16 Moments That Shaped Hudson Valley History
A handful of historical highlights had a major impact not only on our region, but — often — on the entire nation.
Illustration by Grego Anderson
From Henry Hudson’s epic voyage to the catastrophic IBM layoffs, our beautiful region is steeped in history — both good and bad. We highlight 16 defining events that have helped make the Valley what it is today.
Moment #1: Henry Hudson sails upriver (1609)
The Hudson Valley’s Big Bang — for white Europeans, anyway. Humans had already been living here for thousands of years, of course, and the Valley itself took its current shape about 11,000 years ago when the last great ice sheet retreated north. But we only have four pages here, folks.
Moment #2: Kingston’s Stockade District established (1658)
While most of these United States is fully British in history and temperament, the Hudson Valley remains — at both its deepest roots and in more visible ways — Dutch. As early as 1617 or 1618, Fort Nassau had been built near Albany — years before the Pilgrims set sail for the New World. It was succeeded in 1624 by Fort Orange, from which the Dutch colonized the rest of the Valley. And one of their first and most successful settlements was Wiltwyck, now known as the Stockade District of Kingston.
Wiltwyck sat on a high plain near the Esopus Creek that was chosen for its defensive advantages. Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant supervised the construction of the stockade and ordered all settlers to move to the village.
One of just three original Dutch settlements in New York still surrounded by the outline of its stockade, the district remains home to many historic buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, the intersection of Crown and John streets, with early Dutch stone houses on all four corners, is the only intersection in the country that Stuyvesant himself might still recognize. One doubts he would recognize Stuyvesant Plaza, up in Fort Orange/Albany.
courtesy of Library of Congress
Moment #3: The Dutch lose control of New Netherland to the English (1664)
This article is written in English, not Dutch, because Peter Stuyvesant handed over the keys to New Amsterdam with barely a strijd. (That’s “struggle,” which you would have known if he hadn’t.)
He did so because, quite frankly, he was tired of the headaches. Though legend has it that Peter Minuit bought the land, in 1626, from the native tribe for a bunch of whatever the Dutch word for tchotchkes is, Stuyvesant was charged by the Dutch West India Company with making the business — and it was, more than anything, a business — run. But continual war with the native peoples up and down the Valley as well as his personal arrogance made him an unpopular leader. On August 27, 1664, English frigates sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbor and demanded New Netherland’s surrender. Stuyvesant wanted to resist the English, but his subjects did not — and refused to support him. Several days later, Stuyvesant sent a team of lawyers (proving that nothing has really changed in 350 years) to sign the official Articles of Capitulation. New Amsterdam was reincorporated under English law as New York City, named after the Duke of York, later King James II. It has retained that name, except for a brief return to Dutch control in 1673-74, ever since.
But while people now call places like Albany and Kingston home, many others live in Catskill and Yonkers and countless other Dutch-inflected towns and villages from Guilderland to the Bronx. We eat waffles and cookies, await presents from Santa Claus, and root for the Yankees and Knickerbockers, all because the Dutch got here first. Their short but significant reign in North America left no greater legacy than in the Hudson Valley.
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-PGA-00308
Moment #4: The Battle of Stony Point (1779)
Saratoga and Yorktown are better known, but the small battle of Stony Point, on July 16, 1779, was critical to America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. Here, George Washington displayed his brilliant military mind, boosted his army’s morale, gained control of the Hudson River, and secured West Point, all necessary for his later success.
Under Washington’s leadership, Brigadier General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s Light Infantry Corps attacked a British redoubt at midnight. They captured the site’s fortifications and soldiers in just 20 minutes. The Stony Point Lighthouse, which was built in 1826 and is the oldest lighthouse on the Hudson River, houses a museum with exhibits on the battle; it also hosts military reenactments throughout the year.
Moment #5: General Washington sets up shop in Newburgh (1782)
Washington really did sleep here — from April 1782 to August 1783, in fact — while leading the evolution of the revolution, from Colonial upstart to new nation.
Following the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, Washington made his headquarters in the Hasbrouck House, located in Newburgh overlooking the river. The year 1782 was a critical one in the nation’s history, and he was the de facto leader of the country. While at Hasbrouck House, Washington rejected the proposition that the government should be a monarchy, and that he should be its king. He ended the Newburgh Conspiracy, preventing military control of the neo-nation. He created the Badge of Military Merit, forerunner of the Purple Heart. He circulated a letter to state governors that influenced the writing of the Constitution. And on April 19, 1783, he issued the Proclamation of Peace, which ended the war.
