Port Jervis offers visitors a vibrant history, tasty fare - and the oppurtunity to be in three places at once.
Road Trip: Port Jervis
Located at the confluence of the Delaware and Neversink rivers, Port Jervis, an outdoor enthusiast's paradise, has stayed true to its Victorian and railroad roots
by Richard Buttlar
Local landmarks (from top): Port Jervis’s
stunning vistas along Route 97. This portion, known as Hawk’s Nest, has been featured in
You can drive thousands of miles and spend a ton of money to visit the Four Corners Monument, where New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona intersect. Or you can get three-fourths the bang for a lot less bucks simply by dropping by Port Jervis, that little Orange County city that most of us whoosh past while traveling on Route I-84.
To visit the Tri-States Monument – where New York, New Jersey, and Pennyslvania meet up – you have to drive through Laurel Grove Cemetery. Don’t let that deter you. It’s one of those lovely Victorian resting places that originally doubled as a public park. Reputed to be Orange County’s first graveyard designed by a landscape architect (one Howard Daniels), it contains more than 15,000 monuments, including lots of fascinating, late 19th-century statuary. What’s more, its location – between the V where the Neversink and Delaware rivers converge – is a stunner.
So don’t be in a hurry to get where you’re going. (Fat chance: the cemetery roads are narrow and winding.) Anyway, within five minutes you’ll arrive at the rivers’ confluence, a place called Carpenter’s Point. Ahead, the Delaware rushes southward, toward Trenton and Philadelphia, between evergreen-studded hills. It’s a landscape artist’s dream, pretty enough to make you overlook the noise from semis on Route 84, which passes directly overhead.
Down by the shore is the stubby monument pinpointing this geographical nexus. If you place your left hand atop it just so, your thumb will rest in the
The Tri-States Monument is just one of many surprises Port Jervis has to offer. In fact, the city has done an excellent job of preserving its history, which stretches back to the late 17th century, when Dutch and Huguenot farmers began displacing Native Americans on the fertile land along the Delaware. The remoteness made these settlers prime targets during the American Revolution. On July 20, 1779, Iroquois leader Joseph Brant and his Tory raiders pounced. Residents sat out the attack in the sturdy stone dwelling of Martinus Decker. Its walls were incorporated in a new structure built by Decker in 1793. Today, Fort Decker is headquarters of the local historical society.
In the 19th century, the hamlet became a transportation hub, first along the
Today, the last remnant of Port Jervis’s great train days is a huge turntable, used to switch the direction of engines and cars, on the grounds of the old Erie rail yard. Originally built in the early 1900s and enlarged in the 1930s, it’s the largest operating turntable in America, boasting a diameter of 115 feet. It was last used in 1996, when it turned around the 440-ton engine of an excursion train. A nearby signboard explains its history and importance.
Literature lovers will want to view the Civil War memorial in Orange Square. Larger and more elaborate than most local tributes to veterans, it features a 45-foot-tall stone obelisk topped with a Union soldier. Ten thousand people flocked to its dedication on July 5, 1886 – what one local paper called “the greatest day that Port Jervis ever had.” Author Stephen Crane interviewed veterans of the county’s 124th Regiment (known as the “Orange Blossoms”) around the statue’s elaborately carved base. He turned his notes into the classic novel The Red Badge of Courage, which he penned several blocks away, at the home of his brother William. (A state historical marker sits in front of the residence, on East Main Street.)
And then there’s Gillinder Glass, opened in 1912 and still family-run. In addition to producing commercial glass – including half of the runway lights used at American airports – the company hand-crafts a variety of attractive glassware accessories for the home, from lamps and vases to figurines. During a tour, you’ll be treated to an “up close and personal” look at the glassmakers’ artistry.
If you’re eager to commune with nature, the city offers many possibilities. There’s a riverfront pathway for a pleasant stroll, a sandy beach for swimming, prime fishing spots, and put-in points for canoes or kayaks. (There are places upriver to rent them.) A signboard suggests a more sedentary alternative: “Pick a spot and sit in the middle of the Delaware River with an exposed rock alongside of you and read the New York Times with a cold drink on a hot, muggy afternoon.” Sounds good to me.
From the looks of its downtown, Port Jervis is still very much a working-class city. Its small business district, along Front Street, seems to be on the rebound. Many of its lovely Victorian storefronts have recently been spruced up, or are undergoing a redo. With the exception of a handful of antiques stores — where you can find everything from a bubblegum-pink Buddha to mid-century modern furniture and old sleds — its shops tend to cater to the local crowd, although they’re equally rewarding for visitors. (If it’s trendy you’re after, Milford, Pennsylvania, is half a dozen miles away.)
You don’t want to miss the Herb Shoppe, housed in the magnificent Old Erie Station, built in 1892 and enlarged 20 years later. (Once the rail line’s largest depot, it was slated for demolition until railroad buffs purchased it in 1984.) Wise shoppers can purchase everything from dandelion root to frankincense and myrrh. The store also stocks unusual health foods such as the sea vegetables kombu and wakame.
Down the street, you’ll want to hit The Book Nook, which features an impressive collection of used tomes. The Fabric Center has everything you’ll need to craft quilts as beautiful as those featured in its window. If you’re after new furniture with a comfortable old look, the Well Dressed Room is worth a stop. And don’t leave downtown without some homemade candy from Still Hungry (I’d recommend the chocolate-covered coffee beans) or pastries from Carmine’s Bakery, where the black and white cookies are the size of salad plates.
Got bigger hunger pangs? In addition to tasty brews, Port Java serves up delicious quiches and homemade soups. Erie Hotel, whose walls are adorned with railroad memorabilia, offers good-sized portions of steak and seafood; in the summer, head for its al fresco tiki bar. Across the street, Restaurant at 20 Front has spiffed up the old County Trust Company building. Its opulent Gilded Age interior is the perfect setting for upscale dishes like osso buco or comfort food such as beer-battered fish and chips. For dessert, Riverside Creamery features tempting sundaes, milk shakes, and homemade cakes.
Before heading home, there’s one more can’t-miss treat. Drive north on Route 97, up the winding road that takes you into the nearby mountains. This area, dubbed Hawk’s Nest, offers some of the Valley’s grandest scenery. (Many car commercials are filmed there.) Towering cliffs loom on your right. On your left, the Delaware courses hundreds of feet below. The view is the perfect ending to a day full of unexpected discoveries.
Caption: Local landmarks (from top): Port Jervis’s Tri-States Monument; the Erie Hotel and Restaurant serves up tasty grub, along with railroad history; stunning vistas along Route 97. This portion, known as Hawk’s Nest, has been featured in several car commercials.
Caption: Downtown on the rebound: Many storefronts in the city’s business area have been recently renovated.