The Upper Landing at the Dawn of the Industrial Revolution
The last decade of the 18th century was a time of growth and productivity for both Poughkeepsie and the dock at the mouth of the Fall Kill. In 1790, Poughkeepsie was home to nearly 3,000 people, many of whom made a living on and around the Hudson. This number ballooned considerably over the next decade. Many residents were recently arrived, fleeing outbreaks of yellow fever in an increasingly crowded New York City. As Poughkeepsie grew, Livingston’s dock on the northern end of the town served as a major entry point for building materials. A 1798 advertisement in the Poughkeepsie Journal provides a list of supplies coming onto the dock:
A large general Assortment of GROCERIES, Hardware, Iron mongery and Crockery Ware, which will be sold as low as at any retail store… Also, FOR SALE, A large quantity of Lumber, consisting of Boards, Plank and Joice… For Sale at the same place, A large quantity of Pulverized Plaister of Paris, at 6 shillings per bushel.5
This same advertisement also provides the earliest recorded instance of the Fall Kill dock being called by a new name: the Upper Landing.
By the time this advertisement was published, the Upper Landing had once again changed hands. Walter Livingston sold the property to his son Robert in 1796, though the younger Livingston apparently never lived there. The property was managed instead by a man named Israel Loring. By the turn of the century, Loring was supervising 100 acres of property that included two saw mills, a two-stone grist mill, a plaster-of-Paris mill, and a storehouse. The success of the timber and plaster mills is indicative of the rate of new construction in and around Poughkeepsie during these years.
While important, the Livingston/Loring era of the Upper Land was short-lived, as Robert Livingston sold the property in 1800. The new owners were Martin, Isaac, and Robert Hoffman, relatives of the earlier Martin Hoffman who had done much building on the site in the mid-1700s. Following in the family tradition, the Hoffmans continued to expand operations at the Upper Landing. Perhaps the biggest addition was regular sailings of the 76-ton sloop Farmer, partially owned by one of the Hoffmans. The Farmer sailed to and from New York City every other Wednesday, trading weeks with another sloop (not owned by the Hoffmans), the Elizabeth. Both sloops advertised berths for both passengers and cargo. These two vessels were joined by several others which called the town home, helping Poughkeepsie claim the title of “New York’s second seaport.”
Poughkeepsie’s importance as a site of industry and commerce led to efforts to better connect the town with other blossoming cities. In 1803, two new turnpikes supplemented the ever-present river commerce by connecting Poughkeepsie to New York City and Albany via the north-south Highland Turnpike, as well as to Sharon, Connecticut through the east-west Dutchess Turnpike. The year 1803 saw another influx of refugees from New York City, fleeing a new outbreak of yellow fever. This growth provided new opportunities for the Hoffmans at the Upper Landing. An 1804 flyer published by the Hoffmans portrayed the Upper Landing as an all-encompassing center of business, focusing on the variety of grist, lumber, and plaster mills on the property. They also advertised the addition of two new sailing vessels, the Edward and the Mary, the latter of which was commanded by Abraham Hoffman. Modern readers, accustomed to a money-based market, may be surprised that the Hoffmans accepted payment for their goods and services in grain as well as cash. This grain would be ground at the grist mills at the Upper Landing, then sold by the Hoffmans.
In 1807, the Hoffmans welcomed businessman George Oakley into their partnership at the Upper Landing. Bringing in a fresh infusion of capital may have been a necessity: 1807 also saw the enactment of President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act, which cut off American shipping to the rest of the world in retaliation for Britain’s and France’s mutual disrespect for American sovereignty on the high seas. Rather than cripple the economies of the warring two nations (embroiled in the height of the Napoleonic Wars), the act did little more than hamstring American maritime trade. The economy of Poughkeepsie, tied inextricably to maritime trade out of New York City, was almost certainly affected by the embargo, and Oakley’s buy-in to the partnership may have made up for the loss of other profits.
Oakley’s arrival spurred a flurry of activity at the Upper Landing. Between 1807 and 1809, a series of advertisements were published to inform the public about new changes on the Fall Kill: a new storehouse, repairs to the old storehouse and mill, and other improvements. Of particular note was the addition of new grinding machines at the grist mill to make superfine flour, “manufactured from select parcels of wheat, in barrels and half barrels for use of families. This flour will be distinguished by the additional brand of the letter F. With a view to this design, a generous price will be paid for extraordinary good wheat.”6
For all the new development, Oakley proved over-ambitious. By 1811, he was apparently suffering from financial difficulties, adjusting storage fees at the storehouse and slashing prices on plaster of Paris to boost sales. The instability caused by the approach of the War of 1812 proved to be the final straw, as Oakley looked to sell increasingly large parts of his holdings at the Upper Landing. In July of 1812, a month after the United States declared war on Great Britain, Oakley sold his controlling share of the shipping and storage operations back to the Hoffmans, only retaining ownership of the grist and plaster mills. Oakley also began dealing in cash only for certain goods – a move that reflected both his own difficulties and fears of a collapse in trade brought on by the soon-to-be-in-place British blockade.
While the War of 1812 did slow shipping on the Hudson, it was not the catastrophe that the American Revolution had been: the British never threatened New York City, and were content to leave the maritime Northeast states largely alone so long as they did the same to British shipping. Business at the Upper Landing continued during the war, focusing on local products rather than shipments to New York City. Advertisements published by the Hoffmans in 1814 thanked the community for their continued patronage, and publicized the continuing sailing of sloops out of the Landing. The most successful parts of the operation during these years were the lumber and plaster mills, fueling a storm of new construction in Poughkeepsie. Between 1810 and 1814, nearly 3,000 people moved into Poughkeepsie. The mills at the Upper Landing played a vital role in building the city of Poughkeepsie in the early 19th century.