From sportsmen to singers, educators to environmentalists (and one U.S. president), these 35 folks have all had an enduring impact on the Hudson Valley.
Who Have Created a Lasting Legacy
By Polly Sparling
What if...Henry Hudson had never set out on that very important voyage almost 400 years ago? Or if Orville Slutsky and his brother hadn’t founded the very first Catskills ski resort in 1960? Suppose that singing legend Pete Seeger hadn’t turned national attention to the plight of the ailing Hudson River? It’s safe to say that the Valley would be a very different place indeed.
The following 35 people have all left a lasting legacy on the Hudson Valley and played an integral role in shaping the vibrant region that today we call home. From artists to architects, educators to environmentalists, businessmen to breast cancer crusaders, sportsmen to singers, this roll call honors some of the area’s most venerable leaders. Some were presidents, known by everyone from coast to coast. Some worked their magic in relative obscurity, while others created controversy wherever they went.
Of course, there are dozens of others — both in the annals of history and those living vibrant lives right now — who deserve mention for the impact they have had on our region. When compiling this list, we knew from the outset that narrowing it down to just 35 names was an impossible task. But this is not the final word. Please send us your thoughts on who you would have selected, or who you believe is worthy of making such a list the next time around. After all, it’s only another five years until we hit 40.
1. Henry Hudson (1570?-1611?)
The man who started it all. An English explorer and experienced sailor, Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find a quicker route to China, India, and the “islands of spicery” in the Far East. He and his 80-ton ship, the Half Moon, set sail from Europe in April 1609 with a 20-man crew. After plumbing the American coastline from Maine to the Chesapeake Bay, Hudson entered the Hudson River in September. Although not the first European to sail the river’s waters (that honor belongs to Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano), Hudson was the first to venture beyond the mouth of the river, sailing as far north as Albany before realizing that the waterway was not the hoped-for northwest passage to the Orient. Dubbing it the “River of Mountains,” Hudson laid claim to the land for the Dutch, paving the way for the scores of settlers who soon followed. Although his travelogues are lost to history, Hudson did write that the Valley “is as pleasant a land as one can tread upon.” Amen to that.
2. E.W. Harriman (1848-1909)
A railroad executive who amassed a fortune by reviving bankrupt lines, Harriman apparently never forgot his humble boyhood roots. Born on Long Island, he spent his adolescent summers working at the Parrott family’s Greenwood Iron Furnace near Tuxedo, Orange County. In 1885, when the land came up for sale, Harriman plunked down more than $50,000 for the 7,800-acre estate, which he renamed Arden. An early environmentalist, buying large tracts of land became a habit for Harriman: over the next several years, he purchased close to 40 parcels — 20,000 acres — and had bridle paths constructed to connect them all. A year after his death, Harriman’s widow donated 10,000 of those acres to New York State. Christened Harriman State Park, it’s the state’s second largest park and welcomed over 1.8 million visitors last year.
3. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (1854-1929)
The well-heeled son of a Yorkshire industrialist, Whitehead studied at Oxford, where he became interested in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Promulgated by English artists like John Ruskin and William Morris, the movement encouraged people to create handmade furniture and crafts as an antidote to the boring, repetitive jobs associated with the Industrial Era. Whitehead moved to the U.S. and married Philadelphian Jane Byrd McCall in 1892; together, they used his inheritance to found the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock in 1903. Many leading artists of the time settled in the utopian-style colony, producing furniture, pottery, textiles, metal works and ceramics. Although the original colony did not last long, Woodstock is still known as a haven for artists of all stripes — a reputation that began with Whitehead’s dream.
4. Emma Willard (1787-1870)
When her husband suffered financial losses in 1814, Emma Willard opened a girl’s school in her home in Middlebury, Vermont, to help make ends meet. At the time, women were taught to paint and sew and little else; most people believed females were incapable of understanding complicated subjects like math or science. Having been denied admission to Middlebury College because of her sex, Willard used her nephew’s textbooks to teach herself about geography, algebra and grammar – and then helped her distaff students master these subjects as well. In 1821, the town of Troy raised $4,000 to fund Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, which offered a college preparatory education for girls. Known today as Emma Willard School, this Collar City landmark continues to prepare young women for future challenges.
