Driving along the distinctly suburban stretch of Route 17K in Coldenham, a hamlet in Orange County’s Town of Montgomery, it’s hard to imagine a time when this could have been “the habitation only of wolves and bears and other wild animals.” Yet that’s how Cadwallader Colden described the 3,000 acres of wilderness he acquired around there in the 1720s.
Colden turned some of this acreage into farmland and created ornamental gardens near the (long-demolished) stone mansion built for his family. That left plenty of habitat for trees and wildflowers, which Colden loved to explore. In time, he shared this interest with his daughter, Jane, whose zeal for identifying plants would earn her distinction as America’s first woman botanist.
Born in 1724, Jane Colden was fortunate to have a father who wanted her to do more than run a household, the common fate of most 18th-century women. That he steered her toward botany was not serendipitous: Despite a demanding “day job” as a high-ranking official in New York’s colonial government, Cadwallader Colden avidly pursued his study of plants. He provided the first scientific documentation of New York’s flora using the new system of classification developed by Sweden’s Carolus Linnaeus.
Colden shared his findings with botanists around the world. When queries from his correspondents became too time-consuming, he recruited Jane. Around 1754 she began documenting plants around the family estate, quickly earning her father’s praise. “[S]he is more curious & accurate than I could have been…her descriptions are more perfect & I believe few or none exceed them,” he admitted.
Soon, renowned botanists were writing her. Among those who admired her work were Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram, the father of American botany.
Going beyond identification, Jane sought out Native Americans to learn the medicinal and nutritional benefits of plants she “discovered.” She documented her findings in a manuscript containing written descriptions of 341 plants accompanied by 340 hand-drawn illustrations and leaf impressions. (It’s now in the British Museum’s collection.) She also shared her skills, perhaps most importantly with the young Samuel Bard, a future pioneer of American landscape design.
Throughout, Jane remained self-effacing about her talent. “You complasantly intimate that anything that I shall communicate to you, shall not be conceald,” she wrote a fellow botanist in 1756. “But this I must beg as a favour of you, that you will not make any thing publick from me, till (at least) I have gained more knowledge of Plants.”
Sadly, Jane Colden ended her studies in 1759, when she married. Even sadder, she died in childbirth 7 years later. For much of the next 200 years, her contributions were forgotten by all but hard-core botanists.
Over the last 50 years, the Garden Club of Orange & Dutchess County has worked hard to revive and sustain interest in this Hudson Valley pathbreaker. In 1963, it published a portion of her manuscript in book form. Later, it created a wildlife sanctuary at Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site featuring native wildflowers identified in her manuscript. Most recently, in 2018 the club partnered with Bear Mountain State Park to build another garden filled with plants Jane Colden documented. Located near the park’s zoo, it helps to fulfill the wish of Peter Collinson, an English botanist who corresponded with Jane and later declared: “She deserves to be celebrated.”
Earlier this year a New York Times op-ed called for the U.S. to dust off one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, to boost the pandemic economy by creating jobs that benefit the environment. That got us reflecting on the original CCC, whose Hudson Valley work continues to help us enjoy nature here.
Government is now getting in on the action, too — at least on the state level. In late September, California announced the first statewide Climate Action Corps. It will include a mix of paid and unpaid work, deploying 250 AmeriCorps fellows to support local climate action projects in front-line and low-income communities, and also establishing a statewide online volunteer hub of climate-focused volunteer opportunities.
Multiple plans have been proposed at the federal level as well; none have been taken up yet, but think tanks and outlets like Yale Environment 360 have recently been plotting out how modern CCC programs could address inequities and build skills without competing with high-skill and private-sector jobs.
The original CCC emerged in a time of emergency. When FDR entered the White House in 1933, the country was locked in equally devastating economic and environmental crises. Some 15 million Americans — a quarter of the nation’s workforce — had lost their jobs during the Great Depression. Simultaneously, the country suffered from a perfect storm of ecological disasters, with severe drought in some places and flooding in others, plus erosion, forest fires, dust storms, insect infestations and more.
