Storm King Art Center
Storm King Art Center
Just north of the village of Chester on New York State Route 94 cars and their occupants whiz past the homestead site of a once-famous pioneer and author, the public house site of a once locally renowned innkeeper, and a resting place for local residents probably known only to loved ones. The first two sites have only their historical markers to indicate what once was there, while the last has, I suppose one could say, historical markers of a sort, but also continued presence that evokes an image of past community and that gives poignant testimony to the way we have layered our world on top of it.
Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735 – 1813) came to North America in 1755 and arrived in New York in 1759. By the time of the Revolution he was a prosperous farmer with a wife and children, and with a devotion to the idea of a place to which ordinary people from Europe could come and work together to build lives and community. Then came the war, a war Crèvecoeur didn’t want for a cause he didn’t believe in, because he didn’t think it necessary. Contrary to our modern image of the Revolution, which pictures a rebel army freezing at Valley Forge before being led by George Washington to victory over British Regulars in red coats and Hessian mercenaries in who knows what color and with everybody else back home just kind of chilling, the everyday reality in all of New York was anything but peaceful. Instead, even in those parts of the state that were spared actual warfare and raiding parties, the lives of ordinary people were marked by years of conspiracy fears, suspicion of neighbors, compulsory loyalty oaths, and harassment and even imprisonment for the less than enthusiastic. There was no room for staying neutral, and Crèvecoeur saw the effect that the war had on the sense of community he valued so highly and thought essential to human well-being.
In response to his experiences and observations in colonial and revolutionary New York, Crèvecoeur penned what is now considered a seminal work in the line of studies of American society, works written in the early days of settlement and nationhood that sought to understand if and how a society based on community and republican ideals could possibly function, let alone succeed. Today’s student taking a survey course in the history of American literature or the interested lay person working through an anthology might encounter an excerpt from Crèvecoeur’s “Letters from an American Farmer”, but will probably read only one of the earlier “letters”, in which a still optimistic Crèvecoeur describes the joy of a free life in a communal setting. Time pressures being what they are, the modern reader probably won’t get to the chapters that describe life under the gloom of war, the coercion and even violence by once trusted neighbors, and the need for constant watchfulness in public expression. So while today Crèvecoeur’s work is generally thought of as a feel-good paean to frontier virtue (when it’s thought of at all), in its entirety it actually presents a sobering picture of the human condition that was widely read at the time and that influenced the thought of many on both sides of the Atlantic.
Just 300 yards on up the road from the site of Pine Hill Farm is the site of Cromline House, an inn that sat along this then well-traversed roadway. Cromline’s name appears on a deed dated June 10th, 1704, though the land he acquired wasn’t actually surveyed until 1741. Cromline owned nearly 4000 acres and built in 1716 a house and inn that bordered what was then known as The King’s Highway and that stood until being torn down in 1832. Now the site is covered by a cornfield.
I like to imagine people and horses and wagons and carriages jangling and clattering along, passing the inn or stopping there for the night. A modern person transported through time along with modern sensibilities would probably be shocked by many of the attitudes and behaviors of those old-time spirits. But I think our time traveler would also find many of the same things we know, personality types and dilemmas and jokes and all the things that make up daily life. I’m reminded of a poem by Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt; Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd; Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d; Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried; Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d. ... These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you
Just a stone’s throw further up the road an unexpected break in the highway guardrail invites inspection.
Peering down from highway’s edge, one finds at the base of the 10′ high roadbed a still well cared for cemetery. The cemetery gate remains, a valiant old stalwart still offering service but now overgrown, bypassed, and neglected. Of course, the path that originally led to the gate was not a hill, but was flat. But the needs of the modern highway took precedence, offering a nod in the form of an interrupted guardrail but otherwise submerging this place of remembrance. What would the people who first staked out this site as the final resting place for loved ones and who visited those loved ones from time to time make of the changes that modernity has exacted?