5. Matthew Vassar (1792-1862)
As the founder of Poughkeepsie’s esteemed Vassar College, you might assume that Matthew Vassar was himself an educated man with a burning desire to bring higher learning to the masses. Nothing, apparently, could be further from the truth. With little or no formal education, Vassar left home at age 14 to work in a country store. He joined his father’s brewery business in 1810; over the subsequent years, a series of astute business partnerships left the resourceful entrepreneur financially prosperous, socially respected, and civic-minded. Wanting to immortalize his name for future generations, Vassar was eventually persuaded by a local clergyman to found a college for women; Vassar Female College opened its doors in 1865 (“Female” was removed from the title two years later). His two nephews, John and Matthew Jr., opposed the college idea, favoring a hospital instead; Vassar Brothers Hospital admitted its first patients in 1887. And Matthew’s summer home at Springside, a 50-acre estate near the river, includes public gardens designed by renowned landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The end result: The Vassar name lives on at three of the Valley’s premier institutions.
6. Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
In 1825, this mainly self-taught itinerant painter took his first trip up the Hudson River. The wild beauty of the landscape inspired him to mount an exhibition of small paintings he made based on what he’d seen; the show caught the attention of several New York City art patrons. Cole quickly became a success; viewers found his atmospheric works depicting the region’s unspoiled wilderness symbolic of the newly formed American nation. After spending time in New York City and Europe, Cole settled permanently at Cedar Grove, his Catskill home, in 1832. Many leading artists of the time — including Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand, and Jasper Cropsey — visited, sketched, and painted there. The group became known as the Hudson River School, America’s first art movement. Cole is widely credited as its founder.
7. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)
It would take more space than we have here to adequately describe the accomplishments of the nation’s 32nd president (and Hyde Park’s favorite son). Elected an unprecedented four times, we all learned in school about Roosevelt’s steady hand in guiding the country through the Great Depression and World War II (feats that earned him respect and praise from politicians and the public alike). Here in the Valley, though, he has left another, and altogether different, legacy. A descendent of Dutch settlers, Roosevelt became alarmed when colonial stone houses built by his ancestors began to be replaced by more modern buildings. While he was president, he lobbied vigorously to have public buildings constructed using local fieldstone in the style of those original dwellings. The Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck, and Hyde Park post offices all have Roosevelt’s design stamp on them; the latter two are decorated with a mural, painted by local artist Olin Dows, which depicts a historical scene.
8. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
A blue blood all the way (her dad was Teddy Roosevelt’s younger brother, her mother was a descendent of the Livingstons), Eleanor was anything but an elitist. Dubbed “the First Lady of the world,” FDR’s mate volunteered in Navy hospitals during the First World War, and eventually became a political figure in her own right, advocating for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged. President Truman appointed her to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. General Assembly in 1945. But at heart, Eleanor seemed quite down-to-earth, contributing regular columns to monthly magazines like Ladies Home Journal. In the Valley, she helped found Val-Kill Industries, a nonprofit factory that employed local residents to make furniture, pewter and textiles. Each year, the presentation of the Val-Kill Medal — which honors local and national humanitarians — is a reminder that Roosevelt’s generosity of spirit lives on.
9. Maurice Hinchey
A true product of the Valley, Hinchey graduated from Saugerties High School in 1938 and joined the Navy, then returned to the region, working briefly in a cement plant. He paid his way through SUNY New Paltz by manning the night shift as a toll collector on the New York State Thruway. In 1975, he was elected to the New York State Senate — the first Democrat from Ulster County to win a seat since 1912 — where he spent the next 18 years. He was voted into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. Making his priorities apparent during his first year in office, Hinchey led a successful fight to preserve Orange County’s Sterling Forest from development. He also introduced the legislation that proclaimed the Valley as a National Heritage Area, a federal designation that recognizes the importance of the region’s historic, cultural, and natural resources.
10. Dennis Murray
In his almost 30 years at the helm of Poughkeepsie’s Marist College, Murray has transformed the school on the banks of the Hudson into a highly respected liberal arts college. The campus has seen more than $150 million worth of improvements, including a state-of-the-art digital library. (The library is just one result of a long-term partnership formed with IBM; the college was one of the first in the nation to be “totally wired” back in 1995, and joins MIT and Cornell as one of the 25 “Most Connected Campuses,” according to the Princeton Review.) Marist’s business and communications programs draw students from around the country. The school is also home to the Hudson River Valley Institute (the academic arm of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area) and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion (an oft-quoted opinion poll). A native of California, Murray has been lauded with several community service awards, including the Val-Kill Medal.
