This website is part of The New York Public Library's Online Exhibition Archive. For current classes, programs, and exhibitions, please visit nypl.org.

THE HUDSON RIVER: HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

TRADE & TRANSPORTATION
TOURISM
ART & LITERATURE

INTRODUCTION

The Hudson River region is one of America's treasures. Long before English explorer Henry Hudson sailed up the river in 1609 for the Dutch East India Company, the waterway was a major travel route for Native Americans. While it did not provide the Europeans with their desired connection to the Pacific, the river opened trade routes north to Canada and west to the Great Lakes. Until the Mississippi Valley was settled two centuries later, the Hudson was America's most prominent, and profitable, waterway.

From the beginning, thousands of visitors plied its waters on their travels. The river's dramatic scenery - the Palisades, the Hudson Highlands, the Catskills - soon became renowned around the world, carried on the tongues and in the letters of travelers. The Hudson and its scenery became a popular subject for artists and writers, inspired by its beauty and facilitated by its convenience to the port of New York. As publishing developed in the 19th century, particularly in New York, the sublime locales along the river found expression in ink as pictures and travel accounts. As more prints, poetry and tales were published, more travelers were attracted to the region, from all parts of the western world. This phenomenon is now about to enter its fifth century. The enduring popularity of the river has left an extraordinary historical record, in both scope and quality. The Hudson River is an often-used term to describe much of the most distinctive landscape art and regional literature created in the United States.


TRADE & TRANSPORTATION


Claimed by the Dutch, colonized by feudal patrons, and settled by a mix of immigrants from Europe and other New World colonies, the Hudson Valley is a uniquely American cultural region. It played a pivotal role in winning the Revolutionary War, and the river became the world's most important commercial waterway when the Erie Canal opened the way to the American West. The region evokes images of grandeur and power as the jewel of the Empire State, yet the everyday familiarity of its "sleepy hollows" doggedly persists in the collective imagination. Small homesteads and farms first settled by Dutch and German immigrants, aristocratic palaces on private estates, and industry-friendly river towns intermingle to create a cultural landscape of remarkable diversity and texture. All of this rich history is situated in the midst of sublime scenery, which launched American Romanticism and inspired the world.

The Hudson River extends some 315 miles, from the headwaters in the Adirondack Mountains at Lake Tear of the Clouds to its meeting with the Atlantic Ocean at New York City. The river was one of the principal waterways in North America, with a prodigious history of commerce, transportation, culture, and recreation well before European settlement. In Colonial times, the river supported a lucrative fur trade and conveyed Hudson Valley wheat and timber to New York City from where it was distributed throughout the

 
Detail, map of northeastern United States from Jaques Milbert, Itineraire Pittoresque du Fleuve Hudson, 1828.
Western World. The Hudson's main tributary is the eastwardflowing Mohawk River; in addition to Albany and New York, its principal cities are, north to south, Troy, Hudson, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Peekskill and Yonkers in New York State, and Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City in New Jersey.

Life on the river was transformed when inventor Robert Fulton inaugurated a new era of water navigation in 1807, piloting his North River Steamboat, later known by its popular name, the "Clermont." Beginning in 1820, the Erie Canal connected the Hudson to the Great Lakes and soon after the Delaware & Hudson Canal linked the river to Pennsylvania coal fields supplying the raw materials and fuel that transformed New York City into the great American metropolis. The Hudson's importance as one of the nation's main arteries of trade continued to grow. The "DeWitte Clinton" locomotive first ran on track built along the river's edge. In 1853 the New York Central Railroad consolidated many smaller lines to funnel freight and passengers into the city from a rail network that soon stretched across the continent.  
Hudson River steamers leaving New York. From Benson J. Lossing, The Hudson, From the Wilderness
to the Sea
. 1866

Transportation in the Hudson region was arduous before the introduction of steam-powered boats. Travelers and trade goods moved unpredictably, often stalled by unfavorable winds on the river or mired in the muddy roads paralleling it. Steamboats' ability to carry passengers and freight between New York and Albany on schedule revolutionized water travel and ushered in a new age of technological advancements in transportation.

