We love our local neighborhoods here at Helmke Industries, and we are also love our local history. So over the next few months we will be featuring some interesting historical information about some of our favorite neighborhoods like Nyack, Piermont, Sneden’s Landing, Rivervale, and Tappan. We will start with Alpine for our March entry. Enjoy reading!
Thank you to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission for the following:
From Colonial days through the first half of the nineteenth century, beyond its dense forests, the summit of the Palisades, with its rich but thin soil and acres of exposed bedrock, held little attraction to farmers or land speculators. Lumberjacks harvested the forests for firewood and building material, “pitching” logs to the river using natural chutes — “pitching places” — formed by crevasses in the cliffs.
Only a few dozen rugged individuals and families, most of them living on the economic margins, built homes on the summit early on. Among them was a community of free blacks led by former slave Jack Earnest, who founded a settlement known as “Skunk Hollow” near the state line in the early 1800s.
Learn more about Jack Earnest and Skunk Hollow in “Hidden on the Mountain.”
It wasn’t until around the time of the Civil War that the Palisades summit got “discovered” as a site for summer homes.
The first New York family to establish a “country seat” — a vacation home — on the Palisades was that of Joseph Lamb, founder of J. & R. Lamb Studios, one of the most prominent stained glass studios in the country. The Lamb family built “Falcon Lodge” near today’s Tenafly–Alpine border around 1860.
At around the same time, Col. Sweeting Miles established a big cereal mill at Alpine Landing. He chose “Pulpit Rock,” overlooking the mill, to build his elegant home. Charles Nordhoff, an author and newspaper editor, built an estate nearby (it’s said that it was Mrs. Nordhoff who first proposed the name “Alpine” for the area), as did J. Cleveland Cady, the architect who designed Nordhoff’s home (and who also designed the beautiful stone Community Church at the top of Closter Dock Road, still in use). On the Englewood cliffs, William and Catherine Dana, he an editor and publisher, she an author, built “Graycliffs.”
By the early 1870s a north-south road, called the Boulevard, was laid across the summit, and the Danas and others financed the construction of an opulent cliff-edge hotel in Englewood Cliffs. “The Palisades Mountain House” could accommodate around five hundred guests in fine luxury, and the owners built a spectacular carriage road to a steamboat landing on the river (the park would later modify this road to become Dyckman Hill Road). The Mountain House burned in 1884, but grand estates continued to be built along the Boulevard.
Learn more about the Palisades Mountain House in “Fire on the Mountain.”
Learn about one unique early estate in “Cliff Dale (Part I).”
Learn more about the Danas and their ward, William O. Allison, in “Allison’s Will.”
The creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in 1900 would at first have little effect on the estates. It was reasonably assumed that the Commission would confine its efforts to the riverfront.
Among the twentieth-century arrivals to what was to become known as “Millionaire’s Row” were Dr. Ernest Cadgene, a French chemist who operated silk mills in Paterson, and who built his estate in Englewood Cliffs, near today’s Rockefeller Lookout; Manuel Rionda, “the Sugar Baron,” who owned sugarcane plantations in Cuba, and who built the sprawling “Rio Vista,” largest of the Palisades estates, its manor house where Alpine Lookout is today (the wrought iron fencing still along the cliff edge there is from Rio Vista); his nephew, Manuel E. Rionda, who would be mayor of Alpine, and who built “Glen Goin” (named for his wife, Ellen Goin) on the old Nordhoff estate; John and Mable Ringling, of circus fame, who built “Gray Crag” farther north in Alpine — before moving to an even grander estate in Sarasota; John Clawson and Cora Timken Burnett, a scientist and an artist — and heiress to the vast Timken fortune — who designed a bizarre and secluded estate on an isolated section of cliff top in Alpine; George A. Zabriskie, a flour merchant and amateur historian, who built a new and grander “Cliff Dale” (his summer home!) on the former grounds of W. C. Baker’s estate of the same name; and the Oltmans, who built “Penlyn,” now our Park Headquarters.
While most of its activity indeed focused on the riverfront, on the summit in Englewood Cliffs, the Park Commission established a “tourist camp” for early motor campers…
… while on the stone precipices above the Fort Lee bathing beaches, early movie makers were busy cranking out classic silent “cliffhangers” …
Learn more about the Ringling estate in “Gray Crag,” and about the Burnetts and their unusual estate in “Stranger than Weird.”
