Discovery of the Hudson River

So Robert Fulton had several predecessors in the idea of applying steam to navigation. —John Fitch in 1785, William Symington in 1788 and many others who likewise coasted along the shore and indenture of a great idea, marked by continual failure and final abandonment. It was reserved for Fulton to complete and stamp upon his labor the seal of service and success, and to stand, therefore, its accepted inventor.

In addition to the invention of Fulton who has contributed so much to the business and brotherhood of mankind, the telegraph of Morse occupies a prominent page of our Hudson history, and it is said that Morse left unfinished a novel, the incidents of which were associated with the Highlands, in order to work out his idea which gave the Hudson a grander chapter.

Fulton’s and Morse’s inventions are also happily associated in this, that the steamboat was necessary before the Atlantic cable, born of Morse’s invention, could be laid, and, singularly enough, the laying of the cable, largely promoted by Hudson River genius and capital, by Field, Cooper, Morse and others on August 5, 1857, marks the very middle of the centennial which we are now observing.

The Hudson River

Among all the rivers of the world the Hudson is acknowledged queen, decked with romance, jeweled with poetry, clad with history, and crowned with beauty. More than this, the Hudson is a noble threshold to a great continent and New York Bay a fitting portal. The traveler who enters the Narrows for the first time is impressed with wonder, and the charm abides even with those who pass daily to and fro amid her beauties. No other river approaches the Hudson in varied grandeur and sublimity, and no other city has so grand and commodious a harbor as New York. It has been the privilege of the writer of this handbook to see again and again most of the streams of the old world “renowned in song and story,” to behold sunrise on the Bay of Naples and sunset at the Golden Gate of San Francisco, but the spell of the Hudson remains unbroken, and the bright bay at her mouth reflects the noontide without a rival. To pass a day in her company, rich with the story and glory of three hundred years, is worth a trip across a continent, and it is no wonder that the European traveler says again and again: “to see the Hudson alone, is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

An Open Book

How like a great volume of history romance and poetry seem her bright illumined pages with the broad river lying as a crystal book-mark between her open leaves! And how real this idea becomes to the Day Line tourist, with the record of Washington and Hamilton for its opening sentence, as he leaves the Up-Town landing, and catches messages from Fort Washington and Fort Lee. What Indian legends cluster about the brow of Indian Head blending with the love story of Mary Phillipse at the Manor House of Yonkers. How Irving’s vision of Katrina and Sleepy Hollow become woven with the courage of Paulding and the capture of Andre at Tarrytown. How the Southern Portal of the Highlands stands sentineled by Stony Point, a humble crag converted by the courage of Anthony Wayne into a mountain peak of Liberty.

How North and South Beacon again summon the Hudson yeomen from harvest fields to the defense of country, while Fort Putnam, still eloquent in her ruins, looks down upon the best drilled boys in the world at West Point. Further on Newburgh, Poughkeepsie and Kingston shake fraternal hands in the abiding trinity of Washington, Hamilton and Clinton, while northward rise the Ontioras where Rip Van Winkle slept, and woke to wonder at the happenings of twenty years.

What stories of silent valleys told by murmuring streams from the Berkshire Hills and far away fields where Stark and Ethan Allen triumphed. What tales of Cooper, where the Mohawk entwines her fingers with those of the Susquehanna, and poems of Longfellow, Bryant and Holmes, of Dwight, of Halleck and of Drake; ay, and of Yankee Doodle too, written at the Old Van Rensselaer House almost within a pebble-throw of the steamer as it approaches Albany. What a wonderful book of history and beauty, all to be read in one day’s journey!

The Hudson and the Rhine

The Hudson has often been styled “The Rhine of America.” There is, however, little of similarity and much of contrast. The Rhine from Dusseldorf to Manheim is only twelve hundred to fifteen hundred feet in breadth. The Hudson from New York to Albany averages more than five thousand feet from bank to bank. At Tappan Zee the Hudson is ten times as wide as the Rhine at any point above Cologne. At Bonn the Rhine is barely one-third of a mile, whereas the Hudson at Haverstraw Bay is over four miles in width. The average breadth of the Hudson from New York to Poughkeepsie is almost eight thousand feet.

The mountains of the Rhine also lack the imposing character of the Highlands. The far-famed Drachenfels, the Landskron, and the Stenzleburg are only seven hundred and fifty feet above the river; the Alteberg eight hundred, the Rosenau nine hundred, and the great Oelberg thirteen hundred and sixty-two. According to the latest United States Geological Survey the entire group of mountains at the northern gate of the Highlands is from fourteen hundred to sixteen hundred and twenty-five feet in height, not to speak of the Catskills from three thousand to almost four thousand feet in altitude.

