The Deaths of Buttermilk Hill
“Buttermilk Hill is the name of a desolate, rugged mountain, about a mile from Unionville Station, studded with a thick growth of young trees, underbrush, and rocks. It is about a half mile from the base to the top of the mountain, and to ascend it one must follow a lonesome, tortuous, rocky wood road, starting from the Sawmill River Road, which lies at the foot of the hill on the eastern side.”The New York Herald, Thursday September 1, 1881. “MURDERED IN THE WOODS”
Something might be off about Buttermilk Hill. Today most people know of it as an area of scenic walking paths in Rockefeller State Park Preserve and one of the highest points in Westchester County. Its steep slopes are dotted with towering trees, large cliffs and boulders, and thick scrub woodland. It was an important location in the American Revolution and it is not far from the very valley from which Washington Irving wandered and found inspiration for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The area feels distinctly quaint and historic as you rise up and away from the Hudson River. It’s almost like slipping into the past.
According to some, the name of this geographic feature comes from the creamy color of the flowering dogwood trees that used to carpet the hillsides in the springtime; to others, the name is derived from the farmers’ wives who had to hide their cattle on the slopes from the foraging British Army, and the running of such cattle produced Buttermilk straight from the teat.
Naming aside, Buttermilk Hill seems to attract a certain type of attention. The famously haunted Raven Rock squats menacingly on its eastern slope and is the site of the two possibly earliest deaths, but there are few details besides the resulting ghosts. In recorded history, a farmhand by the name of Joseph Baldwin was gruesomely murdered with an axe in September of 1881 by his employer Patrick Coleman. Baldwin was cut down with Coleman’s axe in the middle of the road leading to the farm where he worked, having been struck about the head viciously. He was only thirty-five years old and had a wife and children. Coleman was arrested and later tried and found guilty of the murder, but no motive was ever found.
A news article of the time lays out the chilling tale, with some sensation, but remarks how the killing of Baldwin is just one of four known murders (two notable and two not) on Buttermilk Hill:
“The mother of Leander Hammond was killed at the foot of the mountain with an axe about twenty years ago, and not many years previous to that crime a drover was killed and thrown into a neighboring well. The people there have a horror of this mountain, especially at night, as it is believed to be a fatal spot.”Eastern State Journal, September 2, 1881. “Shocking Murder at Buttermilk Hill, Near Unionvllle.“
There was no information on the other two killings.
It’s June 21st, 1927 and a few schoolboys exploring around Buttermilk Hill discovered a skeleton in the woods. It was lying with one leg tucked under its torso and another wedged against a tree, which was partially propping it upright with its skull turned downward. The remains were without flesh and all of his clothing was tattered and nearly rotted away; save for a leather belt with a large buckle.
The remains were examined carefully and murder was ruled out, despite finding a crack in the skull, and the police at the time suspected the poor man had been dead nearly two years. Based on the manner in which the bones were found the determination was that whomever this was, had likely been descending the steep slope of the hill and slipped, tumbling down and eventually fracturing his head and coming to rest against the tree. Or so they hoped, as the skeleton had been discovered at Raven Rock.
On June 3rd of 1935, 50-year-old Stephen Cieply left the county Old Folks Home in Eastview where he was a resident, and walked north along the Sawmill River and up the steep slope of Buttermilk Hill. He had told the Home’s administrators that he was going to find a job to make money to pay off a debt he owed to a boarding house in Buffalo, NY. At about noon on June 4th, the watchman on the Rockefeller Estate, which Buttermilk Hill was part of at the time, found the body of Cieply hanging from a tree while on his daily rounds. He called in the police.
Cieply had been a resident of the home since 1932 and had emigrated to the area from Poland in 1905 and had worked in various factories and other industry jobs around Hastings-on-Hudson. He had a sister living nearby and supposedly a son, but his wife was long deceased when he entered the home. The police investigating immediately determined that Cieply had sadly committed suicide, but they could determine no obvious reason and no note was ever found.
So, the next time you decide to take a walk and find yourself admiring the fertile fields of the preserve, wind your way along the idyllic paths that snake around the summit of Buttermilk Hill and take the time to remember those unfortunate individuals who lost their lives on its slopes. There is both beauty and sadness imbued in those woods and remember to find your way home well before dark.