- Historic Sites
America On The Hudson
The town that has seen it all
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
All 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.)
Where soldiers gather, camp followers appear, and by 1887 Hudson was called the most lawless city on the river.
“That’s very good. But it’s ‘The man is waiting for the bus.’”
The instructor was a state employee working with immigrants from Cambodia, Latin America, and Bangladesh. I have lived for 35 years in the county south of Hudson, and I can very well recall when foreign exotica in these parts meant a Chinese restaurant.
Hudson’s prosperity was interrupted by the early-nineteenth-century British-French disputes, when the navies of both countries were seizing American ships, and by President Jefferson’s Embargo Acts. After that, all went well, and there were so many vessels at the wharves that it was not unknown for the bowsprit of a wedged-in ship to come crashing through the window of a Proprietor’s waterfront mansion, below the 50-foot bluff crowned with the carefully laid-out Parade Walk on Promenade Hill, which had spectacular views up and down America’s Rhine. The riverside mansions are gone now, torn down long ago for replacement by warehouses and the needs of post-Civil War industrial shipping. Promenade Hill is unchanged from Quaker days, though, and lower Warren Street, once the city’s premier address, is dotted with brilliant Federal houses. One such, today the D.A.R. chapter house, was the home of a member of the wealthy Jenkins clan, a leader of which possessed a fortune that may have been in the $250,000 range. That George Washington’s half a million made him the young United States’ richest man suggests the Jenkinses’ situation. One family member, Gen. William Jenkins Worth, the first U.S. Army general to enter Mexico City during our country’s defeat of that land in the late 1840s, is buried under an obelisk on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Both Fort Worth, Texas, and Lake Worth, Florida, were named for him.
It was precisely when General Worth’s activities were making him Hudson’s most distinguished son that his hometown solidified the reputation that made it nationally famous for a century and more. I know that a portion of my readers, primarily gray-haired gents, have with knowing smiles been asking themselves, “Will he tell about the real Hudson?” He will. Here it comes.
With all the daily docking of ships carrying 30 or 50 paid-off men back from months at sea, enterprises catering to their needs prospered along Diamond Street, which today is Columbia Street. Hudson may have been a residence of sedate and worthy souls, of houses “beautifully embowered” and with verandas, cupolas, turrets, and corbels, a lovely New England town in the Dutch Hudson Valley, but the guidebooks didn’t mention Diamond Street. Even so, as early as 1843 the Common Council was decrying “the numerous houses of ill fame with which our city is disgraced.”
Then Diamond Street’s sole industry exploded, beginning when the tenants of the manor lords, still living as they had under the Dutch and English, asked if near-feudal servitude must remain their lot as freeborn Americans. In late 1844 hundreds of oddly attired men—they wore masks decorated with cow horns and calico dresses hung with animal tails—paraded around Columbia County, blowing on tin horns and bearing spears, tomahawks, clubs, and firearms.
“Down with the rent!” sounded their leader, Big Thunder, identified at his later trial as Smith Boughton. “Do not pay!” Tin horns sounded from those soon known as the Calico Indians.
“Do the palefaces agree?” Approving roars came from onlookers not in costume. Sheriffs sent with writs for repossession of farms found the papers seized and consigned to blazing tar barrels. Big Thunder was arrested and confined. Torchbearers surrounded Hudson, tin horns blasted, and the authorities were told that if Big Thunder was not released, the Calico Indians would burn the town to the ground.
It was an insurrection. The Hudson Light Guards were mobilized and civilians sworn into service to man four artillery pieces. The Albany Burgess came from the state capital, along with the Albany Republican Artillery and three more companies of militia, soon joined by Captain Krack’s Cavalry, formed exclusively of German-Americans who sailed the 115 miles from New York City. The masses of troops settled in to await Boughton’s trial. The jury couldn’t agree on a verdict in the first trial. The second trial, which resulted in a life sentence, was held in September 1845. (Within a year, however, he was pardoned, and a new state constitution ended Hudson Valley feudalism.)
Where large bodies of soldiers gather, camp followers appear. The camp followers flooding Hudson encamped in Diamond Street, and there they and their successors prospered, serving makers of cement, farm equipment, steam and fire engines, railroad wheels, blinds, and doors, whose doings boomed when Pennsylvania crude oil ended whaling. There were also pleasure seekers coming down from Albany during legislative sessions and others up from Manhattan on the Hudson River Day Line steamers advertised as floating palaces, sports headed to play the ponies at Saratoga, and, once college boys acquired flivvers, young gentle- men from Yale visiting Vassar girls in Poughkeepsie and then going upriver for brief Hudson halts. The city’s destiny was set. (The most recent book on Hudson is Diamond Street: The Story of the Little Town With the Big Red Light District , by Bruce Edward Hall.)
A few New Yorkers discovered they could buy a house for peanuts that would look at home on Beacon Hill. Bang!
