Historic Hudson River Towns
Working Together on the Shores of the Hudson

Explore The Hudson Valley's Rich History

A Region Steeped in History Preserves Its Past

By Rebecca Haynes

Imagine stumbling onto the beauty of the Hudson Valley by accident. Englishman Henry Hudson was looking for a quick passage to China as he sailed along America's north Atlantic coast in 1609.

Hudson thought he found what he was looking for when he entered New York bay and what is now the river named for him. He and his crew of 18-20 men, sailing on a ship called the Half Moon, traveled about 150 miles up the river near what is now Albany before realizing it would not lead them to their destination of choice.

Hudson had been hired for the journey by a Dutch trading company, the Dutch East India Company, and his explorations led to the area first being settled by the Dutch.

Early maps and sailing journals tell us that the area was viewed as inhospitable, with wild animals, poisonous snakes, mountains and thick forests too dense to traverse. The river itself was seen as treacherous, especially in the stretch known as the Hudson Highlands. This area begins about 50 miles north of New York City and extends for about 15 miles, between what is now Peekskill and Newburgh. Here the hills rise up more than 1,000 feet along either shore and fierce currents and strong winds made sailing extremely difficult and dangerous. Areas of the river here were dubbed World's End and Devil's Horse Race by the Dutch sailors.

The 1600s saw the influx of colonists and the area, first known as New Amsterdam, became part of New York, controlled by Britain. As the quest for independence from the crown began to unfold, the Hudson River played a major role.

Although the events that occurred in the Hudson Highlands during the Revolutionary War were not the war's most decisive, it remained an area to which the British and the Americans gave much of their attention.

In 1775, the Americans decided they must fortify the area, protecting the river used to transport troops and supplies. Critical ferry crossings between Fishkill and Plum Point as well as Verplanck and Haverstraw connected New England to the Middle Atlantic colonies. Had the British been successful in gaining control of the river, it would have literally broken apart the American forces.

A Chain Across the Hudson

By 1778, the Americans had decided to fortify West Point. Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton had been built near Bear Mountain and Fort Constitution was located across the river from West Point.

It was in 1778 that the Great Chain was forged of iron links, each two feet long weighing between 140 and 180 pounds. Anchored to the shore by huge blocks of wood and stone, the chain was attached to logs and floated out into the river, where it ran between West Point and Constitution Island. The idea was to prevent British Ships from sailing up the Hudson from New York City. The Americans had earlier constructed a similar chain further south on the river, from Fort Montgomery to the eastern shore of the Hudson, but it was broken by the British soon after. The Great Chain was never tested, as no British ship got that far up the river after its creation.

Benedict Arnold, the Turncoat

Benedict Arnold posed the last real threat to the security of West Point, attempting to pass the plans for the fort to the British in 1780. Serving under George Washington, Arnold was given command of West Point. He made contact with a British officer after marrying a Tory sympathizer and was promised 20,000 pounds sterling if he could help the British take control of the Hudson River. Arnold narrowly escaped capture after being discovered as a spy. The British officer to whom he passed the plans for the fort wasn't so lucky. He was captured while trying to get the plans, hidden in his boot, to British headquarters in White Plains. At the time, the Croton River served as the dividing line, with the British controlling areas south and the Americans in control of areas north. The plans were recovered and the officer, Major John Andre, was tried and hanged.

The capture of Major Andre is chronicled at the museum of the Historical Society of the Tarrytowns, in Tarrytown. The historical museum also features Native American artifacts, items from early Dutch history, archaeological artifacts, Revolutionary War items, items from both world wars, firearms, jewelry and much more relating to the history of the Hudson Valley.

George Washington Sets Up Headquarters

Washington moved his headquarters to Newburgh in 1782, where he remained through the end of the Revolutionary War, setting up shop in the home of Jonathan Hasbrouck. The house is now a state historic site, featuring period furnishings, firearms, documents and military artifacts of the Revolutionary War, portraits of George and Martha Washington and an exhibit depicting the Americans' defense of the Highlands from the British.

After seeing the effects on his troops from a lack of properly trained officers, Washington pleaded with the newly formed government for the formation of a military academy. But it wasn't until after his death that the United States Military Academy at West Point was established in 1802 under President Thomas Jefferson.

Today's visitors to West Point not only can catch a glimpse of some of the most beautiful scenery in the Hudson Valley, but they can also see links of the Great Chain and learn much more about the importance of West Point and the area in our nation's history. The West Point Museum in the U.S. Military Academy Building features a history of military events and personalities, a collection of weapons, military artifacts, paintings, American and European uniforms and much more. Bus tours and self-guided tours of the scenic campus and its many monuments also are featured. And visitors can also see the restored Fort Putnam, used by the Colonial army during the Revolutionary War, and the site of Fort Montgomery where American and British forces fought for control of the Hudson.

