zeus-like splendor, and if you happen to be there as thunderclouds loom overhead, it becomes a magical spot.
So as our summer of 2012 commences in Fort Lee, take yourself to another place and another time, and all you have to do is follow Fort Lee’s own yellow brick road - the Thousand Steps.