Building upon a program he had established as N.Y. governor (the tree-planting Temporary Emergency Relief Administration), Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. While the program was mostly intended to bring the nation out of its economic and environmental doldrums at the same time, FDR had higher aspirations for it. “It is my belief that what is being accomplished will conserve our natural resources, create future national wealth and prove of moral and spiritual value not only to those of you who are taking part, but to the rest of the country as well,” he told the first CCC cohort.
Those chosen for the CCC were men (the only gender to which it was open) between the ages of 17 and 28. They received barracks-type housing, food and $30 a month in pay, the equivalent of $575 today. They were obligated to send $25 of that money home to their families.
“Among the CCC’s most impressive records: planting 3 billion trees and creating new infrastructure in 800 national and state parks.”
In return, the workers provided lots of labor planting trees, building trails and infrastructure, fighting forest fires, constructing dams, stocking fish and halting the spread of pests like gypsy moths. Skills they learned, like masonry, carpentry and landscaping, might stand them a better chance of later employment. CCC alumni include actor Walter Matthau, baseball great Stan Musial and famed test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Camp Margaret Lewis Norrie
By the CCC’s end in 1942, when World War II required an all-hands-on-deck approach, more than 3 million workers had served in one of the nation’s 2,900 CCC camps, making it the largest peacetime mobilization of labor in U.S. history. (While FDR’s executive order establishing the CCC banned discrimination based on “race, color, or creed,” camps by and large were segregated.) New York State had the most camps, with 208, including dozens in the Hudson Valley.
Camp Margaret Lewis Norrie in Staatsburg, Dutchess County, was typical. In operation from 1933 to 1937, it spanned more than 300 acres near the southern intersection of Route 9 and Old Post Road. Along with accommodations for 209 workers — canvas tents at first, later a dozen wooden barracks — it contained a mess hall, recreation hall (for dances and weekly movie screenings) and infirmary. There was no stinting on food: According to one CCC historian, the weekly “shopping list” for a camp like this included 1 ton of vegetables, 661 lbs. of meat, 700 lbs. of bread, 1,800 eggs, 97 gallons of canned fruit, 300 lbs. of flour and 130 lbs. of coffee.
Over the next 4 years, the workers, usually working in crews of 20, created the infrastructure still in use at Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park. They starting by constructing the roads and bridges (built of stone they quarried locally) leading to the Hudson River, where they erected their greatest work: the Norrie Point Inn (then a restaurant, now the Environmental Center).
A Lasting Impact
Many FDR biographers rate the CCC, dubbed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” as the most successful of the president’s New Deal programs, one that played an invaluable role in protecting and connecting people to America’s natural treasures. Among its most impressive records are having planted 3 billion trees and creating new infrastructure in 800 national and state parks.
The Times op-ed highlights the glaring need for some present-day environmental TLC, including $20 billion of deferred maintenance in national parks and public lands, and 80 million acres of national forests requiring upkeep. This recent Guardian story details how some states and nonprofits are doing their part by creating of small CCC-style programs to restore trails and habitats in places like North Carolina and Texas. Sure, they’re minuscule compared to the federal program that inspired them, but it is heartening to know they are creating jobs for a diverse new cohort of young people — helping to sustain nature while taking small steps to mitigate racial injustice, reduce gender disparity and address pandemic job losses.
The next time you watch bald eagles from the Norrie Point center, climb Bear Mountain’s Perkins Memorial Tower, camp in a trail shelter at Harriman State Park, or picnic at Lake Taghkanic’s East Beach, thank your lucky stars for FDR’s foresight — and for the workers whose handiwork on these and other CCC projects throughout the valley keep enriching our lives. And think how a new, inclusive and diverse CCC could help create employment for young people today and ensure access to more natural treasures like these for future generations.
Imagine being enslaved for 29 years — beginning at the moment of your birth. Imagine being subjected to cruelty that permanently scars your body. Imagine having someone renege on his promise to let you be free.
