The little city of Hudson, New York has the distinction of being the first city in the United States—that is, it was the first city to be incorporated after the thirteen colonies became the United States.
The idea of Hudson started even before the Treaty of Paris was signed. A group of men from Nantucket and New Bedford—seafarers, owners of whaling ships—were convinced that King George would not be content to let the American colonies go, and the British would be back to recapture what they’d lost. Their location made them and their livelihood especially vulnerable, so early in 1783, two brothers, Thomas and Seth Jenkins, representing an association of men involved in maritime commerce, set out to find and purchase a safe harbor where they could relocate their families and their ships. Sailing up the Hudson, they found what they were looking for about a hundred miles north of New York Harbor: a high bluff on the east bank of the river with a natural harbor on either side. They bought the land on the bluff and along the river from Dutch families whose ancestors had purchased it from the Mohicans generations before, and they set about to create there a seaport far from the sea.
Early Hudson was a vibrant place. The Proprietors, for that is what the members of the association called themselves, let no grass grow under their feet. In the first years, Hudson’s development was unparalleled. By the spring of 1786, the New York Journal reported that the city had several fine wharves, four large warehouses, “a covered rope-walk, spermaceti-works [these were whaling men, remember], one hundred and fifty dwelling-houses, shops, barns, one of the best distilleries in America, and fifteen hundred souls”—not to mention twenty-five seagoing vessels that sailed forth from Hudson and shipyards that had already turned out one ship and were busy making more.
In 1791, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison visited Hudson on a northern tour they took together, ostensibly for their health though it may have had a political purpose. They came to talk with Seth Jenkins, now the owner of the prominent distillery mentioned above, to try to persuade him to use French wine instead of molasses from the West Indies to produce his rum, thereby shifting some American trade, in the years after the Revolution, from Britain to France.
Jefferson plays a role in another noteworthy moment in early Hudson history. In 1803, Harry Croswell, the editor of a Federalist newspaper published in Hudson called The Wasp, was indicted for “seditious libel.” He was accused of contriving to “scandalize, traduce and vilify” the President of the United States—Thomas Jefferson. Croswell’s crime was publishing a story that claimed Jefferson had paid a Washington newspaper publisher to run stories that were hostile to his political opponents. Croswell was found guilty, and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court in Albany. In his second trial, Croswell was defended by Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s eloquence—his closing argument is said to have lasted for six hours—failed in overturning the guilty verdict, but two years later his argument in defense of freedom of the press—that reporting the truth is not libel—was incorporated into law.
For so small a city, Hudson has seen much fame and notoriety. In 1797, it came just one vote short of becoming the capital of New York State. In the mid-19th century, it was a center and inspiration for the Hudson River School of landscape painters. Sanford Gifford and Ernest and Arthur Parton were born and raised in Hudson. Frederic Church came down from Olana to Hudson to buy his paints and visit friends. The vista of South Bay was the most painted landscape of the time. In February 1861, the train carrying Abraham Lincoln to his first inauguration stopped in Hudson, and in April 1865, the funeral train carrying his body back to Springfield stopped here, too. In 1912, General Rosalie Jones and her army of suffragettes, trudging on foot from New York City to Albany to deliver a New Year’s message to the new governor, stopped in Hudson to celebrate Christmas. In 1950 state troopers, on the order of Governor Thomas Dewey, raided Diamond Street and shut down Hudson’s notorious red light district—a legacy from its seaport days.
Hudson’s long history is a story of boom and bust. By the middle of the 19th century, the era of whalers and merchants had come to an end. The last whaling ship had sailed from Hudson in 1819. The construction of the railroad along the Hudson River, from New York to Albany, in 1850, transected the mouth of South Bay and North Bay, making the harbors inaccessible to ships. Hudson languished—so much so that in 1867, the editor of the Examiner, in the rival village of Catskill across the river, declared that Hudson was “finished” and “should be fenced in.” But Hudson redefined itself. The seaport far from the sea became a center of industry. There were ironworks, brickworks, foundries producing parlor stoves and ice harvesting tools, factories making fire engines and railroad car wheels, knitting mills, and two large cement plants just over the border in Greenport. The bustling seaport that emerged at the end of the 18th century roared into the 20th century a rumbling, smoke belching, gritty city.
In the latter part of the 20th century, industry left Hudson as it left so many other northeastern cities. The last cement plant shut down in 1975, and Hudson languished once again. Storefronts on Warren Street were boarded up. Commercial and residential buildings throughout the city were converted to low-income housing. The city’s remarkable historic buildings surrendered to despair and neglect. But once again, Hudson redefined itself—this time with help from a whole new set of people, drawn by city’s historic character and the authenticity of its historic architecture. First came the antique dealers, who made Hudson a destination for collectors and decorators. Next came the artists and writers and others not dependent for a living on showing up at an office. (A demographic fact: Hudson has the highest percentage of self-employed people—entrepreneurs—of any city in all of New York State.) Finally the word was out. Hudson was cool. Hudson was hot. Hudson was happening.
And Hudson continues to evolve and thrive. People are settling here because this is where they want to be. Hudson, New York has become a destination—to stay for a few days or a few decades.
Carole Osterink is the author of The Gossips of Rivertown, a blog of news, history, and commentary about Hudson, NY. www.gossipsofrivertown.blogspot.com