LAST MAN AT THE LAKE: Local historian and Rockland Lake hamlet resident Rob Maher pens book about area

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

Rob Maher (r) signs a book for Bob Goldberg
Rob Maher (r) signs a book for Bob Goldberg

Rob Maher, Rockland historian and president of The Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain, celebrated the publication of his new photo book, “Rockland Lake, Hook Mountain and Nyack Beach” (Acadia, 2014) with a talk and slide show presentation at the Championship Golf Course last Sunday. The event also featured a fascinating display of Rockland Lake memorabilia, including interpretive placards and photographs, and an extensive array of antique ice harvesting implements, courtesy of Knickerbocker Ice Festival, Inc.

“Rockland Lake, Hook Mountain and Nyack Beach” grew out of Maher’s lifelong fascination with his hometown’s local history. A Rockland Lake homeowner for 22 years with roots 170 years deep, he had already founded the Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain when he thought to contact Acadia Publishing about adding a Rockland Lake regional book to its collection.

“The book took four years to put together, but it’s really the product of a lifetime,” he explains.

Maher’s great-grandfather bought the family house, a former ice worker’s residence, over 170 years ago and moved it to its current location on Collyer Lane in Rockland Lake, just east of the park. Great-grandfather Stevens also laid out the plans for the Gethsemane Cemetery, now located inside the park just below the golf course, and many of Maher’s maternal relatives are buried there. Maher grew up in nearby Valley Cottage, but spent many weekends and summers at his grandmother’s house, absorbing family tales about the old town of Rockland Lake.

Tim Englert (l) and Rob Patalano (r)
Tim Englert (l) and Rob Patalano (r)

The book depicts, primarily through the use of contemporary photographs, postcards and maps, the many chapters of Rockland Lake’s history—the home for over 70 years of the world-renowned Knickerbocker Ice Company, the location of numerous trap rock quarries, and later, a popular recreation destination for generations of New Yorkers who visited here by train and steamboat.

However, with the advent of New York State’s early 20th century plans to turn the Hook Mountain/Nyack Beach/Rockland Lake area into contiguous parkland, the town of Rockland Lake began to decline. The advent of electric ice production and the consequent decline of Rockland’s vast ice harvest industry also contributed to the town’s dwindling population. Interestingly, during his presentation Maher debunked the still widely-held belief that Rockland Lake had been decimated by fire in 1926. Rather, the first residential exodus took place in the early 1920s as homeowners began to sell their properties to the state, perhaps under the false perception that they would lose their homes to eminent domain if they didn’t sell. By the late 1950s only a few houses remained of what was once a vibrant community.

Although most of the town is gone, the area is still a prime recreation destination. In 1965 the state opened the park in its current configuration, including the first of the two pools still in operation as well as the three mile paved walkway circumnavigating the lake. Visitors still come from all over to enjoy hiking, boating, picnicking, golfing and tennis at Rockland Lake, Hook Mountain and Nyack Beach.

Today Maher, through his talks, presentations and the Friends organization, works to keep the history of Rockland Lake alive while also promote the future well-being of the three state parks. Joining him at the book celebration was Tim Englert and Robert Patalano, co-founders of Knickerbocker Ice Festival, Inc., an organization dedicated to preserving the history of Rockland Lake’s ice industry. Patalano, himself an ice sculptor and the owner of Rockland Lake Ice Company, brought samples of his ice work to the event, as well as selections from his vast collection of antique ice harvesting tools to share with the public.

In past years the Knickerbocker Ice Festival has held a January celebration at Rockland Lake featuring ice sculptors, art work and other displays. For the past two years, however, the festival was cancelled due to financial constraints. Englert and Patalano, as well as Maher, hope to raise enough money to host the event in 2015, both as an entertaining and educational event as well as a means of promoting tourism in Rockland.

Rob Maher will holding several book signings in the next few weeks, including one at West Nyack Library on February 12 and one at Nyack Library on March 16. He will also be hosting a “Walk Through History” at Rockland Lake on March 8. Proceeds from books sold at these happenings will go directly towards supporting the efforts of the Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain. The book can also be purchased online and through Barnes and Noble. For more information about these and other related events, go to www.rocklandlakeandhookmt.org.