Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (published in 1820) may be one of the world’s most famous spooky stories, but it would be even scarier to pass up a Nerd Trip to the actual town of Sleepy Hollow. Sitting on the shores of the Hudson River just over the Tappan Zee Bridge, Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown provided the perfect pit stop during a family trip to Connecticut in 2011. With Irving’s tale downloaded on my iPod (a new pinnacle of nerdiness), my mother, brother and I set out to explore the place that gave us Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.
We first stopped at the Eldorado diner to meet some family friends and “plot” our trip to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the final resting place for famous folks ranging from Irving himself to Andrew Carnegie and Elizabeth Arden. (Just FYI, there is actually another famous Sleep Hollow cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, where Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott are buried).
After lunch, our first stop was the cemetery office to pick up the hand-drawn map that would guide us through the hilly terrain of this 90-acre cemetery that dates back to the Revolutionary War.
The cemetery, incorporated October 29, 1849, was originally called Tarrytown Cemetery (apparently to Irving’s dismay), but later renamed “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery” after the author’s death in 1859.
Our friends cautioned us about the cemetery’s steep and narrow roads, but we kind-of ignored that warning until we had to do a Y-turn in my mom’s brand new Toyota Rav 4, inching back and forth on the edge of a cliff over a deep ravine with my mom shrieking “Ooo, Ooo, Ooo” from the backseat (I admit we were pretty close to the edge, but probably not as close as she thought. We were using the back-up camera!).
The Y-turn was part of our quest to find the Headless Horseman bridge. In Irving’s story, Ichabod Crane races toward the bridge to escape the horseman, allegedly the ghost of a Hessian soldier. However, Ichabod loses the race and is never seen again.
The original bridge was located by the Old Dutch Church, a building also made famous in Irving’s tale. And here’s a Nerd Trips bonus, the Old Dutch Church also has a presidential connection – George Washington and his Continental Army stopped there in 1781. These days, the church is still there, the original bridge is not.
However, even more than 100 years ago, people seemed to realize the attraction of a Headless Horseman bridge. In the late 19th century, the cemetery expanded to property across the Pocantico River, so they built a rustic looking bridge to mimic the original. The boards apparently sound like hoof beats when you drive over them. I bet that’s scarier at night.
It actually took us a little while to find the Headless Horseman bridge. We just weren’t sure we had the right place. As we scanned the cemetery for signs about the bridge, and my mom cried out “Ooo, Ooo, Ooo” again from the backseat. She had spotted a Sleepy Hollow sign, so we backed up. Here it is:
That’s right. It was a sign about fishing permits. We did eventually find the “new” Headless Horseman bridge and got a pic with the Rav 4 on the boards.
I was proud of my brother (who has been dragged on many a Nerd Trip) for preferring to navigate with the hand-drawn map as we searched for the graves of Samuel Gompers (of labor history fame), industrialist Andrew Carnegie, auto executive Walter Chrysler and others. And rather than hit the main street, we wound our way through the twisting cemetery roads to reach the Old Dutch Church, where we easily found the sign about the original bridge.
The three-acre burying ground of the Old Dutch Church, next to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, dates back to the 1600s, and it’s allegedly the origin of the Headless Horseman legend. There’s a grave there for Catriena Ecker van Tessel (died 1793) , thought to be the inspiration for Irving’s character “Katrina Van Tassel.”
You may think you know the story of the Headless Horseman from popular culture, including the 1999 Johnny Depp movie and other versions (I remember the Disney cartoon). There is currently a popular TV show called Sleepy Hollow. But when is the last time you read it? Being the nerdy English major that I am, I chose the unabridged version to download – bad idea.
We listened to the story after our visit, and it was kind-of fun to visualize the characters in the locations we had just seen. But for a 21st century audience, the original Irving tale moves very slowly, spending a great deal of time on character development, describing Ichabod Crane, Bram Bones and Katrina Van Tassel in great detail as well as the life and manners of the Dutch people who had settled along the Hudson (so much description of the food!). After more than an hour of listening, we finally had to give up. It was just too slow. I’m not kidding, it drags.
When I got home, I finished the story on my own, and the action actually started to pick up just after we stopped listening. And, it’s amazing to see how these characters still permeate American culture, just this week I saw a candy bar commercial with “Horseless Headsman.”
Sleepy Hollow was also the scene of a Nerd Trips first: an aborted Nerd Trip. On the way home we planned to return to Tarrytown to visit Sunnyside, the home of writer Washington Irving. However, we left Connecticut later than planned, so we arrived at Sunnyside just before it closed. I must confess that I was rather disappointed. However, we did have enough time for $5 gift shop purchase of a Sleepy Hollow Cemetery guide, complete with pictures and more formal map. (For more details about maps, tours, etc, check out our “On the Map” page that features our Nerd Trips ABCs – admissions, bathrooms, concessions, etc)
Since we missed Sunnyside, we decided to drive a little farther and picked up a bonus Nerd Trip to Princeton, New Jersey (more on that in the next post).
I definitely want to make a return trip to Sleepy Hollow to tour Sunnyside. There are also several grand homes in the area that you can visit, plus the scenery along the Hudson was beautiful and town itself looked interesting. If you’re up for a ghost story, you can take guided tours of Sleepy Hollow cemetery, including some evening tours around Halloween. If you’re up for revisiting the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in literary form, I recommend the abridged version.