Learn about George Zabriskie in “Cliff Dale (Part II)” — then raise a toast with him in “How to Mix a Zabriskie.”
Find out about the building that houses our Park Headquarters in “Penlyn” — and meet a woman who grew up there in “Footnote.”
Read about early movie-making on the Palisades in “Deconstructing ‘Cliffhanger’.”
In April 1929, on top of the Palisades in Alpine, a long delayed monument, in the shape of a miniature watchtower, was dedicated to the role the New Jersey Women’s Clubs had played in preserving the Palisades
Thank you to ghostlyhollow.com for the following:
The Devils Tower is one of the last things that you will expect when you travel to Alpine, NJ. While making your way to this historical landmark you find yourself passing many places such as NBC and Montammy Country Club. After making the turn onto “The Esplanade”(yes that is the street name) you’ll find yourself in Rio Vista, home to some of the largest houses you’ve ever seen, each equipped with a private pool and tennis court. After seeing these homes you continue straight until you come across one of the sight of a demonic, dark, tall tower right in the middle of the road. If your like us, your left asking yourself why, how, and what is this? The truth is that the tower has a much larger back story than you expect.
The area now known as Rio Vista was founded in the early 1900’s by Manuel Rionda, a wealthy southern plantation owner who made his money growing crops. After moving to the north, Manuel erected the tower itself for his wife so that she could obtain a beautiful view of the New York City skyline. Others state that the tower was created for religious purposes, possibly to later to be used a mausoleum for the family once they passed on. The tower was so complex that Manuel even had an underground tunnel which was connected from his home to the tower itself.
As the legend states, Manuels’ wife was enjoying her view up in the tower one evening when she spotted her husband having an affair with another woman. Becoming so distraught and overcome with anger and rage she leap to her death. Later that evening, having not heard from his wife, Manuel went looking for her. It was then that he found her and her mangled dead body. From that point forward, supernatural activity began to occur within the tower. People began to get pushed, noises could be heard, something about the tower wasn’t what its used to be. Manuel still overcome by the horror, believed that it was the spirit of his dead wife coming back to haunt him. As a result, Manuel closed down the tower, filled in the tunnel, and removed the elevator leading the top proclaiming, “Nobody will ever go up here again”.
Even though the tower itself was closed, strange activity still occurred and the legend of the tower spread through the local towns. The tower quickly became known as the “Devils Tower”. When Manuel himself passed away in the mid 1900’s, the town decided to demolish the tower, but after multiple construction workers fell to their death, the mission was aborted. These deaths only led to more believers in the horrific tale. As such, the tower is still standing today.
The tower itself is still claim to a variety of paranormal activity. Noises can be heard from inside of the chamber, and strange perfume smells come and go. If you listen closely you can still hear the wife screaming in agony as she finds out her husband is cheating. You can also hear the sound of construction workers falling to their death.
It is said that if you drive or walk backwards around the tower 3-6 times (depending on who you hear it from) Manuel’s wife will appear in front of you, or even worse- the devil. The most common experience told is when visitors arrive to look at the tower. If you look up into the windows of the tower you can sometimes see a shadowy figure, commonly thought to be Manuels wife standing their waiting for you to come visit her.
Thank you to JERRY CHESLOW of the New York Times for the following article: If You’re Thinking of Living In/ Alpine, N.J.; Lavish Homes in a Millionaire’s Borough
December 14, 1997
ALPINE is one of the few municipalities in New Jersey where residents do not complain about their property taxes. Because of high property values and a small number of school-age children, they pay 94 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, one of the lowest rates in the state.
That is one of the reasons the 6.4-square-mile Bergen County borough has become a magnet for millionaires who build sprawling mansions on lots of two acres or more.
Other reasons cited by Mayor Lawrence M. Manus for the borough’s popularity among the very rich are its excellent grade school, its location seven miles north of the George Washington Bridge and its minuscule population density of just 269 people per square mile, compared with a countywide density for Bergen County of 3,546.
