Editor's Note: This guest article was written by filmmaker Ken Sargeant. To learn more about the Hudson River's role in modern environmentalism, visit our online exhibit "Rescuing the River."
Theodore J. Cornu was born in New Jersey to a Swiss mother and father, the latter of whom soon abandoned Cornu, his mother and siblings. The young Cornu demonstrated an affinity for art early on and eventually found his way to a Manhattan engrossing studio, where he soon became employed as an “engrosser” hand lettering diplomas and other commemorative documents. Canoeing was popular amongst his engrossing colleagues, which led him to the boating community in Ft. Washington. His love for canoeing seems to have catalyzed his interest in both the Hudson River and Native American customs.
Driven by his passion for canoeing, he forged his way up the Hudson to explore the Croton River. Soon thereafter he made the acquaintance of Anne Van Cortlandt. The two hit it off and he was able to rent The Ferry House on the shore adjacent to The Van Cortlandt Manor House. With the passage of a few years, he become adept in the process of building canoes and typically had several in various stages of assembly on the premises.
His activism seem to have emerged after years of enduring the oil slicks washing up the Croton River from nearby The New York Central Railroad facility, where the untreated waste from its cleaning procedures was discharged into the mouth of the Croton River. By 1933 Cornu had had enough. The fish caught in the river were said to smell and taste like oil, and Cornu was, thus, able to enlist the support of some fishermen in Crotonville who implored the State to pressure the railroad to clean up its act. They won.
By the late thirties, Cornu was a member of four different canoeing associations and was clearly wedded to the rivers. In 1936 he joined forces with other likeminded individuals and was involved in the founding of the Hudson River Conservation Society. From this pulpit he preferred his own interpretation of native inspired environmental care wisdom.
Cornu was closely associated with another Croton river lover, Egon Ottinger whose wife was involved with a host of gardening associations and often presented him to their adherents as a lecturer on “the ecology."
By the early 50’s Cornu had stepped up his profile and had formulated the basics of his Hudson Valley Echoes environmental activist group. It had no rules or dues. Members simply pledged to safeguard the rivers each according to their own skills and resources.
By 1956, Cornu’s proximity to Croton Point gave rise to another grievance. Westchester County’s use of the point as a dump troubled him to no end. Aside from the obvious and unavoidable stench, Cornu had, since 1926 observed the loss of vital wetland bird habitat, as the county filled in marshland with garbage. His visionary leadership caused him to issue the initial salvo against the county, which persisted in using Croton Point as a disposal site until dumping was curtailed 30 years later, in 1986 by order of the courts.
In the 1987 ”Complete Revival Program” published by Clearwater, on a page captioned “The Art River Saving,” the organization wrote that Cornu, who has passed away a year earlier at the age of 101 “had perhaps the longest association with the Hudson River of any conservationist."
Most accounts place the start of the Modern Environmental Movement with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, or alternatively with the pitched battle against Con Edison’s “Rube Goldberg-esque” Storm King power proposal.
The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, roughly a year after Cornu’s demise. By that time time Cornu had been making “good trouble” protesting and advocating for the environment over 35 years. Cornu’s unrelenting environmental activism seems to have pre-dated the “Movement” by decades. For this reason, it would seem prudent to re-examine his place in environmental history.
Ken Sargeant is a Croton-based Brooklyn-born, Harlem-reared photographer, documentarian, environmentalist and “back porch” historian, with a particular interest in community-level history. He was educated at the Bronx High School of Science, and Middlebury College,” subsequently pursuing a career in commercial photography. He is the co-founder of the Harlem Cultural Archives historical society (www.harlemcultural.org), a “Fashion Arts Xchange Group” trustee, and a “Hudson Valley Echo” in good standing.
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