Twenty years ago, four friends with an abiding love of the Hudson River and its history stepped away from their families and their work to travel up the river in a homemade strip-planked canoe to experience the river on its most intimate terms. The team set off from Liberty State Park in New Jersey and completed the adventure nine days later just below Albany where one of the paddlers lived. They began with no itinerary and no pre-arranged lodging or shore support. There were no cell phones. The journey deepened their appreciation for the river and its many moods, the people who live and work beside the river and the importance of friendship in sustaining our lives.
Please join us vicariously on this excellent adventure. We'll be posting every Friday for the next several weeks, so stay tuned! Follow the adventure here.
I woke up to heavy dew at 4:30 AM, cleaned up and began packing. The others rose from their fitful rest at 5:00. We were anxious to catch the flood tide. We fixed some oatmeal, broke camp and were paddling north before sunrise. We hailed the canal cruise ship Niagara Princess and rounded Danskammer Point, named by early Dutch travelers who are said to have witnessed council fires and native dancing on the promontory. Moments later, we witnessed the sun rise above the concrete silos and steel conveyors of the stone crusher on the east shore. Shifting tugs were already arranging barges at the plant and the sun’s long rays were described in sharp focus by the omnipresent clouds of dust. The crusher plant here and the power plant at Danskammer Point are two of the most obnoxious blights on the river between the Highlands and Catskill.
We reached the Pirate Canoe Club a mile south of Poughkeepsie at 7:45 AM just as the current turned against us. After tying up, we walked to the clubhouse and asked the members at the bar if we could stay until the tide turned. They graciously welcomed us and put on a fresh pot of coffee. They served the coffee with donuts and we watched Good Morning America and the Weather Channel on the TV set over the bar. Hurricane Dennis was still stalled off Cape Hatteras.
Our hosts were proud to tell us about the origins of their club. It was established along Poughkeepsie’s central waterfront but was forced to relocate as a result of urban renewal. The new clubhouse was perched on a rock jutting out into the river. The docks were connected to the clubhouse by a series of wooden gangways and stairs and there was an overturned canoe inscribed with the club’s name hanging near the entrance road coming into the club. Although founded as a canoe club, powered craft prevailed along the docks. The club had an old crane for seasonally placing and removing dock sections. Membership was inexpensive by any standard. The drinks here were cheap too. Dan, Steve and Joe decided to walk into town and I stayed behind to organize our gear and to draw and write. A north breeze began to blow and with it, the humidity began to dissipate. An older club member came by in his kayak and visited with me for a while and I asked him about camping on Esopus Island. He thought it would be fine and told me that there was a landing place on the southeast side where we could draw our canoe up onto the island. My partners returned at 11:00 with fresh vegetables for supper and a book for Dan. Joe was elated to have fresh ingredients for tonight’s supper. We had lunch on the hill and caught the beginning of the flood tide at 2:00. Soon, we passed beneath the Wizard of Oz-like Poughkeepsie suspension bridge and the long abandoned railroad bridge keeping close to shore in order to get the most out of the favorable current.
We came abreast of the Culinary Institute of America and bantered with two students enjoying the river. They bragged that they could cook better than any of us and offered to prove it by preparing some fish for dinner if we could only catch some. We hadn’t brought any fishing gear and sadly couldn’t take them up on this offer. We continued north through the Lange Rack and past Crum Elbow and the Hyde Park train station.
Esopus Island was visible straight ahead. We found the landing place on the southeast side amidst dwarfed cedar trees and climbed out at 4:30. After scouting the island we decided to camp here. We unloaded the canoe and then took her out light to explore the island’s shoreline all the way around. Our circumnavigation complete, we set up our camp and more thoroughly explored the island. We found evidence of the island’s history; flint flakes discarded near the river during the process of making tools and weapons, the remnants of a low stone wall perhaps intended to contain sheep, stone foundations for an early aid to navigation and fragments of the sidewheel steamer Point Comfort which failed to see the island and ran up on it early in 1919. There was also plenty of poison ivy and lots of red ants. The island’s vegetation was severely dried out as a result of a hot dry summer and the thin soil covering the island. Many leaves had fallen and those which hadn’t were brown. It was very reminiscent of an Indian summer in October.
