By now, you’ve surely heard that it’s New York State’s Quadricentennial year: We’re observing the 400th anniversary of both Henry Hudson’s famous ride up the river and Samuel de Champlain’s upstate lake discovery, as well as the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s first successful steamboat navigation.
But you’ve probably never heard of the event that inspired all of this year’s hoopla. A mere 100 years ago, the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration made the world take notice. “I call it New York’s biggest party ever,” says Kathleen Eagen Johnson, coauthor of The Hudson-Fulton Celebration: New York’s River Festival of 1909 and the Making of a Metropolis, and curator/director of collections for Historic Hudson Valley. “It was a huge 150-mile festival, from Manhattan all the way up the river to Albany.”
The celebration was so intense that some old-timers remembered it as going on for months (although officially it spanned the roughly two-week period from September 25 to October 11). It was a way for New York to grab the spotlight after it lost out on the chance to host the Columbian Exposition in 1893, which celebrated Christopher Columbus’ 400th anniversary. New York leaders seized the opportunity to claim Hudson and Fulton for their very own — and they ran with it.
Postcards from the 1909 festivities feature drawings of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge (soon to be reopened as the Walkway Over the Hudson) and portraits of Hudson and Fulton
Postcard (top) reprinted from The Hudson-Fulton Celebration by Kathleen Eagen Johnson, (bottom) courtesy of City of Newburgh
“History-themed expositions or mini world’s fairs were going on all across America all the time,” says Eagen Johnson. “Americans had one foot in the 1800s and the other in the 1900s. They are in this amazing moment when things are changing incredibly rapidly. There are skyscrapers, electric lights, and subways. They are kind of unsure how to proceed.”
Celebrating Hudson and Fulton together was a good compromise: Hudson represented the glorious, romanticized past of billowing sailing ships, while Fulton’s 32-hour steamboat journey from New York City to Albany (a trip that normally took days) ushered in modern technology. From this innovation came ocean liners, steam trains, westward expansion, and even immigration across the Atlantic.
“People today don’t realize or appreciate that Robert Fulton’s invention revolutionized the way people lived, the way they communicated, and the way they did business. You could reliably project when you’d move a communication, person, or merchandise from one place to another,” says Richard Anderson, president of the S.S. Columbia Project, which is working to restore one of America’s oldest passenger steamers for use on the Hudson.
It was a real coup that the Dutch government sent over a replica ship Half Moon for the 1909 event. The only miscalculation was equipping it with members of their navy based on height, rather than sailing ability. Short men were needed to fit in the quarters belowdecks, which were a mere four-and-a-half feet high. Trouble was, the diminutive sailors didn’t know how to control the boat — and rammed smack into the replica ship Clermont at the start of the festivities in New York Harbor.
The media made a huge fuss, but no one got hurt, which was fortunate: the replica Clermont was packed to the gills with relatives of Fulton and Robert Livingston (the inventor’s patron), all in 19th-century dress. Alice Crary Taylor Sutcliffe, Fulton’s great-granddaughter, sponsored the Staten Island-made replica and chastely christened it with a bottle of well water from Clermont, the Livingston estate (Fulton disapproved of alcohol, she said).
Along with the boats came the floats — dozens of them, dispatched upriver by barge — which were supposed to represent historical scenes of New York State. Flimsily constructed of papier-mâché and stucco, the floats gradually crumbled away as they moved northward.
River regatta: Illustration of the naval parade in Newburgh; at right, Gov. Charles Evans Hughes at Catskill’s celebration (which included dedicating a statue to Rip Van Winkle)
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Postcard courtesy of City of Newburgh. Photo reprinted from The Hudson-Fulton Celebration by Kathleen Eagen Johnson
“No local people got to participate in floats in the New York City parades; it was very corporate,” says Eagen Johnson. It was a different story in the river towns. Community members, labor union members, and people hawking their local businesses all hopped on the floats, oblivious to their original high-minded intent. Croton-on-Hudson wasn’t on the official list of stops for the New York City floats, so the town made its own posse of decorated cars and horses.
