Wednesday, March 13, 2013

51. New York and Water: The Hudson

          Another post on New York City's relation to water.  In the mid-nineteenth century, before the proliferation of railroads, the city's life was intimately linked to the Hudson River.  This post, adapted from my fiction, follows the river through the cycle of seasons.

            Ice gripped the Hudson.  In the far north among cloud-splitting mountains towering over cedar and spruce, it gripped Lake Tear of the Clouds, Feldspar Brook, and the Opalescent River.  In snowy forests where bears slept and wolves prowled, it gripped the springs and sources, the streams and tributaries.  Ice gripped the narrow channel at Glens Falls, and at Troy, the head of navigation, glinting green and gray-silver in the sun, and gripped the widening channel at Albany.  Ice blocked the wharves at Rondout and Poughkeepsie, and sheathed the twisting channel through the Highlands, where
Storm King, Breakneck Mountain, and Dunderberg humped their granite skyward.  It locked the broad reaches of Haverstraw Bay and the Tappan Zee, and lay rigid under the sheer basalt cliffs of the Palisades, where through pronged branches of oak and beech, the wind whipped and whistled.  Almost to the city of New York, ice gripped the river.  Skaters skated on it, fishermen chopped holes in it, and as powdery white gusts whisked up from its surfaces, people trudged from one bank to the other.

            Along the Erie Canal the canal men, their barges docked for the season, boozed and whored, and when their money ran out, drummed their fingers and waited.  In the river towns the merchants, eyeing mountains of goods stacked on piers or in warehouses, muttered and dreamed of a railroad.  Boatmen, their skiffs beached, idled.  In New York City the steamboat men repaired and painted their vessels, schemed and made new combinations.  While the fashionables went to their balls, the price of fuel wood soared, and the almshouse registers lengthened.  All up and down the river, from the tiny mountain ponds of the sources to the steepening Palisades, winter hunched and tightened.

            Then, toward March, icicles dripped.  As the gray snows sank, V’s of geese honked northward.  Buds split, streams gushed.  In the city the steamboat men watched and waited.  Warming rains came, the ice cracked.  Warily the first boats churned upstream -- not sleek new racers but stout-nosed, sturdy crunchers, bumping through the ice to Poughkeepsie, nudging to Hudson, grinding amid cheers to Albany, and to the head of navigation at Troy.   

            But the river was not yet safe.  Softened by sun and rain, the ice squeaked and grunted, loosened, thickened, gripped small boats, crushed them, loosened again, jostled, broke up.  Slowly, with the tide or against it, in juts and jags the pack crunched down the river, snatched at piers, vessels, piles of lumber, slammed and sloshed its way past Manhattan through the inner harbor and the outer harbor to Sandy Hook and the Rockaways, where it spewed forth into the ocean its captive splintered boats, pier ends, sections of  bridges, and the thawed bodies of the drowned.

            The river was free.

            Boatmen launched their skiffs and ferried passengers.  In Troy, merchants schemed to steal business from Albany; in Albany, merchants schemed to steal business from Troy.  Sloops, their white sails billowing in the breeze, brought Ulster County bluestone to the city, Poughkeepsie bricks, and Westchester butter.  From the canal, steam tugs towed lashed barges sixty at a time with barrels of Rochester flour, Syracuse salt, and potash and pork from Ohio.

            With gusto the steamboat men sped their swiftest boats to Albany and Troy, with connections for Canada and the West.  Docks bustled, the river towns revived.  From Ohio and Illinois, country merchants came to stock up for the season, pray in an elegant church, or visit a big-city whore; they went home replenished and depleted.

            By midsummer a fleet of spume-treading vessels, belching pillars of smoke by day and showers of sparks by night, took artists and aesthetes to the Adirondacks.  The city fashionables, having drawn the blinds in their parlors, departed for Saratoga, the husbands to drink and play cards, the wives to show off their bonnets, the sons to fall in love, and the daughters to make the right connections.  (Back home their less affluent neighbors likewise pulled down the blinds and tried not to be seen on the street.)  Weeks later they returned, the husbands sobered by their losses, the wives aglow at having been seen, the sons languid and moony, and the daughters pouting, having not made the right connections.

            In autumn fewer day boats plied with thinning crowds.  From Iowa and Indiana, country merchants came to order goods for the season, pray, or copulate; they went home graced and sated.  In the Highlands the last excursionists oohed and aahed as the beeches yellowed and the oaks blotched brown and red.  Soon the day boats stopped, geese honked southward, the night-boat schedules dwindled.

            In the far north snow fell on cloud-splitting mountains towering over hemlock and pine.  Ice formed on Lake Tear of the Clouds, Feldspar Brook, and the Opalescent River.  Bears hibernated, wolves prowled.  Ice gripped the upper Hudson, and in the middle Hudson wedged between Bear Mountain and Anthony’s Nose.  Canal men docked their barges for the season, boatmen beached their skiffs.  The last night boats bumped and scraped to Newburgh, then only to Peekskill, then hugged their piers in the city.  From the snow-locked mountains of the north to the wind-scoured Palisades, winter hunched and tightened.

          Coming next: New York Hodgepodge 2, in three sections: WBAI and how much truth can we take; getting into the Met at bargain prices (if you have the nerve); and turning a nightingale into a cash cow.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

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