Rachel Carson & the Clearwater

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, is considered the bible of the modern environmental movement. Its compelling and science-based account of the horrors inflicted on Earth’s entire ecosystem by the pesticide DDT galvanized people to take a stand against this poison, leading to its prohibition in 1972.  

Carson (1907-1964) remains a heroine of environmentalists around the globe, but did she have a Hudson Valley connection? Yes. You could say she’s responsible for the sloop Clearwater. In a 1998 radio interview, Clearwater godfather and folksinger Pete Seeger, an environmental icon himself, he was asked how he came up with the idea for the boat:

It was Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. I read it in The New Yorker, in installments. Up to then, I’d thought the main job to do is help the meek inherit the Earth. And I still, that’s a job that’s got to be done. But I realized if we didn’t do something soon, what the meek would inherit would be a pretty poisonous place to live.

And so I made almost a 180-degree turn, started reading books like The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, or The Poverty of Power by Barry Commoner. I’m a readaholic. And I was reading a book about the sailboats that sailed here, oh, all during the 19th century. Alexander Hamilton wrote one of the Federalist Papers on his way to Poughkeepsie in a sloop, where they were arguing whether or not to sign the Constitution idea and agree to it.

Well, I write a letter to my friend: wouldn’t it be great to build a replica of one of these? Probably cost $100,000. Nobody we know has that money, but if we got 1,000 people together we could all chip in. Maybe we could hire a skilled captain to see it’s run safely and the rest of us could volunteer.

And three years later [1968] the sloop Clearwater was built up in Maine, and I helped sail it down with Don McLean and a batch of other singers. And now it takes school kids out. It’s not a rich man’s cruise boat. Two or three times a day it takes groups of 50 school kids out, teaches them what makes rivers dirty and what’s got to be done to clean them up. Of course, people say what can a sailboat do? It can’t do much except bring people together. But when people come together, that’s when miracles happen, right?

Postscript: In 1970, Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed to Washington, D.C., to hold a forum on the need for Congress to pass a Clean Water Act. Seeger not only presented the legislators with a petition bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures, but delivered an impromptu concert. Although it took two more years for the act to become law, Seeger’s appearance, courtesy of the boat inspired by Rachel Carson, is considered a “watershed” moment leading to its passage.

Living Black History

Pine Street African Burial Site (Photo by Kristopher Johnson)

Something to ponder during Black History Month: Prior to the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827, it was the largest slave-owning state north of the Mason Dixon line. The first 11 enslaved people arrived in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) to build roads and other infrastructure. By 1750, their number had swelled to 11,000 — 14% of the colony’s population. As many as 10,000 of them worked on farms in the Hudson Valley.

Surviving records indicate that the earliest female enslaved person may have been Mayken, who petitioned the Dutch government for her freedom in 1663. An account of her emancipation reads: “Mayken, an old and sickly black woman, to be granted her freedom, she having served as a slave since the year 1628.” At first, she was only granted partial freedom: She still was required to clean the house of Director General Pieter Stuyvesant. However, a few months later she was granted full freedom.

Information like this makes it all the more important to protect local sites related to enslavement, such as the Pine Street African Burial Ground in Kingston, which Scenic Hudson partnered with the Kingston Land Trust and Harambee to acquire last year. It is one of the largest known resting places of enslaved African Americans, containing dozens, if not hundreds, of graves.

The first official mention of this cemetery’s organization dates to 1750, but it is surmised that burials could have occurred there much earlier. (Records indicate the existence of enslaved people in Kingston by 1667.) In the 17th and 18th centuries, enslaved persons were denied church burial and usually were interred, as at the Pine Street Burial Ground, outside city limits. It is very possible that Kingston officials chose this site for the cemetery because it was already in use by African Americans.

Protecting the Pine Street African Burial Ground was the first step in creating a “mini-museum” tracing the substantial contributions the men and women interred there made to Kingston’s early development. As Rev. Evelyn Clarke said at the celebration marking the land’s protection last year, “Rise up and live in us, and we will not fail to honor you.”

River Skating

Ice Skating on the Hudson River (Photo courtesy of Hudson River Maritime Museum)

Back in the winters when the Hudson River regularly froze over, ice skating on it was a major craze — especially in Newburgh, where the Donaghue family won national and international medals for their speed and endurance. But no feat could beat this one undertaken (and recounted) by patriarch Timothy Donaghue, Sr.:

Timothy Donaghue, Sr.
Timothy Donaghue, Sr.

