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.
Today is the last day of Muddy Paddle's Excellent Adventure on the Hudson. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy the last post! Follow the adventure here.
Monday - Last Day
Dawn was cold and foggy. I rose early to sketch the Bear alongside the gnarled poison ivy tree with the tangled and eroded roots. We cooked up oatmeal and hot chocolate. The fog began to thin and the tide was still going out when we felt a breath of air from the south. We were excited by the prospect that we could sail home. We packed hastily and slid the Bear over fifty feet of soft, low-tide mud until she was afloat. I rigged our mast and yard.
We aimed for the middle of the channel to catch the best air. The wind increased briskly as we cleared the northern tip of the island and we set our course for Four Mile Point. A big cruiser approached us carelessly and we had to turn to meet her wake. Dan was drenched in the bow and we had to bail. Hereafter, we attempted to signal power boats to slow down by pumping our paddles up and down. Most boaters were courteous and throttled back. The tide still hadn’t turned. The opposing south wind set up a heavy chop of short, steep waves. Steering with a paddle required vigorous draw strokes on each side to keep the canoe from veering off course. Joe set our aerodynamic mouse-eaten sail to its most efficient shape and the miles rolled by very quickly.
There is an old stone house perched on a west shore outcropping called Four Mile Point where a lighthouse once stood. We sailed by this quickly. On the east side we passed the railroad bridges over the Stockport Creek. A house was built here in 1664 but the occupants were massacred by Indians and burned inside with the house. This stretch of the river has a very wild and untamed feeling, enhanced on our passage by the rising wind and choppy surface.
The tide turned as we approached Coxsackie. With the assist of our sail, it felt as though we were surfing the crest of one of several tidal bores advancing northward. To our west, the opera house and the public dock came into view. Squinting, we could see the bones of the old steam packet Storm King, abandoned here during the Depression. To the east, the ornate brick chimney of the 1885 Scott Ice House broke the tree line at Nutten Hook. We had hoped to camp there, but our difficulties on the first day had changed up our anticipated destinations.
We approached Coxsackie Island and needed to decide which channel to follow. The shorter west channel is narrow and shoal but looked to be passable for small boats. However as we approached it at low tide, the water became very shallow, so we took the long way around. We passed Rattlesnake Island and the foundation of the demolished Coxsackie Light, now bearing a steel cage tower instead of the historic brick house and lantern. There were strong eddies swirling around the limestone platform.
Stuyvesant Landing appeared to our east as we approached Houghtaling Island and yet another lighthouse foundation. The Island divides the river into a broad navigable channel to the west and a narrowing backwater to the east. Houghtaling Island has been radically changed from a series of small low lying marshy islands to a single, elongated island with higher terrain and deciduous trees by the addition of massive amounts of dredge spoil. We sailed up the west side of the island past the hamlet of New Baltimore with its old houses along the shore on terraces and a white steeple at the top. Sloop captain Joseph Sherman’s early nineteenth century riverside house with its distinctive verandah had recently been restored. Many power boat enthusiasts were out for the day from the marina just north of town. It was a perfect blue sky afternoon and we were able to completely relax as the wind rushed us northward.
Steve opened up our food chests and built sandwiches and passed out apples as we rolled up the river to Coeymans. Just north of the hamlet were the remains of the Powell and Minnock brick yard and the active Blue Circle Cement marine terminal. Just beyond we found the ruins of a Victorian power house with a tall chimney marking the site of a long gone ice warehouse. The wind began slacking off as we passed beneath the parallel railroad and Thruway bridges at Selkirk. Here, a barge and tug overtook us. The wind came back to life and we surged past Castleton-on-Hudson and began looking for the mouth of the creek that leads directly to Steve’s house. The creek’s mouth flows through a narrow, unmarked gap in a long concrete breakwater. We spotted the gap just in time and made the perfect entrance, striking our sail at the last moment and retaining some of our momentum into the still basin inside the breakwater.
We paddled upstream and dropped Steve off at his house at 3:00. Steve walked to his truck and we returned to the river to take the canoe to the boat ramp at Henry Hudson Park. We arrived at the park simultaneously with Steve, unpacked the Bear and carried the canoe up to the truck, inverting and hoisting her up onto the steel rack. We returned the canoe to her barn and then went to our homes for long overdue showers.
