The words John D. Rockefeller and “Do It Yourself” might not naturally come to mind in the same sentence.
But visitors to the Rockefeller State Park Preserve – the former Hudson Valley family estate of petroleum magnate John D. Rockfeller, who was one of the 20th century’s richest men – will see one of this state’s most ambitious DIY projects.
The preserve is part of the 3,000-acre the Rockefeller Pocantico Hills Estate Historic District, recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, which is honeycombed by more than 55 miles of historic “carriage” roads that gracefully showcase its woodlands, vistas and the river valley.
Near the start of the 20th century, many miles of these roads _ and the picturesque views each step of the way _ were envisioned and laid out on foot by “Old John D” as he was known by neighbors at the time. He passed along his passion for road building to his son, John Jr., who completed and enhanced his father’s vision for the extensive network into the 1930s.
As the head of the Standard Oil conglomerate, Rockefeller was fabulously wealthy, and could have hired any engineer he wished to create the road network for the Westchester Country country estate where he, and his brother William, were to each have luxurious mansions.
But Rockefeller knew what he wanted his roads look like and where they ought to be, so he did it himself, traipsing around the woods with his surveyor’s tools to get it just right.
And he wanted the roads to be suitable for travel in a horse and carriage, which is how he wished to tour the estate. That meant roads with crushed stone surfaces, gentle grades and good drainage to prevent erosion.
In the nominating form for listing the site on the State and National Historic Register, State Parks researcher William Krattinger located some of Rockefeller’s own words recalling his road work..
“I have spent many delightful hours studying the beautiful views, the trees and the final landscape effects of that very interesting section of the Hudson River … I had the advantage of knowing every foot of the land, all the big old trees were personal friends of mine, and with the views at any given point, I was perfectly familiar.”
“In a few days, I had worked out a plan so devised that the roads caught just the best views at just the angles where in driving up the hill, you came upon impressive outlooks and the ending was the final burst of river, hill, cloud and great sweep in country to crown the whole; and here I fixed my stakes to show where I suggested the roads should run.”– Roberts, Ann Rockefeller (1990) Mr. Rockefeller’s Roads: The Untold Story of Acadia’s Carriage Roads & Their Creator
A contemporary newspaper account in the Dec. 31, 1904 edition of the Utica Journal also expressed admiration for Rockefeller’s skill as a surveyor and road builder:
“With only an assistant to carry the transit and hold the rod, the old man (Rockefeller was 65 at the time of the article) has trampled all over his vast estate on the Pocantico Hills and has made his own surveys for the huge park which he is laying out there.”
“More than this, he has shown himself to be an expert road builder. When all the roads he has mapped out are completed they will stretch for nearly 40 miles and “Old John D.,” as the whole countryside calls him, has planned every foot of them himself. Landscape gardeners and civil engineers alike agree that, whether from the viewpoint of artistic effect or mere utility, the work could not have been better done.”
The roads themselves, of course, were built by hired workers following the Rockefeller’s routes.
Rockefeller’s vision for his estate was also different from that of many opulent estates of his day, in that he did not want an elaborately designed, geometrically landscaped estate of exotic or imported plants.
Rather, Rockefeller wanted to showcase the natural beauty of the land, sky and river valley.
As described by Bill Krattinger: “The outer estate landscape of the Pocantico Hills estate was not designed, in the formal sense, but was instead “culled back” to reveal or otherwise highlight what were deemed to be the most desirable existing features and views … it might more properly be defined as a refined or culled landscape, in that its creation was not so much a process of introducing new plant and tree material and adding or modifying topographic features, but instead one of honing the existing landscape’s natural features to bring to the forefront those characteristics which were deemed to be the most desirable and beautiful.”
Rockefeller’s work was picked up and continued by his son, John Jr., whose instincts for landscape design and road building were as sharp as his father’s, so much that John Jr. was bestowed with an honorary membership in the American Society of Landscape Architects in the late 1930s.
Long popular for walking, riding, jogging, and carriage driving, the trails lead through varied landscapes and past natural and historical features, such as Swan Lake, the Pocantico River with its wood and stone bridges, gurgling streams, colonial stone walls and rock outcroppings.
The Park Preserve occupies about 1,700 acres in this district, with the rest privately held.
So, come experience the beautiful carriage roads here at Rockefeller State Park Preserve as the fall leaves turn color, and as you take in the views, imagine one of the country’s richest men, happily tramping through his woods and envisioning what you now enjoy today.
For a trail map, click HERE.
Cover Shot- Walking the carriage trails at Rockefeller State Park Preserve (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)
Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks