An American Athens

Driving home to Massachusetts from the Hudson River Valley last weekend, I actually drove west, as my brother told me there was a village across the river which I might enjoy: Athens. All the day before when we were touring the riverfront estates of my last post we would look across and see some great house and every time I asked him where it was he would say Athens. I don’t think he was correct as it is a bit more to the north, but still I had Athens on my mind when I woke up the next day and was determined to go there. It’s just across the Rip Van Winkle bridge from Hudson, north of Catskill, which I visited last year, bordered by Cairo (of course) on the west. Apparently there is both a town and a village of Athens and I believe I was in the latter; no one has ever been able to explain the differing jurisdictions that you find in New York and New Jersey—hamlets, villages, boroughs, towns and townships—to me so I am perpetually confused. This seemed like a village, a river village, and it was absolutely charming. Probably the most famous building in Athens is its lighthouse, which really is a lighthouse, but my sentry was the 1706 Jan van Loon house: how different Dutch and English First-Period houses are!

Athens 1

Athens 2

There are several streets of historic houses clustered along the river and I immediately focused on the brick structures. The Northrup house (1803, first up below) is in need of some work but it features the characteristic elevated first floor that I saw on several Athens houses, an architectural feature which I always associated exclusively with southern houses for some reason. There were some lovely wooden houses, but the region’s clay banks supported as many as eight brickyards in nineteenth-century Athens, and fostered masonry construction: I just couldn’t capture enough of these old brick houses, glowing in the autumn sun.

Athens 3

Athens 9

Athens 10

Athens 4

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7 responses to “An American Athens

  • gallowshillsite

    Some modern history – The ferry scene in the Spielberg / Tom Cruise film War of the Worlds (2005) was filmed in the New York town of Athens (, Many of the building you highlight were shown in that movie!

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for crossing the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and sharing those lovely photos of Athens with us. With that in mind, permit me to quote a short passage from Irving’s Rip Van Winkle that captures the charm of the area:

    “Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains; and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.”

  • Brian Bixby

    Having just mastered the Maine “plantation,” I was leery of looking at NY’s local governments. But the case of Athens is simple. There is the town of Athens, much like a New England town. The village of Athens comprises a subsection of the town; the village government provides some services that the town does not. To judge from what I’ve read, while the entire state (save reservations) is divided up into cities and towns, villages are optional creations to provide services over small, densely populated areas, which may be within one town or may actually straddle a town boundary.
    Hamlets aren’t a legal division. And New York City’s boroughs are sui generis.

    • daseger

      Thanks–I think that New Jersey’s jurisdictions might be similar, but there are signs with Hamlets and then of course the townships. The other places that puzzle me are “unincorporated” areas that you see in the south and likely elsewhere. From my NE perspective, I can never understand how a place can be in a county but not in a town.

      • Brian Bixby

        Mine, too. I’m told by historians that two competing models of local government began in colonial times: the Massachusetts model, with weak counties and strong towns that filled up the county; and the Virginia model, with strong counties and only certain densely settled areas incorporated as cities or other municipalities. The Virginia model ended up predominating.

        And of course there’s the confusion over whether “township” refers to a six-mile-square survey subdivision or an incorporated municipality.

        The U.S. Census Bureau looks at things from a Virginia perspective, and calls New England towns minor civil divisions (MCDs) because they can embrace both densely settled communities and sparsely settled countryside.

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