It wasn’t just the floats that came on land. Those scrappy Dutch sailors from the Half Moon also visited towns, where they perhaps unnerved some of the locals. “They had let their beards grow, and had a wild appearance,” says Eagen Johnson. When the crew came to Catskill, town fathers brought them to the hollow where Rip Van Winkle was supposed to have encountered the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew. Whether the Dutch-speaking group understood a word of what was going on is anyone’s guess.
Arguably no river town generated more excitement than Newburgh, the “pivot point” of the celebration. Naval parades from New York City and Albany — with some vessels coming from as far away as the Erie and Champlain canals — converged in Newburgh Bay.
Capital Region revelry: A “living flag” (above left) takes shape on the State Capitol steps
The parade of boats (bottom left)); flags and the Half Moon grace a building in Troy (bottom right)
“We made hay with it, of course,” says City of Newburgh Historian Mary McTamaney. “There was no place along the river where there were as many ships, battleships, revenue cutters, canoes. There were newspaper reports saying you could walk across the bay on the vessels, which wasn’t quite true.” Perhaps the biggest headline was Admiral Robert Peary’s arrival on his arctic ice-cutter boat, after having recently returned from the North Pole. (A century later, the closest we’ll come to all this nautical excitement is River Day, which begins on June 5 in New York Harbor and culminates on June 13 in the Albany-Rensselaer area. See page 58 for details.)
Newburgh, a center of heavy industry, also boasted that it was an electrified city, and the second place in the state (after Manhattan’s Pearl Street) to install an Edison generating plant. “People came from all over to see this marvel,” says McTamaney. “On Illumination Night, the Newburgh Light and Power Company turned on all these extra bulbs and strung lights across the streets. They lit the shapes of the public buildings; it was like Christmas, but all done with white lights. You could walk the streets and let it dazzle you.”
Some 100,000 visitors thronged the city, staying at its 23 hotels. In addition, the eight-lane-wide main street was perfect for the enormous, hours-long parade hosted by the volunteer fire department, which ended at Washington’s Headquarters on the lawn overlooking the waterfront. Newburgh also hosted yachting and rowing races, the prize being Tiffany silver cups valued at $1,500 — quite a tidy sum for those days.
New York Central railroad brochure for the celebrations
Brochure courtesy of City of Newburgh
One of the most enduring legacies of the 2009 celebration will be the Walkway Over the Hudson, the dramatic elevated park now being constructed on the old Poughkeepsie-Highland railroad bridge. Similarly, the 1909 celebration left us with a number of monuments, such as the bronze statue dedicated to volunteer firefighting that resides in Newburgh’s Downing Park. But what became of those replica boats? The Half Moon (not to be confused with the replica on the river today) was brought to dock near Bear Mountain State Park and later moved upriver north of Albany, where it burned, according to Eagen Johnson. The Clermont was sold to the Hudson River Day Line company, towed to Poughkeepsie, and became a floating museum. When the boat failed to draw crowds, she was moved to Kingston Landing, where she remained for many years before being dismantled in the 1930s. It’s said that remnants of the replica’s hull can still be seen at low tide.
Want to learn more about the 1909 celebrations?
Two local organizations host exhibits that offer a taste of the excitement that pervaded the Valley a century ago. Hudson-Fulton: Take Two, at the Friends of Historic Kingston Museum, features artwork by 10 contemporary artists. The paintings, sculpture, photographs and other pieces were created in response to memorabilia from the 1909 events; there’s a tattooed Henry Hudson, for instance, and a Half Moon made of felt.
â–º Sat.-Sun., 1-4 p.m. through October.
Corner of Wall & Main Sts., Kingston
Call 845-339-0720 for more information
At the Wilderstein Historic Site, visitors experience what it was like to participate in the river festivities. Photos, mementos, clothing, household gadgets, decorative arts, and printed materials from the Suckley family’s own collection are on view in their onetime home which overlooks the Hudson.
â–º Thurs.-Sun., 12-4 p.m. through Oct. 31. $10, $9 seniors & students, under 12 free
330 Morton Rd., Rhinebeck
Call 845-876-4818 for more information