“The fastest long-distance skating I ever did was in 1872, when Aaron Wilson and myself skated to Poughkeepsie and returned to Newburgh (30 miles) in two hours. We then, with Charles F. June, started at 11 a.m. for Albany, and arrived there at 5 p.m. We lost 15 minutes crossing the ferry track which was open at Poughkeepsie; and at Rhinebeck the ferry was also running, and we had to walk about half a mile. Then we got our dinner, which took us 45 minutes.   

“That left 5 hours running from Newburgh to Albany. The distance to Albany is 84 miles by the Hudson River Railroad. As we had to cross the river from one side to another a number of times, looking for good ice, I think it made the distance more. The ice was not good, but we had a strong wind.”

Wind or not, here’s one record unlikely to be broken.

The Starry Poughkeepsie Regatta (and the Real-Life Boys in the Boat)

It’s common to see rowers on the Hudson River these days. At least a dozen local high schools, as well as Marist and Vassar Colleges, have competitive crew teams that practice in the picturesque stretch of the river from Newburgh to Poughkeepsie. In addition, community rowing programs for adults and juniors have been growing rapidly since the Hudson River Rowing Association opened their doors in 1998. 

But many people don’t realize that Poughkeepsie was once the “Rowing Capital of the World,” inspiring a story that’s just hitting the big-time again with the opening of the major new movie The Boys in the Boat on Dec. 25, 2023.

Rowing in the famous Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Photo: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College)

In 1895 Poughkeepsie hosted the first Intercollegiate Rowing Regatta. Only three schools competed: Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the annual event, which was soon dubbed the Poughkeepsie Regatta, continued until 1949 and grew in size and stature, attracting the best college teams from around the country. 

These races also drew tens of thousands of spectators annually. The luckiest traveled alongside the rowers. They sat on grandstands attached to flatcars chugging down the rail line on the Hudson’s western shore. The crews raced downstream from today’s Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park to Poughkeepsie’s Mid-Hudson Bridge (passing under the railroad bridge that is now the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park).

The who’s who of the Hudson Valley — including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Astors, and the Vanderbilts — turned out to watch the races. Hundreds of boats and yachts, and occasionally even Navy destroyers, sailed to Poughkeepsie to watch the event. World War II interrupted the Regatta, but afterwards it returned, bigger than ever — prompting massive celebrations, parties, and even the crowning of the Poughkeepsie Regatta Queen.

Lucky spectators followed the rowing action on a moving “Observation Train” that ran along the west side of the river. (Photo: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College)

In the early years, elite Eastern schools dominated the Regatta. But in 1912, Western schools started getting in on the action. After winning at Poughkeepsie, the University of California crews of 1928, 1932, and 1948 all went straight to the Olympics.

But no team received as much attention as the nine scrappy men from the University of Washington who swept the Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1936. The story was gripping: They overcame a world of adversity to upset the Ivy League establishment, earning them a team boathouse on Poughkeepsie’s “Regatta Row,” as well as their own dining hall.

As working-class products of a public school, the team represented such a big win over the elite private-school set that their story resonated nationally. And since their story captured the public imagination, part of their legacy has been expanding the appeal of the sport to the more diverse crews that row today, including many women.

The sport’s appeal has expanded to the more diverse crews that row today, including many women. (Photo: Jason Torres / Hudson River Rowing Association)

Prior to winning their race here the “boys” also rowed upstream to Franklin Roosevelt’s house, hoping to visit with the president. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in (although his son, himself a competitive rower, reportedly invited them in for a happy evening of chatting about the sport).

Later that year, they had better luck at the Olympics in Berlin, narrowly beating out Italy and Germany to snag the gold medal. Their rags-to-riches story was chronicled in the 2014 bestseller The Boys in the Boat, which has just been made into a movie directed by George Clooney and starring Callum Turner.

In September 2021, the Hudson River Rowing Association and the Mid-Hudson Rowing Association hosted a historic, 5,000-meter race along the course used from 1895 to 1949 by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. It marked the first time in more than a decade that boats competed for the fastest time on the route. The race was so popular that it has now become an annual event.

