Party Like It’s 1909
This year’s Quad celebrations have quite an act to follow: The 1909 anniversary boasted replica ships, parades, and a visit from Admiral Peary himself
1909 celebration postcard depicting Uncle Sam with a Dutch matron
Postcard courtesy of the City of Newburgh
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By now, you’ve surely heard that it’s New York State’s Quadricentennial year: We’re observing the 400th anniversary of both Henry Hudson’s famous ride up the river and Samuel de Champlain’s upstate lake discovery, as well as the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s first successful steamboat navigation.
But you’ve probably never heard of the event that inspired all of this year’s hoopla. A mere 100 years ago, the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration made the world take notice. “I call it New York’s biggest party ever,” says Kathleen Eagen Johnson, coauthor of The Hudson-Fulton Celebration: New York’s River Festival of 1909 and the Making of a Metropolis, and curator/director of collections for Historic Hudson Valley. “It was a huge 150-mile festival, from Manhattan all the way up the river to Albany.”
The celebration was so intense that some old-timers remembered it as going on for months (although officially it spanned the roughly two-week period from September 25 to October 11). It was a way for New York to grab the spotlight after it lost out on the chance to host the Columbian Exposition in 1893, which celebrated Christopher Columbus’ 400th anniversary. New York leaders seized the opportunity to claim Hudson and Fulton for their very own — and they ran with it.
Postcards from the 1909 festivities feature drawings of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge (soon to be reopened as the Walkway Over the Hudson) and portraits of Hudson and Fulton
Postcard (top) reprinted from The Hudson-Fulton Celebration by Kathleen Eagen Johnson, (bottom) courtesy of City of Newburgh
“History-themed expositions or mini world’s fairs were going on all across America all the time,” says Eagen Johnson. “Americans had one foot in the 1800s and the other in the 1900s. They are in this amazing moment when things are changing incredibly rapidly. There are skyscrapers, electric lights, and subways. They are kind of unsure how to proceed.”
Celebrating Hudson and Fulton together was a good compromise: Hudson represented the glorious, romanticized past of billowing sailing ships, while Fulton’s 32-hour steamboat journey from New York City to Albany (a trip that normally took days) ushered in modern technology. From this innovation came ocean liners, steam trains, westward expansion, and even immigration across the Atlantic.
“People today don’t realize or appreciate that Robert Fulton’s invention revolutionized the way people lived, the way they communicated, and the way they did business. You could reliably project when you’d move a communication, person, or merchandise from one place to another,” says Richard Anderson, president of the S.S. Columbia Project, which is working to restore one of America’s oldest passenger steamers for use on the Hudson.
It was a real coup that the Dutch government sent over a replica ship Half Moon for the 1909 event. The only miscalculation was equipping it with members of their navy based on height, rather than sailing ability. Short men were needed to fit in the quarters belowdecks, which were a mere four-and-a-half feet high. Trouble was, the diminutive sailors didn’t know how to control the boat — and rammed smack into the replica ship Clermont at the start of the festivities in New York Harbor.
The media made a huge fuss, but no one got hurt, which was fortunate: the replica Clermont was packed to the gills with relatives of Fulton and Robert Livingston (the inventor’s patron), all in 19th-century dress. Alice Crary Taylor Sutcliffe, Fulton’s great-granddaughter, sponsored the Staten Island-made replica and chastely christened it with a bottle of well water from Clermont, the Livingston estate (Fulton disapproved of alcohol, she said).
Along with the boats came the floats — dozens of them, dispatched upriver by barge — which were supposed to represent historical scenes of New York State. Flimsily constructed of papier-mâché and stucco, the floats gradually crumbled away as they moved northward.