This was reality for Ulster County-born Sojourner Truth — until the moment in 1826 when she literally walked away from bondage, taking the first steps toward becoming one of the nation’s leading abolitionists and a civil rights and women’s suffrage pioneer. “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked,” Truth later explained. “But I walked off, believing that to be all right.” She carried her infant daughter on the 11.5-mile walk.
In 2020, Scenic Hudson installed an interpretive trail honoring Sojourner Truth at the Shaupeneak Ridge preserve, not far from the route of her escape up and over the ridge. The short woodland trail features 6 panels tracing the course of Truth’s life. By highlighting her accomplishments, it seeks to educate and inspire others to continue her legacy. (Watch the video below to explore the trail and learn more about Truth.)
The trail was envisioned by Helena Mazurek, a Student Conservation Association member at Scenic Hudson, and developed in collaboration with other staff and community members. “I really wanted people to get to know Sojourner Truth as a person, and not some unattainable historical figure — how she was a really fiery, courageous person and used all that power to advocate for others,” Mazurek says. “She spent her life giving to make things better for everyone. That level of generosity and compassion really drove her story home for me personally.”
Mazurek also was impressed by Truth’s fortitude during her escape. “I walked along Shaupeneak Ridge just the other day and was thinking a lot about how incredible it was she managed to achieve this carrying a baby,” she says. “Attending to one while hiking around rather steep inclines at night where there are predators does not seem easy.”
On a nearly cloudless morning in August 2020, members of Harambee gathered at Shaupeneak Ridge to bless the land over which the new trail passes. In a moving ceremony that included music, dance and words, participants recounted Truth’s life and explained how her example has fueled their own activism.
“The biggest thing that I get from Truth’s story is resilience, perseverance, strength and determination. These are the things that inspire me in my life, to never give up,” Jessieca McNabb said. “Just when I think I’m too tired to keep going, I think of what she must have been going through to get what she had to get done. And that is what motivates me and keeps me going.”
A new mobile app created by Black History Month Kingston, a partnership between the nonprofit groups MyKingstonKids and Harambee, offers a deeper dive into Truth’s life. In addition to a self-guided tour of sites associated with her — those in good shape could trace Truth’s entire walk to freedom — it features information about other prominent Black people who figured prominently in the history of Kingston and the Hudson Valley, as well as a regularly updated listings of events. Keeping the history going, in February 2022, the Ulster County Legislature designated every Nov. 26 to be Sojourner Truth Day.
Visitors to Walkway Over the Hudson can celebrate Truth’s accomplishments by pausing at a stirring sculpture, also unveiled in 2020 near the Highland welcome center. In addition to a larger-than-life representation of Truth, the bronze monument includes images of a young enslaved mother and child, a slavery sale sign and a poster for a women’s suffrage march.
“The design is intended to provoke critical thinking, create a sense of place, and inform viewers that artistry is a powerful and useful tool of social transformation,” sculptor Vinnie Bagwell says. “My hope is that visitors of this special place will be able to leave with the ability to appreciate and affirm the strength and beauty of ethnic, gender and cultural pluralism; and now — more than ever — feel a sense of responsibility for the future of liberty and freedom for all people.”
Launched in June 2020, an app allows users — whether driving in their car or reclining in a backyard hammock — to take a self-guided audio tour of parks, historic sites and other attractions in riverfront communities in Rockland and Westchester counties.
Created for Historic Hudson River Towns, a consortium of municipalities along the river, the app spans attractions from Yonkers to Peekskill on the Hudson’s eastern shore and Nyack to Haverstraw on the west. Interestingly, it crosses both the oldest (Bear Mountain) and newest (Gov. Mario M. Cuomo) bridges in the Hudson Valley.
Along with fact-filled narration, the app features myriad photographs illustrating the historic, scenic or ecological importance of each location.
Historic Hudson River Towns also has released two guided audio tours — one for bikers, the other for walkers — crossing the river on the Cuomo Bridge’s 3.6-mile pedestrian path, which opened to the public on June 14. It offers interesting facts about the current and previous bridges, the history of the two communities it connects (Nyack and Tarrytown), and a glimpse at the life and legacy of Mario Cuomo. Future plans include walking tours of Irvington, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow and Nyack.
