Author: Michael Gaige, Consulting Ecologist & Saratoga PLAN Advisory Council Member

Geologically, Snake Hill has been studied for at least 198 years. First described by Dr. John Steel in 1824, Snake Hill’s abundant fossils, folded layers, and relative isolation from other similar structures make it a geological anomaly. Snake Hill was described by Rudderman in 1912, then Berry in 1963, and most recently by English et. al in 2006. They noted, simply: “The Snake Hill Formation is a unique occurrence, and thus restricted to its type locality at Snake Hill, NY.” Snake Hill is a chunk of the Taconic Mountain lowlands from 450 million years ago that was heaved far to the west.

Ecologically, Snake Hill is composed of distinct community types as a result of its topography and past disturbances. The south facing slopes—which take in the view from Stillwater’s Brown’s Beach is a xeric dry oak hickory hophornbeam woodland. Locally, this is an uncommon community type especially at this low of an elevation and in close proximity to more mesic communities. The steepest faces of the south side include Shale Cliff and Talus natural community types. Eastern red cedar has been confirmed on this side growing to 175 years old. On the west face the mixed pine and hemlock community contains trees 225 years old.

Because the surrounding landscape is shale dominated, the sandstone quarry provided one of the few local quarries of solid rock. This was also the site of Saratoga County’s only documented rattlesnake hibernacula. According to John Furman, author of Timber Rattlesnakes in Vermont and New York (UPNE, 2007) the snakes in this den were probably hunted to extinction by the 1860s, however, the site remains the only known location in Saratoga County of this threatened species. It is also the namesake of the now 200+-year-old English name for the landform. In recent years, eagles have nested in the old growth pines.

Culturally, Snake Hill has been enjoyed, appreciated, and revered for centuries, if not millennia. According to Nathaniel Sylvester who collected Native stories about the Saratoga region in 1884, Snake Hill’s Native name Tor-war-loon-da, means “hill of storms.” Indigenous people have stories around the significance of this landform.¹ For this reason alone the site should be forever protected. Snake Hill has also served more recent Americans as a recreational backdrop for over 200 years, and as a subject of artistic pursuit. A lithograph by Isidore Laurent Deroy from 1848 of Saratoga Lake with Snake Hill as the centerpiece is held at the Yale University Art Gallery. It was part of a book of 54 American images by the artist that included such iconic sites as Washington’s Tomb at Mount Vernon, Niagara Falls, and the US Senate Chamber, among others. Snake Hill ranked among America’s most prized sites in the 1800s. It still ranks highly among county residents today.

The aspects of Snake Hill listed here—geological significance, present and past ecology including natural communities and ancient trees, and the centuries of cultural significance—should not be mitigated in isolation. It is the “whole” of Snake Hill that matters. It is geologically, ecologically, and culturally unique and thereby regionally significant. It is woven into the cultural fabric of Saratoga’s regional and cultural landscape.

1.Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester. Indian Legends of Saratoga and of the Hudson Valley. 1884.