“A young lady is set adrift in a balloon high above Manhattan:” A real Cliffhanger Atop the Palisades

By Marcia Anderson

Hot Air Balloon

Hot Air Balloon

(Part three of a series on the Palisades)

Slightly old news, but still a lot of fun…  By 1910, the majestic Palisades cliffs had become a center of film production for the nation’s film industry, long before Hollywood was even a dream. During warm months, Fort Lee and the Palisades bustled with activity. Dozens of silent films were shot on location, complete with Wild West shootouts and railroad rescues. The cliffs were frequently used as a location for silent adventure films and were the source of the term “cliffhanger,” most notably coined from the 20 part serial: “The Perils of Pauline.”

‘Once upon a time,’ an adventurer, author and heiress, Miss Pauline Marvin, paid to accompany a balloon pilot on a journey across the Hudson River and to fly over New York City. While Pauline was having her photo taken in the balloon prior to the flight, a nearby horse bolted, causing the balloon crew members to drop the guy ropes and run in panic. Pauline was set adrift for several hours in the balloon, flying over Manhattan, where she landed safely, only to find herself in another predicament. She was the ultimate damsel in distress, as her guardian repeatedly plotted to kill the heiress so he could keep Pauline’s inheritance for himself. Such went the opening chapter of the 1914 serial motion picture “The Perils of Pauline” followed by over 20 chapters of adventure all starring Pearl White, as Pauline.

As time went on, the warm climate of California drew many of the film stars and much of the movie industry away from the Palisades, however, a number of recent Hollywood hits have come back to be filmed in the Palisades. Notably, in 1988, Tom Hanks became Big at a wishing machine in a carnival at Ross Dock in the Palisades. Then in 1990, Martin Scorsese had three GoodFellas –  Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta – bury a body, and then dig it back up in the woods of the Palisades. Later in 1996, Alec Baldwin with Demi Moore, went to Ross Dock in The Juror. He wrestled with, and later blew up a car full of, bad guys in the Palisades. Also in 1996, Mel Gibson appeared in Ron Howard’s film, Ransom, also shot on the Palisades.

How were the Palisades Cliffs formed? The sandstone layers of rock were deposited in the early Triassic Period by the weathering of mountains and erosion of material which was deposited by rivers in the area. Toward the end of the Triassic, about 200 million years ago, the earth’s crust diverged in many places forming rift zones enabling large quantities of molten rock, or magma, to be released from deep within the Earth. Much of this magma did not breach the surface of the Earth. Instead, it flowed horizontally between the layers of sandstone and shale – like meat in the middle of a sandwich. This intrusive river of hot magma is now known as the Palisades Sill.  (A sill is a body of igneous rock that is parallel to the layers of rock they intrude.) The overlying sandstone rocks were uplifted, weathered and eroded by repeated periods of glaciation, exposing the columnar rocks of the Palisades Sill.

Since 1930, when the George Washington Bridge was completed, New Yorkers can walk, bike, drive or take a bus ride from Manhattan to picnic or hike on the Palisades. Numerous trails and historic sites are located within the Palisades and in 1983 the Palisades was designated as a National Natural Landmark. (http://www.njpalisades.org )

About the Author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.

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