We all know that things come and go. Crèvecoeur returned from Europe during the Revolution to find his house burned, his wife dead, and his children dispersed to Boston. And Cromline’s Greycourt Inn yielded to, I assume, age, or fire, or changed circumstances. Anyway, like most buildings of its time, it’s not there any more. But the cemetery along Highway 94 persists, and through the manner of its persistence tells us as much if not more than any historical marker could about what it felt like to be around here when the road was still known as The King’s Highway and traffic moved a bit more slowly.
Local communities along the Hudson have, of course, local concerns. The town of Fishkill grapples with the question of whether and to what extent to allow development on land that was once part of the Revolutionary War Fishkill Supply Depot, residents of Ulster County try to reach accord on development plans for the right-of-way of the defunct Ulster and Delaware Railroad, while Newburgh copes with emissions into its drinking water from a newly denoted Superfund site.
But some issues get everyone’s attention, the current cause célèbre being a rule proposed recently by the US Coast Guard to create ten new anchorage locations along the Hudson River, between Yonkers and Kingston, to accommodate increased barge traffic. Barge traffic on the Hudson is not new. Crude oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota is brought by rail to Albany and loaded into barges for shipment. Until now the amount of crude oil being shipped and hence the number of barges on the Hudson was limited by the amount of oil that refineries on the US east coast could handle. But in December 2015 Congress lifted a 40-year-old ban on the export of crude oil from the United States and, now that US crude oil can be sold on the world market, the volume of traffic is expected to increase exponentially. Proponents of the new anchorages claim that they’re needed to ensure safe navigation of the Hudson, which can be tricky in bad weather. Critics (which seems to include just about everyone not connected somehow with the shipping industry) say that the safety concerns are a red herring and that the rule would turn the Hudson back into the equivalent of an industrial strip mall.
The intensity of opposition to the anchorages proposal in communities up and down the river underscores how much more we now know about the natural life of the Hudson and how much we value it.
Of course, we remember the fight for Storm King Mountain, which lasted 18 years and culminated in a settlement signed in December 1980. Through this case, environmentalists gained access to federal courts and created precedence for the use of scientific evidence of ecological impacts to challenge energy projects. The case formed the basis for environmental law and environmentalism in general. In changing the law, the environmental movement was itself changed, and the whole environmental movement of today has roots in the Storm King fight.
And environmental concerns continue.
Atlantic sturgeon originating in the Hudson, driven almost to the point of extinction, are rebounding slowly, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) tracks individual “sturgeon fatalities” for a fish that was once harvested in such numbers as to be nicknamed “Albany beef”. Overfishing of Hudson shad, referred to in a recent DEC/Cornell University report as (once) “the Hudson’s most valuable commercial fish”, led to a decline in population and prompted the closing of all Hudson shad fishing starting in 2010. And for 30 years beginning in 1947, two General Electric (GE) plants, one in Fort Edward and the other in Hudson Falls, dumped 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson in the manufacture of capacitors. Those PCBs sank to the mud on the bottom of the river and remain in the river today despite a ban on their manufacture enacted in 1977. GE recently finished dredging more than 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment from a 40-mile section of the river, but Hudson River fish still exhibit high levels of PCBs (and mercury, dioxin, and cadmium), and state health officials urge women of childbearing age and children under 15 to not eat fish caught in the Hudson.
While the Hudson River has never caught fire, until the 1970s companies and communities up and down the Hudson routinely dumped oil, chemicals, and untreated sewage into the river. Things are better now, of course, though snowmelt and heavy rains still periodically overwhelm treatment facilities and result in “combined sewer overflow” (CSO) incidents in places that use the same pipes for storm water runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater. In such incidents, wastewater treatment facilities are unable to handle the increased volume, and the untreated excess goes directly into the river. While we in general feel better about how we treat the river now, the work isn’t finished. For example, members of Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog organization, documented bacteria levels at 74 river sites from 2006 to 2010 that exceeded federal EPA standards for safe swimming 21% of the time.
