The Hudson: America’s River

Columbia University Press Hardcover, 392 pages, $74.50 Softcover, $29.95
Columbia University Press
Hardcover, 392 pages, $74.50
Softcover, $29.95

In the summer of 1894, in the midst of a frightening drought, New York State convened a constitutional convention. Along with such issues as judicial and civilservice reform, education, and home rule for cities and villages, the delegates considered the future of the Adirondacks. They were meeting in Albany, near the banks of the Hudson River, acutely aware that two years of drought had left the water level ominously low and equally mindful that human activity—chiefly a frenzy of ruthless logging in the Adirondacks—had made a bad situation even worse.

Anxiety about the streams flowing off Adirondack slopes—mainly the Hudson—and their vital function in the state economy had not been alleviated by a decade of conservation efforts. Forests in the Adirondacks were essential to a reliable level of water in New York’s transportation arteries. They retained runoff and snowmelt and, in most years, released water gradually and dependably. If the forests were sacrificed to the nation’s insatiable appetite for lumber and pulp, the result would be cycles of flood alternating with uselessly low water levels. If the Hudson dried up, in other words, New York commerce was dead. The Hudson River and the Erie Canal, both fed by Adirondack headwaters, had made New York the Empire State. Without them, even in the age of railroads, catastrophe was imminent.

In 1885, the state legislature contemplated Adirondack logging and the all-too-frequent fires that followed, and it created the Forest Preserve. But the Preserve was too small, an unconsolidated collection of random parcels, and what protections it enjoyed were manifestly inadequate. In 1892, the state established the Adirondack Park, indicating with a blue line the area in the northern counties where the state had a special interest and where the Forest Preserve should be expanded. Still not enough.

At the 1894 constitutional convention, David McClure, representing the New York Board of Trade, a business-oriented body intensely monitoring the declining water levels on the Hudson, stood before the assembled delegates and predicted what would inevitably occur if irresponsible logging continued on steep Adirondack slopes: “You will not have your steamboats patrolling the rivers that are fed by them, not even on this majestic Hudson, very long if you do not preserve the watersheds.”

The Opalescent River in the High Peaks Wilderness is one of the Hudson headwaters.
The Opalescent River in the High Peaks Wilderness is one of the Hudson headwaters.

Then a delegate from Washington County addressed the convention and urgently reported that just a few days earlier he had walked across the Hudson at Fort Edward— without getting his feet wet! “If you wish to preserve the waters of this state,” he thundered, “if you wish to preserve the waters of the Hudson River,” then the state would have to do something dramatic to save the remaining forests.

McClure’s answer to this looming crisis was sweeping, and it resonates profoundly to this very day: he demanded that the state never again sell any of its Adirondack lands. Nor, equally important, would New York ever allow any of its publicly owned Adirondack (or Catskill) trees to be sold or removed.

The delegates agreed, and in the only unanimous vote of the entire convention adopted a provision (now known as Article 14) that has been included, in precisely the same language, in every subsequent New York constitution. Its Miltonic cadences have become an indelible part of the Adirondack narrative. No matter how often these words are repeated, no matter how many times we read them, they ring out across our mountains with astonishing power: “The lands of the state now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold, or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed, or destroyed.”

The Adirondack watershed, the constitution avers, is critical to the health of the Hudson, and the protection of that watershed is thus critical to the story of conservation in the Adirondacks. Without the Hudson there is no Adirondack Forest Preserve or Park, and without a protected forest in the Adirondacks, there is no viable Hudson River.

