The Dover Stone Church

February 08, 2015  •  2 Comments

Stone Church SpringStone Church Spring

 

Likened to a “cathedral of medieval times,” the Dover Stone Church, a natural and picturesque cavern carved slowly through the millennia by a crystal mountain brook running down the precipitous slopes of West Mountain in Dover Plains, NY, has attracted and inspired all who have made a pilgrimage to this revered spot for as long as records have been kept. Changing hands various times over the past three centuries, the Stone Church was acquired by the town of Dover in 2002, and promptly transformed into a community park to ensure continued and unabated access to this stunning natural curiosity.

Situated at the bottom of a steeply sloping ravine about half a mile distant from the busy Route 22 that bisects the town, the sides of this tight gorge are covered in thick, verdant mountain herbage, reminiscent of the northern Adirondacks. The opening of the Church is burrowed into a vertical metamorphic rock wall. The entrance very much resembles a “mouse hole” or arch chewed through wall molding, though of a much grander scale, standing 20 feet high. The interior is spacious and surprisingly well lit, and though the stream runs through the center of it, enough rock covers the bottom, similarly to a loose cobblestone road, to allow unimpeded access. During the drier months, the inside is especially easily traversed. At the very back of the main room where the stream penetrates through the cavern, a small waterfall cascades to the left of a massive slab of rock appropriately named the “Preacher’s Pulpit.” As this passage is situated almost directly due west, in the afternoon, bright sunny rays filter through the narrow fissure in the ceiling, illuminating the spray and dust of the chamber, transforming the drab surroundings into a scene as glorious and spectacular as any found in any man-made church with panes of stained glass, hence it’s given name.

Interior of the Dover Stone ChurchInterior of the Dover Stone ChurchDover Plains, NY

                                                                                                                                                 Stone Church Interior    

        

One of the first historical references to make mention of the Stone Church dates to around June 1637. Sassacus, the sachem, or chief of the Pequot tribe of Connecticut, reportedly took refuge in the cavern with a small band of followers to escape attack by another tribe of natives. He had originally been forced to flee westward when the last remnant of his people were exterminated by the English. Upon passing through Dover Plains on his long retreat, his group was unfortunate to encounter a hostile hunting party of Mohegans. After a fierce battle that inflicted significant harm to the Pequots, they retreated once more, this time to the craggy confines of the nearby Stone Church, where they remained hidden for a week until the Mohegans had departed.

By the 1830's the Stone Church was a well known natural feature and myriads visited annually. The proprietors of the Stone Church Hotel, located only a short distance from the cavern, recorded in 1832 that from June 1st-December 1st, “there were about eleven hundred visitors.” Throughout the remaining years of the decade the numbers increased even more. An eloquent 1838 article in the Poughkeepsie Casket greatly advertised the benefits of making a pilgrimage to this site, comparing it to a holy temple worthy of worshipping in. The author remarks that the Church “is admirably calculated to inspire the contemplative mind with devotional feelings, and to lift the thoughts of the great ARCHITECT of the universe, beside whose works the pigmy creations of proud man are merely atoms.”

Numerous adventurers of the past have left their marks upon the interior of the Church. In many spots along the lower walls can be found historical, and now, unfortunately, modern graffiti.  Names and dates meticulously chiseled into the resistant stone date back to the mid-1800’s. One detailed individual from 1873 even went so far as to record the time of day. While these historic scribblings add a bit of intrigue to the scene, it’s important not to further despoil this remarkable place by the addition of contemporary marks.

MaherMaher

This carving was created by David and Joseph A. Maher, members of a prominent family in Dover Plains in the latter half of the 19th Century. The History of Dutchess County published in 1909, records Joseph as having been “the first and only boy from the parish of Dover Plains who ever embraced the priesthood.”  After graduating from Fordham University in 1876, “he spent four years in Rome where he was ordained priest.” Twenty years later, in 1893, David would return to the Stone Church and make another carving, but this time without his brother. Father Maher suffered an untimely death in 1886.

 

As it can probably be surmised, based on the beauty and natural splendor of this sanctified cavern, the Stone Church has hosted numerous weddings over the years. Its close proximity to town, in addition to the path that leads up to it being relatively level and traveled with ease, endows the Church with ideal qualities for hosting nuptials. It’s difficult to envision a more perfect wilderness locale for such a union.

Few people realize that there’s actually another much grander waterfall directly above the Church, rising to perhaps 30 feet. Situated further upstream, in the wilder and more treacherous confines of the ravine, Fern Glen Falls, as it’s known, dashes over colossal chunks of rock detached from the steep walls, now jumbled and haphazardly strewn in every direction in the narrow valley. Reaching this place is arduous, and though it’s possible to gain a perfect glimpse of the falls, it’s nearly impossible to physically reach it. Fern Glen Falls plummets into a circular pit as deep as the falls are high, with no clear route to climb in or out of. Following the brook further westward reveals several additional smaller waterfalls and rapid cascades. A quarter mile trek will bring you into a stately grove of old growth eastern hemlocks.

Fern Glen FallsFern Glen FallsStone Church Brook (Dover Plains, NY)

Fern Glen Falls

 

With trees towering to heights well over 100 feet tall and a trunk diameter massive enough to escape being fully embraced by even the largest person, these giants are several centuries old. Hemlocks are capable of attaining an age of 800 years. This species has one of the longest lifespans of any tree in the northeast, and is also extremely slow growing, sometimes taking 250, or even 300 years, to reach full maturity. They do exceedingly well in shade and growth can actually be inhibited, especially in seedlings, by direct sunlight.  Old growth trees in this part of the country are quite rare, most having been logged long ago for lumber or the tannin-rich bark that was used to process leather.

Stone Church Brook PoolStone Church Brook Pool

Small waterfall and accompanying deep pool 1/4 mile above the Church

 

This is one of the few places in the area still not infested with the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid, a deadly insect accidentally introduced from Japan that superficially resembles a white fungus. These majestic trees managed to escape the ax, yet still may succumb in the future to a pest not much bigger than the head of a pin; felled not by human might, but rather, by human stupidity.

The preservation of the Stone Church, in contrast, demonstrates remarkable prudence. The many conservators and agencies engaged in making the purchase of this treasure possible must be applauded for their dedication. There are few other natural wonders in Dutchess County steeped in as much history and legend as this. The Church and its tranquil surroundings are sure to soothe the tired minds and bodies of all who sneak away from the modern world and its many distractions. This peerless retreat has been described as “an admirable place for pic-nics” as well as a prime destination to enjoy “the great work of nature.” Now that it’s protected the Dover Stone Church will uninterruptedly be able to offer the same sense of awe and comfort it provided to the first visitors, going three centuries back to the time of Sassacus and his band of wearied refugees.

Fern Glen Falls RavineFern Glen Falls Ravine

Fern Glen Falls & Ravine

 

Icy ArmorIcy Armor

On the slopes of West Mountain

 

View from the Inside of the Dover Stone ChurchView from the Inside of the Dover Stone ChurchDover Plains, NY

Peering out of the Stone Church

 

Dover Stone ChurchDover Stone ChurchDover Plains, NY

Dover Stone ChurchDover Stone ChurchDover Plains, NY

 


Comments

Linda Brady(non-registered)
Friends of the Dover Stone Church do not recommend hikers going farther than the cave since the trails beyond are dangerous and people have had accidents there. There are now three trail heads that are safe to hike before the trail to the cave begins. They are very well marked.

This was a very accurate article and the photography is amazing.
Jennifer(non-registered)
Wonderful article, very informative. Beautiful photos.
No comments posted.
Loading...