Back on shore, communities along the Hudson are working to reclaim the shoreline from the remains of the brickyards and cement factories and manufacturing plants that once lined the river. Substantial resources have been invested to create parks, marinas, and walkways that open up the waterfront to the public, and to develop housing and restaurants that promise to help revitalize their communities. These communities are not eager to have their view of and access to the river obstructed by giant oil barges parked on the river’s edge.
The Coast Guard has extended until December 6, 2016, the period for public comments regarding the proposal, and public hearings are expected in the spring of 2017. Anyone wishing to review the proposal and make comments can visit the website at regulations.gov.
It’s nice to know that the public is now both vigilant and vocal regarding such matters. The fact that the benefits of the proposal would all flow to economic interests outside the Hudson Valley helps clarify things. One wonders what would be the tenor of public debate if the economic benefit of the proposed rule were to go to the same communities that are now so loudly in opposition. And what will happen to the current united front of opposition should the proposed anchorages near affluent communities be abandoned, and only those near less affluent communities pursued? Will those affluent communities still go to bat for the whole river, once the preservation of their viewsheds is assured? The next twelve months could reveal a lot about our relationship with the Hudson and the trade-offs we’re willing to make between cherishing and exploiting it.
Visitors to Hyde Park who want to learn about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt find themselves confronted by an embarrassment of riches. Just touring Springwood (FDR’s boyhood home) and visiting the Presidential Library and Museum can seem like a lot, especially if one takes the time to also enjoy the Rose Garden and pause at the gravesite of Franklin and Eleanor, visit the outbuildings, and wander the grounds. The combined ticket for both the house tour and the library and museum is valid for two days, and with good reason.
As the home of FDR’s mother, Sara, and the one place on earth where FDR felt truly ‘at home’, Springwood naturally highlights Franklin’s life more than Eleanor’s. Fortunately, visitors who wish to know more about Eleanor need travel only a few miles, to Val-Kill, to visit Eleanor’s home.
Like Springwood, Val-Kill is a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service (NPS). Visitors can tour Eleanor’s home and get an in-depth look at her life. The grounds of Val-Kill are shaded, beautiful, and tranquil, and provide a respite from any sense of hurry or hectic. If one feels the need to spend days at Springwood and the Library/Museum to take it all in, one wants to spend days at Val-Kill just because it’s so beautiful.
The visitor to both Springwood and Val-Kill can be forgiven if, after so much stimulation, wonder, information, inspiration, and reflection he or she feels that it’s just about enough, and time to retreat or move on. Hence, many visitors never make it to Top Cottage, which is the house that Franklin built for himself and would have been his home had he survived his presidency.
It’s about a 30-minute leisurely walk through the woods from Val-Kill to Top Cottage (with a fairly steep but short hill to climb at the end), or visitors can hop the bus that departs from the Wallace Visitor Center three times each day. Visitors arriving on the bus (and hikers luckily arriving at the same time as the bus, as I did on a recent visit – otherwise the house is closed) are greeted by park staff and
invited to take a comfortable seat on the beautiful stone veranda for an in-depth discussion of the Roosevelts, the Cottage, the dignitaries who visited and the events that took place there. Visitors are then invited to wander the Cottage and ask whatever questions they may have. As none of the furniture is original or attempts to mimic anything original, visitors are invited to make themselves comfortable, sit on the sofa if they wish to rest, and just enjoy being in the space and taking in the displays. The groups tend to be small and intimate, and I found myself learning a lot also from my fellow visitors, from the questions they asked, and from their conversations with our guide.
Visitors to Hyde Park hungry to learn about the Roosevelts and a crucial time in our nation’s history should try to save a little bit of their appetite for Top Cottage. It’s the perfect capstone experience, a way to share with professional staff and other visitors what they’ve learned and have experienced. And it’s a great feeling to visit a place with a storied past that says, “Please sit on the furniture!”