We were well north of the leading edge of the salt line and took this opportunity to thoroughly bathe in the river. Once clean, we began dinner. Dan and I sketched the scene in our journals. Dinner was served at sunset and included a massive fresh vegetable salad with radicchio, noodles with spaghetti sauce and fried Spam. We cleaned up at 9:00 and sat around the campfire for a while listening to the din of birds and crickets and sharing our thoughts about the trip. A turkey vulture circled overhead. We reflected upon the subtle unfolding of the river and its surroundings and distant views experienced by travelers in both directions. Joe aptly described our adventure as “a kaleidoscope of marvelous experiences that seemed to glide from one to another.”
Some big birds tramped around our camp with heavy feet at night. In the morning, we found what appeared to be a pterodactyl egg on the bluff east of our campsite. It dawned upon us that we had built our camp at the intersection of a busy network of blue heron paths.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for Day 6 of the trip!
Muddy Paddle’s love of the Hudson River goes back to childhood when he brought dead fish home, boarded foreign freighters to learn how they operated and wandered along the river shore in search of the river’s history. He has traveled the river often, aboard tugboats, sailing vessels large and small and canoes. The account of this trip was kept in a small illustrated journal kept dry within a sealed plastic bag. The illustrations accompanying this account were prepared by the author.
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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2017 issue of the Pilot Log.
“. . .with the smell of clover from the river banks came the pungent odor of whale oil, mixed with the salty tang of the ships which sailed up from the sea.” --Edouard Stackpole, Sea-Hunters (1953)
The first great wave of economic expansion gripped the new American nation within twenty-five years after the ratification of the U. S. Constitution, at first with the creation of new municipalities and a flurry in turnpike building that opened the interior’s vast farming potential to the river corridor. This was quickly followed by a burst in industrial growth and a new sense of civic improvements in the riverfront towns in the emerging manifest destiny spirit. Some of the new ideas were not new at all, except in the novelty of their application here in the Hudson River Valley.
Whaling was one of them. The industry already had a curious history in a New England-based community that was established at Hudson (called Claverack Landing until 1785) by Seth and Thomas Jenkins, Quaker brothers from Nantucket, an island in the Atlantic Ocean that was terrorized by the British during the American Revolution. Providence, Martha’s Vineyard and Newport were also represented among the thirty heads of families who created the new town—a city, even—that by 1786 had twenty-five whaling vessels, more than in all of New York city. Four years later and rapidly growing, Hudson was designated a United States port of entry because it stood at the head of ocean-going navigation whenever sand bars prevented river access to Albany. In 1797, one ship, the American Hero, brought in the largest cargo of sperm whale oil in American history.
Hudson was a cosmopolitan port in these heady times, its trade including (much like today) exotic tapestries, Chinaware, English Staffordshire, French mahogany furniture—and visitors like the exiled French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who stopped while en route to a visit with a French marquise living near Schenectady, to examine the making of sperm oil candles and view an exhibition of Thomas Jenkins paintings. The city remained vibrant even after the whaling industry collapsed with the War of 1812.
Whaling was revived briefly in Hudson in 1829, when a new Hudson Whaling Company was attempted (not involving any of the original proprietor families). The industry also moved south as the Hudson River continue to be viewed as an amenable venue despite the extra time it took to come upriver. In fact, the river was also visited by whales, most famously in 1652 when a sperm whale (the world’s largest of the species) became stranded and died at Cohoes Falls, yielding spermacetti oil that made the best candles that local residents had ever had—and a horrific smell in its putrefaction for miles around.
The Jenkins brothers had first looked at Poughkeepsie before opting for Claverack Landing, but it was not until 1832 that an industry was established in Poughkeepsie, and in Newburgh, also involving Nantucket and New Bedford whalers but this time as crew, not proprietors. The Newburgh Whaling Company was established by an act of the New York state legislature on January 24, 1832, and, like the Poughkeepsie Whaling Company (created March 20), involved prominent businessmen desiring high civic accomplishments as well as profits. U. S. exports of sperm oil rose from 3,944 barrels in 1815 to more than 110,000 by 1831, leading the Poughkeepsie investors to expect as much as $6 million in profits in a scant four years.
By April, 1832, the Newburgh company purchased and outfitted the Portland for $15,250, added the Russel ($14,500) in August, and the Illinois ($12,000) in 1833—but each made only two voyages. Their future looked promising—the Portland brought in 2,100 barrels of oil and 19,000 pounds of whalebone for $40,000 in sales on its last voyage—but the industry collapsed due to falling oil prices.
