Rail, River, Hudson Offers Unique Tour of Upper Hudson Valley Cities

A Capital Region author and historian shares his account of a modern day field trip in Upstate New York

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 
— T.S. Eliot

Remember your school trip, the best day of the year? On July 12, Mary Darcy and Greg Dahlmann of All Over Albany) and Duncan Crary (who’s all over Troy) just revived that fun for adults during their “Rail, River Hudson” summer tour.

This all-day excursion channeled the spirit of the old Hudson River Day Line, transporting 120 folks (including me) from around the Capital Region to the city of Hudson by Amtrak, and then back home aboard “Albany’s Riverboat,” the Dutch Apple II.

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To Hudson, by rail

We left at noon, and as we chugged south along the river, I realized there’s a reason why American painting began in the Hudson Valley with Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and their Hudson River School. Looking out over the Schodack wetlands and the Greek revivals on the heights of Athens — with the Catskills rolled up against the sky — this sublime view, so typically American, begged to be painted.   

And there’s a reason, too, that steamboat travel began on the Hudson, and not on Mark Twain’s Mississippi. The Scots and Yankees who settled in our Valley were enterprising and inventive, and they knew a steam engine could power a boat against the current and speed travelers up to Albany in a mere 36 hours.

At one point Crary called our attention to the lazy blue Catskills: “Rip Van Winkle is probably snoozing up there still.” Washington Irving, the first author to treat American subjects, immortalized the Hudson Valley when old Rip drank gin at Henry Hudson’s bowling game, and Brom Bones tricked Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

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In Hudson, by foot

Twenty minutes later the train pulled into Hudson, founded as an inland whaling port where the tide rises and falls twice a day. I walked up from the station with author/historian Don Rittner. He shared architectural observations about Federalist and Greek Revival features, and along Warren Street, about cast iron storefronts that, he said, gave us the great display windows that invented “window-shopping.” It was Rittner’s first visit to Hudson and he was visibly impressed, vowing to return soon and often. 

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In the last decade, Hudson has enjoyed an enviable Renaissance as antique dealers and bistros and clothing shops renovated the commercial blocks along Warren Street. Jennifer Krausknick, an antique aficionado whom I’d met years ago at Troy’s Bournebrooke consignment shop, was on our trip searching for bargains to share with her customers. She observed: “It’s wonderful to see upstate New York’s industrial area reinvigorated and being enjoyed by people from all over.”

Many of the travelers were from — or relocating to — Troy. Comparisons of the river cities were in many conversations, as was the people-friendly urban fabric, the walkability, the variety of shops, and the reinvestment in our older architecture. 

Our first stop in town was Helsinki Hudson, a music venue that offers full dinners while you watch the show. Local farm distillery Harvest Spirits treated the guests to a sampling, and while people drank and cooled off, I introduced myself to the “Fab Five,” a group of women and their husbands from Delmar. Bubbly Pam Smith had spotted the trip in the newspaper and was barely able to book it before the trip sold out. I spoke with Smith and her husband a bit about playing guitar — they play and their daughter’s dating a Hudson musician — and how much they were enjoying the relaxing getaway from suburbia.

After lunch at the food trucks on Warren Street, we took in the vista from Promenade Hill. The site, reputedly, overlooks the landfall where Henry Hudson first dropped anchor and came ashore. An elegant Victorian bronze of St. Winifred, patroness of virgins in Wales, graced a garden at the top of the hill, which commands a long sweep of the river.  

Rittner and I then walked over to the Columbia County Courthouse where I’ve appeared many times over the years, and we stopped into the Church of St. Mary for a contemplative moment, then back to Warren Street. Hudsonians were lining the street in their lawn chairs for a typical Saturday afternoon firemen’s parade as we walked over the satellite office of e-commerce giant, Etsy Hudson.

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etsy hudson etsy hudson

Andy Kainz Photography

Etsy Hudson had a lovely locally catered lunch waiting for us, lobster rolls and BLTs and gazpacho shots, and its bright and peppy workers introduced us to the modern workplace set in an old lumber factory: exposed brick and beams, wide open spaces, long desks with computer and laptop workstations, a small basketball hoop, a pool table, and picnic tables and hanging swings outside which encourage workers to relax as they do customer service for the $1.2 billion marketing firm.

After the Etsy tour, we ambled back down to the waterfront where the firemen from the parade had pitched a large tent for their cookout and a rock band set up in the gazebo. Loyal Trojan and neighbor of mine, Dan Palmer, remarked that he couldn’t wait to get back to Troy and away from the “Sidiots,” New Yorkers whose big city sophistication he deplores and their “hipster bubble” which he considers unsustainable. 

Returning to Troy, by boat

At last we boarded the Dutch Apple and soon were gliding upriver as the sun set and evening came on. I took this time to catch up with trip organizers Darcy and Dahlmann about their All Over Albany Web site. They started the e-magazine in 2008; it broke even a year or so ago and now makes a small profit. Dahlmann begins each day with “Morning Blend,” a composite of all the news clippings linked to their sources, and he and Darcy refresh their newspaper five or six times during the day. To meet and reward their fans, they schedule two trips a year. “We wanted people to experience a city on foot,” she said. “It’s a new/old way of transportation, arriving by train and leaving by river boat and seeing some place without your car.” 

They picked Hudson because a lot of people expressed a desire to visit the old whaling port. (After the tour had sold out, another 10 people made it to Hudson on their own just so they could take the river cruise back to Albany.) “The common denominator is doing something different,” Darcy said. “Curious people want an experience that is not mediocre, and we work really hard to give it to them.”

Dahlmann agrees that the semi-annual trips must be fun. A native of Ohio, he noted that the Capital District “unfurls itself slowly.  We have good things here. A lot of interesting people who don’t always know each other. The Albany area is really, really old in a way not many places in the United States are.

“Learning about why things are the way they are adds context and texture,” he added, agreeing that AOA’s mission is to feed people’s curiosity. “History does pretty well for us. People are interested. Today we showed a bunch of people a wonderful day, and if this changes the way they see things, great — but the important thing is for them to have fun.”

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For me, this delightful getaway brought back the spirit of school picnics to Crystal Lake half a century ago. Here in the Hudson Valley, perhaps North America’s oldest settled river valley, we rode a train and a riverboat; saw some trendy urban restaurants and an ultra-modern office space in a retro-fitted lumber factory; and I got to meet curious, intelligent folks who love the river and our river cities — Albany and Troy and Hudson. 

It was great fun to share the day with people who can be “in flow”: the flow of the river, the flow of the sun and moon across the sky, the sweep of history, and the progress of technology into the future. I renewed some acquaintances and made new friends and returned home knowing the river and its riches a bit better, appreciating it more.  

And as if some river god arranged the perfect theatrical ending, a full “supermoon” arose orange and smiling over the eastern treetops as we glided along, standing on our deck just as Henry Hudson, or Herman Melville, or Martin Van Buren, or Teddy Roosevelt, or Pete Seeger stood upon theirs, watching our beloved Hudson River flow.

Jack Casey lives in Troy and writes about upstate New York. His novels include The Trial of Bat Shea, A Land Beyond the River, and Kateri – Lily of the Mohawks. Learn more about him at www.jackcasey.com.

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