A History of the Downtown

“A very pleasant place to build a town”.

In September 1609, Henry Hudson anchored along a bay on the Hudson River outside of what would become known as the City of Peekskill. His firstmate noted in the ship’s log that it was a “very pleasant place to build a town”.  By the time of the American Revolution, George Washington established the city as the headquarters for the Continental Army in 1776 and the tiny community was an important manufacturing center from its various mills along the several creeks and streams.

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, “kil” or “kill”.

Peekskill & Civil Rights History

Peekskill holds a prominent place in the history of civil-rights for African Americans.  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, the A.M.E. Zion Church (whose members included Harriet, Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass).

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.  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

Peekskill has always been known as an industrial center – a city that makes things.  Whether it be the mills of Peek’s Creek providing essential  gunpowder, leather, planks, and flour for the fight for American independence, prominence as a maker of brick pavers, iron plows and stoves, or the invention of Crayola Crayons at the Peekskill Chemical Company, our City has a historical heritage of making, doing and creating that lives on today.

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 rail-road and sponsored the first trans-Atlantic telegraph.  L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, attended school in Peekskill and it is believed that a fragment of the “yellow brick road” that inspired him still exists downtown today.

We continue to be a home for artists, craftsmen, and individuals who recognize our downtown as a place they can build their future.  We hope you’ll join us.

For a walking tour of historical places downtown, please download this guide.