Alpine has no apartment blocks, just one two-family house and only three commercial establishments — a restaurant, a gas station and a garden shop. Residents buy their groceries in supermarkets in neighboring Cresskill and Closter. The closest large shopping center is the Riverside Mall in Hackensack, five miles to the south.
Mail must be picked up from the post office and very few of the houses have numbers, a fact that often frustrates truck drivers who search for their destinations on nearly deserted streets, passing one heavily wooded, gated compound after another.
”We value our privacy here,” explained Dr. Hijung Pyun, a retired radiologist who moved to Alpine from neighboring Tenafly with his wife, Obkay, six years ago. ”That’s the major reason we moved here, although the low tax rate was also an attraction.”
Like many other residents of Alpine, the Pyuns are immigrants, having emigrated from Korea. The borough is also home to numerous Iranians, Iraqis, Israelis, Chinese and Japanese.
Dr. Pyun’s custom-built, 7,000-square-foot home in the prestigious Rio Vista neighborhood just west of Route 9W is small by the standards of Alpine, where a house of more than 20,000 square feet is currently under construction on eight acres.
Housing prices listed by the Multiple Listing Service start at $319,000 for a small, newly renovated 3-bedroom colonial on Main Street and climb steeply to $6.9 million for a 23-room mansion with two bowling lanes, an indoor racquetball court, a five-car garage and an elevator.
Last July, Worth Magazine ranked Alpine as the 17th wealthiest community in the United States. Based on real estate sales prices during 1995 and 1996, Worth said the median single-family home value was $795,000. But the Mayor said that those figures, and even the current M.L.S. statistics, were deceptively low. ”Many of our houses are not sold through the M.L.S.,” he explained. ”And smaller houses on decent-sized lots are often bought for a million dollars and then knocked down so that a larger home can be built on the land.”
According to Marlyn Friedberg, the broker/owner at Friedberg Properties & Associates, two-acre building lots in the Rio Vista neighborhood sell for up to $1.8 million, which is about 10 percent higher than last year’s prices.
The rising value of properties is a double-edged sword for some longtime residents, such as the 77-year-old president of the Alpine Historical Society, Robert J. Wilson. An eighth-generation Alpine resident who says that one of his ancestors fought under Lafayette in the Revolutionary War, Mr. Wilson grew up as a fisherman in a small house near the Hudson River. He now lives in a modest 40-year-old Cape Cod on Miles Street, but is under pressure to sell.
”Every week, I get letters from realtors offering to buy my house,” Mr. Wilson said. ”On the other hand, the low tax rate allows senior citizens to stay in their homes.”
At some points, the borough has a commanding view of the Hudson River from the cliffs of the Palisades, which appear on the first European map to include the New World. That map was drawn by Gerardus Mercator in 1541 on the basis of a detailed description written by Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine navigator who explored the river in 1524 on behalf of France.
In the early 17th century, the Alpine area was known primarily for a dock built by a Dutch settler named Frederich Kloester in 1685. It enabled local farmers to ship their produce to New York City. The dock vanished long ago, but one of Alpine’s main arteries is called Closter Dock Road.
A WINDING access road from Route 9W and the Palisades Interstate Parkway leads to the Blackledge-Kearney House on the Hudson River, reputed to have been the site of Lord Corwallis’s landing on Nov. 20, 1776, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent George Washington from fleeing from Fort Lee with his troops to Valley Forge.
The house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now a museum, is open from noon to 5 P.M. April 1 through Oct. 31. It contains Colonial-era artifacts and a film about the construction of the park. Admission is free.
Just after the Civil War, the Erie Railroad arrived in neighboring Closter, making Alpine more accessible to New York City. It was followed by the construction of several large estates atop the Palisades. Among the estate builders was Charles Nordhoff, the New York Herald editor who sent Henry M. Stanley to Africa in 1869 to find Dr. David Livingstone. Nordhoff’s wife, Lida, is said to have given Alpine its name because the Palisades reminded her of the Swiss Alps.
The improved explosives that resulted from the Civil War, coupled with new rail transportation, made the Palisades attractive for its trap rock, which could now be blasted loose. Among the many projects that used Palisades rock were the cobbling of New York City streets and the building of the New Orleans breakwater.
