A Brief History of Lake Katonah

LKC_history2Lake Katonah has never existed in isolation from the surrounding area, so it may be useful to begin any description of our community with a brief summary of conditions and events that preceded us.  While many of the things to be described are well known to those who have spent some time in this area, those who have come here from other parts of the country may not be familiar with them; I hope, then, that those longer in residence will bear with us.
The lake is, of course, named after the hamlet, which in its turn was named after Chief Catoonah.  Since the very name of our lake and Club reflects the Native American background of our area, a brief mention of the first people on the land seems in order.
Chief Catoonah was a 17th century Sachem of the Ramapos, who were part of the Wappinger Confederacy.  The Wappingers in their turn were Mohegans who belonged to the great Algonquian group.  We know something of the romantic history of these and other Native Americans from James Fenimore Cooper, and after reading one of his books it may not be too difficult to picture an Uncas or Chingachgoock-like Native American stalking on moccasined feet amid our hills or on the verge of our lake.
When we bought our house here in 1970, William Kellogg, one of the lawyers at the closing, told us how as a boy in the early years of the century he had often come to the area of Lake Katonah to hunt arrowheads.  Evidently it was considered a place rich in those artifacts, and probably still is, though few children seem to search for them these days.
The Native Americans found no shortage of game in the surrounding hills and woods, and if they returned today they would still find abundant animals.  Those with rummaged garbage cans and chewed shrubbery can attest to the presence of raccoon and deer, and many have had near collisions with deer – especially on Todd Road.
The ancient habits of the natives were disturbed by the Dutch Colonists spreading northward up the Hudson Valley from New Amsterdam.  In 1697, the land that contains Lake Katonah became part of the Manor of Stephanus Van Cortlandt, whose vast private holding stretched all the way east from the Hudson River.  Did our lake, woods, and hills witness the coming and going of sturdy Dutch patroons, eyeing with satisfaction their newly acquired countryside?  It was said that Van Cortlandt occasionally made forays into the “wild lands” from his manor house on the Hudson, but for the most part the land was occupied solely by Native Americans.
When Van Cortlandt died, his holdings were divided among his many children, and our area passed to his daughter Gertrude Beekman, a surname well known to anyone who has ever lived in New York City.  More familiar to us, perhaps, are names belonging to families of New England colonial stock who began arriving in the 18th century: Todd, Brady, Holly, Miller, Silkman, and Merritt.  They usually leased farmland from the Lord of the Manor and often purchased it as the opportunity arose.  They cut down trees and cleared the land of stones, piling them up to form low fences, which still crisscross the area.

The Revolutionary War arrived, and armed men from both sides roamed the countryside terrorizing the inhabitants.  Tory sympathizers raided and plundered the Brady house, on the site of the present large yellow house with the white pillars near the intersection of Increase Miller Road and Route 138.  Some believe that George Washington set up headquarters briefly at Goldens Bridge to supervise the withdrawal of his troops from White Plains.

After the war more settlers came into the area, and more of the land was cleared.  In the early 19th century Todd Road (then called Weeks Street), despite the fact it had only one lane, was part of the direct route from Stamford and other Connecticut ports to Tarrytown.  Stagecoaches and wagons thundered and creaked along the road, no doubt raising dust as cars do now, often stopping at the Waccabuc Road Inn, the white colonial house at the sharp curve west of Lake Katonah.

By the third quarter of the 19th century, much of the area was given over to Edward Brady’s cattle.  It was Brady who built one of the largest cattle and dairy businesses in the county, starting from a farmhouse on the present site of the Increase Miller School.  He later took over the large yellow house with the white pillars from his brother Simeon.  In 1849 he built the white Victorian house across from the clubhouse, presently occupied by Barbara Peabody and Michael Cusick.  After Edward Brady’s death in 1906, one of his sons, Arthur, came into possession of this house and the land that presently includes Lake Katonah.