11. Frederick William Vanderbilt (1856-1938)
A grandson and heir of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt – the shipping and railroad tycoon and America’s richest man in the 19th century – Frederick was director of the New York Central Railroad for an astonishing 61 years. While under the family’s stewardship, the line was extended from Albany to New York City; its well-known Water Level Route followed river beds, avoiding the mountainous terrain of its arch rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. But around these parts, Frederick is remembered as the scion of “Hyde Park,” his name for the Gilded Age country estate on the banks of the Hudson (which we know as the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site). With its Ming vases, Flemish tapestries, marble columns and manicured gardens, the site is a must-see on every Valley visitor’s list.
12. Alf Evers (1905-2004)
The quintessential Catskills historian and author, Evers was born in the Bronx but moved to Ulster County at the age of nine. During the first half of his life, he and his wife, illustrator Helen Baker, collaborated on more than 50 children’s books. (Evers’s moralistic tales, written in a plain prose style, earned him the moniker of “America’s Aesop.”) In 1950, however, the couple divorced; Evers returned to Ulster and began work on The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, the first of three definitive histories he penned about the region. More than 700 pages long, Evers’s exhaustive research — and inclusion of regional folklore — made the tome an instant classic. His other two releases, Woodstock: History of an American Town and Kingston-on-Hudson: An American Historical City, were similarly well-received. Evers’s early 19th-century home in Shady is on the state’s Registry of Historic Places; his impressive library and collection of historical materials — including items from the original Byrdcliffe Arts Colony — now belongs to the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen. Evers passed away just days after finishing his book on Kingston and less than two months shy of his 100th birthday.
13. Frances S. (Franny) Reese (1918-2003)
“Revered, feared, and beloved” is how former Scenic Hudson Executive Director Klara Sauer described Reese, the founder of the modern environmental movement in the U.S. Reese was the organization’s board chairwoman for 18 years; during her tenure, she spearheaded a grassroots campaign against utility giant Con Edison’s plans to build a power plant on Storm King Mountain. The battle raged all the way to the federal courts, and the people prevailed: the plant was never built. Just as important, the now-famous “Scenic Hudson decision” in 1965 guaranteed ordinary citizens a say in environmental issues, giving hope to budding environmental and preservation groups throughout the nation.
14. Laurance S. Rockefeller (1910-2004)
A grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Laurance was an astute businessman and pioneering venture capitalist. But the Valley (and the nation) remembers him for his tireless efforts to preserve our natural landscape. The first conservationist ever to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, Rockefeller spent more than 60 years working with a slew of local and national preservation organizations, including the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (he was instrumental in adding Minnewaska State Park to their list of properties), the Hudson River Valley Commission, Historic Hudson Valley, and the New York Zoological Society. On the national stage, he served under five presidents (from Eisenhower through Ford), helping to enact legislation for land and water conservation and highway beautification, among other areas. Rockefeller used his fortune to donate thousands of acres for parkland, but also lobbied others to follow his lead in preservation. “Laurance Rockefeller labored always with passion for a better tomorrow for all of humanity,” his friend Nash Castro wrote in these pages after Rockefeller’s death in 2004. “He was a giant.”
15. George Pataki
Your overall opinion of New York State’s 53rd governor probably depends on which side of the political aisle you sit on. But one thing is certain: his environmental policies had a major impact on the state as a whole, and on the Hudson Valley in particular. During his 12 years in Albany, Pataki helped preserve 600,000 acres of land across the state, including doubling the size of Putnam County’s Fahnestock State Park, adding 17,000 acres to Sterling Forest, and acquiring Orange County’s Schunemunk Mountain for parkland. Local communities (including Beacon, Hudson, and Greenport) received grants to help develop parks and provide access to the river. Pataki’s support of the state’s $1.75 billion Environmental Bond Act put some muscle behind the cleanup of the Hudson River and other state waterways. And revitalization of downtown areas in cities like Newburgh and Kingston got some help when state dollars were allocated for urban renewal projects. A Peekskill native and current Garrison resident, Pataki is also one of the Valley’s biggest cheerleaders. “Libby and I have four kids,” he told HV in 2001. “My hope, when they get through school and settle down, is that of all the places in the world where they could choose to be, they’re going to say, ‘Hey, the place for me is the Hudson Valley.’ ”
16. Thomas Archibald (Archie) Stewart (1902-1998)
The son of a Scottish immigrant, Stewart was a forward-thinking man with a keen interest in aviation. During the late 1920s, sensing that his hometown of Newburgh would be economically hampered if they didn’t keep up with the times, Stewart concluded that the area needed an airport. After scouting the open land in the region, he decided that “Stony Lonesome” — a pasture owned by his uncle Samuel — provided the perfect location. Equally as civic-minded as his nephew, Samuel agreed to deed the land to the city with the provision that it be developed as an airport. And so it was that Stewart Airport was “born.” Now a commercial and passenger terminal, Stewart offers a convenient alternative for Valleyites who would rather not travel to New York or Albany to catch a plane. Originally used to train cadets at West Point, the runways are some of the longest and strongest in the world. (In fact, Stewart is an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.)
