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.
The sun came up over Spuyten Duyvil at 6:30 with wind from the north and a low tide. We had a nice view of the campanile at the Cloisters and we strained to see flags on the east shore of the river in hopes of seeing any deviation from the north wind. The waves moderated somewhat since last night.
Joe, the most senior member of our party, was an architect. Yesterday, he applied his skills to site and arrange our camp so that it would stay together in the wind and keep us dry. Joe was a thoughtful and spiritual man, active in community organizations including a youth organization and the Unitarian Church. He grew up in a tough part of New York and is grateful for the educational opportunity he received at Cooper Union. Joe cared about fresh food and good cooking and seemed dismayed by the way the others among us provisioned this trip. He winced as Steve and I prepared a bountiful “Beneficent Beach” breakfast consisting of apple-cinnamon oatmeal, instant coffee and stale bagels left over from Sunday.
We broke camp at 8:00 AM and launched the Bear at 8:30, hoping to benefit somewhat from the flood tide. We hugged the west shore in hopes of minimizing the wind which had moderated but was still blowing at 10-15 mph. The stone bulkhead continued along the shore. Soon, we passed the ruins of an abandoned stone park pavilion and entered an entirely wild shoreline inhabited by kingfishers, buzzards and other circling raptors. We reached the marina at Alpine at 10:30 and rested briefly before continuing north into what felt like the uninhabited reaches of a different continent. The Palisades inspire awe at close range. Huge chunks of rock cantilever outward from the cliff face; chimney rocks stand free to towering heights; tortured trees cling to seams and crevices, broken talus slopes tumble down to the river. Parts of the Palisades resemble cliff dwellings in the Southwest. Other stretches seem to recall scenes from Indiana Jones’ “Temple of Doom.” Breathtaking opportunities for drawing and painting abound. Was Thomas Cole or the Hudson River School artists who followed him familiar with these scenes? Paddling quietly in the lee of the red cliffs and dwarfed by their scale, one imagines being far from civilization in a very exotic corner of the planet.
As we paddled further north, we began looking for the ruins of Tonetti Gardens, a romantic riverside folly described to us and recommended by Steve’s son roughly west of Hastings-on-Hudson. We were told to look for several columns which lay fallen into the river. We imagined it might serve well as a campsite. After several false sightings, Joe discovered the stucco columns just after noon. We located a landing and went ashore. The isolated site looked ideal for camping, so we began unpacking and hauling the Bear up past the high tide mark. We found picturesque stone walls, arched niches, stone staircases, an enchanting waterfall and the remains of what had once been a reflection pond. The columns belonged to what had once been a tea house with a brick paved floor perched on a projection above the river with nice views. We decided to call this place “Roger’s Rest” after Steve’s son. We made sandwiches and bathed in the waterfall. Joe and I sketched the ruins while Steve and Dan climbed to the top of the waterfall. Steve detected a slight shift in the wind. There seemed to be a slight breeze coming in lightly from the southeast. We seized the opportunity to roll up some welcome miles under sail and were on our way north again at 3:00 PM.
The Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay
Despite the ebb tide, we were successful in moving north with a combination of sail and paddles. We quickly reached the end of the Piermont Pier, a possible campsite if we were forced to retreat, and we said hello to a few friendly local fishermen. We set our course for the Tappan Zee Bridge and passed beneath it at 4:00 PM. The Tappan Zee widened before us. The south wind strengthened but its benefit was neutralized by the increasing ebb tide. Nevertheless, we worked hard and made good progress north. At one point, we feared that Washington Irving’s apparition-like storm ship was sailing our way, but it turned out to be a navigational tower rising from the site of the long gone Rockland Lake lighthouse. We came abreast of Croton Point at 6:00 and gave some consideration to camping there for the night. But the south wind tempted us to continue. We pressed on in spite of a nagging hesitation. We were hoping to cross Haverstraw Bay and camp somewhere near Verplanck.
Haverstraw Bay has been a formidable adversary on previous canoe trips so we were well-warned. As soon as we passed Croton Point, the wind weakened and the ebb tide strengthened. We began to notice that even as we were moving through the water swiftly, landmarks on the shore barely moved. We experienced a magnificent sunset with a mackerel sky from the center of the bay and steeled ourselves to dig deeper and paddle harder. Concerned with our visibility to nighttime traffic, we lit our camp light and lashed it to the top of our mast. It illuminated our sail and blinded all but our bow paddler. As a result, those of us behind the sail frequently “caught crabs,” unable to see approaching waves. We spotted a lighted factory chimney at Stony Point and the flashing utility towers carrying cables across the river there but it took hours to get closer. By the time we were near Verplanck, there was bright glare from the lights at the gypsum plant at Stony Point but the east shore was so dark that we couldn’t really see where to go. We felt our way to a boat yard that had offered assistance in the past and tied up at 9:30. We went to the owner’s home and asked him if we could stay. After giving us the business for rudely awakening him, he ordered three pizzas, a case of soda and gave us the keys to his car so we could pick the order up. He set us up for the night in one of his buildings and we collapsed at 11:00 PM. In our experience, river people are unfailingly helpful and generous to those who are humble in asking for help.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for Day 4 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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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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