Old Dutch Church
Bridge over the Pocantico
Catriena Ecker Van Tessel, Old Dutch Church Burying Ground
Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
"If I can but reach that bridge," thought Ichabod, "I am safe."
A 1798 outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan forced the Irving family to send their teenage son, Washington, to stay with friends up the Hudson River in Tarrytown. While living in Tarrytown Irving became familiar with nearby North Tarrytown, a quaint Dutch village.
Cemeteries make for a good picnic area and Irving would have spent time in the burying ground of the Old Dutch Church, built in 1685. Behind the church runs the Pocantico River. Travelers along the Albany Post Road, which is today's Broadway in New York City and NYS Rt. 9 its entire length, would have crossed the river on a wooden bridge a few hundred feet from the church. The exact location of the original bridge is unknown. The current day bridge that carries traffic over the river is named after Washington Irving but is not very interesting. However, if you go into Sleepy Hollow Cemetery there is a recreated wooden bridge, engineered so that your car tires sound like a galloping horse as you drive over it.
Among the graves Irving saw was that of Catriena Ecker Van Tessel, wife of Petrus Van Tessel. Petrus and his cousin Cornelius were prominent landowners in nearby Elmsford. The Ecker family was also a prominent Dutch family that had settled in Westchester County.
Catriena died in 1793, so Irving would not have met her but he remembered her as Katrina Van Tassel in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The character of Ichabod Crane is believed to have been based on a friend of Irving's and the character's namesake was a colonel Irving met while in the US Army during the War of 1812. The real Ichabod is buried on Staten Island.
Irving himself is buried in a family plot in the adjacent Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The original name of the cemetery was Tarrytown Cemetery but it was renamed at Irving's request after his death. His headstone has been replace several times over the years. The village of North Tarrytown was renamed Sleepy Hollow in 1997, partly to capitalize on the legend, but mostly to get a fresh start after the devastating closing of a GM assembly plant.
During the warm months there are guided tours of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and the Old Dutch Burial on weekends. I took the tour of the Old Dutch Burying Ground earlier in October. Well, I started the tour. The volunteer guide was a charming and very talkative older gentleman. He was entertaining but it took us a long time to get out of the church and to the first grave. Luckily that first grave was Van Tessel's so I wandered off and came back later to photograph it.
It was good fun wandering around those cemeteries. I had wanted to see the Irving-related sites since I lived across the Hudson in Nyack. The carved sandstone of the Dutch headstones with their unsentimental view (Mors Vincit Omnia means "Death conquers all") that death is an essential and inevitable part of life is oddly comforting.
Tomorrow, the Day of the Dead, will be dedicated to the scariest, creepiest spot in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Seriously, if you frighten easily, or are not strong of stomach you will want to avert your eyes.