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Halloween meets history in Sleepy Hollow

Published 10/19/2011 12:00 AM

"In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, there lies a small market-town by the name of Tarry Town."

Thus Washington Irving introduces us to the most bewitched place in the infant United States: Sleepy Hollow in New York, just over the Connecticut border. To New Englanders, it's the last exit before the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Irving spent quite a bit of time in the place, listening to the old Dutch country wives and their tales of the supernatural. Later, while sojourning in England he included "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in his "Sketch Book." It, along with his equally iconic "Rip van Winkle" are among the oldest examples of American fiction that are still read today.

And like the tale, the location he based it on endures — much of it untouched by the hands of time. A Halloween visit to the quaint hollow offers a nice alternative to the rush and crowds of Salem, Mass., this time of year.

At Sleepy Hollow (and Tarrytown, just to its south), visitors can walk the steps trod by Ichabod Crane's horse on the fateful night he disappeared, last seen by the headless Hessian. The old Dutch church still stands adjacent to the Olde Dutch Burial Ground, both undisturbed by the passing years. Regular tours of the church and cemetery (including evening lantern tours) are available, but visitors are welcome to explore on their own. And the cemetery is well worth it. Historical surprises of every kind lurk around its twisted, hilly roadways.

In addition to the grave of Washington Irving himself, you can find the final resting places of such American titans as Andrew Carnegie. In an exquisite American irony, labor leader Samuel Gompers is buried practically right next to him. You'll also find Frank Church, the editor who penned "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus," William Rockefeller, Walter Chrysler, Vincent Astor and a host of others. If you peruse the winding, forested cemetery, make sure you get a map at the front gate, as it's quite extensive. And you don't want to miss the Headless Horseman's bridge, which leads to a newer part of the ancient graveyard.

When visiting the cemetery, don't neglect the Old Dutch Church made famous by Irving's legend. The oldest existing church building in New York, it was built in 1685. On weekend nights in October, a professional storyteller will regale you with the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in period dress.

Also preserved from the early days is Irving's manor house, Sunnyside, which lies on 10 acres of pristine land overlooking the Hudson River in Tarrytown. Open daily through Halloween, the Irving home offers tours of both the house and grounds, along with a glimpse into upper-middle class life in the early days of the Republic. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $6 for children ages 5-17.

For Halloween nightlife, Sleepy Hollow doesn't disappoint. Best is the Horseman's Hollow on the sprawling grounds of Philipsburg Manor. For $20, visitors are taken through a multi-building haunted house. It is best described as hauntingly charming and mildly scary, but you'll want to keep small children away from this one. The operators recommend it for age 12 and older and that seems about right. Also, those who are claustrophobic or have heart conditions might want to find something else to do.

Speaking of which, no visitor to Sleepy Hollow should miss the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze on the grounds of van Cortlandt Manor. More than 4,000 hand-carved pumpkins are ablaze in a phenomenally eerie display. Tickets are $20 for adults and $12 for children 5-17, but the price goes up on Saturdays.

During the day, visitors can grab a bite at any of the numerous restaurants in Tarrytown's charming downtown. You can find anything from cafés to sushi to traditional family dining. A walk through the downtown will bring you across yet another historic site — the place where Major Andre was captured by a couple of alert Sleepy Hollow farmers, thus uncovering the most infamous piece of treachery in American history: the plot of Benedict Arnold to betray his country by handing over West Point to the British.

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If You Go

Sleepy Hollow makes a great day trip, but you may want to stay overnight in order to experience everything the place has to offer. Unfortunately, there's a dearth of bed and breakfasts in the area, but a couple of suitable hotels are nearby. For the nighttime events, visitors are well advised to get tickets early, as they have a tendency to sell out. Both the Horseman's Hollow and the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze can be done in one evening, but allow a couple of hours between. Check out hudsonvalley.org for everything you need to know to plan your visit.