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The Picturesque Hudson
SOME GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS
THE springs and tiny rills that are the source of the Hudson are among the central heights of the Adirondacks. Thence the gradually increasing waters flow southward, until at Fort Edward, one hundred and eighty miles from the mouth, they become a well-defined river. But the stream for thirty miles more is narrow, tortuous and rock-obstructed. Then, at Troy, it reaches tidewater, and for the rest of its course is essentially a long arm of the sea, broad, stately and slow and having not a little of the sea’s austerity and grandeur. This portion of the river is remarkably free from irregularities. It even lacks tributaries of any considerable size and as a whole presents a fine symmetrical shaft such as no other river in the world can match.
The Hudson is a very large river considering the amount it carries to the sea, for its watershed is comparatively limited. In fact, the channel of the stream is, for most of the course, a huge trough with a very slight incline through which the current moves most leisurely. Its fall from Albany to New York Bay is only about five feet, and the ordinary progress of the water southward between these points is less than ten miles a day. Each of the two ebb tides in the twenty-four hours will carry a piece of driftwood about a dozen miles down stream, but each of the flood tides carries it back two-thirds of that distance. So a drop of water is three weeks making the journey from Albany to the metropolis.
Some rivers by the volume and force of their current penetrate the sea, but in the case of the Hudson the salt water invades the river channel and meets the fresh water from the mountains nearly half way. There was a time, however, when the river was more aggressive. Its great trough bears evidence of having been worn to its present dimensions by much swifter and mightier currents than now flow through it. Apparently, in the pre-glacial period, this portion of our continent was several hundred feet higher than at present, and the Hudson was the outlet of the Great Lakes, with which it was connected by a channel that followed much the same course as does the Mohawk of today. At length the land subsided, and as a result of this and the changes wrought by a huge glacier that crept down from the north, we have the region as it now is. The valley of the Hudson was left partially filled with silt, and nowhere beneath the stream is the mud and clay apparently less than two or three times as deep as the water.
That ancient and grander Hudson belongs to a period hundreds of thousands of years ago, but some of the river’s guardian rocks and mountains are far older. The Highlands, for instance, date from the earliest geological era.
The stream is navigable to Troy for large steamers and shipping, and is a great highway of travel and commerce. Vessels from all parts of our seaboard plough its waters. Opposite New York it is from fifty to seventy-five feet deep, and a good depth is maintained nearly to Tarrytown by the scouring force of the tides along the comparatively narrow channel at the foot of the Palisades. Beyond the Palisades, wherever the river is broad, there are usually extensive shallows reaching out from either shore so that long wharves or dredged approaches to the landing stages are a necessity. The Federal Government has spent large sums in keeping the channel open, but it appears that even the channel of the lower river is constantly growing shallower. This is said to be due to the reckless scattering of vast quantities of refuse from barges and canal-boats, and the ashes from the numerous steamers. The principal offenders are the men who carry brick. When returning up the river they dump overboard, wherever convenient, the broken bricks rejected from the cargoes carried to New York. The brick barges make up a considerable proportion of the boats in the tows, and as an average of eight tows, each composed of from forty to eighty boats, pass up the Hudson daily, it is easy to realize that the refuse bricks thrown into the water must bulk very large. Not only are they a detriment in themselves, but they arrest much silt that would otherwise be carried out to sea.
Such a river as the Hudson, with a length of over three hundred miles, nearly half of which is open to navigation for large vessels, is a great help to the adjacent region, and this noble waterway has had much to do with making New York the Empire State.
In winter nearly the whole extent of the river is closed by ice. North of the Highlands the closure is usually permanent during January and February, and navigation ceases toward the end of November. But the steam ferryboats continue to run, crushing through the ice as it forms and keeping open a path for themselves. Below the Highlands, in an average winter, the ice does not form from shore to shore, but drifts about in more or less compact floes that lodge here and there for limited periods. Yet sometimes the lower river is solidly ice-bound for weeks together, and even New York Bay has been frozen over.
Ordinarily the ice goes out of the river in March, but never suddenly and tumultuously as in more rapid and fluctuating streams. It starts in a slow, deliberate movement of the whole body of ice. But a few hours suffice to break up the great ice-fields pretty thoroughly.
About the time that the river begins to free itself from its winter fetters, and when its aspect is wildest, the eagles appear. They prowl about among the ice-floes, sometimes alighting on them, sometimes flapping along over the chilly water, looking for fish or other game. Where the eagles are, the crows congregate, and hover about to get the leavings of the royal birds’ feasts. The eagles give the river a flavor of the wilderness; and really, in spite of the metropolitan villas that dot its shores, and its busy towns and railroads, and the numerous vessels on its waters, it is far from being wholly conquered by civilization. The stream continues as of yore to be a thoroughfare for many of Nature’s untamed children. The wild ducks and geese follow it north in spring and south in the autumn. The loon too is often seen on it in his migrations; and seals and otters are numbered among its rarer denizens. Few rivers offer such varied and striking contrasts or present so many points of interest to the leisurely observer. Its beauty is in many respects superlative and the associations that cluster about both its past and present are full of romantic fascination.
“I fancy,” says Washington Irving, “I can trace much of what is good and pleasant in my own heterogeneous compound to my early companionship with this glorious river. The Hudson is, in a manner, my first and last love, and after all my wanderings I return to it with a heart-felt preference over all the other rivers in the world. I seem to catch new life as I bathe in its ample billows and inhale the pure breezes of its hills.”