It is not the fault of the Rhine with its nine hundred miles of rapid flow that it looks tame compared with the Hudson. Even the Mississippi, draining a valley three thousand miles in extent, looks insignificant at St. Louis or New Orleans contrasted with the Hudson at Tarrytown. The Hudson is in fact a vast estuary of the sea; the tide rises two feet at Albany and six inches at Troy. A professor of the Berlin University says: “You lack our castles but the Hudson is infinitely grander.” Thackeray, in “The Virginians,” gives the Hudson the verdict of beauty; and George William Curtis, comparing the Hudson with the rivers of the Old World, has gracefully said: “The Danube has in part glimpses of such grandeur, the Elbe has sometimes such delicately penciled effects, but no European river is so lordly in its bearing, none flows in such state to the sea.”

Baedeker, a high and just authority, in his recent Guide to the United States says: “The Hudson has sometimes been called the American Rhine, but that title perhaps does injustice to both rivers. The Hudson, through a great part of its extent, is three or four times as wide as the Rhine, and its scenery is grander and more inspiring; while, though it lacks the ruined castles and ancient towns of the German river, it is by no means devoid of historical associations of a more recent character. The vine-clad slopes of the Rhine have, too, no ineffective substitute in the brilliant autumn coloring of the timbered hillsides of the Hudson.”

Half Moon

What must have been the sensation of those early voyagers, coasting a new continent, as they halted at the noble gateway of the river and gazed northward along the green fringed Palisades; or of Hendrick Hudson, who first traversed its waters from Manhattan to the Mohawk, as he looked up from the chubby bow of his “Half Moon” at the massive columnar formation of the Palisades or at the great mountains of the Highlands; what dreams of success, apparently within reach, were his, when night came down in those deep forest solitudes under the shadowy base of Old Cro’ Nest and Klinkerberg Mountain, where his little craft seemed a lone cradle of civilization; and then, when at last, with immediate purpose foiled, he turned his boat southward, having discovered, but without knowing it, something infinitely more valuable to future history than his long-sought “Northwestern Passage to China,” how he must have gazed with blended wonder and awe at the distant Catskills as their sharp lines came out, as we have seen them many a September morning, bold and clear along the horizon, and learned in gentle reveries the poetic meaning of the blue Ontioras or “Mountains of the Sky.” How fondly he must have gazed on the picturesque hills above Apokeepsing and listened to the murmuring music of Winnikee Creek, when the air was clear as crystal and the banks seemed to be brought nearer, perfectly reflected in the glassy surface, while here and there his eye wandered over grassy uplands, and rested on hills of maize in shock, looking for all the world like mimic encampments of Indian wigwams! Then as October came with tints which no European eye had ever seen, and sprinkled the hill-tops with gold and russet, he must indeed have felt that he was living an enchanted life, or journeying in a fairy land!

How graphically the poet Willis has put the picture in musical prose: “Fancy the bold Englishman, as the Dutch called Hendrick Hudson, steering his little yacht the ‘Haalve Maan,’ for the first time through the Highlands. Imagine his anxiety for the channel forgotten, as he gazed up at the towering rocks, and round the green shores, and onward past point and opening bend, miles away into the heart of the country; yet with no lessening of the glorious stream before him and no decrease of promise in the bold and luxuriant shores. Picture him lying at anchor below Newburgh with the dark pass of the Wey-Gat frowning behind him, the lofty and blue Catskills beyond, and the hillsides around covered with lords of the soil exhibiting only less wonder than friendliness.”

If Willis forgot the season of the year and left out the landscape glow which the voyager saw, Talmage completed the picture in a rainbow paragraph of color: “Along our river and up and down the sides of the great hills there was an indescribable mingling of gold, and orange and crimson and saffron, now sobering into drab and maroon, now flaring up into solferino and scarlet. Here and there the trees looked as if their tips had blossomed into fire. In the morning light the forests seemed as if they had been transfigured and in the evening hours they looked as if the sunset had burst and dropped upon the leaves. It seemed as if the sea of divine glory had dashed its surf to the top of the crags and it had come dripping down to the lowest leaf and deepest cavern.”

On such a day in 1883 it was the privilege of the writer to stand before 150,000 people at Newburgh on the occasion of the Centennial Celebration of the Disbanding of the Army under Washington, and, in his poem entitled “The Long Drama,” to portray the great mountain background bounding the southern horizon with autumnal splendor:

October lifts with colors bright
Her mountain canvas to the sky,
The crimson trees aglow with light
Unto our banners wave reply.
Like Horeb’s bush the leaves repeat
From lips of flame with glory crowned:—
“Put off thy shoes from off thy feet,
The place they trod is holy ground.”

Such was the vision Hendrick Hudson must have had in those far off September and October days, and such the picture which visitors still compass long distances to behold.