In 1899, outrage among environmental groups in both New York and New Jersey over the blasting led the Legislatures of the two states to pass twin bills to preserve the rock formations. Land was expropriated and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission was formed in 1900. The final trap-rock blast took place on Christmas Eve that year.
Large grants from philanthropists, including the Rockefeller and Harriman families, allowed the commission to spend $543,000 to purchase its first 13.5-mile-long stretch of the current 55-mile, 81,000-acre park that starts at Bear Mountain in New York and continues southward to Fort Lee in New Jersey. The Park Commission is based in a stone mansion built in 1929 for Herbert Oltman, a stockbroker who lost his fortune in the market crash.
The park includes hiking trails, picnic grounds, fishing sites and marinas. One marina is the Alpine Boat Basin, which has a total of 122 slips for boats 20 to 50 feet long, with rents varying according to size — as little as $1,000 and as much as $2,750 a year.
One of the largest estates ever amassed in Alpine was the 200-acre Rio Vista, acquired by Manuel Riondo, a Cuban sugar baron, between 1904 and 1920. Among its outstanding features was a 100-foot-tall stone clock tower that still stands in the new Rio Vista neighborhood.
The only public school in the borough is the Alpine Elementary School, covering pre-kindergarten through grade 8. It has 180 pupils, said the principal, Dr. Mathew R. Glowski, who noted that about a fourth of Alpine’s children attended private schools.
”Our biggest challenge is convincing parents that our public school is every bit as good as a $15,000-a-year private one,” explained Dr. Glowski.
The school introduces computers in pre-kindergarten and French and Spanish language classes in kindergarten. The class size is a mere 13, about half the state average, and each classroom is equipped with one to three computers.
THE students go on to Tenafly High School, in neighboring Tenafly, which sent 91 percent of last year’s 230 graduates to higher education. The school offers 10 advanced placement courses in English, mathematics, sciences, foreign languages and history. Its students scored an average 549 in verbal and 605 in math on the SAT last year, which is 52 and 97 points higher, respectively, than the state averages.
The only major borough-owned recreational site is the 10-acre Alpine Swim and Tennis Club off Hillside Avenue. Family memberships cost $450 year. The club offers a pool open from Memorial Day through Labor Day and a pair of tennis courts that are open year-round.
Last year, a consortium of Alpine, Rockleigh and Bergen County paid the New York Council of Boy Scouts $7 million for 134 of its 700 acres in the northern section of Alpine. The property will be left in its natural state except for a few hiking trails that will be added. And it will continue to be used for Boy Scout camping.
On the southern end of Alpine is the 135-acre Montammy Country Club. Its 18-hole golf course has just undergone a $7 million renovation. The club will not disclose its fees, but Mayor Manus said that the initiation fee alone is at least $50,000.
Thank you to SCOTT FYBUSH from Dec 19, 2002 for the following:
“The Birthplace of FM Broadcasting, Alpine, N.J.”
For the few years, I’ve been working on a book called The Airwaves of New York, Volume II, a sequel to the incredibly detailed The Airwaves of New York (McFarland & Co., 1998) by Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek and Peter Kanze. That book documented the history of 156 AM stations that have come and gone from the Big Apple airwaves over the last eighty years or so.
The new volume will track the history of the stations that have graced the New York FM dial over more than sixty years. That’s meant plenty of time on the road, much of it heading from the cousins’ home in Rockland County down to Manhattan by way of the Palisades Interstate Parkway and the George Washington Bridge.
There could be no more appropriate route to take, as it works out, because not long after passing the New York-New Jersey state line, drivers on the Palisades see an unusual tower poking up above the trees, with three big crossbeams carrying a small forest of antennas.
Most drivers probably don’t pay much attention to this stick, but if you’re reading this column and you’ve driven this road, odds are that you too have slowed down and gotten off the highway at exit 3 to get a better look at this magnificent piece of steel.
For it was right here, in the woods along Route 9W, that FM broadcasting as we know it was born in the late thirties, on a tower erected by none other than the inventor of FM radio, Major Edwin Howard Armstrong, born this very week 112 years ago in New York City.
