America On The Hudson

PrintPrintEmailEmailAll those thousands of leagues outward bound from Amsterdam, and now they reached land, land bisected by a vast channel doubtless connecting Atlantic to Pacific and fabled China. The captain had looked for that route even through Arctic ice floes. Now he and his less-than-two-dozen-man crew thought they saw it. Logic indicated that they were in India, so the dark-skinned people gaping from shore were obviously … Indians. The sailors headed north to chart the future spice-trade passage.

But then the channel narrowed and showed difficult currents, and the water became less salty and finally turned fresh. Was this really the seaway to China? A launch was sent to explore ahead while the captain and his mate went ashore. It was September 18, 1609. They met Mohicans, who made them very welcome, offering a dinner of pigeons and what the mate described as a “fat dog,” skinned using shells from the river.

Invited by gestures to spend the night, the visitors hesitated. Their hosts showed lack of evil intent by breaking bows and arrows and throwing them into a fire, as the launch returned with word that what had been taken for a sea passage was in fact a river. Captain and crew “unanimously concluded that there was little chance of getting to China in this direction,” says one account. They sailed away.

We are told by Washington Irving that Capt. Henry Hudson and his men returned for one day of sport and drinking every 20 years thereafter, to “keep guardian eye on the river and the great city called by his name.” (The Rip Van Winkle Bridge, named for Irving’s informant on the festivities, crosses the water near where the stubby Half Moon dropped anchor.) Great city? That seems a little much for a place whose population even in its heyday never exceeded 15,000—twice what it is today—and which was far smaller than that for nearly 200 years after the Half Moon ’s arrival.

 
 

The Dutch, Hudson’s employers—he was English—partitioned New Netherlands into vast patroonships, aristocratic holdings of hundreds of thousands of acres. One was the Van Rensselaer estate, which included tiny Claverack Landing, where there lived a handful of families and a ferryman with a canoe to take you across the river. There was a toll road whose inscribed-on-wood pricings are viewable today at the local Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) chapter house: for up to a score of steers, hogs, or lambs passing through, 20 cents; each additional animal, a penny. Sloops took them to New York City.

In time the British evicted the Dutch, and in time the American colonists rebelled against the British. Far away in New England the Revolution decided Claverack Landing’s destiny. Rhode Island and Massachusetts Quakers who had been amassing unheard-of profits in the whaling trade found the marauding Royal Navy very bad for business. The Friends sought a safe harbor. They found it at Claverack Landing, whose waters could handle boats of any draft. They bought the land in 1783.

Then, as every history of the Hudson River Valley relates, the Quakers did something phenomenal, wondrous, almost unbelievable. With astonishing speed, the 30 of them, the Proprietors, as they called themselves, laid out generously proportioned avenues you can still see today, and they sailed in dismantled New England mansions for reassembling along those avenues and built enormous wharves, from which sailed ships. Within a year and a half, little Claverack Landing, renamed Hudson, was New York’s third-largest city, sending out whalers to bring in immense catches and welcoming in carpenters, caulkers, riggers, smiths, sailmakers, and merchants offering boots and shoes, drugs and medicines, and liquors. Records show “an instructor in the polite accomplishment of dancing,” a “Lady’s habit-maker, from London,” doctors, distilleries, public houses, saddlers and tanners, a foundry. Hudson’s ships went all over the world from this inland port, carrying hides, smoked or pickled river herring, beef, and pork. Within 20 years it was routine for nearly 3,000 goods-bearing sleighs in winter, or wagons in summer, to come into town over the toll road from as far away as Massachusetts and Connecticut.

A jail with a whipping post and stocks was put up on Warren Street, then, as now, the main thoroughfare. An almshouse was constructed in 1818, for colossally prosperous as Hudson was, it yet had its deserving poor. In time the building became Dr. White’s Lunatic Asylum, where great cures were effected, according to newspaper advertisements that claimed that over a 10-year period all of 300 patients had been discharged as perfectly sane. Then it became the Hudson Female Academy, a private residence, and an orphanage. If these walls could talk. Today it is a library. I saw an instructor of adults there showing his students a picture.

“What is that man doing?” he asked.

“Man is wait for bus.” (Hudson has a remarkable bus system. You need no car to go anywhere from the beautifully restored and elegant Victorian-era train station.)