Muddy Paddle and his friends had hoped to paddle together again, but their nine-day trip up the river proved to be their last. The attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath made journeys of this kind seem indulgent. The four adventurers were needed at work and at home.
Many things along the Hudson River, including some of those described in Muddy’s account, have changed over the last 20 years. The Manhattan skyline has been transformed with the loss of the Twin Towers and the construction of new towers including the Freedom Tower with its tall mast punctuating ground zero. The 1931 fireboat John J. Harvey, first encountered by the paddlers as a rusty hulk, was restored and operational in time to assist in the 9/11/2001 rescue. The John J. Harvey was recalled to service by the New York City Fire Department and reactivated as Marine Company 2. Read more about her at https://www.1931fireboat.org/
Regrettably, the 1905 steam ferry Binghamton, on the Jersey shore, succumbed to neglect and sank. In recent years, her remains were scrapped out and small pieces of her were donated to the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Steve Trueman’s historic tugboats in Kingston are now gone; three of them were scrapped, one was returned to commercial service and a fifth is on the ropes near Albany. Housing along the river expanded significantly with large condo complexes rising above the sites of factories, docks and rail yards. A number of iconic Hudson River sites were stabilized and or restored including the ruins of Fort Montgomery, the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse and the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, now the popular Walkway-Over-the-Hudson. Public access to Bannerman’s Arsenal has been developed, although a large portion of the castle keep’s walls have fallen. The old “erector set” Tappan Zee Bridge has been replaced by two massive cable-stay spans that dwarf everything in their vicinity.
But many of the most important things remain unchanged. The rhythm of the tides, the rugged and monumental Palisades, the long stretches of wild shoreline, the distant views of the Catskills, fog on early autumn mornings, the earthy smell of the river above Kingston, the echoes of train horns in the Highlands and the willingness of those who live and work along the river to lend a hand to travelers. The river will always reward those who take the time to paddle, row or sail her waters.
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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Harris Nelson woke up on a normal day in January, 1906 not knowing he, his son, and fifteen others would be swallowed by the earth just after lunch.
Harris was a merchant in the small but prosperous town of Haverstraw, located approximately 60 miles south of the Hudson River Maritime Museum in New York’s Rockland County. The day Harris Nelson died the town boasted around 6,000 residents, with a population nearly double that today. Inventively called “Bricktown” more often than not, Haverstraw in 1906 was still benefiting from the Hudson River brick industry boom following the great New York City fires of 1835 and 1845, which left hundreds of wooden structures destroyed and a huge demand for brick as a less flammable building material. The Hudson River Valley, with its abundance of clay deposits left behind in the wake of post-glacial lakes nearly 12,000 years ago, stood up to answer the demand. Including the one in Haverstraw, over 40 brick factories cropped up along the Hudson, and where there were factories, there were often mines.
During most of the 19th century, clay was extracted from beneath Haverstraw until its residents lived and worked on hollow ground. The eventual and somewhat inevitable partial collapse of the mine began without fanfare, a slow cracking of the ground that some Haverstraw residents paid no mind. When it was evident homes and lives were in danger, it was too late for Harris and Benjamin Nelson, both of whom were either crushed in the collapse or killed by the ensuing fire, sparked by the toppled stoves of destroyed homes. The initial disaster took twelve lives, the additional five lost by men and women rushing to the aid of their neighbors.
Adding fuel to the literal fire was the frigid weather, which discouraged residents from leaving their homes, as well as a water main break that prevented fire-fighters from dousing the flames. It seemed that residents were attacked on several fronts by forces that merged to make the clay pit disaster an incredibly deadly one. And yet, Haverstraw’s residents carried on in its wake, and managed to rebound from the landslide of 1906 to continue as a place worthy of the name “Bricktown.” Remembering this dark spot in Hudson River history is not merely a cautionary tale in resource depletion; Haverstraw’s ability to carry on and grow into the diverse and history-rich village it is today also serves as a needed reminder that there’s a tomorrow after even the worst of times.
Audrey Trossen is a Hudson Valley native and worked as an intern with the Hudson River Maritime Museum during the summer of 2017. She is a current undergraduate student at Smith College in Northampton, MA where she majors in Geology and concentrates in Museum Studies.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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