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The High Tor Legends

Legend 1: The Ramapo Salamander

A curious tale of the Rosicrucians runs to the effect that more than two centuries ago a band of German colonists entered the Ramapo valley and put up houses of stone, like those they had left in the Hartz Mountains. And when the Indians saw how they made knives and other wonderful things out of metal, which they extracted from the rocks by fire, they believed them to be manitous and went away, not wishing to resist their possession of the land.

There was treasure here, for High Tor, or Torn Mountain, had been the home of Amasis, youngest of the magi who had followed the star of Bethlehem. He had found his way, through Asia and Alaska, to this country, had taken to wife a native woman, by whom he had a child, and here on the summit he had built a temple. Having refused the sun worship, when the Indians demanded that he should take their faith, he was set upon, and would have been killed had not an earthquake torn the ground at his feet, opening a new channel for the Hudson and precipitating into it every one but the magus and his daughter. To him had been revealed in magic vision the secrets of wealth in the rocks.

The leader in the German colony, one Hugo, was a man of noble origin, who had a wife and two children: a boy, named after himself; and a girl - Mary. Though it had been the custom in the other country to let out the forge fires once in seven years, Hugo opposed that practice in the forge he had built as needless. But his men murmured and talked of the salamander that once in seven years attains its growth in unquenched flame and goes forth doing mischief.

On the day when that period was ended the master entered his works and saw the men gazing into the furnace at a pale form that seemed made from flame, that was nodding and turning in the fire, occasionally darting its tongue at them or allowing its tail to fall out and lie along the stone floor. As he came to the door he, too, was transfixed, and the fire seemed to burn his vitals, until he felt water sprinkled on his face, and saw that his wife, whom he had left at home too ill to move, stood behind him and was casting holy water into the furnace, speaking an incantation as she did so. At that moment a storm arose, and a rain fell that put out the fire; but as the last glow faded the lady fell dead.

When her children were to be consecrated, seven years later, those who stood outside of the church during the ceremony saw a vivid flash, and the nurse turned from the boy in her fright. She took her hands from her eyes. The child was gone. Twice seven years had passed and the daughter remained unspotted by the world. For, on the night when her father had led her to the top of High Torn Mountain and shown her what Amasis had seen - the earth spirits in their caves heaping jewels and offering to give them if Hugo would speak the word that binds the free to the earth forces and bars his future for a thousand years. It was her prayer that brought him to his senses and made the scene below grow dim, though the baleful light of the salamander clinging to the rocks at the bottom of the cave sent a glow into the sky.

Many nights after that the glow was seen on the height and Hugo was missing from his home, but for lack of a pure soul to stand as interpreter he failed to read the words that burned in the triangle on the salamander's back, and returned in rage and jealousy. A knightly man had of late appeared in the settlement, and between him and Mary a tender feeling had arisen, that, however, was unexpressed until, after saving her from the attack of a panther, he had allowed her to fall into his arms.

She would willingly then have declared her love for him, but he placed her gently and regretfully from him and said, "When you slept I came to you and put a crown of gems on your head: that was because I was in the power of the earth spirit. Then I had power only over the element of fire, that either consumes or hardens to stone; but now water and life are mine. Behold! Wear these, for thou art worthy." And touching the tears that had fallen from her eyes, they turned into lilies in his hands, and he put them on her brow.

"Shall we meet again?" asked the girl.

"I do not know," said he. "I tread the darkness of the universe alone, and I peril my redemption by yielding to this love of earth. Thou art redeemed already, but I must make my way back to God through obdience tested in trial. Know that I am one of those that left heaven for love of man. We were of that subtle element which is flame,- burning and glowing with love - and when thy mother came to me with the power of purity to cast me out of the furnace, I lost my shape of fire and took that of a human heing - a child.

I have been with thee often, and was rushing to annihilation, because I could not withstand the ordeal of the senses. Had I yielded, or found thee other than thou art, I should have become again an earth spirit. I have been led away by wish for power, such as I have in my grasp, and forgot the mission to the suffering. I became a wanderer over the earth until I reached this land, the land that you call new. Here was to be my last trial and here I am to pass the gate of fire."

As he spoke voices arose from the settlement. "They are coming," said he. The stout form of Hugo was in advance. With a fierce oath he sprang on the young man. "He has ruined my household," he cried. "Fling him into the furnace!" The young man stood waiting, but his brow was serene. He was seized, and in a few moments had disappeared through the mouth of the burning pit. But Mary, looking up, saw a shape in robes of silvery light, and it drifted upward until it vanished in the darkness. The look of horror on her face died away, and a peace came to it that endured until the end.

Legend 2: The Legend of Hugo

The most curious County tale is the Legend of Hugo, a puzzling mixture of Indian superstition, Christian faith and German mysticism. The Indians believed that a great tortoise and a pregnant woman had made the world. To protect mankind they imprisoned the evil spirits of greed and lust beneath High Tor, the steep basaltic cliff below Haverstraw.

Centuries later, the youngest of the Magi heard the story of their imprisonment. He had been deeply impressed by the infant Christ and determined to test his faith by finding the Tor and exorcising the evil spirits. In a dream he saw the location of High Tor above a great river in a distant continent to the east of Asia. Traveling across Asia and the Bering Straits, then over the North American continent, he found the Tor. He built on altar on its peak and tried to convert the Indians and destroy the spirits. His efforts failed and he died of a broken heart.

In 1740, a band of ironworkers from the Harz Mountains in Germany heard of the rich iron ore to be found in the county and came to the Hassenclaver Mines. Their leader was Hugo, a Rosicrucian.

Rosicrucians were members of a secret society founded by a German knight, Christian Rosenkreutz. They were alchemists and students of the occult and of mysticism. They believed that base metal could be turned into gold and that evil could be turned into good.

When Hugo heard of the Indian tale and the Magus' efforts, he, too, dreamed of the evil spirits beneath the Tor. He ordered his men to build a forge where the Magus' altar had stood and began to pray over them as the Magus had done, trying to turn them from evil to good.

The spirits answered. They told him he could set them free by reading aloud the letters on the back of a giant salamander that lay beneath the forge fire. If he did this, they would give him unbounded wealth and power over the world. He refused. His men become alarmed. They begged him to put out the forge fire and leave the cursed mountain. He continued to watch and pray over the fire even though his wife and children, a boy and a young girl, begged him to leave.

One night the salamander rose out of the flames. The huge lizard fatally burned Hugo's little son and shocked his wife so badly that she died. Hugo went mad with sorrow and wandered raving through the woods. Mary, his daughter, was left alone in their small hut.

A few days later a young man of unusual beauty came to the hut and asked Mary for shelter. She made him welcome, then in great distress told him what had happened to her family. He promised to help her and knelt with her in prayer for her father. Touched by his kindness, she began to trust and love him.

He returned her love, but one night he confessed what he really was. He was the Angel of Fire sent down by God to help mankind. Instead of doing so, he had allowed himself to be corrupted by the evil spirits. They had treacherously changed him into a salamander with the secret letters on his back. If spoken aloud by a human, they would be set free. When her father had refused to read them, the spirits had ordered him to destroy her brother and mother, drive her father mad and in the shape of a man corrupt her.

As Hugo wandered nearby, he heard the young man's confession and came to his senses. With a loud cry, he pushed the young man into the blazing fire. But because of his love for Mary, he was transformed into on angel again and drifting upwards through the sky, vanished from their sight.

Both legends are reprinted from Myths and Legends of Rockland County New York.