Editor's Note: This article protesting river pollution is from the October 18, 1888 issue of the New York Herald newspaper. See more Sunday News here.
Poison in the River
Large Amounts of Sewage Filth is Being Dumped into the Hudson at Albany
[By telegraph to the Herald}
Albany, N.Y., Oct. 17, 1888 - Danger threatens our river towns and possibly the metropolis. It arises in the wholesale contamination of the Hudson River with tons of festering filth now being dredged from the Albany basin.
For years complaint has been made of this basin as a plague spot. Once a valuable part of the canal system, it has become gradually filled up and useless. The filling was chiefly the silt from the spring freshets, the refuse from mills and factories, and, worst of all, the washings from the city sewers.
When the health of the city was threatened by the accumulated nastiness the State Board of Health rose up and demanded that something be done. The city officials joined in the demand and an appropriation was secured to clear out the basin and restore it to the canal system.
A Large Mass of Sewage Deposit
An amount of filth, nearly equal to 150,000 cubic feet, is to be removed, and dredges are now at work upon it. Sanitarians recommended that steps be taken to compost this filth as it lay, but nothing of the kind was done. It is simply scooped up, loaded into scows and tugged off down stream.
The workman say these scows are dumped some distance below the city. This leaves tons of putrid matter to be spread out along the shores by the tide or by every slight freshet, or to be carried on down stream by the current.
The danger arising from such a proceeding is that the filth is likely to contaminate the water to an extent which should fill with alarm all residents of cities and villages whose water supply is taken from the river.
Contaminating the Ice Crop
Nor does the danger stop there. The same source of contamination threatens the ice crop. The officials of the State Board of Health agree that this danger is even greater than the other. The ice crop is gathered for distribution over a large territory and can easily be contaminated by sewage poison. Physicians recognize ice gathered from impure water as a frequent source of enteric troubles, and warn the public against it as strongly as against the use of polluted water itself.
The work of dredging out the Albany basin is well under way, and unless prompt action be taken by the proper authorities, a large increase in typhoid troubles may result in the section of country to which the filth is likely to be carried by the river.
Thank you to HRMM volunteer George Thompson, retired New York University reference librarian, for sharing these glimpses into early life in the Hudson Valley. And to the dedicated HRMM volunteers who transcribe these articles.
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As the ice began to encroach on the Hudson River each year, many activities – fishing, shipping goods, passenger service – ceased. But unlike today, the coming of ice did not mean an end to all activity. For the Hudson River, winter was just another season of work and play.
When it came to transportation on the river in the winter, the boats often remained in the water as long as possible. In the days of wooden boats, some of the heavier boats’ hulls were reinforced with iron to enable them to break through the ice. Ferry services continued as long as they were able to break through the ice with their heavy iron or steel hulls. Larger tugboats pulled barges as long as their iron or steel hulls could navigate through the ice. Commercial vessels like tugs and barges were not removed from the creeks or river in the winter, but spent the season frozen in along the shores. In the 20th century, with the formation of the Coast Guard, their steel vessels patrolled the Hudson, breaking ice and looking out for boats that needed help.
As the Hudson gradually froze over completely and the ice thickened up, it was time for ice harvesting. Begun in the early 19th century on Rockland Lake to service New York City, the demand for ice soon outstripped the capacity of local freshwater lakes in New York and New Jersey to provide enough ice. Areas on the Hudson beginning around Kingston became the perfect place to harvest natural ice. Well above the salt line (south of Poughkeepise), and located where the river widens with easy shore access, Kingston became prime ice harvesting territory featuring enormous white and yellow wooden ice houses up and down the shores of the Hudson and the Rondout Creek. Over time ice harvesting expanded further north to Albany and beyond.
The ice had to be eight to twelve inches thick for optimal harvesting. Employing seasonal workers like fishermen, tug boat men, farmers, brick yard and quarry workers, and anyone else willing to brave the weather for some wintertime income, ice harvesting was an enormous business. Blocks of ice weighing upwards of 300 pounds were packed floor to ceiling in enormous ice houses and packed with marsh hay, or other insulators to keep the ice frozen until summer, when it would be loaded onto barges and headed south for New York City and locations as far away as the Caribbean and India.
To cut ice, the area in front of the ice house was marked off into a grid by an ice plow very much like a farmer’s plow which was pulled by a horse. Then men with large saws cut through the ice along the grid lines. After that the large cakes of ice were floated along a channel of open water into shore guided by men using long pike poles. On reaching shore the ice cakes were loaded onto a conveyor built powered by a steam engine and moved up into the ice house. In the ice house men with pike poles guided the ice cakes along into chutes to fill the ice houses rooms. In spring and summer the ice houses were gradually unloaded as the ice was shipped out.
The use of natural ice declined with the onset of both electric refrigeration and the use of electricity to create artificial ice, which was deemed to be purer and cleaner. Ice harvesting for personal use did continue on many of the Hudson River estates and in rural areas. In the 1930s some people were using gasoline-powered mechanized ice harvesting equipment, but horse-drawn and human-powered equipment was the norm for nearly one hundred years.
The onset of winter also offered recreational opportunities. Ice skating was a longtime popular pastime for young people, but ice yachting or boating was a Hudson River staple for decades. First popularized around the Civil War, ice boating fell out of favor until a revival around the turn of the last century. The sport was primarily practiced by wealthy sportsmen who loved the speed involved.
The enormous wooden stern steerer ice boats would be taken apart and stored in barns and outbuildings all year, just waiting for the winter ice to be thick enough for the ice boating season. Ice boats are extremely fast due to the lack of friction on their metal-capped wooden runners. Powered by the wind, the largest ice boats can top out at over 100 miles per hour. They were once the fastest vehicles on earth. Old stern steerers still exist today along the Hudson and when the ice gets thick enough on Tivoli Bay or Orange Lake or, best of all, the Hudson, you’ll find enthusiasts braving the icy cold winds for an exhilarating ride.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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