“My dad said we’re going to Yonkers.”
“Big deal. What are Yonkers, anyway?”
This puerile exchange has been circulating for years. It’s time to give a bad joke a good answer.
Yonkers—named for Adrian Van der Donck, an early Dutch settler and a “jonkeer” (Dutch for young gentleman) — is the fourth largest city in New York state. It has a rich and interesting history, from its 17th century beginnings as an agricultural frontier settlement of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam, later known as New York, to its 21st century renaissance as a diverse and gentrifying near-in suburb of Manhattan.
Think of trade and commerce in the pre-industrial era, and what comes to mind is salt water: ocean exploration followed by the establishment of deep-water ports. But inland waterways like the Hudson, the American colonies’ “First River,” played a major role in this country’s economic and political development.
During the Hudson’s heyday as New York’s superhighway from the 1600s to the late 1800s, thousands of craft stopped at Yonkers and its sister cities. Vessels carrying agricultural products and furs plied the Hudson River between New York City and Montreal. Sailboats, steamboats, and ferries of all descriptions carried freight, business passengers, and pleasure seekers. Yonkers was a major transportation hub.
Waterpower of another kind was important to Yonkers’ economic growth. Sawmills and grist mills were powered by waterfalls along the Hudson and Nepperhan (now re-named Saw Mill) Rivers. Other industries that emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries were metal working (the Otis Elevator Company was founded in Yonkers), carpet manufacturing, and even a sugar refinery.
Yonkers wasn’t all about business, however. Conveniently close to fast-growing New York City, Yonkers was the gateway to the Hudson River Valley. The area was increasingly a desirable retreat for urban wealth in search of fresh air and sublime scenery. Remaining examples of this aspect of Yonkers’ past are Philipse Manor Hall, the 18th century home of a rich Tory family, and Greystone, a 99-room mansion with grand gardens overlooking the river.
One of America’s most productive and admired artistic movements also flourished in the Hudson Valley, a group of landscape painters who became known as the Hudson River School. Many of their paintings included depictions of graceful watercraft such as the distinctive tall-rigged Hudson River sloops. From the 1840s to the 1880s, the Hudson River School painters found their inspiration in the dramatic New York wilderness that remained largely untouched yet easily accessible from Yonkers and the other river settlements.
It’s appropriate that Yonkers’ Hudson River Museum has in its permanent collection paintings by many of the most prominent artists in the Hudson River School: Asher Durand, Jason Cropsey, Samuel Coleman, James Kensett. Works by these and other members of the group show up frequently in Skinner auctions, and often at prices that make these romantic, luminous, airy depictions of unspoiled nature very affordable.
So, what are Yonkers?
Rich history, striking natural beauty, diverse industry.
And a fair share of fun, games (the Yonkers Raceway is a historic standard-bred harness racing dirt track), and popular culture. Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Jon Voight, W.C. Handy, Sid Caesar, and Mary J. Blige all once called Yonkers home.
Rediscovering History through Objects