The Key to America
James Morris on one of America's most significant waterways
By Tom Lewis.
Yale University Press. 340 pp. $30
How do you write the history of a river? The purist would probably stay within the banks of geology and geography, and that might suit some rivers just fine. But it won’t do for New York’s Hudson River. All the more reason, then, to salute Tom Lewis, author of Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (1997), who regards the Hudson as an epically beautiful stretch of waterway and landscape that did nothing less than shape the development of America.
Not that Lewis ignores geology and geography. Early on, he explains that there is more to the physical Hudson than its familiar lower course, running from Albany to New York City. The river originates many miles above Albany, in a small lake at the base of Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks (the source was not discovered until 1872). And after it flows past Brooklyn and Staten Island into the Atlantic, it keeps on going, halfway to Bermuda, through a deep underwater Grand Canyon. When its flow ceases, the Hudson is some 895 miles southeast of its Adirondack source.
Having given the river its geographic due, Lewis launches into a fast-paced narrative that runs through four centuries of history more or less as straight and true as the lower Hudson runs through its abundant valley. That valley was a paradise of natural resources (especially timber) and wildlife (notably the beaver, a giant rodent much prized for its fur) when Henry Hudson sailed the river in 1609. The rodent attracted the Dutch, and fortunes were made, as they were to be made time and again over the centuries, courtesy of the river.
The history of the Hudson and its environs is, if anything, too rich, and Lewis cannot linger over events about which a reader longs to know more (his notes are a generous guide to additional sources): the hit-and-miss existence of the colony of New Amsterdam; the settlers’ relations with the Indians, and episodes of savagery and betrayal on both sides; the dominance of poltroons, those legendary landlords who owned hundreds of thousands of acres up and down the Hudson; the emergence of the British and French as successful rivals to the Dutch; the drama of the Revolutionary War, during which George Washington called the portion of the Hudson at West Point the key to America, and the British defeat at Saratoga altered the fortunes of the United States; the development of the steamboat, rival to the sailboat, encouraging faster travel on the river; the building of the Erie Canal, the waterway that joined the eastern and western slopes of the Appalachians and opened the center of the country to commerce and settlement; the building of a railroad, rival to the steamboat, along the river’s eastern bank; the Hudson’s progressive industrial fouling (it was an open trough of toxic water by the 1960s) and its eventual environmental redemption.
Familiar names drive these events—Stuyvesant, Arnold, Fulton, Clinton, van Rensselaer, Vanderbilt, Roosevelt—and Lewis deftly recounts how they earned their familiarity. But because there’s more to the Hudson’s history than war and politics and economics, he finds room as well, in a text enriched throughout by uncommonly appealing drawings, engravings, and paintings, for the writer Washington Irving and the painter Thomas Cole and the crowds of other artists and forever-anonymous tourists who traveled the river in search of the sublime.
As Lewis tells the tale, the transformation of New York State impelled by the river seems to enact the larger economic, social, cultural, and environmental development of the nation. His narrative conveys something else, too, a reality more difficult to measure: the spirit of the Hudson River, which infuses the actions of all who experience its atmospheres, its lights, its roiling waters, its mountains, and its wild beauty. Rivers sometimes carry modifiers, such as the Mississippi’s “Mighty.” The Hudson deserves a noble adjective of its own, but after reading Lewis’s expansive appreciation, you may be hard pressed to choose just one.