On a chilly night, hordes of people gather on the banks of the Hudson. Officers struggle to maintain the calm as they assure the nervous crowds that there will be room for everyone on the ferry. As danger approaches, a stampede erupts and the ferry begins to depart.
The scene takes place in Athens, but only in fiction: It’s featured in the 2005 sci-fi movie War of the Worlds. More than a thousand movie extras gathered in the village – which, at the most recent census in 2010, had fewer than 1,700 residents. It’s located within the small river town of the same name, which was formed in 1815 from parts of Coxsackie and Catskill.
While the town may be small and largely residential, there’s a lot to do if you know where to look. A good place for anyone to start a trip to Athens is at one of the nature preserves at the southern end of town. On Route 385, two nearby riverfront properties offer easy nature walks. The first is the Cohotate Preserve, which is home to the Columbia-Greene Community College Environmental Field Station. It’s also home to the foundational remains of the old icehouse, which stored ice that was “harvested” from the Hudson in winter for use in the warmer months.
A steep-but-short walk takes you down to the site, which includes picnic tables and informational signage about both the icehouse and the birds that can be seen at Cohotate. Up-close sightings of bald eagles and great blue herons are not uncommon. From there, it’s a short walk along the looping trail to the pond, where numerous trilling red-winged blackbirds make their homes.
The second of Athens’ two stunning preserves, known as the Willows, boasts a historical element of its own: the 1788 William Brandow House, one of many Athens buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. It was heavily modified in the late 19th century, but maintains some features of the original Hudson Valley Dutch style and is in the process of being renovated by the Greene Land Trust for use as offices and a center for historic and environmental education. The organization is working to maintain the grassland habitat, a home to many birds, and is currently working with a group of volunteers to connect Brandow Point to Cohotate via a trail.
After working up an appetite on the trails, you can stop into the Athens Riverside Diner on Water Street, where you’ll find diner fare served up in a nautical-themed setting with views of the riverfront.
In the summer, Athens is a great place to make the most of the Hudson. If you’re inclined toward watersports, follow the village signs to the kayak launch on Fourth Street, and if you don’t have your own watercraft, check out PaddleHead Boards. The store has bike, kayak and paddleboard sales and rentals, as well as lessons for beginners, and it’s conveniently located right on Water Street, not far from the Diner. Just be sure to call ahead if you plan to rent; many of Athens’s attractions are open on a seasonal basis.
For those who are more curious about history, the Hudson/Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society hosts tours of the 1874 lighthouse on the second Saturday of each month, July through October. The lighthouse, which is automated but still operational, has been restored to its 1930s state and is a must-see for anyone exploring Athens for its history.
While the lighthouse may be Athens’ most popular historic draw, however, it’s far from the only one. Practically all of Athens is on the National Register of Historic Places, mostly in the form of historic districts that encompass a multitude of buildings. On the north end of town off Route 385 is the Brick Row Historic District, a line of apartments primarily from the late 1800s that were built to house workers of the railroad and brickmaking industries. The Brick Row District lies outside the center of town, but a self-guided walking tour of the village affords views of architecture that dates back to the 19th century and includes a variety of styles. A common feature on Athens buildings is their unusual drainpipes, which extend above the sidewalks and pour into the streets on rainy days.
The Albertus Van Loon House stands out as a noticeably historic house, even in such an old town. The house was built in 1724 by the son of Jan Van Loon, who gave the settlement its original name of Loonenburgh. Like much of historic Athens, the house is still occupied today. The buttery-yellow Jan Van Loon House is even older, although less conspicuous than Albertus’ unique stone dwelling, and stands at the southern end of the village.
Although many of the old buildings still serve as private residences, you can pop into the charming D. R. Evarts Library. Athens’ public library is still in its cozy, original 1907 location on Second Street in the Lower Village Historic District. A couple of blocks away on the northwest end of the village, Market Street divides the Athens Cemetery and the Mount Hope Cemetery, both of which provide beautiful, peaceful views of the village and beyond, as well as some distinctive memorial stones.
As the sun begins to set, head for the aptly named Crossroads Brewing Company in the middle of town. A wall of windows separates the lively dining area from the sizable fermentation tanks where the pub brews its own selection of excellent beers. The laid-back atmosphere and delicious variety of food (which is often locally sourced) make Crossroads a perfect choice for dinner and drinks after a long day of exploration.
When dinner is finished, head back to the Riverfront Park for a last look at the lighthouse from one of the benches. And if you find yourself visiting on a Friday night in the summer, the bandstand will be alive with music presented by the Athens Performing Arts Council. From the park, you’ll spy the Stewart House on the corner of Second Street, and you may recognize it from that clambering scene in War of the Worlds. If you choose to stay there, it’s not likely that you’ll bump into any celebrities. You’re more apt to enjoy a low-key stay, watching the riverfront go quiet as the bandstand crowd disperses. And really, you prefer it that way.