Up River: Points of Interest on the Hudson
A NEW EXHIBIT ABOUT THE Hudson River was opened to the public in October, 2006 at the CLUI Landscape Information Center in New York state. Up River: Points of Interest on the Hudson from the Battery to Troy looks at the shoreline of the Hudson River, from Battery Park, at the mouth of the river at Manhattan, to the end of the tidal river, at the Federal Dam in Troy.
The CLUI exhibit consists of a map of the length of this stretch of the Hudson, with dozens of “points of interest” along the shore, depicted in aerial photographs taken by members of the Center over the past three years, accompanied by descriptive text.
The Hudson River is a sculpted landscape, reflecting the collective culture that abides along its shores. It is more than a local river, it is a nationally superlative and progenerative place. The voice of the Hudson is that of the nation that was cradled in the history of this river—a nation that matured along its banks and which has risen up mightily in the Empire State.
The distance between the Battery and Troy, 130 river miles, is the distance separating the gates of Gotham and the hinterlands of the State Capitol at Albany, across the river from Troy. The edges of this river are marked with many of the achievements, outtakes, incidents, and monuments between these poles.
It was here that American landscape painting was born, and where our fantasies of a national Eden originated. Here too were many of the Revolutionary War’s decisive moments. But today the literal landmarks of the Hudson—the industries, avenues, prisons, power plants, quarries, parks, condos, ruins, and redevelopments—possess the most compounded and complete stories of this place.
The full spectrum of the environmental movement has played out in spaces along the Hudson, starting with the efforts to stop quarrying along the columnar cliffs that run along the New Jersey side of the river, north of Manhattan. The transformation of these palisades into quarries was an affront to the view of many wealthy people who had homes on the east side of the Hudson. Chief among them was John D. Rockefeller, whose country house faced the Palisades. He began to organize other landowners and politicians to stop the quarrying, often by buying the land himself. Eventually, the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission, a public agency, was formed in 1900, to acquire and manage the land on the western shore of the Hudson. The Palisades Interstate Park system now consists of over 100,000 acres and 20 miles of Hudson shoreline.
In 1962, the dominant local utility, ConEdison, proposed building the world’s largest pumped storage power plant on the shores of the Hudson, at Storm King Mountain, starting an 18 year long battle between the company and local citizens who were opposed to the project. Opposition grew throughout the 1960’s and ‘70s, led by local politicians and patricians, and by the Hudson’s troubadour, Pete Seeger. They ultimately won the battle, and the controversy led to the establishment of legal precedent and national laws that help to put the preservation of the natural environment before the interests of business.
Efforts to preserve the scenery of the Hudson continue, often led by the group that was created to organize opposition to the Storm King plant, Scenic Hudson. Scenic Hudson recently ran a successful campaign to stop the proposed construction of one of the nation’s largest cement plants near the city of Hudson, on the east bank of the river.
But the river is still a major industrial corridor, an inexpensive conveyor of bulk goods to New York City and northern New Jersey, by far the most densely populated part of America. Once the largest brick production area in the nation, with dozens of brick plants lining—and transforming—the shores of the Hudson, now the industries using the river for conveyance, storage, and production are gypsum, aggregate, limestone, gasoline, and heating oil. A few large cement production centers include dramatic ruins, manmade islands with hulking silos, and networks of conveyors connecting the shore to inland mines. A half dozen large power plants are plugged into the Hudson—including the notorious Indian Point nuclear power plant—delivering power to the urban centers, and using the river to cool their boilers. Some of these plants tap into the pipelines that bring natural gas from Canada and the Gulf of Mexico to supply the Northeast. These lines cross under the Hudson at several points, as does the water supply for New York City, which comes from reservoirs over a hundred miles upstate, conveyed through the Catskill and Delaware aqueduct systems.
As a major historic artery heading inland, the Hudson evolved into a military river. Conversely, in recent times, the river served as a visual highway, leading the 9/11 terrorists downstate to the Trade Center towers. From the historic “Battery” at its mouth (now Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan), to Nike missiles poised on hills above Haverstraw Bay, the Hudson has hosted generations of fortifications. Today, there are three active military sites along the river: the National Guard training site at Camp Smith; the Watervliet Arsenal, a military gun foundry, and West Point, the nation’s oldest continuously operating military post, and a looming gothic presence at one of the most dramatic parts of the river’s topography.
West Point was built at what George Washington once declared was the “most important strategic position in America.” First occupied by the military in 1778, it is the location of the Army’s most prestigious school, mandated by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. The early focus of the U.S. Military Academy was on civil engineering, following the principles established by Napoleon and the Ecole Polytechnic in Paris. By the time the Civil War ended, the civil engineering conducted by the military had transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, and West Point started providing a broader curriculum. West Point Military Academy’s densely developed, neo-gothic main campus is just part of the 16,000 acre military reservation, which includes a ski slope, an artillery range, a natural area that cannot be visited due to unexploded ordnance, and one of the five sites for the U.S. Mint (West Point is part of the nation’s gold and silver bullion repository).
Though dramatic and grand, the epic of the Hudson has its subtle and unobtrusive moments. Heading further up river, most of the shoreline is interstitial space, unheralded, and out of focus, punctuated by thousands of structures: homes, drainage outfalls, boat ramps, private docks, municipal sewage treatment plants, and the old ferry landings of small towns and cities, being converted into public space.
Once considered the back space, with landfills and industrial sites, and water so polluted it was dangerous, the Hudson is now swimmable, and its urban industrial fringes are desirable waterfront properties. As a result, much of the industrial heritage of the Hudson is gone, giving way to condominiums, health clubs, and remediated promenades. In a few years New Jersey’s entire urban shoreline on the Hudson will be completely transformed from the industrial docklands of On the Waterfront to a continuous strip of condominium complexes and shopping plazas full of Bed, Bath and Beyonds. Beyond the cities, the bike paths and jogging trails that line the shores have the side effect of homogenizing a fragmented and complicated mix of layered uses, and the mysteries and histories they embody. The capped and contained industrial soil lurks beneath the asphalt, and behind the sheet pilings, a post-industrial burial ground.
Up river, the channel narrows, until it comes to a point at the Federal Dam, at Troy. Though water spills over the dam, water downstream from this point is tidal: the river is an estuary, an extension of the ocean. It takes water more than a hundred days to get to Manhattan from here. It takes a tugboat about 12 hours. Above this point the river is cut by lock and dams, and linked to the network of canals—the Erie, and the Champlain—that blend the Hudson with the waters of Montreal, Burlington, Buffalo, Toronto, Chicago, and Duluth. Up river, the waterway that continues to be called the Hudson, emerging from a lake in the Adirondacks, is a different sort of river. ♦