Retrace steps of mystic Aleister Crowley on Esopus Island

Photo illustration of Aleister Crowley by Dion Ogust.

A fine summer day in the valley is prime time for kayaking and canoeing on the Hudson. The pleasurably perplexing conundrum is always this: Where shall we put in, and what will be our destination?

I submit for your consideration a day or overnight trip to Esopus Island, situated at River Mile 84 near the eastern bank of the Hudson in the Town of Hyde Park, just southwest of Staatsburg’s Norrie Point. If you own your own watercraft, you can head out on your own; if not, you can join one of the guided tours offered by the outfitter called Atlantic Kayak Tours. For more information, e-mail [email protected] or phone (845) 889-8461. You can find out more at

If your image of the boat launch at Norrie Point State Park is just the busy, crowded powerboat marina, think again: As part of the effort to create a Hudson River Watertrail component to the Greenway campaign, a kayak-friendly floating dock has been installed in the cove east of the Norrie Point Environmental Center. The hand-launch platform slants down gently to the water, punctuated by slots in which you set your boat, step in safely and push yourself off. You need to be somewhat wary of nearby motorized craft until you get well clear of the marina, of course; but then it’s not a very long paddle to the island itself.

About a mile long, rocky and partially wooded, Esopus Island lies directly across from the mouth of Black Creek. It was once known as Pell Island, when it constituted part of the large estate of a fruit magnate named Robert L. Pell, Esq. Pellham Farm, Pell’s 1,200-acre spread in the Town of Esopus was an impressive complex. It contained an orchard with over 25,000 apple, peach and pear trees, grapevines and currant bushes, 10 artificial lakes that he used for fish farming, 10 miles of roads, paths and bridges, hay, cotton and tobacco fields, herds of livestock, huge barns, a cider mill, farmworker cottages and a wharf at which four steamers landed each day to carry off his products for export, mainly to Europe. Pell also owned resorts on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock and at Paltz Point, later to become the site of the Mohonk Mountain House.

Pell was one of the largest fruit shippers in the world until the Civil War blockade wiped out his transatlantic market. He was forced to mortgage Pellham Farm in 1869; in 1904 it was sold off to the Redemptorist Fathers. They razed Pell’s mansion and in 1907 built the massive grey granite seminary known today as Mount St. Alphonsus. The facility has been turned into a retreat center in recent years and is in the process of changing ownership to the Hutterian Brethren of the Woodcrest Community and still dominates the blufftop.

Other sights that you might spot on the west bank on your paddle out to Esopus Island include the only wooden lighthouse on the Hudson River, at Esopus Meadows; a boulder known as Indian Rock because it was carved with a silhouette of a Native American chief, now too weathered to make out; and a series of stately buildings. These include Rosemont, once the home of Judge Alton B. Parker, who lost the 1904 presidential election to Theodore Roosevelt, and the Marist Brothers Seminary, formerly the estate of Standard Oil founder Oliver Hazard Payne. A bit further south, and much less ostentatious, is Riverby: the home of the great naturalist John Burroughs.




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