“A very pleasant place to build a town.”
In September 1609, Henry Hudson anchored his ship, the “Halve Maen” (Dutch for Half Moon), along a bay on the Hudson River outside of what would become the City of Peekskill. His first mate, Robert Juet, described in the ship log the location as a “very pleasant place to build a town.” It was to become among the first Dutch trading posts.
Jan Peek was Peekskill’s earliest European resident, recognized as making first contact with the Lenape Native American people that populated the lower Hudson Valley at that time. The name “Peekskill” derives from a combination of the Jan Peek’s last name and the Dutch word for stream “kill.”
At the time of the American Revolution, George Washington established this area as the headquarters for the Continental Army in 1776. Its various mills built along the community’s creeks and streams made the area an important manufacturing center and provided the army with supplies.
Peekskill & Civil Rights History
Peekskill holds a prominent place in the history of civil rights. It is the most significant place in the Hudson River Valley for understanding the history of American slavery and the Underground Railroad, the network of secret sites that helped fugitive slaves travel to freedom. Historical Underground Railroad sites include the home of William Sands known as the “Safe House”, the home of the famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, and the A.M.E. Zion Church whose members included Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.
In 1940 Peekskill incorporated as a city. In modern civil rights history, Peekskill would become known infamously as the place of the “Peekskill Riots” in 1949, local violent protest against the concerts announced by prominent activist Paul Robeson to benefit the Civil Rights Congress. The riot actually took place in Cortlandt Manor.
More recently, Peekskill would become the first city in New York State to elect an African American mayor, Richard E. Jackson in 1984.
A City that Makes Things, Promotes People
Peekskill has always been known as an industrial center – a city that makes things. The mills of Peek’s Creek provided essential gunpowder, leather, planks, and flour for the fight for American independence. The area is also known for its prominence as a maker of brick pavers, iron plows, hats, and stoves—many of which were transported West to fuel the settling of America. Peekskill is also known for the invention of Crayola Crayons at the Peekskill Chemical Works and the Fleishman Factory made yeast used across the country.
Peekskill has been home to numerous individuals that make their mark in the world with an inventive, entrepreneurial spirit. Peekskill was the home of Peter Cooper, who built the first successful locomotive to be used as an American railroad and sponsored the first trans-Atlantic telegraph. L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, attended the Peekskill Military Academy and, while controversial, some believe that the city’s yellow brick roads inspired him. While historians debate the authenticity of that claim, others believe in letting the imagination go along with the fantasy.
In addition to Washington, Peekskill played host to Abraham Lincoln. On his way to his inauguration, Lincoln’s train stopped here and he spoke to a huge crowd.
The Twentieth Century
Throughout most of the 20th Century, Peekskill served as the primary shopping and entertainment center of Northern Westchester and Southern Putnam Counties. Peekskill was home to movies and roller skating as well as the center of retail for everything from clothes and shoes to jewelry. Peekskill even had its own Woolworth’s store, a variety of small hotels and professional offices. Many mom and pop stores and businesses closed due to the advent of the malls and as online shopping took hold. In 2019 downtown said goodbye to Arthur Weeks & Son Jewelers as Mr. Weeks retired after this family business operated more than 120 years. Despite difficult time for retail in America, Peekskill continues to rise.
In the 1990s Peekskill created the Peekskill Artist District to attract artists to live, work and create affordably in Peekskill. The artist community today has about 100 artists who live or create here. And a new wave of artists—those in the media arts are abound. Photographers, videographers, sound engineers, lighting designers, graphic designers, and game designers all call Peekskill home.
Peekskill’s prominent people include New York State Governor George Pataki and NBA Basketball Star Elton Brand—both of whom graduated from Peekskill High School. The Pataki family maintained their farm within Peekskill’s borders while the Brand family started the Elton Brand Foundation to help Peekskill’s youth achieve their dreams. Brand regularly returns to Peekskill to host a basketball clinic for area youth. Other notable Peekskill personalities that include Mel Gibson, Paul Rubens, Stanly Tucci, Reggie Austin, James McNair, and Rosie Bonavita – the original “Rosie the Riveter”.
Revitalization is in full force now with the focus shifting to arts technology, culinary excellence, galleries, boutique shopping, year-long Farmers Market and our Hudson River waterfront. Peekskill is fortunate to have reclaimed and retained much of the architecture and open space that defined its elegant past. Come be part of our future!