Carry On Up The Hudson

When I had my Fulbright interview, back in January 2020, the final question was “What else would you do with your time in the US?”.  Assuming my chances were already slim, I answered, off the cuff, “Watch baseball, drink beer and explore the Hudson Valley”.  I’ve managed to do all three, sometimes simultaneously! [1]   

The Hudson looking north from Mount Beacon, towards the Catskills.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit New York City many times, but never really explored the area immediately beyond, especially the water artery I knew was fundamental to its history.  It is extraordinarily beautiful, so much so it spawned an artistic movement, the 19th century Hudson River School of romantic landscape painting.  An artist who captured some of the essence of 20th century America, Edward Hopper, was born and raised on the western bank of the river, at Nyack and numerous other cultural figures have lived along the Hudson. 

Leaving the city by train, but in a surprisingly short time, the Palisades on the western, New Jersey shore (where musical star Alexander Hamilton was killed in an 1804 duel with US Vice President Aaron Burr), give a dramatic contrast to the softer, more verdant eastern side.  Dotted along the river are scores of settlements that cry out with the history of the nation: Dobbs Ferry, scene of a key manoeuvrer in the Revolutionary War, Tarrytown, home to industrial robber barons like Rockefeller, storied Sleepy Hollow and the splendidly named Poughkeepsie. After an hour or so, the Catskill mountains come in to view on the west, before reaching the New York State capital of Albany where, just north, the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers mark the entrance to the Erie Canal, a 363-mile feat of human toil completed in 1825 as the route to the Great Lakes and Midwest that was essential for American wealth and expansion.     

Confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, looking south.
Entrance to the Erie Canal, Waterford, north of Albany.

To travel along the Hudson is, once again, to be reminded of America’s original sin.  Several Indian tribes lived along its course, including the Mohicans, who referred to the Hudson as the Mahicantuck – “the river that flows both ways”.  Strictly speaking, the Hudson is an estuary and is tidal below the city of Troy, about 150 miles north of New York City.  The area around Albany was known as “the fireside of the Mohicans”.  Things started to change, beyond redemption, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river in 1609, towards a future of plunder and genocide.

Some other American grim history and present lies along the Hudson.  Before I saw it from the train window passing Garrison, I’d imagined West Point as a relatively small Palladian mansion with General Custer standing outside.  In fact, it’s a massive fortress of the military industrial complex, dominating a huge area on the river’s western shore. 

West Point

Not far away, on the east bank near Ossining is Sing Sing prison, where, in 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenburg were executed by the US State as part of it’s hysterical Red Scare.  In the same period, there were riots by white racists who tried – and ultimately failed -to stop Paul Robeson singing in nearby Peekskill.       

Sing Sing Prison

Despite its bucolic charms, all along the Hudson’s banks are signs of America’s industrial revolution, today mostly in the form of derelict factories.  Troy used to be one of the most prosperous cities in the US, with numerous industries clustered adjacent to the Erie Canal and an immigrant working class James Connolly joined and tried to help organise between 1903 and 1905.  Today, it bears the scars of post-industrialism that are so common throughout this country, not just in the Midwest rustbelt.    

Statue of James Connolly in Troy..

Something similar could be said of Albany, but leavened by the industry of politics.  The downtown area has an extraordinary collection of buildings, ranging from the neo-Gothic State University of New York and neo-Classical/Rococo State Capitol, to the amazing space-age Empire State Plaza that’s like walking in to La Corbusier’s American Dream (predictably, this Modernist splurge followed the clearance and erasure of an ethnically mixed working class neighbourhood).  Not far away are some beautiful townhouses that rival Brooklyn.  A bit further out, are big wooden shiplap family homes, many of them with distinctive, individual flourishes, although, as a reminder of the underlying economic reality, a noticeable number are empty.     

Empire State Plaza, Albany

Retuning south along the Hudson, the traveler becomes increasingly aware of the pulsating metropolis lying at its mouth.  “The Big Apple” nickname comes from a 19th century colloquialism for something bigger and better.  I don’t like the ideology of civic boosterism and league tables of cities, but I have fallen in love with New York City again.  But it’s a city whose power and wealth came by river.     


[1] In September, I went to watch the minor league baseball Hudson Valley Renegades play, near Beacon. 

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