Steamboat Travel

After years of military, strategic and economic importance, the Hudson River gained another use after the invention of the steamboat in 1807 -- one of leisurely travel. The steamboat offered a fast and affordable way to travel, and by 1850 there were approximately 150 of these vessels making their way up and down the river. Estimates say these boats carried as many as a million passengers.

The Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston features exhibits on this period of the river's history. Steamboats, including the 1898 steam tug "Mathilda" are the major focus of this museum, which highlights their place in commerce, industry and leisure. There's also a display on Hudson River lighthouses featuring the 1915 "Rondout II" lighthouse.

As Americans were struggling to form their own sense of identity and culture, the Hudson Valley became a focal point, with stories and scenes from the Revolution mixed with the Dutch folklore of its earliest settlers. After completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the Hudson River became one of the nation's main arteries of trade, opening a gateway to the west and prompting a period of major economic and industrial expansion in the area.

The Delaware and Hudson Canal Historical Society Museum in High Falls offers plenty of information on the building of these former waterway connections. Housed in an 1885 Protestant church, the museum features canal-related documents, maps, photographs, diaramas, scale models and artifacts from canals and canal operations.

Cruises on the Hudson are still very popular from May through October.

Hudson River School of Painting

In the same year the Erie Canal was completed, a young artist named Thomas Cole came to the Hudson Valley. He was captured by the scenery and began a sketching trip through the Valley. His subsequent paintings celebrating nature launched other artists to do the same and their style became known as the Hudson River School of Painting, another avenue that helped make the area a popular one for tourists.

The works of Cole, John Casilear, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Gifford, Thomas Doughty, George Inness, David Johnson, Thomas Rossiter, Jasper Cropsey, Robert Weir and Frederic E. Church, along with dozens more lesser-knowns, attracted international attention for the next 50 years. Aided by New York's Knickerbocker writers, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant, among the most successful, the Hudon River Painters grew in popularity as articles about them appeared in the day's press and other publications.

A collection of Hudson River School paintings can be seen at the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands in Newburgh. The museum is housed in an early 19th century home and features not only this collection of artwork but also period furnishings, toys, ship models of Hudson River crafts and local historical archives, photographs and artifacts.

And in Catskill, the residence and studio of Thomas Cole is open to the public thanks to the Thomas Cole Foundation. Paintings related to the development of the Hudson River School and some of Cole's works are on display there as well as changing exhibits featuring 19th century artists.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The country home of the most famous of the Knickerbocker writers, Washington Irving, is a Registered National Historic Landmark and open to the public. Sunnyside, located in Tarrytown (otherwise known to Irving as Sleepy Hollow), is a property of Historic Hudson Valley.

Irving, one of the country's first great writers, used the tales and scenery of the Hudson Valley as the basis for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." Sunnyside, which Irving purchased in 1835, had been owned previously by the Van Tassel family, now forever etched in the pages of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

The Historical Society of the Tarrytowns, mentioned earlier in this article, also contains information on the life and times Irving.

An Industrial Past

Cold Spring, a small town on the east side of the river across from West Point, is known today for its quaint village atmosphere, its unique shops, its dozen or more antique shops and its magnificent scenery. But the town was once a bustling industrial center, home of the West Point Foundry. Established by President Madison during the War of 1812, the foundry was one of four in the nation selected to manufacture pipes, cranks, gears, cotton presses, railroad engines and cannonballs. It's selection was a logical one -- it's proximity to West Point, it's access to the river for transport and the discovery of iron ore in the area.

The first Catholic church built in the Hudson Valley north of Manhattan was said to be The Chapel of Our Lady, built along the river's shore in Cold Spring as a place of worship for the foundry workers. The church is now fully restored, serves a non-denominational congregation and is open to the public.

After the war's end the foundry continued to thrive because of its location on a primary transportation route, especially when the Erie Canal made the Hudson River a link to the country's interior. Even as railroads began to replace ships, the foundry and Cold Spring, a stop along the east-shore railroad, continued to thrive. It wasn't until 1911 that the foundry was closed.

The Putnam County Historical Society Foundry School Museum in Cold Spring is housed in the schoolhouse used for the children of foundry workers, circa 1828. It contains 19th century paintings, items from the foundry including manufactured articles, photos, documents, records, letters and more, all highlighting the foundry's importance in the area's history.