Rowing in the modern-day Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Photo: Jason Torres / Hudson River Rowing Association)
Olivia Abel is a staff copywriter at Scenic Hudson. A former editor-in-chief of Hudson Valley Magazine, she also teaches journalism and communications at Marist College. An avid hiker and biker (and new pickleball junkie), she never tires of searching for the Hudson Valley’s best cup of coffee.
Reed Sparling is a retired staff writer and historian at Scenic Hudson. He is the former editor of Hudson Valley Magazine, and continues to co-edit the Hudson River Valley Review, a scholarly journal published by the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.
Footage of competitors and spectators at the 1934 Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Video: British Pathé)

The Valley’s Fireplace Fruit

osage orange

Now’s the time to spot one of the most unusual fruits found in the Hudson Valley: the Osage orange. FYI, it’s not edible and it’s not an orange. It’s actually a member of the mulberry family.

Originally native to a strip of land in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, the tree was naturalized throughout the U.S. in the 19th century for use as a livestock enclosure — its thorny juvenile stems offered a natural precursor to barbed wire — and an ornamental hedge. When not trimmed, it grows quickly and eventually yields an icky-green, softball-sized fruit covered with nodules. (The tree gets its name from the color of its bark.)

osage orange
An Osage orange. (Photo: Tina Casagrand)

The wood of Osage orange trees is very hard and resistant to rot. Indigenous peoples used it for bows, while later settlers fashioned axe handles and fence posts out of it. It also has the highest BTU of any North American tree. That means it grows long and hot, making it great for burning in your fireplace.

First Women’s March

Womens' Suffrage March (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

On December 6, 1912, a group of 200-plus women began marching from Manhattan up the Hudson Valley to the State Capitol, to raise awareness and urge legislators to support female suffrage in New York and the nation. All along their 170-mile route through communities on the east side of the Hudson River, the women stopped to share their platform with thousands of supporters and opponents.

Womens' Suffrage March (photo courtesy Library of Congress)
Womens’ Suffrage March (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

This type of direct political activism was rare for women at the time, and their 13-day hike is considered one of the nation’s first examples of “walking for a cause,” something so commonplace today. Why did they march in December, forcing the women to brave frigid temperatures and snowstorms? They wanted to connect with farmers and their wives when they wouldn’t be working in the fields.

Nationwide press coverage the hike received is credited with reinvigorating a moribund “Votes for Women” movement. It also led to New York being one of the first states to pass female suffrage, in 1917 — so you could say the sore feet were worth it.

Cruising History

hudson river day line steamer

For a little over a century — from 1863 to 1971, in fact—a cruise on the Hudson River Day Line was a must-do Hudson Valley experience. The side-wheel steamships that plied between Manhattan and Albany offered passengers live music, a couple of restaurants and even a barber shop along with magnificent views. No wonder the boats were called “floating palaces.”

hudson river day line steamer
Painting of Hudson River Day Line Steamer by Alexander Hamilton

For many, the Day Line provided transportation to vacations in the Catskills, or a daytrip to amusements at Bear Mountain or Kingston Point. At its high point in 1925, the line’s seven ships carried two million passengers.

The boats are long gone — travel by car and airplane did them in. The Alexander Hamilton, the last of the Hudson River Day Line fleet, ended its 40-year run on the Hudson in 1971. Today it rests in a watery grave off New Jersey.

Past Inclinations

Hotel casino, power station

If you visited the summit of Mountain Beacon in 1902, likely as a traveler on the brand new incline railway (at the time, the world’s steepest funicular), this scene awaited your arrival. The park-like setting included fountains and pathways around the Casino, a restaurant and dance hall.

All that’s left of this man-made grandeur are the ruins of the railway powerhouse (the small building on the photo’s right). Fortunately, the spectacular views remain the same, albeit you have to hike a mile uphill to enjoy them.

Hotel casino, power station
Postcard of Hotel, Casino and Power station. Mt. Beacon, Matteawan, New York

Master Class

hudson river scene

Frederic Church considered Olana, his estate near Hudson, to be his artistic masterpiece. That’s why Scenic Hudson has worked so hard to protect the views from Church’s home and its surrounding carriage roads, all designed by him to maximize vistas of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.

But regardless of his personal opinion, Church is generally regarded as the leading painter of the Hudson River School, our nation’s first homegrown art movement. His depiction of the Hudson Highlands, a treasure in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, allows viewers to enjoy the Highlands’ rugged beauty — including Breakneck Ridge, on the painting’s far right — without expending an ounce of energy on a hiking trail. 

hudson river scene
Painting by Fredrick Church of West Point, New York, The Hudson River.