Funding for the mobile audio tour program was provided by a grant to Historic Hudson River Towns from the New NY Bridge Project’s Community Benefits Program, administered by the New York State Thruway Authority.
Farmer and food justice advocate Karen Washington — one of the grassroots environmental leaders honored in our People Who Make a Difference poster project — was the special guest at the inaugural event of our Envision Virtual Summer Series. She provided inspiring and thought-provoking answers to questions from students attending Newburgh Free Academy P-Tech and youth involved in the Kingston YMCA Farm Project. Topics ranged from her experiences as a Black farmer to advice for young activists.
On her start as an activist:
It was back in 1998, after getting my hands involved in community gardening, when Mayor Giuliani wanted to auction off 100 community gardens. It was devastating because prior to that many community gardens took over empty lots that the city could not maintain. We felt it was a rite of passage to take care of those gardens, to make sure we could grow food for our communities. So when Mayor Giuliani went behind our back in the middle of the night to try to auction off 100 gardens there were two things we could do: either be silent or fight back. And that’s when I found my voice.
Hurdles faced by Black farmers:
For Black people, the difficulty is access to land, access to capital and access to opportunities. There are so many grants out there, but you need a college degree or Ph.D. to go through them. When we talk about racial equity, when we talk about what has happened to us, again there are always obstacles in our way to trying to be the best we can. I tell people, if you want to help Black or Brown people, give us three things: give us opportunity; give us land; give us capital or resources. You give us those three things and people you once thought were powerless become powerful.
Hopes for farming and food justice in a post-COVID world:
The pandemic has been an equalizer. It has hit Black, white, poor, rich, in between. You see so many people for the first time going to food pantries and soup kitchens and food lines, where before you would mostly see people from low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. So right then and there, people understand the importance of food.
What I want people to understand after this pandemic is who is growing the food — and are farmers and farm workers being treated humanely? Are we being paid a fair amount of money for the food we grow? That people understand how critical farming is — because at the end of the day you can’t eat a car, you can’t eat gold, you can‘t eat diamonds, you can eat that iPhone. I hope people really participate in rising up farmers and farm workers — the people who are in the trenches growing food so you can eat healthy.
Advice for young activists:
For years, what stagnated a movement is silence and complacency. You get rubbed up and everybody wants to holler, and then all of a sudden there’s silence, complacency sets in and everything goes back to the status quo. You are in a moment of time for change. You cannot allow to have that knee on our necks. No more. You have to be proactive constantly when you see injustice. You must shout it out. When you see things that are wrong, be brave enough to say it’s wrong.
This is your moment, this COVID and racial injustice you see before your eyes, when youth has to say, “As an elder your burden has been long and heavy. Give us this burden, give us this torch, so we may carry on the legacy of so many people before you who have been fighting for justice.” This is your moment to carry that torch, but the difference this time is that you are not going to back down. You are not going to be silent and complacent. You now have a voice, a voice for change.
Advice for Black women:
I learned long ago that I stand on the shoulders of greatness, that I come from kings and queens, and I learned to appreciate the color of my skin. And now, as a farmer, when I’m out there in the fields, I look at the hue of my skin and say it’s the color of the soil — and for me, that offers a sense of belonging. For all Black women, I want you to understand your history, your legacy, how you come from royalty, and to shine that beacon for all the world to see and be proud of who you are.
Travelers whizzing along Route 17 — perhaps on their way to or from hikes in Harriman or Sterling Forest State parks — may have noticed that a portion of the road in Rockland County is now named the Thurgood Marshall Memorial Highway. Certainly, America’s first African American Supreme Court justice is worthy of the honor, but why this particular stretch of pavement?
The answer: It runs through a community where he played a prominent role in ending a longstanding injustice. (It also turns out the road helped settle the issue.)