Water transportation and travel were at a peak in 1850, when railroads began to compete for freight and passengers. While trains never completely replaced riverboats, they represented the next level of improvement in transportation engineering and ease of travel. For the first time in the Hudson's history, land travel was superior to that on water, and freight traffic and tourism both increased significantly. Fortunately for tourists, the Hudson River Rail Road hugged the shoreline and was nearly as scenic as the boats.


TOURISM

Tourists came from all parts of the United States and Europe to see the Hudson. It was an important leg in trips to Saratoga Springs, the Adirondacks, Niagara Falls, and Canada, as well as a destination itself, particularly in the Catskills where many tourist hotels were located. West Point and other Revolutionary War sites were as popular with visitors throughout the 19th century as they are today, but for most travelers, the region's natural scenery and its splendid river houses were the principal attractions. These sights were best appreciated from the water. Most tourists visited the Hudson River without stepping ashore between New York City and Albany. Passenger boats became ever larger and faster as the century advanced. Eventually, the 150-mile trip was made within a single day. There were day boats and night boats; from the latter shoreline landmarks were viewed by searchlight.

 


'View at De Koven's Bay.' From Benson J. Lossing,
The Hudson, From the Wilderness to the Sea
. 1866


View from the Mountain House, Catskill. Steel
engraving from watercolor view by William
H. Bartlett. From American Scenery. 1840.
  Once in Albany, some travelers headed west to Niagara on Erie Canal packet boats or overland through the Mohawk River Valley; others went north by canal to Lakes George and Champlain and on to the Adirondacks. Travelers to the "Springs" at either Ballston or Saratoga enjoyed the luxury of one of the earliest railroads in America. These travelers used guidebooks to direct them through New York City, to the boats, and on up the Hudson, as well as to point out landmarks along the way.

While foreign travelers tended to head through the region, the Hudson River hosted tremendous numbers of New Yorkers looking to escape the city and engage with nature. This pastime was popular with elite and common people alike, for the river's advanced transportation services made it easy for city dwellers of all classes to visit in the country if only for a day. Overnight and long-term visitors stayed in hotels on the Palisades and in the Hudson Highlands, two of the more dramatic scenic areas in close proximity to the city. Inexpensive excursion boats transported day-trippers.


ART & LITERATURE


'The Hudson at "Cozzen's." ' Wood engraving by Harry Fenn. From Picturesque America. William Cullen Bryant, ed. 1872.

Prominent among Hudson River recreationists were artists and writers. Wrapped up in Romantic sensibilities, they attempted to capture the intangible essence of the region's picturesque natural landscape in image, verse and prose. The combination of a great reservoir of artistic talent in the city and the proximity of the Hudson's sublime scenery resulted in one of the most productive and significant eras of art and literature in American history.

The artists who created the legendary canvases of the Hudson River and Catskills in this era are known as the Hudson River School. These painters, such as Thomas Cole (pictured with poet William Cullen Bryant in Asher B. Durand's 1849 painting "Kindred "Spirits", Frederick Church, Sanford Gifford, William Kensett, and Jasper Cropsey were very familiar with the dramatic rustic locales and the taste of wealthy city patrons. Each year to great fanfare, new works were displayed in fashionable art galleries in the city. The most popular paintings were quickly engraved on steel plates and printed by the hundreds for sale to audiences of more modest means. Prints and illustrations also helped to maximize the financial return painters received from their successful works.



Asher B. Durand was New York's premier engraver, as well as a painter; but other engravers and lithographers created Hudson River views for reproduction and publication. Illustrating the vast scale of this industry, it was prints of New York and Hudson River scenes that established the reputation of the renowned American lithographers and publishers, Currier and Ives, and they were only one of many firms engaged in the business. In 1874, poet and publisher William Cullen Bryant edited Picturesque America, a two-volume compendium of essays and poetry by writers well-known in their regions, illustrated by wood-engravings.
  • Prints and illustrations, from the 1820s to 1874, representing the most popular images from the era are presented in: Prints and Guidebooks
 


The Catterskill Fall. Steel engraving from watercolor view by William H. Bartlett. From American Scenery. 1840.

