Built around 1801, the North Plank Road Tavern in Newburgh is one of the oldest buildings to exist in the municipality. Starting out as a hotel along the main route of the Newburgh-Shawangunk Turnpike, it was a popular stagecoach stop and also attracted merchants traveling to and from the then-flourishing Newburgh waterfront docks.
A “plank” road was just that; having trees that were cut down and then split in half and placed atop otherwise dirt byways along the heavily trafficked route. Having the split trees strategically placed with the flat side up, it provided more stable travel on the often muddy and rut-filled dirt roads.
“The labor to build the plank road was often invested labor by locals. In lieu of taxes, they’d contribute labor and at the turn of the 19th century a lot of labor was contributed to roads by women and children,” City of Newburgh Historian Mary McTamaney said. “These were Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 widows that moved middle- and small-size rocks that they could manage to help put things into place.”
During the mid-19th century, as railroads arrived in the area, the building became a rooming house and tavern. Run by Herman Miller and Charles Yost, the proprietors maintained living quarters on the upper floors of the building. The business changed hands in 1917 when August and Augusta Sauer purchased it and ran it until 1928.
A minor associate of New York City mobster Dutch Schultz’s crime syndicate had a residence near the tavern and regularly sheltered Schultz and other mob members when the heat became too much in the city after one crime or another. Typically, the members would drink and play cards all day and night until it was safe to return to their own homes.
“I’m sure that the tavern had a bootlegging operation and was used as a speakeasy during prohibition,” McTamaney said. “And I’m sure that guys from the mob visited the tavern.”
Anthony and Susan Nixon assumed ownership of the tavern, running it from the late 1920s to 1978. A favorite proprietor among tavern regulars, Anthony — better known as Mitch or “Uncle Frank” — oversaw the operation for several decades. He was associated with the mob and they did away with the rooming house operation. Patrons accessing the second floor could avail themselves of a slot machine operation.
A beautifully carved mahogany bar that once sat in the former United States Hotel in Newburgh was relocated at some point and installed in the North Plank Road Tavern’s taproom. Its dining rooms boast an enviable atmosphere, with trompe l’oeil painted walls that mimic wood, brick and stone, and a circa 1895 painting of the Hudson River.
Present owner Tom Costa purchased the tavern on St. Patrick’s Day in 1979. He has painstakingly maintained the building’s historic integrity and appearance.
“When I purchased the building I had to modernize it and I spent about eight months bringing it up to code,” Costa said. “Some old timers told me that when Mrs. Sauer owned the tavern, she had a trap door in the kitchen where she hid the booze during prohibition.
“Three years after I bought the place I was redoing what used to be the kitchen and I found the trap door; under the trap door, the booze was still in the dirt under the building,” he said. “I found guns and some of Mitch’s booze because he had two stills, one in the barn where he made applejack and another on the third floor where he made gin.”
“The tavern has generated a lot of attention lately because Orange County Historian Johanna Yaun made it the first in her ‘Tavern Trail’ lecture series,” McTamaney said. “Attendees visit historic taverns in the area and the owner enlightens them about the history of that particular site.”
Now celebrating Costa’s 40 years of ownership, the historic tavern is at 30 Plank Road, Newburgh.
“Dateline” appears Wednesdays in the Poughkeepsie Journal. To suggest a topic, email Anthony Musso at firstname.lastname@example.org