Long before his invention of frequency modulation, Armstrong had already contributed immensely to the development of broadcasting; his invention of the regenerative circuit in 1912 and the superheterodyne receiver in 1917 made it possible to build the inexpensive, super-sensitive tube radios that began to appear in the early twenties and were soon household staples.
The story has been told many times (see Lawrence Lessing’s Man of High Fidelity and Tom Lewis’ Empire of the Air, in particular) of the early friendship between Armstrong and David Sarnoff, the head of RCA and founder of NBC, which began when Armstrong demonstrated the superheterodyne receiver to Sarnoff during a late-night DX session on the New Jersey coast.
The legend tells, as well, of Sarnoff’s challenge to Armstrong to develop “a little black box” that could eliminate the static that plagued AM broadcasting in those early years, a challenge that occupied Armstrong throughout the late twenties and early thirties, culminating in Armstrong’s announcement to Sarnoff in 1933 that his “black box” was ready – a roomful of equipment that represented the first successful use of frequency modulation. It was obvious from the first that the new “FM” technology represented a vast improvement over the sound quality of existing broadcasts, offering much wider frequency response and the absence of the background noise that marred AM reception, especially in small towns and rural areas that lacked their own radio stations.
At first, Sarnoff and RCA encouraged Armstrong’s research into FM, giving him space in their laboratories at the top of the Empire State Building to continue his work and experiment with FM transmission.
But the development of FM, particularly the ability to relay programming from city to city by direct off-air pickup (which Armstrong was demonstrating as early as 1936), posed a threat to NBC’s domination of “conventional” radio – and in those Depression years, the challenge of selling a new broadcasting system to replace the already sizable existing base of receivers also made NBC nervous, particularly as it geared up for its impending launch of commercial television.
So Sarnoff and RCA cut their ties with Armstrong, exiling him from the Empire State Building and removing his chief source of funding.
Locked out of the highest point in New York City, Armstrong returned to his family home in Yonkers and looked across the Hudson River to the towering New Jersey Palisades on the other side.
In early 1937, he bought land in what was then an undeveloped area along Route 9W, a spot that provided an excellent view to the south from more than 500 feet above sea level, over the new George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan.
Never afraid of heights, Armstrong went to work building a 400-foot tower in a clearing in the woods that lined 9W (the Palisades Parkway was still more than a decade in the future). With an eye toward future development, Armstrong made sure his new tower would have plenty of room for antennas, designing the three-arm configuration that remains a unique feature of the Alpine tower even today. At the base of the tower, he built a two-story brick building to house his transmitter, embossing his call letters, W2XMN, in the concrete above the door. Along both sides of the steps leading to the building, he placed small replicas of the metal globe that sat atop Aeolian Hall in Manhattan, the RCA facility where he had famously been photographed in the twenties perching precariously on one foot, high in the air.
Within months, the tower was carrying W2XMN’s signal out over the New York metropolitan area and beyond; on the old 42-50 MHz FM band, summertime skip in 1938 produced regular static-free reception at the eastern tip of Long Island and, at least once, down as far as Virginia.
The signals from W2XMN were also being picked up in Connecticut at West Peak in Meriden, where Armstrong was working with Franklin Doolittle’s WDRC and John Shepard’s Yankee Network to build a network of FM relays that would eventually stretch north all the way to Mount Washington, New Hampshire.
But the advent of World War II stalled both FM and TV (though Armstrong’s FM system would see wide use for military communication, where it soon became the standard), and when the war ended, the industry’s attention was fixed on the introduction of television, a medium many thought would replace radio completely. RCA attempted to further delay FM by leading a charge to move FM stations out of the 42-50 MHz band and up the dial to 88-108 MHz. While history would eventually prove that to be a wise move (it created more than twice as many FM channels as had been possible in the old band and eliminated the nearly-regular skip that would have plagued local FM reception in the summer), it had the unfortunate effect of rendering existing FM radios useless and raising consumers’ doubts about the long-term viability of FM.
Armstrong himself, meanwhile, found himself embroiled in a patent dispute with RCA. While the FCC had handed Armstrong a victory by choosing FM as the audio standard for television in 1941, RCA was unwilling to meet Armstrong’s demands for royalties on the use of his FM patents in RCA’s TV transmitters and receivers.
