Discovering Franny Reese Park

Part of the ruins of one of Charles H, Roberts’ mansions in Franny Reese State Park. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

In Franny Reese State Park in Highland, a detail of the ruins of one of mansions built by Poughkeepsie dentist Charles H. Roberts in the late 1860’s.

For years I’ve come east across the Hudson River, typically hurrying to get home from a forced trip to the mall with the kids or from one of their orthodontist appointments, well-visits, physicals or the occasional urgent orthopedic visit when one of them has broken a bone, sprained a ligament or damaged a vital organ. Yes, the bridge is pretty at night, all lit up with views to the north of the Walkway Over the Hudson. But it doesn’t draw me in with any poetic musings, adventurous longings or urges to stop the car suddenly, pull over and see what lies beneath or above — at least not until recently.

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It was during one of these drives home when I noticed, for the first time, a sign that read Franny Reese Park. “Who was Franny Reese?” was my first question, and “Where exactly is this park?”

Later that night I saw two women I know posting pictures on Instagram of 19th-century ruins and aerial views of the Mid-Hudson Bridge with hashtags about hiking where one lives and celebrating the Hudson Valley. Their location? Franny Reese State Park, founded in 2009.

Stairs to nowhere among the ruins of a mansion in Franny Reese State Park.

I had to learn more.

Franny Reese, as it turns out, was the grande dame of the Hudson Valley River Valley, helping to spearhead an early, formative group of crusaders who sought to protect Storm King Mountain from becoming the site of the world’s largest hydroelectric plant — something that would have forever changed the landscape of the river valley. With Reese’s unbridled energy, this band of early riverkeepers — soon to become known as Scenic Hudson — was able to keep the utility powerhouse Con Edison off Storm King Mountain.

Born in Manhattan, Reese was enthralled by the beauty and history of the Hudson River Valley, and after this victory, continued to champion all the efforts that spun off from this first victory to protect the region and preserve its many iconic landmarks. She served as Scenic Hudson’s chairwoman for almost two decades, into the era when the organization mounted its campaign to get GE to remove health-threatening PCBs dumped in the river north of Albany.

A champion of Scenic Hudson’s land preservation efforts, she helped form the organization’s separately incorporated land trust during the early 1980s. Since that time, the Scenic Hudson Land Trust has created or enhanced more than 40 parks and preserves up and down the Hudson River for the public to enjoy. A number of these were polluted former industrial sites that were reclaimed.

To commemorate her contributions, Scenic Hudson named this 251-acre park after Reese, who was killed in an automobile accident in Cold Spring in 2003, when she was 85 years old.

The park, which is now administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, begins in a parking lot at the end of Havilland Road in Highland, at a dead end by the bridge, past the entrance to the better-known and more heavily trafficked Walkway Over the Hudson. The signs here are faded, the parking lot fairly empty; a lone cyclist, myself and the steady whoosh of the traffic careening along the bridge are the only companions at Franny Reese Park’s less-than-auspicious entrance. A view of the river comes closer as one begins the descent down a flight of stone stairs to the bowels of the bridge, where more signage is posted underneath one of the bridge’s trestles.

From there, guided by the pioneering spirit of Frances Reese, one can walk upwards — a short steep climb marked by wooden water bars — along the “blue trail,” towards one of three scenic overlooks that provide dramatic views of the bridge and the historic landmarked river. There are a white trail and a yellow trail, the latter taking one to a kiosk and another an entrance that can be found in a residential development east of Route 9W in Highland. The white trail loops around, connecting both the blue and the yellow with two more stunning overlooks of the mighty Hudson as well as pastures and wooded areas for hiking and biking.

A view of the Mid- Hudson Bridge from one of the lookouts in Franny Reese State park in Highland.

But amidst these acres lies a hidden architectural gem: the remains of a 19th-century estate known as Cedar Glen. The estate was once owned by Poughkeepsie dentist Charles H. Roberts, born in 1821, and was occupied by himself, his wife and their six children up until the earlier part of the 20th century. Untouched saved for nature’s embrace, there are still tall brick chimneys, a dramatic staircase that leads to nowhere, grand arched windows that have long since lost their magnificent view of the river and outbuildings that whisper of a life well-lived along the high ridge overlooking the river valley. They are beautiful and haunting and a testament to the brick-and-mortar buildings that once flourished along the Hudson, as well as giving a humble nod to the power of time and nature when homes are left unattended and unoccupied.

Hopefully, Reese is still occupying this land in some form or another, and from it, hikers, walkers, bikers and explorers can catch even a bit of the unadulterated spirit that led Frances Stevens Reese to spend the greater part of her life living in and fighting for the integrity, historical, environmental and cultural significance of the area so critical to our nation’s history and our community’s richness. For more information, go to Scenic Hudson’s website at www.scenichudson.org/parks/frannyreese.

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