by Bill Demarest
A small garage just off Main Street in Nyack that was dressed up as a tribute to the Underground Railroad has been demolished after the village ordered the structure torn down because it had fallen into disrepair and was declared a hazard.
The narrow, two-story block and wood structure for years has been popular among local photographers and artists because of its faded look and its awkward tilt at the top. However, the garage behind 29 Catherine St. does not have any direct links to Nyack’s role in the Underground Railroad—the clandestine freedom path taken by slaves in the 1800s to escape bondage in the South.
In late 2013, Nyack Judge Robert Knobel Jr. ordered the garage, cited by the village as an unsafe structure, demolished at the conclusion of a Village Court trial in which Daniel Mitlof, owner of 29 Catherine St., was found guilty of illegally converting the home at that address from a two-family dwelling to a three-family dwelling.
Mitlof was fined a total of $2,000 for violating village codes and for the hazardous garage. However, the judge told Mitlof he’d get a break on the fine regarding the garage if he removed the hazardous structure quickly. The garage is part of the 29 Catherine St. property.
Mitlof appeared before the Nyack Architecture Review Board in late 2013 and was granted the necessary approval from that group to tear down the garage. The approval process, however, was complicated because of confusion over the origins of the garage, which had a large Underground Railroad sign on it.
While the old garage has no historic significance, the building was turned into a tribute to the Underground Railroad by Mitlof’s father, Joseph Mitlof. The large Underground Railroad sign attached to the building was made purposely visible from Main Street.
Joseph Mitlof, who formed the Historic UnderGround Railroad Society, decorated the garage in 2004 with old tools and hoped the site could become a museum of sorts that could help educate children about the Underground Railroad and Nyack’s role. Here’s a description of the purpose for the garage:
“Come see our exhibit in Nyack (on Pond Rd. A ‘paper’ street behind the new Adare apartments)… The exhibit includes brief histories, sculpture, period tools (mid 19th century) as well as plans for a ‘secret escape passage’ and an audio of the slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
While there are two historic markers in Nyack paying tribute to the Underground Railroad and contributions of local residents Edward Hesdra and John Towt, the old garage that Joseph Mitlof put his Underground Railroad sign on was not linked to either Hesdra or Towt. The garage was near the route of the Nyack Brook, now piped underground through most of Nyack, which is believed could have been a passageway for escaping slaves.
The Nyack Library had a February 2008 display focusing on the village’s role in the Underground Railroad. Here’s what the library says on the subject:
There are two historical markers in Nyack that commemorate local participation in the underground railroad. One is at the corner of Main Street and 9W. Another is further down Main Street near where the brook is visible and a short pedestrian bridge gives people access to stores set back from the street. The two major players in the local underground railroad activities were Edward Hesdra and John Towt.”
Brooks, creeks, streams, and rivers were often used as landmarks for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Due to the extreme secrecy of the underground railroad network, it is difficult to trace the exact stops on the railroad. We do know that Edward Hesdra was in charge of an underground railroad station in Nyack. Hesdra owned property near the corner of Main Street and (Route) 9W where one plaque now stands in remembrance of the spot. Another plaque marks the brook that was perhaps used as a landmark. If you consult the 1876 map of Nyack it shows that Hesdra owned property in the location where the 1st plaque was located, but he also owned riverfront property near where the brook flows into the Hudson River. Also notice that John W. Towt, another noted abolitionist, owned properties near Hesdra in both locations.
As for the old garage, the top, wooden portion of the structure has been torn down, with the foundation remaining. Debris from the demolition remained to be removed.
Readers can reach William E. Demarest at 845.548.9048 or at firstname.lastname@example.org as well as at