 


'Newburg' Aquatint of watercolor by William Guy Wall. From Hudson River Port Folio. 1820

  French artist Jacques Milbert toured the Hudson River region in the 1820's and compiled a series of colored drawings of views he encountered on his trip. Upon his return to Paris, he wrote an account of his travels that was published illustrated with lithographs of the views. This publication introduced the beauties of the Hudson River to the European public. Thirty of the fifty-four views depict the region and are included here. William Henry Bartlett, an English watercolorist, made his first trip to North America in 1836 and began producing colored drawings of views made popular by American and European travelers.

In 1840, a two-volume compendium of steel engravings of these views was published simultaneously in London and New York with the title American Scenery. Novelist Nathaniel Parker Willis provided Romantic descriptions for the 118 views. Numerous engravers were employed to create steel engravings of Bartlett's views. Forty-seven views of the Hudson River region are included here.



Poet and publisher William Cullen Bryant edited a two-volume work about the United States, which included essays by writers well-known in their regions, each illustrated by wood engravings of prominent views. Views from the five chapters dealt with the Hudson River region and are included here.

In the last half of the 19th century, photography and photographic duplication processes quickly supplanted the hand-made, mechanically-reproduced prints that had made the images of Hudson River popular for previous generations. In some cases, traditional views were reproduced, but the advent of photography generally changed the way the river was represented. Romantic,

 
West Point and the Highlands.' Steel engraving from painting by Harry Fenn. From Picturesque America. William Cullen Bryant, ed. 1872
pastoral views were few; documentary and action-based images were more the norm. Some very early photographs of subjects and scenes in the Hudson River region are contained in the Photography section of the Collections. There is also a link to the extensive digital presentation of the NYPL Dennis Collection of stereograph views of New York, Small Town America, where hundreds of images of the Hudson River can be found.


Scene from the 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' by Washington Irving. Hudson Legends edition, 1867
  The Hudson River was also the source of an indigenous American literature. Within the young nation Washington Irving is considered the first man of letters to emerge, his renown based on his Hudson River tales published in 1819-1820.
  • Prose sections of American Scenery (1840) by novelist Nathaniel Parker Willis and Picturesque America (1874) by poet William Cullen Bryant are presented in searchable text format

In the 19th century, American writers began to look back on the history of the Hudson and reflect on its significance. They, along with the artists, were motivated by a desire to create a cultural identity for the nation. The river's central role in New York's particular Dutch colonial history, the Revolutionary War, the construction of the Erie Canal, and the growth of commerce and industry provided historians with gripping subjects.

The region's most important 19th-century chronicler, Dutchess County native Benson J.
Lossing (1813-1891) traveled the length of the Hudson recording its historical events and sketching its natural and cultural landmarks. In 1866, Lossing published The Hudson, From the Wilderness to the Sea with more than three hundred wood engravings, an encyclopedic compendium that continues to captivate its readers.
  • Consult Benson J. Lossing's 1866 history of the Hudson River in searchable text
In the 19th century, writers were beginning to look back on the history of the Hudson and reflect on its significance. This was also motivated by a desire on the part of American artists and writers to create a cultural identity for the nation. The river's central role in New York's peculiar Dutch colonial history, the Revolutionary War, the construction of the Erie Canal, and the growth of commerce and industry provided historians with gripping subject material. A searchable text version of Benson J. Lossing's 1866 history of the Hudson River can be found in the History section of Collections.  
Street View in Ancient Albany. From Benson J. Lossing. The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea. 1866.

 




Copyright 2001 The New York Public Library  Digital Collections  -   Photographic Services & Permissions