The Hudson River A Great American Treasure By Greg Miller Rizzoli International Publications Hardcover, 224 pages, $50
The Hudson River
A Great American Treasure
By Greg Miller
Rizzoli International Publications
Hardcover, 224 pages, $50

Frances Dunwell, an environmentalist and historic preservationist who has spent the last thirty years laboring to save the natural and cultural heritage of the Hudson Valley, has written an invaluable new book about the Hudson. Published for the quadricentennial of the 1609 voyage up New York’s premier river by Henry Hudson, the first European to note its incredible commercial potential, The Hudson: America’s River is both succinct and comprehensive. And Columbia University Press has packaged it with lavish, deftly selected illustrations, photographs, and maps. This is a handsome, well-written, beautifully produced volume. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. notes in his foreword: “Fran Dunwell has given us wonderful stories about America’s river . . . This book helps us understand how one river holds the key to our past and our future.” Its argument is made even more compelling when it’s paired with the breathtaking photographs by Greg Miller in The Hudson River: A Great American Treasure, with a foreword by Adirondacker Bill McKibben and an introduction by environmentalist Ned Sullivan.

The Hudson River narrative—the stories of the people living and working in its valley, along with the heroic efforts to protect both the river itself and its cultural and scenic treasures—is a paradigm of much of the history of the United States. As the subtitles of both of these books emphasize, the Hudson is “America’s River.” Along the Hudson, we find just about everything: from fraudulent or violent dispossession of the Indians to the hardships of early colonial settlement, from important episodes of the Revolutionary War to the industrialization (and subsequent deindustrialization) of the American heartland, and from a formative era in the development of American art and literature to the ostentatious opulence of the Gilded Age.

The Hudson has inspired just about everyone who has sailed its waters or lived along its banks. It inspired the Dutchman Adriaen Van der Donck, whose A Description of the New Netherlands (1653) is one of the first books written about European settlement in North America, with a utopian vision of natural beauty and abundance that would make settlers both contented and rich. It inspired Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper to begin the process of setting American literature on the path to independence from its English antecedents, and at about the same time it inspired painters like Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand to initiate the first great era of American painting.

With equal power, it inspired industrialists to develop gun works, iron foundries, and factories. The most recent chapter of this saga of industrialization is the sordid tale of General Electric, its dumping of untold quantities of toxic waste into the Hudson near Fort Edward and Hudson Falls and the cleanup ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—fought for decades by GE and finally scheduled to begin this year. The cost is now approaching $1 billion.

Throughout her many tales of Hudson Valley history, Dunwell keeps the focus chiefly on the river’s natural, scenic, and cultural richness and on how the clearly paradoxical allure of both natural beauty and exploitable resources led to environmental degradation and then efforts to reverse it. She dwells emphatically and thoroughly in her concluding chapters on the fact that recent Hudson River history is largely the story of preservation and restoration. She enriches and contextualizes the Adirondack element of this story with, for example, accounts of protection along the Palisades and in the Hudson Highlands.

As a result of the energy and devotion of myriad New Yorkers, the Hudson corridor is blessed, now, with magnificent protected places, most of them beautifully portrayed in these striking books. Lake Tear of the Clouds, the highest lake or pond source of the Hudson, is, as we all know, part of the High Peaks Wilderness Area and subject to the forever-wild protection of the state constitution. Near the river’s other end, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission manages and carefully guards over a hundred thousand acres and twenty miles of shoreline in New York and New Jersey. The bitter battle over a huge power plant proposed in 1962 by Consolidated Edison for Storm King Mountain finally ended in 1980 when the project was abandoned and the land became a public park.

The story continues. Here in the Adirondacks, Lake Henderson, the outlet of which is the first stream named the Hudson, was purchased from NL Industries by the Open Space Institute in 2003 and was protected forever for the people of New York last year when it became part of the Forest Preserve. And because of the 2007 purchase of Finch, Pruyn lands by the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a magnificent stretch of the Hudson south of Newcomb, including the incomparable Blue Ledge, is forever out of the reach of developers. Meanwhile, down south, the Riverkeeper, a boat originally chartered by the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, monitors water quality and tries to ensure that the Hudson, unspeakably filthy by the 1950s, maintains its halting recovery from the noxious corruptions of industrialism.

Saratoga National Historic Park overlooks the Hudson south of the Adirondacks.
Saratoga National Historic Park overlooks the Hudson south of the Adirondacks.