Scenic Hudson’s 50th Anniversary: A History and the 17-Year Battle to Preserve Storm King Mountain
Fifty years ago, the environmental preservation group Scenic Hudson was formed to save Storm King Mountain from decimation. We look back at the epic battle to preserve this Valley landmark
Scenic Hudson celebrates 50 years of unprecedented environmental activism. We take a look back at what started it all: the epic 17-year battle to preserve Storm King Mountain (above)
Photograph by Frank Roberts
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The Hudson Valley played a key role — many call it the primary role — in the birth of our nation’s modern-day environmental movement. And in a sense, it all started around a kitchen table in a Valley home back in the 1960s.
What brought six concerned residents to that table in the Westchester County village of Irvington was a September 27, 1962, front-page article in the New York Times, which announced a proposal by Consolidated Edison to build what would be the world’s largest pumped-storage hydroelectric plant on Storm King Mountain.
Located south of Cornwall in Orange County, Storm King towers nearly 1,400 feet above the Hudson. For eons, it has been a prominent symbol of the Valley’s natural magnificence. A favorite subject of famed artists like Thomas Cole and others from the Hudson River School, Storm King has also long been a haven for hikers, birdwatchers, and other nature lovers.
In early 1963, Con Ed was preparing to file plans seeking approval for the power plant with the Federal Power Commission. The utility company argued that the proposed plant would be a boon to Manhattan, providing downstate residents with extra electricity during periods of peak demand. In order to generate the power, the proposed facility would suck millions of gallons of water from the river; pump it upward through enormous tubes that would be buried inside the mountain; and store it in a one-mile wide, eight-billion-gallon reservoir that would be built on the summit. The water then would be released as needed, gushing back down into six giant turbines. These would crank out electricity, which would be carried through a web of power lines 15 miles long.
But the now-famous “gang of six” was outraged by the utility giant’s proposal to decimate Storm King. In large part, their fury was stoked when Con Ed published a drawing of the proposed new plant: It showed the entire side of the mountain blown off. If these plans were approved as proposed, the Hudson Highlands landscape — renowned for its natural beauty and historical significance — would be irrevocably altered.
Above, the Department of Conservation posts a sign authorizing only catch and release fishing. Below, kayakers protest for clean water
On November 8, 1963, the group met at the Irvington home of historian and author Carl Carmer — his books include The Hudson, a collection of colorful anecdotes about life along the river. Along with Carmer was Walter Boardman, an educator and a member of the Nature Conservancy; Leo Rothschild, a Manhattan lawyer and key member of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference; Robert Burnap, an avid hiker; advertising executive Harry Nees; and antiques dealer Virginia Guthrie. That night they formed the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference. The grassroots group then set out to do whatever was legally possible to block the power plant.
Other residents active in the early days of this environmental campaign headed by Scenic Hudson included lawyer Stephen Duggan and his wife Beatrice “Smokey” Duggan, who lived near Storm King; and Bob Boyle, a Sports Illustrated writer and fishing fan who sought to preserve the river’s aquatic bounty. As time went on, a growing list of Valley residents, from professors to fishermen, joined the effort. Pledges of support didn’t just come from locals, either — thousands of Americans from across the nation made donations and otherwise endorsed Scenic Hudson’s efforts.
Most notable of all was Dutchess County’s Frances “Franny” Reese, who joined the fight early on, served as Scenic Hudson’s board chair through the 1970s and ’80s, and remained active in the group until her death in 2003. “Without her, there would be no Scenic Hudson,” claims Klara Sauer, the organization’s executive director from 1979 through 1999. “From day one, or let’s say day two, she was the champion. She held everything together, gathered support, and was the overarching force behind defeating the Storm King project.” Reese’s activist mantra — “Care enough to take action. Do your research so you don’t have to backtrack from a position. And don’t give up” — became Scenic Hudson’s unofficial motto.
In November 1964, Reese’s three strategies were put into action when the case against Con Ed came before the Federal Power Commission at a hearing in New York City.
Testimony from scientists on behalf of Scenic Hudson pointed out the potential damage to fish posed by the power plant, among other dangers. Storm King’s historical, environmental, and artistic heritage was also passionately presented to the commission. As Rothschild, then Scenic Hudson’s board chairman, put it: “I know of nothing more important than to preserve all wilderness areas in the metropolitan region, which is rapidly becoming a complex of highways and housing developments.” He added: “Some places must be left where we can — to quote Walt Whitman — ‘invite our souls.’ ”
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