National Geographic : 1978 Jan
white perch, carp, and bluegills from upriver. I could see why Dovel calls the Hudson estu ary one of the richest fish nurseries on the East Coast (painting, pages 66-7). A fifth of the striped bass caught in the North Atlantic, he estimates, grew up in the Hudson River. The fishermen sum it up best when they say simply, "That river's alive." The good news surprises those who remember the Hudsbn of the 1960's, when it epitomized the nation's problems with water pollution. Each summer, dissolved oxygen in the wa ter around New York City sank toward zero. Upriver, sailboat hulls picked up oil-slick sou venirs left by tankers and barges. At the con fluence of the Mohawk, a noxious blend of raw sewage and paper-mill wastes, dubbed the "Albany Pool," spread its stench every summer. Fish kills surfaced near power plants. A Presidential council called the river "an open sewer," and in an understandable burst of hyperbole, spoke of scavenging eels that attacked engineers taking water samples. Such horror stories helped spur an envi ronmental movement and federal legislation to "restore and maintain" all of America's waterways. Millions of dollars have since gone into Hudson cleanup alone, generating on going controversy about how clean a river should be. Clearly, the time has come for a prog ress report on this historic, scenic waterway. River's Lower Half Driven by Tides The Hudson is not a simple river. Large as it looms in the American mind, it is a midget in size, 306 miles long and 71st down the list of our rivers by length. Born in the pristine isolation of the Adirondacks, it exits into the Atlantic past New York City, one of the most densely populated metropolises in the world. (See "Close-Up: U.S.A."-The Northeast, a supplement to this issue.) In the Hudson's oft turbulent upper half, a dozen dams impound 70 miles into gentle "lakes." In its lower half, the Hudson isn't a river at all but a tidal estuary, an arm of the sea. Powered by the lunar pulse, high tide arrives at Troy, 150 miles from the Atlantic, twice each day to lap the base of the federal dam. At the adjacent lock, unwary boatmen occasionally tie up at sundown, only to be wrenched awake by stretching lines as the water drops nearly five feet on the ebb. The Hudson's 13,370-square-mile water shed reaches into five states. Minor tributar ies rise in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. New Jersey claims 20 miles of shore. But basically the Hudson is New York's river. Explorers, Artists, and Railroad Barons It took three and a half centuries of prog ress in the Empire State to despoil the water way, a gradual transition set in motion by an explorer and witnessed by some of America's favorite artists and authors. In the bright September of 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed his Half Moon to the present-day site of Albany, he was seeking a possible passage to the Orient. The English captain was only the first of a long line of ex plorers, sloop sailors, steamboat pilots, barge men, dredgers, and Coast Guard officers who viewed the river solely as a highway. The slow "civilizing" of the river was re corded by a succession of landscape artists, the Hudson River School of the mid-1800's. Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic E. Church, and Albert Bierstadt carted palettes into the open air to capture the play of light on water, the idyllic farms and vineyards, the shad fishermen, the forested slopes, and storms brooding over the Catskills. They painted a quarry here, a foundry there, a brick factory, an icehouse-miniature intru sions overwhelmed by the setting. In the 1840's railroad magnates discovered the river and began a transformation felt to day. Along both shores they built their tracks near the waterline, eventually corseting al most the entire estuary below Troy. Washington Irving, then America's most popular writer, watched the rails arrive at Sunnyside, his Tarrytown estate (page 79). He had always sought inspiration along the river, savoring its "wildness and savage majesty." Protesting against the "iron monster," he balked at selling his waterfront. But eminent domain prevailed, and the rails came through. Roller coaster gone wild, the upper Hudson rollicks clear and clean through Adiron dack Park-giving two white-water enthusiasts a ride. In contrast, the past century turned the lower Hudson into an industrial drain and oil-fouled ship channel. Legislation and local activists have brought a dramatic turnaround in little more than a decade.