These were no elegant bordellos or carriage-trade sporting houses. It was mass-market stuff, and by 1887 Hudson was being called the most lawless city on the river. What Hudson’s police commissioner denounced in 1912 as “disorderly houses … running openly and flaunting their vice” today look very much as they did in the crinoline days, and in the flower-tray hat and bustle days, and in the cloche hat and bobbed-hair days, and in the housedress days: drab, mean, dreary. The Street, as it was known, or the Block (actually it was five or six blocks) had none of Hudson’s furbelows, its varying lintels, cornice trim, detailed doors, eyebrow windows, fanlights, mansard roofs, dormer windows, gables. … ( The New York Times a few years ago declared the city a “treasure of architecture,” and practically half the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.)
The women who were Hudson’s “most valuable assets,” as the author Bruce Edward Hall terms them, lived lives apart. You never saw them in upper Warren Street’s multitude of stores; the shopkeepers went to the houses to take orders. A Hudsonian named Mary Wallenbeck remembers asking her mother why there were so many out-of-town cars at night with men asking directions. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” she was told. When Mary was in New York City studying nursing, the papers headlined stories about one of her hometown’s periodic anti-vice campaigns, with mass indictments of cops and officials; like every other respectable young woman for five or six generations back, she never said she was from Hudson (“I live near Albany”). Hudson boys of both world wars got used to being asked if they were from the “whore town.”
In the years during and just after World War II, the city was as prosperous as in the whaling days. You could barely make your way along upper Warren Street during Christmas week for all the other shoppers from town and the surrounding countryside. The Block expanded into gambling and drinking to go with its primary activity. There were horse parlors and roulette wheels and 65 saloons to 20 churches. Then everything fell apart. A great New York State Police raid garnered national attention, the famed broadcaster Walter Winchell castigating a “little Las Vegas,” while teenagers kicked out of their homes by families unable to feed too many kids were learning in the postwar prosperity that there were better ways to earn a living than on the Block.
The houses shut down. And Hudson went into a decades-long decline. It wasn’t just the end of large-scale prostitution. As in a thousand other little cities, the suburbs began draining people away; factories transferred operations to the South; strip-mall discounters out in what used to be cherry orchards forced the closing of generations-old shops; people went to the big Wal-Mart.
So there came a time when a car could shoot down dilapidated Warren Street at 60 miles an hour with little chance of a mishap, for there was no one with whom to collide. Houses went unpainted, and the interiors of the boarded-up shops were wreathed in dust. I remember visiting junk stores for fifth-hand stuff to furnish a little for-rent summer cottage I owned in the mid-1970s, and stuffing an ancient green velvet couch into my station wagon along with battered chairs and a speckled mirror. I gave a pass to eating at a dreary lunch counter or in a dubious-looking fried-chicken joint. Hudson was dead. The occasional tourist dropped by to visit Olana, the artist Frederic Church’s Moorish-Victorian fantasy just outside town, or, less frequently, a museum of firefighting.
Then came a change no less phenomenal than when the Proprietors had taken over little Claverack Landing. A handful of New York City people discovered they could ride the train up along a river of unparalleled views in all seasons and for peanuts buy Warren Street houses that when fixed up would look completely at home on Beacon Hill, in Georgetown, or in Greenwich Village. To keep busy, and no doubt for tax reasons, the buyers began to set up little downstairs weekends-only antiques stores. The first one, Alain Pioton’s Hudson Antiques Center, started up 20 years ago. It rented out booths to dealers who soon began opening shops of their own.
Bang! Explosion. The thing ballooned, and today 65 places attract customers from all over the world. Designers and decorators come from England, Brazil, Japan, Australia. Both Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey were seen in town last summer.
And so we find a new societal fabric being woven as the old-time Hudsonians stand around gaping at the new people with their jazz recitals, readings, concerts, puppet shows and art shows and drag shows—for not a small number of them are gay. Local craftspeople may gain employment making Warren Street just beautiful, “a living movie set,” as Bill Fallon, editor of the Register-Star , puts it, and the sidewalks are jammed with mechanical devices lifting painters to work on facades. But the locals don’t fit in. It’s not as if the stores resemble the Gap or Old Navy, where anyone can do the selling. A few men are employed by specialized freight companies carefully shipping out antiques, and a place may give a couple of kids a few hours’ work moving heavy pieces around the display floor, but otherwise, there’s very little for the people born in the Columbia Memorial Hospital. And the drudge work there, mopping the floors and making the beds and emptying bedpans, is now the province of the immigrants. So the locals get excited about the rumor that the great cement plant that gave their people employment for generations before shutting down in the seventies may reopen, even as the new people, fearing limestone dust and roaring trucks, put up signs denouncing the idea.
What has this compact little place not seen? Henry Hudson and the Mohicans, the Dutch, the English, the Proprietors, the Calico Indians, the women on the Block, prosperity, decline, prosperity, the new people of flair and artistry (and, in local eyes, outrageous attire and strange tone of speech and attitude), the man-is-wait-for-bus immigrants, The New York Times calling Hudson a “nirvana” for antiquers. What a sweep of disparate scenes. My God, this place is America.