Then a lawyer with the NAACP, Marshall came to Hillburn in 1943 to represent parents of African American children seeking to end school segregation. While all white and several dozen African American students attended the modern Main School, the majority of African American youth and no whites were taught at the substandard Brook School, which lacked indoor plumbing as well as a library and adequate playground facilities. The district maintained that children were assigned to the schools solely based on geography. Marshall contended that the boundary line had been drawn to establish segregation, which New York had abolished in schools in 1938.
Marshall drafted a petition to the state Commissioner of Education requesting an end to Hillburn’s segregation. Before receiving news of his decision, in September 1943, Brook School parents tried to enroll their children in the Main School (which was large enough to accommodate all of the district’s students). When the district refused, they boycotted by pulling their children out of classes — and were each fined $10 for truancy. However, the district did agree to abide by the state commissioner’s verdict. Received on October 12, it stated:
“It appears that the effect of the present line drawn by the board of education between the Brook School zone and the Main School zone is to maintain the Brook School entirely for Negro children. A slight revision of this dividing line, through the utilization of State Highway 17 as a boundary line for the full length of the district, would remove the issue of segregation…”
The Brook children entered their new school on October 18. In many ways, it was a hollow victory — most white parents immediately pulled their children out of Main and sent them to nearby private schools. But as one local historian writes, “Slowly the white children returned. There also began an almost immediate healing that has continued to the present as young and old alike found that it was possible to live, work and play together.”
A decade later, following Thurgood Marshall’s forceful arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a unanimous verdict in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka —declaring that racial segregation in America’s public schools was unconstitutional.
Along with the renamed section of Route 17, a plaque outside the Main School, today the administrative building for the Suffern Central School District, describes Marshall’s local and national legacy in the Civil Rights movement.
In his stirring speech accepting the prestigious Liberty Award on July 4, 1992, Marshall noted the limits of the law to end inequality:
“The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side. We should have liberty for all.”
With some luck, when you hop on the Metro North train in New York City, you may be able to take the “Scenic Hudson” to a Scenic Hudson park. That is, if it happens to pull up to the platform when you’re waiting to board.
Officially car #6164, the “Scenic Hudson” belongs to a shipment of Bombardier Comet III coaches the railroad received in 1983. (It has been refurbished several times since.)
This model features doors at both ends and none in the middle, rendering the sides a big, blank canvas. To fill it, the railroad decided to hold a couple of contests, in 1985 and 1990, inviting the public to submit names of people, places and things characteristic of the Hudson Valley’s vibrant past and present. “Scenic Hudson” made the initial cut, as did “Storm King,” the site of our first environmental victory.
In all, more than 40 cars received monikers. The practice ended when Metro-North began purchasing a new model with center doors.
Interestingly, Scenic Hudson’s silver anniversary in 1988 took place on the rails—aboard the specially dubbed “Jubilee Limited.” As the celebration went on into the evening, the train chugged past riverfront scenery along the Hudson Line that the organization has done so much to preserve.
In the week following Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, Ned Sullivan appeared as an expert guest on a couple of popular valley radio programs. In addition to providing insight on the importance of that first event in 1970, he described strides made since and threats we continue to face, including the proposed Danskammer fracked gas power plant in Newburgh, which he called “the Storm King issue of our time.”
“The Hudson River is a magnet. We have a spirit of activism because of the incredible beauty we have here, the ecological diversity that is unsurpassed anywhere else in New York State, the magic of the river that flows both ways… From one end of the Hudson to the other, I think that’s what resonates with people and makes people fight for that beauty and the quality of life that flows out of that.”
And with Greg Gattine of Woodstock’s WDST, he urged people to take a stand against proposed rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act, a direct outgrowth of the first Earth Day, which gives Americans a voice in government decisions affecting their environment:
“Now, the federal government is gutting this act. They are saying they don’t want to see major infrastructure projects consider climate change. They’re rolling back the fuel-efficiency standards on our automobiles. This is crazy! Why would we roll back those laws that have cleaned our air, that are ensuring we’re on the right track for stemming climate change? It’s absolutely critical that people speak to both their state legislators and their Congressional representatives and let them know we want them to stand up to the White House, which is leading the charge in the wrong direction.”