In Poughkeepsie, the new corporation raised $200,000 in stock sales within six weeks after incorporating, and a vessel (the Vermont) was purchased and sailed by the end of October. A second ship, the Siros, sailed in April of 1833, and the Elbe left that August. A second enterprise, the Dutchess Whaling Company, was formed under newly elected U. S. Senator Nathanial P. Tallmadge that fall, and also worked with a New Bedford agent. They bought ten acres on the riverfront and leased half of it to the Poughkeepsie company.
Both good and bad news followed. The Vermont was spotted by a New Bedford ship off Cape Horn, South America, heading for Peru, but the Siroc was wrecked off Cape Good Hope (Africa). Another Dutchess ship, the New England, sailed in July of 1834 and by October had killed two whales in the Azores. The Vermont returned in early 1835 with $16,000 in whale oil, having traveled around the world, losing its captain in a stabbing incident probably involving one of his sailors.
On its second voyage, the New England returned with $50,000 in cargo. Another ship, the Newark, returned also full and to great applause, and the Nathanial P. Tallmadge was launched in 1836. The bottom fell out of the market when the price of whale oil dropped in half as a result of a new, more severe panic that gripped the nation in 1837, the result of Andrew Jackson’s misguided banking policies. By 1841, when the Elbe lay wrecked in New Zealand, ships were being sold on their return. The Dutchess Whaling Company lost money in the sale of its land and went into receivership in 1848.
Politics played against the whalers in the clash of Democrat and Whig philosophies. Senator Tallmadge was roundly criticized by the Locofoco faction of Democrats as the tide of public opinion turned against the whole notion of speculation. A new technology was emerging, the use of gas in home and industry lighting, that would survive until the electrification era almost a century later. These local industries were too small to sustain profits amidst the vicissitudes of a changing market and the crew requirements that they faced. They had to hire expensive New England mariners because no one on the Hudson had the experience of ocean voyages. Richard Henry Dana, author of the classic whaling account Two Years before the Mast, a crew member with a New Bedford whaler that met the New England at sea, remarked about a “pretty raw” Poughkeepsie youth who was “just out of the bush” and knew nothing about sailing.
The great promise at the beginning of the whaling industry on the Hudson River resulted from the size of the fleet and experience of the Hudson proprietors, but the industry in general just did not have the time to mature here. Like plank roads, Hudson River whaling passed into oblivion as another great idea of the antebellum era lost in the shuffle of “a go-ahead people”—as Poughkeepsie investor Matthew Vassar (in both whaling and plank roads) described his fellow Americans—whose future lay in a newer and much broader economy to come.
 Vernon Benjamin, The History of the Hudson River Valley: From Wilderness to the Civil War (New York, 2014), 260; David Levine, “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry: A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY,” in Hudson Valley Magazine, March 19, 2012 (http://www.hvmag.com/Hudson-Valley-Magazine/April-2012/Hudson-Valley-Whaling-Industry-A-History-of-Claverack-Landing-Hudson-NY/); Anna R. Bradbury, “The Rule of the Proprietors 1783-1810,” in History of the City of Hudson, New York . . . (Hudson, 1908; http://www.cchsny.org/uploads/3/2/1/7/32173371/-whaling_lesson_for_pdf.pdf); Du Pin Gouvernet, Henriette Lucie Dillion, Marquise de (ed. & tr. By Walter Geer), Recollections of the Revolution and the Empire. . . . New York, 1928 (1857?).
 Adriaen van der Donck, A Description of New Netherland (tr. Jeremiah Johnson, ed. Thomas F. O’Donnell), Syracuse, 1968 (1655).
 Patricia Argiro, “Whaling—A Short Lived Venture in Newburgh,” in Orange County Free Press (July 11, 1972); Mary McTamany, “Whaling Ships once anchored at First Street,” Mid-Hudson Times, March 7, 2007.
 Sandra Truxtun Smith, A History of the Whaling Industry in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1830-1845. Vassar College thesis, Poughkeepsie, May 2, 1956.
Vernon Benjamin is the author of The History of the Hudson River Valley: From Wilderness to the Civil War and The History of the Hudson Valley: From Civil War to Modern Times.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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