“It is a far cry to Loch Awe” says an old Scottish proverb, and it is a long step from the sleepy rail of the “Half Moon” to the roomy-decked floating palaces—the “Hendrick Hudson,” the “New York” and the “Albany.” Before beginning our journey let us, therefore, bridge the distance with a few intermediate facts, from 1609, relating to the discovery of the river, its early settlement, its old reaches and other points essential to the fullest enjoyment of our trip, which in sailor-parlance might be styled “a gang-plank of history,” reaching as it does from the old-time yacht to the modern steamer, and spanning three hundred years.

Discovery of the Hudson River

In the year 1524, thirty-two years after the discovery of America, the navigator Verrazano, a French officer, anchored off the island of Manhattan and proceeded a short distance up the river. The following year, Gomez, a Portuguese in the employ of Spain, coasted along the continent and entered the Narrows. Several sea-rovers also visited our noble bay about 1598, but it was reserved for Hendrick Hudson, with a mixed crew of eighteen or twenty men in the “Half Moon,” to explore the river from Sandy Hook to Albany, and carry back to Europe a description of its beauty. He had previously made two fruitless voyages for the Muscovy Company—an English corporation—in quest of a passage to China, via the North Pole and Nova Zembla.

In the autumn of 1608 he was called to Amsterdam, and sailed from Texel, April 5, 1609, in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Reaching Greenland he coasted southward, arriving at Cape Cod August 6th, Chesapeake Bay August 28th, and then sailed north to Sandy Hook. He entered the Bay of New York September the 3d, passed through the Narrows, and anchored in what is now called Newark Bay; on the 12th resumed his voyage, and, drifting with the tide, remained over night on the 13th about three miles above the northern end of Manhattan Island; on the 14th sailed through what is now known as Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay, entered the Highlands and anchored for the night near the present dock of West Point. On the morning of the 15th beheld Newburgh Bay, reached Catskill on the 16th, Athens on the 17th, Castleton and Albany on the 18th, and sent out an exploring boat as far as Waterford. He became thoroughly satisfied that this route did not lead to China—a conclusion in harmony with that of Champlain, who, the same summer, had been making his way south, through Lake Champlain and Lake George, in quest of the South Sea.

There is something humorous in the idea of these old mariners attempting to sail through a continent 3,000 miles wide, seamed with mountain chains from 2,000 to 15,000 feet in height. Hudson’s return voyage began September 23d. He anchored again in Newburgh Bay the 25th, arrived at Stony Point October 1st, reached Sandy Hook the 4th, and returned to Europe.

First Description of the Hudson

The official record of the voyage was kept by Robert Juet, mate of the “Half Moon,” and his journal abounds with graphic and pleasing incidents as to the people and their customs. At the Narrows the Indians visited the vessel, “clothed in mantles of feathers and robes of fur, the women clothed in hemp; red copper tobacco pipes, and other things of copper, they did wear about their necks.” At Yonkers they came on board in great numbers. Two were detained and dressed in red coats, but they sprang overboard and swam away. At Catskill they found “a very loving people, and very old men. They brought to the ship Indian corn, pumpkins and tobaccos.” Near Schodack the “Master’s mate went on land with an old savage, governor of the country, who carried him to his house and made him good cheer.” “I sailed to the shore,” he writes, “in one of their canoes, with an old man, who was chief of a tribe, consisting of forty men and seventeen women. These I saw there in a house well constructed of oak bark, and circular in shape, so that it has the appearance of being built with an arched roof. It contained a large quantity of corn and beans of last year’s growth, and there lay near the house, for the purpose of drying, enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields. On our coming to the house two mats were spread out to sit upon, and some food was immediately served in well-made wooden bowls.”

“Two men were also dispatched at once, with bows and arrows in quest of game, who soon brought in a pair of pigeons, which they had shot. They likewise killed a fat dog, (probably a black bear), and skinned it in great haste, with shells which they had got out of the water.”

The well-known hospitality of the Hudson River valley has, therefore, “high antiquity” in this record of the garrulous writer. At Albany the Indians flocked to the vessel, and Hudson determined to try the chiefs to see “whether they had any treachery in them.” “So they took them down into the cabin, and gave them so much wine and aqua vitae that they were all merry. In the end one of them was drunk, and they could not tell how to take it.” The old chief, who took the aqua vitae, was so grateful when he awoke the next day, that he showed them all the country, and gave them venison.

Passing down through the Highlands the “Half Moon” was becalmed near Stony Point and the “people of the Mountains” came on board and marveled at the ship and its equipment. One canoe kept hanging under the stern and an Indian pilfered a pillow and two shirts from the cabin windows. The mate shot him in the breast and killed him. A boat was lowered to recover the articles “when one of them in the water seized hold of it to overthrow it, but the cook seized a sword and cut off one of his hands and he was drowned.” At the head of Manhattan Island the vessel was again attacked. Arrows were shot and two more Indians were killed, then the attack was renewed and two more were slain.