The fireworks and cookouts we enjoy on the Fourth of July celebrate the Declaration of Independence. This year, also light a sparkler to honor the courageous signers of the “Coxsackie Declaration of Independence,” drafted 246 years ago, in May of 1775.
A full year before the Continental Congress approved its stirring (and treasonous) manifesto of freedom in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, 275 landowners in Coxsackie (then part of Albany County, now in Greene) signed their own document asserting opposition to the “arbitrary and oppressive acts of the British Parliament.” Their words may lack the patriotic fervor of Thomas Jefferson’s, but they equal it in boldness.
While the Declaration of Independence has been venerated from the get-go, the Coxsackie Declaration languished in obscurity for nearly 150 years, until the faded parchment was discovered in an attic and donated to the Albany Institute of History & Art in 1923.
What Does It Say?
Persuaded that the Salvation of the Rights and Liberties of America, depends, under God, on the firm union of its Inhabitants, in a vigorous prosecution of the Measures necessary for its Safety, and convinced of the Necessity of preventing the Anarchy and confusion which attend the Dissolution of the Powers of Government:
THAT the Freeholders and Inhabitants of Coxsackie District, in the County of Albany, being greatly alarmed at the avowed Design of the Ministry to raise a Revenue in America, are shocked by the bloody Scene acting in the Massachusetts Bay; Do in the most solemn manner, resolve never to become Slaves; and do also associate under the Ties of Religion, Honor and Love of our Country to adopt and endeavor to carry into Execution whatever Measures may be rendered by our Continental Congress, or resolved upon by our Provincial Convention for the purpose of preserving our Constitution and apposing [sic] the Execution of several arbitrary and oppressive Acts of the British Parliament, until a reconciliation between Great Britain and America or constitutional principles (which we most ardently desire) can be obtained; and that we will, in all Things, follow the advice of our general Committee, respecting the purpose aforesaid, the preservation of Peace and good Order, and the Safety of Individuals and private property.
Dated at Coxsackie the Seventeenth of May in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand seven hundred and seventy five.
The Stirrings of Discontent
American protests against Parliamentary taxation started when the Stamp Act passed in 1765, more than a decade before the landowners of Coxsackie made their statement.
Following the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the “Intolerable Acts” were passed to punish Boston, but had the opposite of their intended effect, bringing the colonies together. The first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, and published lists of grievances and pleas to resolve differences peacefully. But the colonies also began to coordinate a united defense against the tyranny of the British government.
On April 18, 1775, the Redcoats marched out of Boston to capture the patriot arms and ammunition depot in Concord. (Paul Revere and other riders warned that the British were coming.) A skirmish on Lexington Green between local minutemen and 700 British troops left eight Americans dead. Continuing to Concord, the British were met with more and more patriot minutemen and militiamen. Forced to retreat to Boston, the Redcoats faced deadly American sniper fire on the way.
A Stepping Stone to Independence
Just one month later, on May 17, 1775, the residents of Coxsackie signed their document, which was more of a protest of discontent than a declaration of independence, says Seth Kaller, a historic document dealer and a leading expert on the Declaration of Independence.
“The signers of the Coxsackie Declaration were still not ready for independence. Until the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in early 1776, only about a third of Americans wanted to break free from England. What these Hudson Valley residents were ready for was firm resistance, and Congress listened,” explains Kaller
On July 31, 1775, the Continental Congress approved a message drafted by Thomas Jefferson rejecting Lord North’s offer: “A proposition to give our money, accompanied with large fleets and armies, seems addressed to our fears, rather than to our freedom…. can the world be deceived into an opinion that we are unreasonable, or can it hesitate to believe with us, that nothing but our own exertions may defeat the ministerial sentence of death or abject submission.”
“The Coxsackie Declaration is one of the very rare surviving documents that shows the colonies’ inexorable movement towards independence,” Kaller says.
So why not light an extra sparkler for the landowners of Coxsackie this Fourth of July, in honor of their courage to speak up to power?
Coxsackie Declaration (Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Library)