If ever a man loved a river, Robert Hamilton Boyle Jr. loved the Hudson — and he was not afraid to shout his love from the rooftops. In his classic text, The Hudson River: a Natural and Unnatural History (1969), Boyle makes his feelings abundantly clear with the book’s very first line. “To those who know it,” wrote Boyle, “the Hudson River is the most beautiful, messed up, productive, ignored and surprising piece of water on the face of the earth. There is no other river quite like it, and for some persons, myself included, no other river will do. The Hudson is the river.”
Gratifyingly, Boyle’s love for the Hudson was not merely a historic/scientific scholarly interest. Yes, Boyle studied the Hudson obsessively, but he did more than passively analyze his favorite waterway. He actively fought to save the river in its darkest hour, when pollution had reduced the Hudson to a shell of its former self. In his decades-long conservationist crusade, Boyle wrote watershed exposes, discovered crucial legal strategies, and founded a seminal environmental organization. Not bad for blue-collar “Brooklyn-born sportswriter and angler.” By the end of his life, Boyle — the down-to-earth fisherman — had become “the unofficial guardian of the Hudson River.”
All that being said, a question remains. How did Boyle come to be so fascinated by the Hudson River? Why did he want to save it so badly? By all accounts, Bob Boyle grew to love the Hudson during his 1940s boyhood boarding school years, when he spent his days off fishing by the (then relatively clean) riverside. When he moved to Croton-on-Hudson in 1960, Boyle was treated to a rude awakening. Instead of the semi-healthy river of his youth, Boyle found a waterway this close to clinically dead. Pollution, of both chemical and human waste varieties, had progressed to intolerable levels. In addition to being a health hazard to humans, the river’s once abundant flora and fauna were mysteriously dying out. Boyle, ever the fisherman, would not stand for that sort of thing. He decided to take up arms and go to war for the Hudson. His weapon of choice? A pen.
To reiterate an old cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words. Bob Boyle clearly took that message to heart. In his historic 1965 Sports Illustrated article, “A Stink of Dead Stripers,” Boyle began with a simple command: “Take a good look at the picture below.” The picture in question revealed a thousand-strong pile of striped bass “left to rot” at a dump. Even without context, a discarded fish-kill of that size looked, well, fishy. Bob Boyle thought so too — and he knew just who to blame. The culprit, in Boyle’s (ultimately correct) opinion, was the Consolidated Edison Company. The exact circumstances of the kill were not exactly clear — “but the fish apparently were attracted by warm water discharged from the plant and then were trapped beneath a dock.” Concerned citizens took pictures of these massive fish kills and submitted them to the New York State Conservation Department — which later “denied that such pictures existed” when questioned by Boyle. Of course, Boyle did eventually manage to get ahold of those pictures. Their publication, in conjunction with the scathing Sports Illustrated article, was the opening salvo in Boyle’s war against Consolidated Edison. From the start, one fact was crystal clear: Boyle wasn’t going to pull any punches.
In 1962, Consolidated Edison announced plans for a new hydroelectric power station, plans which had local fisherman and conservationists up in arms. The company hoped to carve a facility out of Storm King Mountain, a site renowned for its scenic beauty. Locals were, understandably, a little horrified by this scheme. The proposed power plant would obviously mar the landscape — and it probably wouldn’t do the river’s fish population much good either. Bob Boyle suspected that Con Ed’s “water-intake equipment would kill small fish,” decimating the population of his beloved striped bass. In 1965, Boyle joined a number of conservation groups (including Scenic Hudson, one of New York’s most enduring non-for-profit organizations) in a “lawsuit against a proposed Consolidated Edison power plant.” It was not an easy fight, but, after many years of legal battle, the conservationists’ efforts bore fruit.
The lawsuit, entitled Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission, resulted in “the first federal court ruling affirming the right of citizens to mount challenges on the basis of potential harm to aesthetic, recreational or conservational values as well as tangible economic injury.” It was, in every respect, a game changer and the true beginning of the modern environmental movement. And what was the crucial keystone of Scenic Hudson’s case? Scientific studies on the Hudson’s striped bass population, which would have, as Boyle predicted, been decimated by Con Ed’s plant.
After the Battle of Storm King had been won, Boyle did not choose to sit back and bask in his victory. No, he knew that work still had to be done. The river remained a polluted mess. By preventing the creation of Con Ed’s power plant, Boyle had only fulfilled the physician’s doctrine: “First, do no harm.” The Hudson still needed a thorough cleaning and a dedicated protector, a watchdog to scare the polluters away. To that end, Boyle began to conceive of a plan. He imagined a sort of ‘river keeper,’ a naturalist/conservationist “out on the river the length of the year.” This riverkeeper would keep watch on the river, sniffing out polluters and bringing them to task. What’s more, the riverkeeper would not act alone. They would have an entire organization behind them — an organization with real teeth. Boyle already had already founded just such an organization, the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, in 1966.
In 1983, the Fishermen’s Association evolved into ‘Riverkeeper,’ a non-for-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection of the Hudson. But what about the organization’s aforementioned teeth? Well, Boyle had discovered, years earlier, a pair of 19th century laws (the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the New York Harbor Act of 1888) which banned the “release of pollutants in the nation’s (and the state’s) waterways.” Furthermore, the two Acts allowed “citizens to sue polluters and collect a bounty.”
Luckily, the laws still held in the modern era. Bob Boyle and the Fishermen’s Association tested out their legal strategy against the Penn Central Railroad, and were able to stop a “pipe spewing oil from the Croton Rail Yard” and collect “$2,000 in fines, the first bounty awarded under the 19th-century law.” The bounty money was then repurposed to underwrite suits against other polluters. Riverkeeper wisely kept this legal strategy. All in all, it was an admirably self-sustaining system.
Eventually, Riverkeeper evolved past the Hudson River. It became a model for others around the world, a part of the “Waterkeeper alliance.” Today, the Waterkeeper organization “unites more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates that are on the front lines of the global water crisis, patrolling and protecting more than 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on six continents.”14 The individual waterkeepers work with local communities, enforce environmental laws, track down polluters and educate children about the environment. They are watchful protectors, just as Bob Boyle intended.
Although his main contribution to the environmental movement was undoubtedly Riverkeeper, Boyle never gave up and grew tired of his favorite river. He certainly never gave up fishing for his beloved striped bass. After all, Boyle is the man who once wrote: “There may be more stripers in the Hudson than there are people in New York State. I often find this a cheering thought.” Boyle was, in life and in print, down-to-earth, passionate, and adventurous — with a wryly sardonic sense of humor. He lived a life rich in meaning, a life he could be proud of. Case in point: Boyle once predicted that the Hudson would become “either ‘clean and wholesome’ or ‘bereft of the larger forms of life.’” Before he died on May 19th, 2017, Robert H. Boyle could be sure of two things:
1) the river had “gone the better way” and
2) he had played a small but crucial part in its salvation.
It just goes to show. Everyone is capable of making a difference, if they only have the courage to try
Lucia O’Corozine is a student at Hampshire College. She was an Education and Research Intern with the Hudson River Maritime Museum over the summer of 2018 and contributed research to HRMM’s new exhibit, “Rescuing the River: 50 Years of Environmental Activism on the Hudson.”
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue of the Pilot Log. If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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