When Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River in 1609, Queen Elizabeth I of England had died only six years earlier. Hudson was an Englishman sailing for a Dutch corporation, the Dutch East India Company. The navigator was not looking for a picturesque estuary, but a salt-water strait leading to the Pacific. You can imagine his disappointment. Yet, on the bright side for his employers, he was able to claim the river and the land surrounding it for the Netherlands by right of exploration and discovery — a European custom. This was news to the Native Americans living along the Hudson River who had explored and discovered it roughly 10,000 years earlier. Hudson never returned.
A quadricentennial is hard enough to pronounce, let alone celebrate.
Just imagine how difficult it would be to pronounce a 10,000-year celebration, and that may be one reason this year’s celebration is titled the Hudson-Fulton- Champlain Quadricentennial. It seems we must celebrate the perseverance and determination of the anonymous Native American discoverers in second-hand fashion since their discovery didn’t require any ships.
The inclusion of Champlain shows that we’ve made a giant step toward diversity since the tricentennial festivities of 1909. That event gave top billing only to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Samuel de Champlain “discovered” the lake that bears his name a few weeks before Hudson’s “discovery.” Champlain’s achievement cost only two Native American lives; Hudson’s — ten or twelve. And, of course, Robert Fulton invented the steamboat — well, no — he invented the first American steamboat — but not really — he invented the first commercially successful steamboat on the Hudson River, aided by a father-in-law who previously obtained a steamboat monopoly for him from the New York State Legislature.
So we may well ask the question, “What are we celebrating?” The answer may lie with the previous festivities of 1909. The original ad hoc celebration committee was composed of T. P. Fowler (railroad tycoon), J. P. Morgan (very rich banker), J. E. Simmons (rich banker), and James Stillman (very rich banker/railroad tycoon). These worthies rushed to secure the reins of the event, and then magnanimously relinquished them to an official body they thought sufficiently trustworthy to do the thing in accordance with their wishes.
The result was an extravagant progression of expensive events, most of which were centered in New York City. The 1909 festival would commemorate Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson and Fulton’s first commercial steam navigation on the Hudson. It would be educational, not commercial. It would be an historical awakening, celebrating the role of New York in national events. It would promote international friendship (with the old world). It would school our “adopted population” in our lofty traditions and institutions.
The 1909 Hudson-Fulton would also be “a celebration of sentiment.” Despite the intention of holding a non-commercial event, the commission board members were a Who’s Who of American business, and it was ordained that commission meetings take place in New York City. The commission included Andrew Carnegie, William Rockefeller, and also Howard Carroll who threw a lavish party at his Tarrytown castle for the officers of the French, British, and German fleets — the British and German officers would be slugging it out at the Battle of Jutland a few years later.
The educational impact of the last Hudson-Fulton was so profound, moving, and inspiring that it has taken education a hundred years to recover. Implied was the notion that the progress of centuries had flown like an unerring arrow to that moment of New York’s commercial ascendancy, and the captains and kings of industry were the rightful keepers of that legacy. For centuries the glorious Hudson River had served as a great conduit in the service of commerce. There’s nothing wrong with a bunch of wealthy guys throwing a party on their own dime- — although public funds helped to top the million dollar mark — a tidy sum for 1909.
The 1909 tricentennial was such a memorable success that a 2009 quadricentennial seems just the thing, and it has already begun. The question remains, “What are we celebrating?” A wayward explorer? A politically well-connected inventor? This time the reins of the event are in the hands of the State of New York, and one state official observes, “This can’t just be about three white men.”
I guess saying what it’s not about is a start. One state publication suggests that we will be celebrating “our Dutch, French, and English roots.” Hmm, that sounds like we’re backsliding toward the three white guys again. “While we’re at it, we will also celebrate who we are…” That’s better, let’s celebrate who we are and call it a Quadricentennial!
The next question is, how to celebrate? Apparently there’s not much money for this affair, so we’d better select the events carefully. New York State has budgeted about five million dollars statewide for the celebration — not very much for a celebration that takes in two hundred miles of river and four hundred years. If 1909 was a black-tie affair, this one may be more “pot-luck.” Many of the events I’ve seen advertised are thinly disguised perennial occasions with a Quad label. Certainly there are scores of wonderful cultural institutions in the Hudson Valley that would like to be a part of any possible mass arrival of tourists inspired by the Quadricentennial. However, to what degree they will be able to style their offerings to the occasion is not yet clear.
Better bring your GPS.
A number of volunteers and professionals have invested their time and effort in this project, and I wish them success, but what I see missing, so far, is a genuine spirit of enthusiasm for the event. I suspect that underneath the official fanfare there may be something more like a misplaced sense of obligation to carry on a doubtful centennial tradition. There seems to be a lack of clearly defined purpose and maybe some discomfort or disconnection with the tradition that is being implicitly commemorated. Or maybe it’s just a matter of money, and what is really lacking is a couple of Andrew Carnegies.
Personally, I would like to commemorate the Hudson River as it must have looked before Henry Hudson, free of industrial blight and the new generation of river-edge blight being created by developers and government. If we pay attention, we might be able to catch a glimpse of the Hudson between the two blights.
I hope our readers will join me in watching the state and county websites of the Quad to see what offerings we would like to be part of. Among the local ones will be an exhibit at The Historical Society in Tarrytown, several Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse tours, and a “River Quest” event at Lyndhurst. One of the centerpieces of the state celebration will be the opening of a Hudson River pedestrian bridge at Poughkeepsie, which sounds like fun to me. Enjoy your Quadricentennial Celebration, and make of it what you will.
Henry Steiner is the village historian of Sleepy Hollow and the managing broker of Steiner Real Estate Associates.