The Palisades Interstate Park is a National Historic Landmark.
Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey

The Rockslide that Wasnt

Captain John Jordan.

Dec. 2005 rockslide Dec. 2005 rockslide Dec. 2005 rockslide Jordan plaque.

“The Rockslide that Wasn’t” was first published in the March-April 2006 issue of “Cliff Notes.”

Honoring John Jordan on the centennial of his death. Honoring John Jordan on the centennial of his death. Honoring John Jordan on the centennial of his death. Honoring John Jordan on the centennial of his death.

On February 5, 2015, we marked the centennial of Capt. John Jordan’s death.

One of the largest rockfalls in recent history occured in May 2012 directly below State Line Lookout.

Seismograph printout courtesy of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

One of the largest rockfalls in recent history occured in May 2012 directly below State Line Lookout. The shockwaves from this rockfall were detected at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

Before we get into the Rockslide That Wasn’t, we should say a few words about the Rockslide That Was. In the early morning hours of Saturday, December 17, last year, a few thousand tons of diabase, the basalt-like rock that comprises the Palisades cliff face, decided to let loose above the Alpine Approach Road. Dawn revealed that about eighty feet of the roadway was gone, vanished into a swath of shattered trees and rock. The leading edge of the slide stopped at the parking area at Alpine Boat Basin, where it reduced a cinder block transformer shed to rubble. One boulder, showing a bit more exuberance than the rest, bounded beyond the end of the slide for around a hundred feet across the parking lot — leaving holes in the Macadam like divots in a golf course — twisting the top of the chain-link fence that runs around the basin (the boulder — about four-feet square and weighing a ton or more — had to have been at least five feet off the ground when it met the fence) before smashing into a wooden support beam beneath the basin’s boardwalk. There it dropped into the water.

No one saw it happen, no one heard it. But hours later, while conducting the annual Christmas Bird Count, staff and volunteers from Greenbrook Sanctuary could still smell the slide. Rock dust and broken trees.

Along our twelve miles of Palisades we get a significant rockslide at least every other year or so, but this one has been labeled perhaps the “big one,” bigger, in terms of damage at least, than any on our staff can remember. (About ten years ago, a slide took out another piece of Alpine Approach Road. This one was worse. It took out not just pavement but the underpinnings of the roadway.)

The job was bid out, the repair work begun about a month after the slide occurred. The road was reopened on the weekend of February 11 (just in time for the big snow of ’06 to temporarily close it again!).

Besides these monsters that spring up (down?) every so often, smaller rockslides happen all the time, of course. Take a ride down Henry Hudson Drive after a heavy rain and you’ll see the rocks — from pebbles to the size of bowling balls — that got scattered along the roadway, then cleared to the side by our maintenance crews. Or sit at one of the boat basins on a quiet evening for an hour or two. You may hear one: Clack, click-clack, clack. It’s all part of the process of erosion that is going on day in and day out along the cliffs, wind and rain and ice pitching in with gravity to slough off a bit of the cliff face here, a bit more there, whittling, whittling our mountain down to its base.

But do we have any stories of a person caught beneath a rockslide? That question brings us to the creepy tale of John Jordan — and the Rockslide That Wasn’t. There is a plaque for Jordan on the Shore Trail about a quarter mile south of Alpine Boat Basin, and which is explained in Robert O. Binnewies’s Palisades: 100,000 Acres in 100 Years (Fordham University Press, 2001).

The plaque, Binnewies noted,

… [marks] the spot where the PIPC’s first police captain, John Jordan, had lost his life on February 5, 1915. Jordan was carrying the payroll along the river shore path from the Alpine boat basin to the Englewood boat basin when a boulder dislodged from the cliffs above, hurtled down to the exact place where he was walking, and struck and killed him instantly.

Many of us first heard this tale from more experienced staff members when we started working here. It had the feel of a good yarn from the “hard-to-believe-it-but-it-really-did-happen” school. Especially that detail about the payroll. Might it be buried still beneath the rocks, waiting for someone to find it after another shift of the stones...?

A good story. But is it true? Let’s begin with a local paper’s account…


Alpine, N.J., Feb. 6 [1915] — Plunging backward as he lost his foothold in ascending an ice covered path near the top of the Palisades here, Captain John Jordan, head of the Interstate Park police force, was killed instantly when he fell a hundred feet.

Powerless to aid him, William Brady, a policeman, who had accompanied Captain Jordan, saw the man in his descent until he was lost from view. The snow and ice on the path forced Brady to act cautiously as he made his way to the foot of the cliff in an effort to find Captain Jordan. He reached the roadway parallel with the Hudson River, but search here was futile, and he selected another path and began a second ascent.

On this trip he found the body in a clump of bushes, about twenty-five feet above the shore road.

Captain Jordan was forty-seven years old and lived at Alpine. He leaves his wife and four children.

Confirming this account, his death certificate, filed in Trenton, recorded that John Jordan’s death resulted “Probably [from] fracture of base of skull from a fall from the Palisades by accident on ice.”

For the record, Jordan was a descendent of Joseph Jordan, who, family tradition maintained, had come from France during the American Revolution, sailing across the Atlantic with General Lafayette to aid the American cause. After the Revolution, Joseph married a local girl and settled beneath the Palisades. Through the next century and a half, the Jordan family would become one of the most prominent at Alpine; when the Interstate Park was created in 1900, John Jordan stayed around, signing on among the park’s first employees.

Always, sorting the “true” story from the folklore it inspired adds a more human dimension to the tale. John Jordan’s body was put to rest beside his wife’s at the Alpine Cemetery. Though the newspaper article recorded his being survived by his wife and four children, the headstones tell a different — and sadder — story.  It’s possible he’d remarried since, but the stones show that the mother of his children had pre-deceased him by two years.

We can only hope that this family tragedy was mitigated in a small way at least by the fact that the extended Jordan family in 1915 was still a large one here at Alpine — with plenty of aunts and uncles to help fill the hole John Jordan must surely have left in his children’s lives that winter’s day, when daddy slipped on the ice.