Finding Fresh Air in the Hudson Valley

As tuberculosis and other dangerous diseases began to spread in New York City in the mid-1800s, the Hudson Valley took on another personality -- a health retreat. Until the early 1900s, city folk flocked to the Valley to experience the therapeutic powers they believed it to hold. The mountains, fresh air and evergreen forests were thought to offer the perfect conditions for good health and they were within close proximity to the city. In the early 1900s, however, the Adirondacks and areas further away became more desirable.

Cornwall on the west side of the Hudson became especially popular as a health retreat, offering numerous boarding houses and many conveniences of the day, including accessibility to the railroad and steamboats, as well as a telegraph office and large library. Nathaniel Parker Willis, one of the Knickerbocker writers, enjoyed the time he spent here so much he bought property in Cornwall, establishing a country home he called Idlewild. His many writings on the area helped make Cornwall a popular spot for health-seekers.

Shifting attitudes toward a more healthy lifestyle began to make the Hudson Valley popular for outdoor activities and exercise. Hiking, rowing, swimming, fishing, hunting and biking all contributed to the development in the area of summer camps as well as the notion of the summer vacation.

Today Cornwall is the home of the Museum of the Hudson Highlands, featuring preserved fishes, reptiles and amphibians as well as live animals, Indian artifacts and geological specimens indigenous to the Hudson Valley. Hiking trails, interpretive and live animal exhibits, a Tall Grass Prairie and a regional artists' gallery are also found at the museum.

The Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, near Cornwall, is an art museum and outdoor sculpture park featuring the work of 20th century American and European artists. Visitors stroll the 200-acres near Storm King Mountain to view the work.

A Home for Grand Estates

In the mid-1800s wealthy New York businessmen began to buy property in the Valley for summer and weekend retreats. The railroad even made commuting into the city a realistic possibility. Politicians, bankers, railroad magnates and other well-known professionals began to make their marks here.

Financier J. Pierpont Morgan, New York Governor and U.S. Senator Hamilton Fish, National City Bank president James Stillman, architect Richard Upjohn and Union Pacific railroad president Edward H. Harriman were just a few of the area's new inhabitants.

An area in the middle Hudson region often referred to as "Millionaires Row" contains several homes open to the public that should be part of anyone's visit to the Hudson Valley. The Vanderbilt Mansion Historical Site in Hyde Park was built in the late 1800s in a Beaux-Arts style with an interior designed by turn-of-the-century decorators. The mansion features furnishings, tapestries, rugs and porcelains from this period, as well as a coachhouse, formal garden and, of course, a magnificent view of the river.

The most famous homes in Hyde Park are those of the Roosevelt family. Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's home from 1945-1962, contains her original and replacement furnishings. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Museum contains the personal papers of the former president, as well as government records, photographs, movies, gifts from heads of states, campaign items and personal and family memorabilia. The home of Franklin D. Roosevelt is also open to the public, featuring its original furnishings, ancestral portraits, a rose garden and the gravesites of the former president and first lady.

Another stately mansion, Boscobel, is located in Cold Spring. The Georgian mansion was originally built further south along the river in Crugers in 1804 by Mr. and Mrs. States Morris Dyckman. Vacant and run-down, the home was sold in 1955 for $35 to a company hired to tear it down to facilitate construction of a new Veterans Administration Hospital. But a group of concerned citizens had the house dismantled piece by piece and reconstructed on a 36-acre site in Cold Spring. The mansion now sits 200 feet above the river opposite West Point and contains New York neo-classical furnishings, a spring house and period herb garden.

By the turn of the century, as more industries and rail lines had been built and much of the Valley had been clear cut, a battle over the environment began to preserve the area's natural beauty and halt the destruction of river scenery. Landmarks important to the nation's history, such as some of the Revolutionary War forts along the river, were crumbling and being vandalized. The federal government created a Division of Forestry and the first national parks were created.

Bear Mountain and the Appalachian Trail

The Palisades Interstate Park Commission was one of the first cooperative efforts to protect and conserve an area along the Hudson. The beautiful high cliffs running along the lower reaches of the western side of the river, called the Palisades, were being destroyed by quarries. The commission proceeded to buy up the land from Fort Lee, N.J., to Piermont, N.Y. At the same time there were numerous efforts to make much of the Highlands a forest preserve, all of which were unsuccessful until the state tried to relocate Sing Sing Prison to Bear Mountain. It was then that some of the wealthy businessmen who had made homes in the area went to work.

Led by E.W. Harriman, he and other businessmen donated land as well as substantial sums of money for the purchase of other properties in the area. Bear Mountain-Harriman State Park became a reality in 1910. By 1914, estimates showed more than a million people a year coming to the park. Camping became popular here, with the average stay logged at eight days, and it was a favorite for Boy Scouts.