The house, the oldest in the city of Newburgh, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. It remains a popular attraction for tourists and history buffs.
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-PGA-00209
Moment #6: U.S. Military Academy at West Point Founded (1802)
Washington considered West Point to be the most important strategic position in America — and who’s to argue with the man who wouldn’t be king? He chose Thaddeus Kosciuszko, one of the heroes of the Battles of Saratoga, to design West Point’s fortifications in 1778; he moved his headquarters there in 1779.
Continental soldiers then got to work building forts and extended the 150-ton iron “Great Chain” across the river to control water traffic. The site was so critical, Benedict Arnold tried to sell its plans to the British. He rather famously failed. West Point is, in fact, the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation establishing the United States Military Academy at West Point. Its graduates have led our country into battle ever since, including against one another: Both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were alumni, leaving no doubt of an awkward school reunion. Today, West Point remains one of the state’s most visited tourist attractions.
Moment #7: Robert Fulton’s Clermont sails up the Hudson River (1807)
Advances in transportation have always changed history, from the first humans to ride horses to jumbo jets that whisk us around the world in just hours. One such transformative leap occurred on August 17, 1807, when a large, noisy, smoky apparition glided up the Hudson.
One eyewitness later recounted: “A knot of villagers was gathered on a high bluff just opposite Poughkeepsie, on the west bank of the Hudson, attracted by the appearance of a strange, dark-looking craft, which was slowly making its way up the river. Some imagined it to be a sea-monster, while others did not hesitate to express their belief that it was a sign of the approaching judgment.”
Neither monster nor apocalypse, Fulton’s steamship did push the world into the future. The Clermont was not the first steamboat to be built, but it was the first to become a practical vessel and to anchor a commercially successful company. And that changed travel and commerce forever. The steamboat remained state-of-the-art until the railroads came along.
Not bad, considering the sea-monster took about 30 hours, including an overnight stop, to sail from New York City to Albany, at an average speed of five miles per hour. Even Amtrak is faster than that. Usually.
Related: Fulton’s folly
Moment #8: Hudson River School of Art established (1825)
You know you’ve made it when the Post Office issues stamps of you, and this summer, that honor befell the painters of the Hudson River School of Art. Widely considered the first uniquely American style of painting, the Hudson River School unofficially opened in the fall of 1825, when a 24-year-old English immigrant and largely self-taught artist named Thomas Cole took a steamboat up the Hudson, got off at Catskill, and hiked into the mountains to make some pencil sketches.
Back in New York City, Cole turned those sketches into three large oil paintings, which he reportedly put on sale for $20 apiece. According to the New York Evening Post, an artist and collector named John Trumbull soon came by and bought one of the paintings for $25, reportedly adding, “I am delighted, and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I can not do after 50 years of practice.”
What Cole had done was channel the nascent, purely American literary movement of transcendentalism and its reverence of nature into images of the Valley. Cole was instantly famous, and attracted the attention both of New York’s cultural elite and other landscape artists, including Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford, and Jasper Cropsey. Those artists produced images of the Valley that captivated the world — as they still do today, even on postage stamps.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt/Elias Goldensky
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-117121
Moment #9: The Birth of FDR (1882)
You didn’t need to watch the recent Ken Burns film series on PBS to know that the Roosevelt name is as iconic as it gets in U.S. history. It’s also the most important name in Valley history, save only for the guy who had said valley named after him. Do we really need to say more about the man who dominated the first half of the 20th century by guiding and transforming the country through not one, but two momentous events during four terms as president — often from his sleepy hometown of Hyde Park, where he was born on January 30, 1882?
Moment #10: First section of Appalachian Trail opens in Bear Mountain State Park (1923)
Hikers had been talking about creating a “super trail” for some time when, in 1921, a man named Benton MacKaye wrote an article called “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. He proposed a series of work, study, and farming camps connected by a hiking trail along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, from Mt. Washington in New Hampshire (the highest point in the north) to Mount Mitchell in North Carolina (the highest in the south).
A small crew took up the torch and built the first stretch of that trail, from Bear Mountain west through Harriman State Park, which opened on October 7, 1923. And 91 years later, hikers continue to use these trails on the roughly 2,180-mile trek from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Catskill Aqueduct from George Grantham Bain Collection
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-63763
Moment #11: Catskill Aqueduct system completed (1924)
Progress often creates both winners and losers. In 1924, the aqueduct project, which took 18 years and cost $177 million (about $2.5 billion today), was completed. New York City won. Many small Catskill towns lost — flooded out of existence by the dams and reservoirs created to quench the thirst of the rapidly growing metropolis to their south. Ten churches, 11 schools, and five railroad stations vanished; a few cemeteries were even dug up, with the remains relocated to other plots.