It might also be stated that soon after the arrival of Hendrick Hudson at the mouth of the river one of the English soldiers, John Coleman, was killed by an arrow shot in the throat. “He was buried,” according to Ruttenber, “upon the adjacent beach, the first European victim of an Indian weapon on the Mahicanituk. Coleman’s point is the monument to this occurrence.”

The “Half Moon” never returned and it will be remembered that Hudson never again saw the river that he discovered. He was to leave his name however as a monument to further adventure and hardihood in Hudson’s Bay, where he was cruelly set adrift by a mutinous crew in a little boat to perish in the midsummer of 1611.

Names of the Hudson

The Iroquois called the river the “Cohatatea.” The Mahicans and Lenapes the “Mahicanituk,” or “the ever-flowing waters.” Verrazano in 1524 styled it Rio de Montaigne. Gomez in 1525 Rio San Antonio. Hudson styled it the “Manhattes” from the tribe at its mouth. The Dutch named it the “Mauritius,” in 1611, in honor of Prince Maurice of Nassau, and afterwards “the Great River.” It has also been referred to as the “Shatemuck” in verse. It was called “Hudson’s River” not by the Dutch, as generally stated, but by the English, as Hudson was an Englishman, although he sailed from a Dutch port, with a Dutch crew, and a Dutch vessel. It was also called the “North River,” to distinguish it from the Delaware, the South River. It is still frequently so styled, and the East River almost “boxes the compass” as applied to Long Island Sound.

Heights of Hills and Mountains

It is interesting to hear the opinions of different people journeying up and down the Hudson as to the height of mountains along the river. The Palisades are almost always under-estimated, probably on account of their distance from the steamer. It is only when we consider the size of a house at their base, or the mast of a sloop anchored near the shore, that we can fairly judge of their magnitude. Various guides, put together in a day or a month, by writers who have made a single journey, or by persons who have never consulted an authority, have gone on multiplying blunder upon blunder, but the United States Geological Survey furnishes reliable information. According to their maps the Palisades are from 300 to 500 feet in height, the Highlands from 785 to 1625, and the Catskills from 3000 to 3885 feet.

The Palisades

At Fort Lee300 feet
Opposite Mt. St. Vincent400 feet
Opposite Hastings500 feet

The Highlands

Sugar Loaf785 feet
Dunderberg865 feet
Anthony’s Nose900 feet
Storm King1368 feet
Old Cro’ Nest1405 feet
Bull Hill1425 feet
South Beacon1625 feet

The Catskills

North Mountain3000 feet
Plaaterkill3531 feet
Outlook3150 feet
Stoppel Point3426 feet
Round Top3470 feet
High Peak3660 feet
Sugar Loaf3782 feet
Plateau3855 feet

Sources of the Hudson

The Hudson rises in the Adirondacks, and is formed by two short branches. The northern branch (17 miles in length), has its source in Indian Pass, at the base of Mount McIntyre; the eastern branch, in a little lake poetically called the “Tear of the Clouds,” 4,321 feet above the sea under the summit of Tahawus, the noblest mountain of the Adirondacks, 5,344 feet in height. About thirty miles below the junction it takes the waters of Boreas River, and in the southern part of Warren County, nine miles east of Lake George, the tribute of the Schroon. About fifteen miles north of Saratoga it receives the waters of the Sacandaga, then the streams of the Battenkill and the Walloomsac; and a short distance above Troy its largest tributary, the Mohawk. The tide rises six inches at Troy and two feet at Albany, and from Troy to New York, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, the river is navigable by large steamboats.

The principal streams which flow into the Hudson between Albany and New York are the Norman’s Kill, on west bank, two miles south of Albany; the Mourdener’s Kill, at Castleton, eight miles below Albany, on the east bank; Coxsackie Creek, on west bank, seventeen miles below Albany; Kinderhook Creek, six miles north of Hudson; Catskill Creek, six miles south of Hudson; Roeliffe Jansen’s Creek, on east bank, seven miles south of Hudson; the Esopus Creek, which empties at Saugerties; the Rondout Creek, at Rondout; the Wappingers, at New Hamburgh; the Fishkill, at Matteawan, opposite Newburgh; the Peekskill Creek, and Croton River. The course of the river is nearly north and south, and drains a comparatively narrow valley.

It is emphatically the “River of the Mountains,” as it rises in the Adirondacks, flows seaward east of the Helderbergs, the Catskills, the Shawangunks, through twenty miles of the Highlands and along the base of the Palisades. More than any other river it preserves the character of its origin, and the following apostrophe from the writer’s poem, “The Hudson,” condenses its continuous “mountain-and-lake-like” quality.


Bruce, Wallace. The Hudson; Three Centuries of History, Romance and Invention. New York: Bryant Union Company. 1907.

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