High Falls Conservancy’s Grady Park, Creek Walk restoration projects get into high gear

Richard Eppley of the High Falls Consevancy on the viewing patio near the falls which was constructed last year. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

The year now coming to a close was a major milestone for the hamlet of High Falls: the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Town of Marbletown. Primarily due to the tireless efforts of the dynamic couple behind the High Falls Conservancy, Richard and Carole Eppley, 2019 was a year packed with events marking the sesquarcentennial. They kicked it off with an all-town meeting to find out how residents wanted to celebrate, had an anniversary logo designed and then organized a June parade, an August picnic honoring first responders, a September plein air painting day and an October square dance. This month was the lighting “downtown” High Falls for the holidays and a meetup to decorate the new Kathy Cairo Davis Memorial Bridge, which carries Route 213/Main Street across the Rondout Creek.

But the anniversary-themed events are only a small part of the Eppleys’ work that came to fruition this past year. They’ve just published the fifth edition of their annual Stories of High Falls publication, featuring memoirs of prominent longtime residents. They hosted a screening of the documentary When Hollywood Came to High Falls: The Filming of Splendor in the Grass. They continued their project of planting hundreds of daffodils (1,200+ so far) along Main Street and around the bridge. They successfully lobbied the state Department of Transportation to install radar-activated flashing speed limit signs at either end of town. They worked with Riverkeeper to conduct regular water quality sampling at seven sites along the Creek and organized River Sweep and Adopt-a-Highway trash cleanups. They posted bilingual signs along the Creek Walk urging visitors to carry out what they carry in.


High Falls as seen through the remains of a brick archway in the old Norton Cement factory. The structure dates back to at least the early 19th century.

The High Falls Conservancy has a small-but-committed core group of volunteers who pitch in on these projects, but the bulk of the work is done by the Eppleys, who retired from their New York City careers once their kids were grown and moved to their Bruceville Road home in 2011. Richard was a banker who worked for J. P. Morgan before setting up his own finance company, specializing in energy savings performance contracts. Carole ran her own confectionary art business, creating amazing showpieces such as a five-foot-long reproduction of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, made entirely from cookies, for a French exhibit at Bloomingdale’s. The gingerbread house kits she designed were sold all over the world via the Neiman Marcus catalogue.

During their Manhattan years, as far back as the early 1960s, Carole was involved with a grassroots community group dedicated to cleaning up then-run-down Central Park, which eventually morphed into the Central Park Conservancy. Her passion for rescuing “beauty that’s been badly neglected” was certainly not left behind upon retirement, and the couple set ambitious goals for themselves in High Falls. The first issues that struck the Eppleys were the impediments to viewing the Rondout Creek, its picturesque cascades, the Norton Cement Company factory ruins at the main falls’ base, the slanting layers of stone exposed on the creek’s northern bank that are used by the National Geological Society as textbook examples of an anticline. “That was in our minds almost from the day we moved to High Falls,” Carole recalls. “It was hard to get a good view of the falls. The bank was overgrown, not cared for.”

Two industrial structures belonging to Central Hudson Gas and Electric — only recently returned to service for generating and transmitting hydropower — and long stretches of chain-link fencing meant to deter swimmers from accessing the perilous Creek also stand between the world-class viewscape and its potential admirers from near and far. Mazes of gates at either end of the path known as the Creek Walk are visually intimidating and, Richard notes, “not ADA-compliant. We want Central Hudson to redo them so it’s accessible. If they used bollards instead, it would look more pleasant, like an invitation to come down through.”

Years of negotiation with the utility company have resulted in gradual improvements to the site. Richard characterizes his contacts there as “enthusiastic at the community relations level,” meaning that the Eppleys were able to talk them into a $10,000 grant to rebuild a patio area with a view of the falls, some benches and a chess table, and to repaint the “raking station” structure to a receding red/brown color rather than stark industrial white. But upper levels of corporate management aren’t yet engaged to the point of larger investments, such as covering the ugly façade of the power transfer station, which overlooks the lower tier of the falls, with brick in the Victorian style of a historic structure that was torn down and replaced. The Eppleys dream of an extension to the building that could serve as a classroom for field trips and displays on industrial archaeology and sustainable energy. They also want to see the weedy trees whose roots are crumbling the factory ruins taken out, which will open up the Creek vistas as well.

They achieved one major victory on the Creek Walk restoration project this summer: securing a right-of-way for the Town of Marbletown for the eastern segment of the path, which belongs to the Department of Transportation rather than Central Hudson. The negotiation took five years. A cattle gate near the eastern end will be replaced with bollards, opening the path to strollers and wheelchairs. Artist Verna Gillis, the widow of sculptor Bradford Graves, has offered the use of some of Graves’ limestone sculptures to turn part of the Creek Walk into an art park. It’s just one piece of the big puzzle that the Eppleys envision as the High Falls Loop: a pedestrian trail connecting the scenic and historical attractions of “downtown” with the O & W Rail Trail, which crosses Route 213 just beyond the western end of the Davis Bridge.

Richard and Carole Eppley of the High Falls Conservancy.

In collaboration with Marbletown officials, the High Falls Conservancy has secured a commitment from assemblyman Kevin Cahill for a state grant of $125,000 for part of the Loop project: the restoration of Grady Park, early phases of which have already been completed with town funding. Summer visitors to High Falls know Grady Park as the setting for the town’s long-running Sunday flea market, with the remains of D & H Canal Lock 17 as its backdrop. But the park’s four tax parcels extend considerably further west, a tongue of land wedged between Old Route 213 and its modern replacement, ending across the street from the Spy restaurant. The park is property of the D & H Canal Historical Society, and cannot be sold off because it’s listed as historic; but with the help of town supervisor Rich Parete, the Conservancy was able to arrange a 99-year lease to the Town of Marbletown.

Since that lease was signed this past May, work has begun in earnest on reclaiming Grady Park. An engineering firm, Greenman-Pedersen, Inc., was contracted to draw up conceptual plans and the property was surveyed. The town brought in John Messerschmidt of Poison Ivy Patrol/Hudson Valley Native Landscaping to assist the Highway Department in clearing many decades’ worth of overgrowth and invasive species. Additional ruins, including  Lock 18, long invisible to passing motorists, are now beginning to emerge. “This area has been very badly neglected,” Carole says while taking New Paltz Times staff on a site tour. “We are very excited about those rocks. They’re a good example of what you could never see.”

This view of the banks of the Rondout Creek just below High Falls shows the striations of the ancient anticlinal fold in the rockface.

The next step, scheduled to commence soon, is to remove the site’s many dead and diseased trees — mostly elm and ash that succumbed to blight. Carole recalls how, before her eyes, “One of these fell right down onto Route 213. The cars came to a screeching halt.” Only about four or five healthy trees remain in the central section of the property.

The Eppleys hope to see a brick walking path, with benches at intervals, connecting the flea market site at the eastern end and a new vest-pocket park at the eastern end: a Veterans’ Memorial Plaza with a bluestone-paved patio area for municipal events, a flagpole, memorial markers, lights and plantings. But at least one town meeting will be held first to solicit community input.

New sidewalks, crosswalks and signage will be needed to pull the entire High Falls Loop together, and every phase of the ambitious project will cost money. But when Richard and Carole Eppley set their minds to a task and roll up their sleeves, stuff gets done. To learn more, make a donation or volunteer, visit the High Falls Conservancy website at www.thehighfallsconservancy.org.

The area between D&H Canal locks 17 and 18 will be cleared as a walkway to a new Veterans Memorial Park in High Falls.