Moment #12: Newburgh-Beacon Bridge opens (1963)
Just as Fulton’s Clermont revolutionized transportation and changed the Valley’s fortunes, so too did the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, which opened on November 2, 1963 as a two-lane span. One day later, 220 years of ferry service ended. The last two remaining ferries, the Dutchess and the Orange, met at mid-river at five p.m., signaled a final salute, and gave way to the cars that could now pass rapidly over the Hudson, opening travel to New England as never before.
Related: The Hudson Valley’s bridges
Moment #13: The Culinary Institute of America moves to the Hudson Valley (1972)
The CIA began operation in New Haven in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute. Its first class: 50 GIs returning from World War II. In 1951, it changed its name to the Culinary Institute of America, and in 1972 it moved to Hyde Park, taking over the turn-of-the-century brick edifice that had been the St. Andrew-on-Hudson Jesuit seminary. In doing so, it also launched the Valley’s transformation into Napa East.
The CIA and its famous student-run restaurants are among Dutchess County’s top tourist destinations. More importantly, the school has married the region’s enviable agricultural riches to its culinary mastery, fostering a local farm-to-table movement that now rivals the West Coast in national acclaim. And many CIA graduates have stayed in the region, giving residents a selection of food and beverage options that make the rest of the country’s mouths water with envy.
Moment #14: The Scenic Hudson Decision is rendered (1981)
In January 1963, Consolidated Edison applied for a license to build a power station at the base of Storm King Mountain. Little did the utility know that, in doing so, it had launched the modern environmental movement. That fall, the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference was formed to stop the project, protect the water supply, and preserve the natural beauty of the area. The battle escalated, but Scenic Hudson, armed with thousands of supporters both locally and nationally — and not a few powerful lawyers — refused to back down. After a 17-year legal battle in both New York State and Federal courtrooms, the two sides settled in December 1980. Con Ed agreed to drop its plans for Storm King, reduce fish kills at Indian Point and other power plants along the Hudson River, and establish a research fund for the Hudson River ecosystem. The effects locally were considerable, but the repercussions on the American conscience were even greater. The Scenic Hudson battle established environmental law as a new and important legal specialty. Better still, it proved that citizens can fight the powers that be. And win.
Moment #15: IBM announces layoffs (1993)
That was the headline in the Poughkeepsie Journal on March 31, 1993, the day after IBM announced that, for the first time in its history, it was laying off workers. The mid-Hudson Valley was very much a company town, and Big Blue, the biggest computer maker in the world, was that company.
IBM settled in the Valley in 1941, making aircraft cannons for World War II. It segued into office equipment and — by the mid-1960s — mainframe computers. As Business Week wrote in 1995, “For four decades, IBM thrived — and the Hudson Valley boomed. Kids got high-paying manufacturing work out of high school. Home prices soared, as did wages. ‘Beemers,’ as the locals called them, populated local zoning boards and ran charities; their money fueled a vibrant retail sector. All of which made the crash, when it arrived, that much more cataclysmic.”
Cataclysmic it was. Unemployment tripled, support businesses failed, housing prices collapsed. Twenty years later, the Valley is in better shape. But it is not in the same shape. The scars left from Big Blue’s departure remain deep and long-lasting.
Moment #16: Walkway over the Hudson opens (2009)
A big bandage covering the wounds left by IBM’s departure appeared on October 3, 2009, when the Walkway Over the Hudson opened as the world’s longest pedestrian bridge.
The former Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, which began carrying trains across the Hudson in 1889, was the first span to cross the river between New York and Albany, connecting the Valley with the rest of the country. It closed in 1974 after a devastating fire. In a sense, the Walkway has helped connect the Valley to the world once again. In just five years, it has become perhaps the most popular and important tourist destination here.
The reason for that is, quite literally, easy to see. From its soaring deck, you can sense the incomparable beauty of the river and the magnetic power of the Valley that captivated its namesake precisely 400 years earlier — the same beauty and power that has been pulling us here ever since.
Corrections: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that the British surrendered at Valley Forge in 1781; the famous capitulation actually took place in Yorktown, Virginia. We also indicated that the site of George Washington’s Newburgh headquarters was declared a State Historic Site in 1961; rather, it is a National Historic Landmark.