The Hudson River has been called “The Rhine” and ‘’Danube” of America. She is graced by cities, towns, castles, grand estates, mountains, farms, woodlands and marinas. It has been sailed on, fished, fought over, loved, polluted and redeemed by a humble folk singer who devoted his fame, time and money to save her. The Hudson River today is a non-political lesson for all Americans. We start with a condensed history of the river.
There are various claims as to who first discovered this rather short 315-mile river. John Cabot and Verrazano were the first, sailing only to its terminus at the New York Harbor area, they went no further thinking it would turn into wetlands. Henry Hudson in his ship Half Moon had the salt to sail up and claim it for Holland in 1609, so he gets the pie in his face. Before anyone could say, “Algonquin” the Dutch were building small trading forts along its banks to trade with the tribes for furs. The Dutch knew a good deal when they saw it.
“Hey chief! How about me giving you three beads for that 10 ft. stack of useless beaver furs you have there”. That’s how it started. Then Peter Minuet gets the idea of buying the entire Manhattan Island for three Yohoo’s, four Rice Crispy treats, and an old poster of Sonny and Cher – or something like that. You get the idea. It was a better deal than Trump and “no one was the wiser “except when the English noticed and tossed the Dutch, in their light blue pantaloons and wooden shoes, outta there.
From the mid -1600s through the Revolution, the river, its beautiful valley, farms and towns saw wave after wave of prosperity, peace and too much war. This was all due to the fur trade expanding west and the key to this exploitation was control of the Hudson. So, the English raided the French in Canada, the Iroquois attacked the English as they got wise to colonial land grabbing, The Hurons joined the Canadian French in attacking the English. Suffice to say – it was a bloody mess. War canoes and armies traversed back and forth, up and down the Hudson. It became very tiresome until the English started marrying French women, Iroquois fell in love with Hurons, and the rich like the Astor’s, Renseliers and Livingstons, who by now had enormous estates up and down the river, as usual, fell in love with themselves.
After our 1776 – 1783 Revolution, won with the help of Native American’s guerrilla fighting skills, the Hudson was tied to the Great Lakes by building the Erie Canal making Hudson even more important. The west was settled faster. Riches poured into New York City making it one of the most important shipping harbors on earth. Towns along the river like Haverstraw prospered by brick production from the natural clays along the river shores. Iron smelters and industrial factories grew in towns like Peekskill, Kingston, Beekman,Troy and so many others. Their products were shipped in sloops to Manhattan or north through the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and points west. In addition, the Hudson contained an enormous fishery. Spring runs of shad and striped bass filled boats and were sold down South Street. Its fresh oysters were sold in Manhattan from carts. These were the precursors and the ever-present gyro and hot dog carts on the streets of New York today.
That’s the simplest, most incomplete history I have ever written. I’m not proud of it, but you get the idea. It’s just background for the big picture of how a rich resource for travel, beauty and industry meets the brink of destruction and is redeemed.
Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer lived on top of a mountain above the town of Beacon, New York. In the 1940s he built a log cabin there where he and his filmmaker wife, Toshi, lived all their lives. From his porch, he could see farms in the valley and the Hudson River beyond. Over the years he saw the river, looking grand from afar, was sick and dying. Pete began to call it “A convenient sewer” and decided to do something about it. Pete was unique. As a young man in the 1930s, he hung around with Woody Guthrie, the train jumping, union rising, songwriting, folk singer and activist. For Pete, fighting for the environment was as important as fighting for human rights just as he did when joined the anti-racist and war protests. Under the McCarthy and Roy Cohn hearings of the 1950s, Pete was “blacklisted” yet he fought and sang on.
From 1966 to 1968, Pete began joining clean water activists and giving concerts up and down the river. Each concert was attended by thousands. His dream was to raise money to build a traditional Hudson River sloop. By the end of the first year, he raised enough money to impress others to give grants to help. Power players like the Rockefellers and the Wallaces from Readers Digest gave generously. The Clearwater’s keel was laid in Maine, and she was launched on May 12th, 1969.
The Clearwater is a nautical art piece. She is gaff-rigged and with sails totaling 4,350 square ft. Her mast is 108 ft. tall; her length is 76.6 ft. with a 24 ft. beam. Her draft is 6.6 ft. and she weighs 69 tons. Her hull, decks, mast and spars are of traditional wood construction. Below decks is fashioned as any 19th-century sloop would have been. Clearwater’s homeport is appropriately Beacon, New York, where Pete’s great spirit can still watch over her and his beloved Hudson River. She proudly flies the American flag symbolizing what we, as Americans, can accomplish if we put our prejudices aside just as Pete taught us. After all, “This Land is your land’’ – for all of us together!
On her maiden voyage, Clearwater was crewed by Pete and other folk singer friends who sailed her down the coast from Maine. Performing 25 concerts along the way, then down the East River to the South Street Museum where she docked, and her crew entertained many New Yorkers educating them to the importance of not only a clean Hudson but our waters in general.
Subsequent summers she sailed up and down the river bringing environmental education, river history and song and they came to listen by the thousands. The Clearwater was accomplishing what Pete and his supporters dreamed of by bearing witness to pollution caused by sewage, electric plants, a nuclear plant, farm fertilizer run-off and general neglect. Atlantic sturgeon, once common, had become rare, as did the oysters, crabs, eels, and striped bass. Even the annual shad runs were dwindling. The Clearwater arrived at the right time and Pete knew it.
He gave his heart, soul and songs to “Save the Hudson”! Because of Clearwater’s fame, towns were forced to clean up their act. Most raw sewage no longer runs into her waters. Large corporations have been legally challenged in their dispersal of damaging chemicals and forced to clean up their industrial sites.
Clearwater’s success story began to echo around the country. Folks began fighting for rivers,
lakes, forests, mountains and deserts. The fight is still going on but Pete’s dream, The Clearwater set the mark for environmental activism.
Today, Clearwater still sails under the auspices of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc. in Beacon, New York. The Director of Operations, Erin Macchiaroli noted that though Clearwater went through some very hard times during the pandemic her supporters answered the call of “Sloop in Distress” and together with some other incentives she is back to doing what she does best, sailing and bringing her message up and down the river. They are now raising funds for a major restoration next winter. Wooden boats require constant maintenance. You can donate to this restoration at Hudson River Sloop, Inc., 724 Wolcott Avenue, Beacon, NY 12508
Erin also noted that Clearwater will hold their “Great Hudson River Music and Environmental Festival” virtually to bring people together in activism, song and celebration. Details are at www.clearwaterfestival.org. The event is free and all donations are greatly appreciated. To view Clearwater’s sailing schedule to enjoy a sail at the dock nearest you go to www.clearwater.org.
And now I leave you with a beautiful lyric from this song written by Pete.
SAILING DOWN MY GOLDEN RIVER
By Pete Seeger
Sailing down my golden river
Sun and water all my own
Yet I was never alone.
Sun and water, old life givers
I’ll have them where ‘ere I roam
And I was not far from home.
Sunlight glancing on the water
Life and death are all my own
Yet I was never alone.
Life to raise my sons and daughters
Golden sparkles on the foam
And I was not far from home.
Sailing down that golden highway
Traveling from near and far
Yet I am never alone.
Exploring all the little by-ways
Sighting all the distant stars
And I was not far from home.
C.2021 by Mark C. Nuccio-Article and Illustrations.
All Rights Reserved