17. Sylvanus Thayer (1785-1872)
A Massachusetts native, Thayer graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1808; less than 10 years later, he was named West Point’s superintendent. During his 16 years at that post, he orchestrated the Academy’s ascendancy into one of the world’s best military schools (a feat he accomplished by insisting on strict discipline and rigorous study habits among the cadets). A member of the army corps of engineers, he emphasized the importance of engineering at the school, and put his own considerable skills to work building coastal fortifications in New York and Boston. To this day, he is remembered as “the Father of the Military Academy” (the inscription which appears on his tombstone).
18. Orville Slutzky
Along with his brother Israel (Izzy), who died last year, Orville Slutzky turned the Catskills into a top-notch ski destination. Born and raised in Hunter, the brothers ran a construction company back in the 1930s; they purchased land on Hunter Mountain with an eye toward building a ski area like the ones then popping up in the Adirondacks. They offered to rent the land for $1 a year to anyone willing to fund development of a ski resort; investors from New York’s theater district — led by Jimmy Hammerstein, son of famed Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II — raised the funds, and Hunter Mountain opened in 1960. Hammerstein’s group was unable to make a go of the operation, so the brothers took over the business after several seasons. Realizing that snowmaking equaled success, they first installed steel pipes under all their slopes for compressed air and water; in 1989, Hunter was the first ski area in North America to have an automated snowmaking system (earning the title of “snowmaking capital of the world”). Even at the age of 90, Orville Slutzky still goes to work at the resort every day; in April, both brothers were honored with the National Ski Areas Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
19. Pete Seeger
Folk-music icon, political activist, and environmentalist, Seeger — a Dutchess County resident — leads a busy (if often controversial) life. Author of classic folk songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” he was blacklisted during the 1950s McCarthy era, and was a vehement critic of the Vietnam War. For Valleyites, though, Seeger will always be associated with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the environmental organization he founded in 1966. The group has helped fight (and win) tough battles against PCB contamination and other types of river pollution. The 107-foot sloop Clearwater — the organization’s flagship, which is patterned after river boats of the 1870s — offers environmental education programs about river ecology to schools and other groups. (Seeger himself had a hand in its construction at a shipyard in Maine.) A true community activist, the singer-songwriter can often be found performing for the benefit of local causes (including the River Pool in Beacon project).
20. Michael Ginor
Although many of the names on our list are familiar to most Valley denizens, it’s a good bet Michael Ginor’s isn’t one of them. But time may well change that. The 44-year-old Seattle native is cofounder, co-owner, and president of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. The firm is one of the world’s biggest producers of the duck-liver delicacy that has been enjoyed by gourmands for nearly 5,000 years. Ginor took a roundabout route to his current job. After a stint as a senior VP on Wall Street (at age 23, he was the youngest person to earn that title in the firm’s history), Ginor decided to join the Israeli Defense Forces (his parents are expat Israelis). While abroad, he learned about foie gras, and was introduced to more high-tech methods of producing and processing it. Based in Sullivan County, Ginor and cofounder Izzy Yanay began the firm in 1989; today, Hudson Valley Foie Gras is known around the world, with its products being shipped as far away as Japan and Singapore.
21. Thomas Watson, Jr. (1914-1993)
The “most successful capitalist who ever lived,” according to Fortune magazine, Watson was the chief executive at IBM Corp. from 1956 to 1971. His decision to develop the System/360 computers (which were assembled at the company’s Poughkeepsie plant) not only revolutionized the computer industry, but brought employment and significant economic growth to the Dutchess County area. Kingston experien