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In The News

u-NY-que V: The Mighty Hudson

November 06, 2009
Timothy McDonnell


Photo Above: The Hudson River (Estuary) cuts through the Highlands at West Point, making a right-angle turn. This made it a crucial strategic place during the American Revolution (photo by Lin Butter).

In 1609, a small ship called the Half Moon flying the flag of the Netherlands entered a bay and discovered an estuary. The captain was Henry Hudson. He was looking for the illusive "Northwest Passage" to the Far East. The ship sailed north, passing mountains and lush hardwood forests. They stayed at sea level for over 100 miles. But, eventually, Hudson's lock ran out. The estuary morphed into just another river, and he knew that this was not a shortcut to China. Although he never lived long enough to learn this, but Henry Hudson had unlocked a bigger prize - the Empire State!

The Dutch did not take long to figure out that a gift had been dumped in their laps. They set up a trading post near present day Albany, and then in 1624 they "bought" the island of Manahatta from the local Native Americans, and New Amsterdam was born. They established manors in the shadows of the mountains they named the Catskills. People from all over Europe emigrated to the "North River," and, sadly, African slaves were brought in as well.

Things were looking up for New Netherlands. But this land of prosperity had not gone unnoticed by their rivals, the English. They sailed into the harbor at New Amsterdam, forcing the Dutch to surrender, and they renamed the colony (and the small city at the mouth of the great river) was renamed New York.  Nearly four centuries later, the legacy of New Netherlands lives on in places like Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Yonkers, Kinderhook, and all those "Kills" (Fishkill, Cobleskill, Peekskill, etc.).

The river itself held the key to the control of a continent. The one-hundred-mile estuary cuts through a section of the Appalachian Chain at the Hudson Highlands, and the river remains near sea level all the way to modern day Troy. Farther north, there is a low portage that connects this river to Lake George and Lake Champlain, leading to Canada. Whoever owned this strategic corridor would rule North America. Of course, the French in Canada knew this, too. Several wars were fought over these north-south trending waterways. The last one, known locally as the "French and Indian War," resulted in a decisive British victory. France surrendered her Canadian domains in 1763, and His Majesty King George III ruled supreme.

Well, that did not last long. The colonists declared their independence in 1776, and once again the Hudson River saw its share of this American Revolution. It did not start well for the rebels, under the command of George Washington. The British army and navy swept them out of New York City, nearly ending the revolution just weeks after the Declaration of Independence. But Washington's army held on, hunkering down along the Hudson River to the north of  NYC. The following year, the British, under Gen. John Burgoyne, tried another approach. They sailed down Lake Champlain, taking Fort Ticonderoga with hardly a struggle. The goal was to control the entire Hudson-Champlain corridor, separating New England from the rebellious colonies to the south.

(Photo to the left): Saratoga National Historic Park, where the Americans won control of the Hudson River Valley in the Revolution. 

But then another side of the geography of New York came into play. The Hudson's largest tributary, the Mohawk River, is the only low-level passageway leading toward the Great Lakes. It is not a tame estuary, but an unruly river with many rapids and a large waterfall at Cohoes, just a few miles north of Albany. Nevertheless, it was very strategically important in its own right. For that reason, the British sent another army down from Canada to Lake Ontario and then on toward the Mohawk River. They needed to capture Fort Stanwix (Rome, NY), and then to seize the entire Mohawk Valley. They would meet up with Burgoyne, and the State of New York would return to lowly colonial status. It was a great plan, but it was not executed well. The seige at Fort Stanwix failed after a very bloody battle at nearby Oriskany. American "patriots" fought those loyal to the King ("Tories"), and the mighty Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) fought for both sides, brother against brother. Burgoyne meanwhile continued his march southward and became bottlenecked at Saratoga. In October 1777 with winter approacting, he was forced to surrender, turning the tide of the great revolution. The British never seriously again threatened to control the Hudson-Champlain valleys. They almost took West Point, when Benedict Arnold committed his infamous act of treason, but that plan failed. Finally, in 1783, the British agreed to recognize our independence, and General Washington marched triumphantly with his troops into New York City.

Now independent, New York really began to prosper. In 1807 Robert Fulton launched the Age of Steam with the first voyage of the Cleremont on the Hudson River. This changed transportation forever. In 1817 the State of New York undertook an incredible project, the construction of Erie Canal. This artificial waterway used the gap in the mountains that followed the Mohawk River and continued westward through the Finger Lakes region to the Niagara Frontier. When the canal was completed in 1825, it connected the Great Lakes with the Hudson River. Its success cannot be underestimated. Almost all the trade between the Midwest moved through Buffalo and the other canal towns, and then down the river to the Port of New York. This made New York City the undisputed first city of the United States, a position that she has never relinquished. (There were several obstacles that had to be overcome before the canal was completed. One of them was circumventing the Cohoes Falls, just a mile from the Mohawk's confluence with the Hudson River. See the picture on the right).

The Hudson Valley has also been important to America's cultural legacy. We all know the stories of Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman by Washington Irving of Tarrytown. Our first native school of art also occurred in the Hudson Valley, led by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church from the villages of Catskill and Hudson, respectively. Today the entire river valley is popular for its scenic beauty, from its source at Lake-Tear-of-the-Clouds on the slopes of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondack High Peaks to the Statue of Liberty in New York Bay. In between the river passes through the Adirondack wildnerness, where lumbermen once floated logs downstream to the saw mills. After passing through the Capital Distict, the Hudson River reaches sea level. Yes, the tides do go upstream daily. Hyde Park was the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the home today of National Historic Sites for both him and his wife Eleanor. The valley was also important for the Underground Railroad. Sojourner Truth was enslaved in Ulster County near New Paltz, before she became a powerful abolitionists (and feminist) advocate. In the Hudson Highland area, near West Point, the Hudson is actually a fjord, since it was carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age. As the river approaches Manhattan, the Palisades tower along the western side. And, of course, the view of the New York skyline from the river is absolutely incredible.


Photo on left: Rapids in the Hudson River near North Creek in the Adirondacks; photo in center: the Falls at Cohoes, near the confluence of the Mohawk River with the Hudson; photo on right: the Palisades, looking toward the George Washington Bridge.

The Hudson River is definitely one of New York's jewels, worthy of our distinction of being "u-NY-que." Without this great North River, there would be no Empire State. In the next issue we will look at another New York river - the Genesee!