Johnsontown’s Pine Grove plot preserved
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Descendants of the Pre-Revolutionary War era Pine Grove Cemetery in rural Stony Point preserved a bit of their family and community heritage Sunday when they dedicated a new historical marker at the neglected and largely forgotten burial ground hidden deep in the woods near Lake Sebago.
The plot, about a half-acre in size and nestled half-way up a hill along a deserted road near the closed entrance to Lake Sebago, once marked the center of the community known as Johnsontown.
The hamlet has long since vanished off the face of the earth, having been condemned in the 1920s and 30s by the fledgling Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which was in the process of acquiring thousands of acres of land in northern Rockland and southern Orange Counties to create the giant bi-state park system we know today as the PIP.
Using laborers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and then the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during and following the “Great Depression,” the park system removed the residents of nearly a dozen small communities and demolished their homes, schools, churches, farms and businesses. The newly vacated land was then turned into forests, meadows, lakes, picnic groves and swimming facilities, and connected through a winding series of new roads such as Seven Lakes Drive and a spectacular new parkway from Fort Lee, N.J. all the way to Bear Mountain. The last hamlet to be obliterated was Doodletown, off Route 9W just south of Bear Mountain, in the 1960s.
The only remnants left in each of the communities were a handful of stone foundations indicating that buildings had once stood there, and one or two cemeteries in each of the former hamlets. Today, some 80 years after the great removal, few of the displaced residents are alive and even fewer remain in the area. There are hundreds of descendants of those families, however, many living in nearby Stony Point, Tomkins Cove, Fort Montgomery and other adjacent communities.
To preserve their heritage before it completely disappears, those remaining settlers and their children formed the Historical Society of the Palisades Interstate Park Region more than a decade ago, and have spent a considerable effort to salvage what is left of historical sites, as well as their old identities, and to make it available to future generations.
Displaced persons and their descendants have written several books on the history of the vanished hamlets, as an example, including one on Doodletown by Perk Stalter and several others on the schools, churches, family genealogies and cemeteries of the lost communities. They have also held numerous public meetings, family reunions and hikes to the hamlet remains; collected an impressive archive of photos and other documents, and held symposiums, picnics, holiday parties and other events, all geared to ensuring that while the physical hamlets themselves be long gone, they will never be forgotten.
One of the ways in which the unusual historical society carries out this self-imposed mission is to locate and preserve each of the cemeteries at each of the former hamlets. They have made a map of the entire park system, locating each hamlet and each cemetery, and have made physical inspections of the remains, carefully photographing and documenting what they find.
They are currently in the process of placing permanent historical markers at each cemetery; such as they did Sunday at the long-forgotten Pine Grove Cemetery of Johnsontown, near today’s Lake Sebago. The blue and gold metal marker notes simply “This cemetery is in the vanished hamlet of Johnsontown, settled in circa 1750. Earliest burial date 1826. 186 stones are here.”
The plaque was unveiled by the historical society’s new president, Walter Luther, who welcomed the crowd of about 25 people to the event. He was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance led by Vice President Thom Schassler and the singing of the National Anthem by Loretta Perini.
The history of the cemetery and of the hamlet of Johnsontown was recalled by descendants Schassler and Florence Anderson, herself a direct descendant of the founding Johnson Family more than two and a half centuries ago. “Today we feel that the Historical Society of the Palisades Interstate Park Region has brought more local history to the forefront,” Anderson noted. “Our society will continually strive to preserve the history and culture of our region.”
She and Schassler noted that only four or five large headstones in the cemetery were actually carved by a stonemason. The remaining stones are fairly small fieldstones stuck into the ground in upright positions but with no inscriptions of any kind, meaning that there is no way to identify where most of the inhabitants are actually buried.
Besides placing the marker, historical society members also cleared the tremendous amount of underbrush and overgrowth that had virtually obliterated the ancient cemetery over the past century. Officers and members said one of their goals is to restore each of the hamlet cemeteries in a similar fashion, with land clearing and monument placements, while a future goal will be to honor local resident veterans interred in each cemetery from the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812, the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I.
Prior to World War II most of the hamlets had already been obliterated so that veterans from that period forward had to be buried elsewhere. Society officers also noted that they are committed to eventually establishing an actual museum for their vast collection of photos, genealogies and artifacts. Earlier attempts to establish such a permanent repository at the St. John’s Church in the Wilderness in Harriman Park and the closed Pyngyp School on Rt. 210 in Stony Point both failed, but the officials said they continue looking and remain undaunted.
They also thanked officials and workers within the Palisades Interstate Park System, noting they have given the group access to each of their hometown sites and cemeteries and have also assisted with land clearing, brush removal and other tasks that the society members perform gratis.
Johnsontown and many other woodland hamlets were removed to create Harriman State Park, a decision that has impacted generations. To read more about today Harriman Park offerings, click here.