LIfe Atop the Bluffs, Cliffs of Fort Lee
From the Archives: A brief history of the Palisades cliffs in Fort Lee.
The Palisades cliffs of Fort Lee are referenced in many of these archive pieces. Often I use as a point of reference the fact that we denizens of Fort Lee reside perched atop these very cliffs.
These ancient cliffs define us as a borough. Carol Ortlip, a Fort Lee native and a member of the famed Ortlip family of artists of Fort Lee, wrote a book some years ago titled We Became Like A Hand: A Story of Five Sisters.
Carol brought a new meaning to growing up on these cliffs, as she wrote about her family life atop the cliffs near Old Palisades Road, the present day site of several high-rises, including The Century.
She captured life as a child here in Fort Lee on these very cliffs and though she and her sisters fanned out across America as adults they all retain these very Fort Lee cliffs, not only in memory, but also in shards of the Palisades caught in their hands as children, still linking them to the cliffs of home today.
Former Mayor Henry Hoebel once telephoned me to meet him at Coytesville Park (formerly Sixth Street Park). We both were members of the Fort Lee Historical Society, and Henry knew my love for Fort Lee history so he wanted to pass on some knowledge of said history.
As I met Henry at the park, he started to point out the rock formations visible between the swings and the monkey bars. This playground housed part of Fort Lee’s Palisades. Henry pointed to the grooves in the Palisades rock and told me these were the effects of the glacial action and movement of the ice – the grooves actually indicate the direction of the ice. So our Fort Lee Palisades date to the Jurassic Period through the Ice Age.
Native Americans knew the beauty of these cliffs long before Henry Hudson’s sail up the Hudson on September 12, 1609. According to the wonderful book The Palisades of the Hudson by Arthur C. Mack, the Sanhikan, Hackensack, Raritan and Tappan tribes belonging to the great Delaware Nation, found our cliffs and shore below excellent hunting, fishing and dwelling places.
Slowly, early white settlers displaced the Native Americans. Dutch farmhouses replaced the tents, and soon settlements appeared atop the ridge of the cliffs. Eventually, prior to the American Revolution, Etienne Burdett, a Manhattan merchant, built his home in a gorge intersecting the Palisades below Fort Lee Bluff, the present day site of the Fort Lee Historic Park and the Edgewater Colony.
This would become Burdett’s Ferry, which carried passengers and goods to Manhattan. During 1776 with the creation of Fort Lee by General George Washington, Burdett’s Ferry offered the only communication between Fort Lee and Fort Washington on the opposite shore of the Hudson. Etienne Burdett’s brother, Peter, inherited the place, and he was a patriot whose wife, according to legend, cooked flapjacks for General Washington.
The natural beauty of the Palisades saw the development of the area as a resort in the late 19th century, and The Fort Lee Hotel, which was also known as The Octagon House, was built near the landing. Ferry service from New York brought guests across the river to this luxurious, 60-room resort, which had gas lighting, picnic grounds, a roller-skating rink and outdoor shows.
The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1898 and never rebuilt. At this time, the ferry service at Burdett’s Landing was in use for the stone quarries that were blowing up the Palisades. This rock was used in New York to pave streets. However this use was short-lived due to the creation of the Palisade Interstate Park and the preservation of the Palisades in 1900, marking the end of Burdett’s Landing as 20th century ferry service operated further down river in Edgewater.
The nascent film industry came to Fort Lee as early as 1907, and the first studio in the area was built in 1910. By 1917, there were several studios in Fort Lee as it became the first American film town. One of the assets Fort Lee offered as the first American film town were the cliffs of the Palisades. One of the most popular stars of this early era of American filmmaking was movie serial queen Pearl White, who saw fame in The Perils of Pauline.
Pearl can be seen in the logo of the Fort Lee Film Commission, which includes the iconic image of her atop Cliffhanger Point in Fort Lee as captured in a still from the 1918 movie serial The House of Hate.
We are learning more and more about the many artists who came to Fort Lee primarily to capture images of the Hudson River and the cliffs. Artists such as John Sloan and George Overbury “Pop” Hart worked in Fort Lee and in many instances began to live in the community, creating an artist colony that carried over from the 19th into the 20th century.
One major change in the landscape of our cliffs was the building of the George Washington Bridge in the 1920s and early 30s. Once opened in October of 1931, this iconic span has, in a way, added to the beauty of our cliffs. On a recent Thanksgiving Day hike atop the cliffs just north of the GWB, I captured an image of the bridge through the bare November tree branches of the bluff that showed both the beauty of the bridge and the bluff.
We are so very fortunate in Fort Lee to have the Palisades Interstate Park preserve these cliffs and the land below down to the Hudson shore. Since the preservation of these cliffs dating back to the turn of the last century, we have enjoyed their beauty.
One goal of this article is to inform Fort Lee residents that the borough doesn’t end at lower Main Street and Hudson Terrace. Please venture across Hudson Terrace and enter the Fort Lee Historic Park and walk along the wooded trails as they lead you back to 1776. Or travel a bit north of the George Washington Bridge and follow a path that will lead you to the foundation and rubble of what was once the swankiest nightclub in America, The Riviera, which stood in two locations on the Palisades of Fort Lee.
The first location is reached by walking over the pedestrian footbridge in Coytesville over the Palisade Interstate Parkway. This was the home of the first Riviera (formerly the Villa Richard Restaurant) from 1930 through a fire in late 1936. The second Rivera was built and opened in 1937 and stood on the cliffs just north of the George Washington Bridge.
These cliffs and bluffs sometimes remind me of the classic film Wuthering Heights. When the wind is right, and if you listen closely enough, you may hear the sounds of the Native American tribes hunting or the footsteps of soldiers and the musket fire of 1776.
Should the wind blow in another direction atop the cliffs, you might, if your lucky, hear Frank Sinatra singing the theme from the film From Here to Eternity as he makes his sold out comeback performance at Fort Lee’s Riviera Nightclub in September of 1953.
All of this is free to you; just pull on your hiking boots and walk across Hudson Terrace because as you do, you will be walking in the footsteps of our history.