Bear Mountain remains popular today, welcoming more visitors every year than Yellowstone National Park. Hiking, boating, picnicking, swimming, camping, cross-country skiing, sledding, ice skating as well as a zoo and several buildings with historical and nature displays continue to draw families to the park. The Bear Mountain Inn, built in 1915, offers visitors all the comforts of home, for those who like the scenery but want to skip the camping. And various festivals and craft shows are held throughout the year.

The first section of the Appalachian Trail was created at Bear Mountain, taking hikers south to the Delaware Water Gap. It opened on Oct. 7, 1923 and served as a pattern for the other sections of trail, developed independently by local and regional organizations and then joined.

Progress vs. Preservation

But while the movement for environmental preservation was taking place, the need for modernization also became apparent. The Storm King highway, which met with major opposition, became one of the first highways built for automobile use. The Bear Mountain Bridge opened in 1924, built on the same spot in the river where the Americans strung their first iron chain to keep the British from advancing. On the day the bridge was opened, 400 cars followed the West Point band from Peekskill for the first public crossing.

In the mid 1930s the federal government, now led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was embarking on its own plan to preserve the environment and the Depression-era public works programs began projects at Bear Mountain State Park.

Pumphouses, reservoirs, sewer systems, vacation lodges, bathrooms, homes for park staff, storage buildings and an administration building were all built. A scenic drive to the top of the mountain, called Perkins Memorial Drive, was also constructed -- almost totally by hand. And to keep these new buildings in the same design as the lodge, constructed in 1915, workers used stone, boulders and timber to construct them, a process which took five years.

Although conservation efforts were now on a roll, the onset of World War II brought everything to a halt. Environmental groups began popping up again in the late '40s, but focused more on controlling water pollution.

Modern Environmentalism is Born

But in 1962, a 17-year legal battle began that launched modern-day environmental activism. Con Edison proposed building a giant hydro-electric plant on the river at Storm King Mountain near Cornwall. Despite pressure from local residents, Con Ed went forward with its plan, applying to the Federal Power Commission for a license to operate such a facility.

Three years later, after hearings and appeals and more hearings, the U. S. Court of Appeals set a major precedent when it sent the case back to the FPC to start the process over again. Its reasoning was based on the commission's refusal to hear much of the environmental impact testimony the first time around. For the first time in U.S. history, a court had decided that protection of natural resources was just as important as economic gain. It prompted Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, which requires an environmental impact study on all major projects needing an OK from the federal government.

Clearwater Organization is Founded

The battle on the Con Ed plant wasn't over, however. The FPC scheduled new hearings in November of '66, which lasted four years. The issue had now gained national prominence and many well-known people had rallied behind the environmentalists' cause. Singer Pete Seeger went to Scenic Hudson, the main group fighting the proposed plant, with the idea of building a sloop to sail up and down the river and promote cleaning up the water. But because the organization said the law suit had stretched its resources too thin, Seeger formed a new organization, Clearwater, which built the sloop while the FPC hearings were dragging on and launched it in 1969. The organization is still going strong, dedicated to the preservation of the Hudson River.

In 1970 the environmentalists faced a major blow when the FPC decided to grant Con Ed the license for the Storm King plant. The decision was appealed, but upheld, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Not ones to give up, conservationists began to attack the project by challenging the water quality permits Con Ed was required to get. And in July of '74, a new fishery study prompted the appeals court to order more hearings.

But during that time, Con Edison came under new leadership willing to re-examine the plan. And in 1980 the company agreed to give up the fight and donated the land purchased for plant construction to be used as a park.

Today's environmental concerns have centered around the high level of PCBs found in the river's waters, discharged by General Electric at its two plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. After more battles waged by environmentalists, GE was banned from dumping this chemical into the river and a clean-up began. The river is now closed to commercial striped bass fishing, but PCB levels are dropping and the fish populations are increasingly healthy.

The future of the Hudson Valley is in our hands. Environmental groups actively lobby on behalf of nature preservation and keeping industrial wastes from the waters. A Riverkeeper monitors the water's condition from a boat sailed up and down the river, reporting industries that are dumping illegally into the Hudson's waters. Fish populations are growing and many are now safe to eat, free of the chemicals that once filled them. Riverfront festivals up and down the Hudson's length now celebrate the river's return to health, and an area originally explored by accident, is still one of the country's most beautiful, rich in history and scenery.


  • "The Hudson River Highlands" by Frances F. Dunwell, Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • "The Hudson River Valley: A History & Guide" by Tim Mulligan, Random House Inc., 1981.
  • "The Lower Reaches of the Hudson River" by William F. Gekle, Wyvern House, 1982.
  • "The Official Museum Directory: 24th Edition, 1994," published by R.R. Bowker, Reed Publishing, 1993.

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