Always a stubborn man, Armstrong became obsessed with the lawsuit against RCA, refusing settlement offers and devoting all of his energy to fighting the radio giant in court. The pressure eventually became too much for him to bear, and on February 1, 1954, Armstrong stepped out of the thirteenth-floor window of his New York apartment to his death.
Across the Hudson, his radio station had remained active all those years, under the calls KE2XCC and later WFMN (although it’s unclear that the latter call was actually used on the air), moving to 93.1 MHz after the old FM band was vacated. On March 31, 1954, Armstrong’s staffers turned it off for the last time, and the tower went silent.
While Armstrong himself was largely forgotten, even by many in the radio community, in the years that followed, his tower remained standing as a legacy to his engineering skills. It began to attract various non-broadcast users, and in 1971 it again became home to an FM transmitter, WFDU (89.1 Teaneck), the broadcast outlet of Fairleigh Dickinson University.
By 2001, the tower had become a fixture in the New York radio spectrum, playing host to a wide variety of two-way users, cellular and PCS antennas, satellite uplink/downlink facilities and television ENG (electronic newsgathering) receivers.
And then, on September 11, Alpine returned to the headlines. With the destruction of the World Trade Center, the television stations that lost their transmitters needed an alternate location that would give them usable coverage of New York City and already offered the infrastructure needed to get back on the air quickly.
All of Armstrong’s foresight more than 65 years earlier, combined with the investment current tower owner CSC Management had made in state-of-the-art facilities at the tower’s base, made the Alpine tower a natural choice for several stations. Within a week of the attack, Alpine was on the air with TV signals, ultimately playing host to WNBC (Channel 4), WABC-TV (Channel 7), WPIX (Channel 11), WNET (Channel 13) and WNJU (Channel 47) over the year that followed.
Those who remembered the story of Edwin Howard Armstrong and his battles with RCA surely appreciated the irony in WNBC’s use of the tower; the station is the descendant of W2XBS, the RCA experimental TV station that ousted Armstrong from the Empire State Building all those decades ago. (You can read more about the fascinating story of the New York stations’ return to the air in our special issue of NorthEast Radio Watch, “9/11 Plus One.”)
You might think, after reading about all the history of this magnificent site, that the fine people of Alpine, New Jersey would appreciate that they have in their midst one of the true landmarks of American broadcasting history. (You might even think that Armstrong’s tower deserves landmark status of some sort, and we’d be the first to sign on to such a campaign.)
Alas, a visit to Alpine these days will show you that the pristine forest that surrounded this site when Armstrong began building in 1937 has given way to million-dollar McMansions, occupied in no small number by the sort of people who seemed surprised to suddenly realize that there was a radio tower – a big, painted, lit radio tower – there in the backyard of the home they’d just built in, say, 1994. That, in turn, has meant vocal, well-funded opposition to CSC’s proposals to improve the Alpine Tower to provide higher-powered auxiliary capabilities for television broadcasters in the event they again lose their Manhattan signals. Check out the neighbors’ Web site – and note that this “grassroots” group is asking for an average contribution of $2500 per household! “NIMBY,” indeed… (You can keep reading, if you’re so inclined, for unfounded assertions that digital TV is somehow “believed to cause much greater health risks, and in a wider area, than traditional broadcasting” and that “there are very few towers of this type in all of America located in residential areas[*].”)
But never mind the neighbors; the next time you turn on your FM radio, stop and give a thought to Edwin Howard Armstrong, one of the true heroes of American broadcasting, and to his steel legacy high above the Palisades.
[* – The Alpine neighbors might want to take their $2500 and spend it on visits to Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Washington, Kansas City, Seattle and San Francisco, just to name a few of the “very few” communities in America that have high-powered TV transmission facilities in decidedly residential areas. Or perhaps when they say “towers of this type” they mean the unique three-arm design, in which case there are simply no other towers of this type located in any area, residential or otherwise, anywhere in the country. And as for their concerns about the effect of the tower on real estate values, a quick search shows that the least expensive single-family home currently listed for sale anywhere in Alpine is a bargain at $675,000, far below the average sale price of more than $2.8 million – and this on a housing stock whose average age is 14 years! (Again, that tower’s been in town for 65 years now…)]