During the 19th century, Albany New York had an important and growing relationship with its waterfront on the Hudson River. This relationship helped to change not only the city of Albany, but the nation as well. The river provided inspiration to artists, power for factories, connection to politics, and the transportation for travel and trade. With the development of infrastructure during the 19th century, most notably for this topic the creation and completion of the Erie Canal, Albany became a hub of connectivity. Within a block from the waterfront were some of the most important banks, businesses, and transportation centers of the time. The 19th century was most certainly the peak of this relationship between river and residents for Albany. Now, for many local residents, the waterfront is mostly inaccessible and the ruins of formerly booming industries litter the banks of the river. There has been a push to rebuild the waterfront and reestablish that relationship. The history of the Hudson River in Albany is important on a local and national level, and if the relationship is to be restored the people should be aware of the milestones and changes that were created and amplified by this connection.
One of the most large scale impacts in which the Hudson River played a role is discussed in John Larson’s book, The Market Revolution, in the chapter ‘Marvelous Improvements Everywhere’ in which Larson discusses the creation of the Erie Canal and how the connection of waterways in New York State was able to impact the way goods were produced and shipped nationwide. Goods that had previously gone to local markets could now be distributed with the entire Atlantic world, which meant that goods from the American interior went from local markets to global markets. The Erie Canal allowed goods to be shipped quickly and inexpensively. This helped to create a commercial industrial economy that changed the face of the nation. Larson quotes important American leaders like Thomas Jefferson on the success of the Erie Canal stating that, “Thomas Jefferson thought the Erie Canal would bless New York’s” decedents with wealth and prosperity” while proving to “mankind the superior wisdom of employing the resources of industry in works of improvement”. (Page 50) Larson goes on to say that ambitious men and women during the 19th century ‘flocked’ to Upstate New York to benefit from the access to markets, trade, and travel that region provided. In Albany, the market for transportation boomed. The waterfront had steamships running on a regular schedule, and similarly a block away from the waterfront Albany’s Union stations had railroads connecting the state. This competition for travel methods would drive costs down. After the construction of the Erie Canal the market for local companies expanded and allowed them to trade on a larger scale and compete with more companies along the Hudson. Places like Beverwyck Brewing Company and Albany Lumber saw their sales expand. Larson’s book discusses the origins of the Market Revolution in America and the technological advancements seen early on in New York State but continues with how the revolution spread throughout the nation and how the Market Revolution’s deep roots connect to the economic structure of modern day.
Building on to the origins of the Market Revolution, the advancements in the technology for travel, trade, and communication are discussed in John McEneny’s book Albany: The Capital City on the Hudson. McEneny discusses how Albany was at the forefront of these advancements. He discusses Robert Fulton’s steamship the Clermont and its journey from New York City to Albany as a display of power. The Clermont would be the “first commercially successful steamboat” having a regular scheduled service carrying passengers between the two cities. (Page 92) McEneny credits steamships and the canal to Albany’s advancement in a similar way that Larson had in his book. However, McEneny also cites the early installation of the telegraph in 1845 and the strong railroad system at the time for improving not only Albany’s economic power but political position as well. McEneny states on page 134, “… at the crossroads of both commercial and political traffic between New York City, Montreal, Buffalo, and Boston, whether by land or waterway, Albany played a vital role in the development of the state of New York. It has frequently taken an important part in national politics as well…”. Through McEneny’s chronological narrative he is able to discuss the long history of local peoples connection to the Hudson River dating back to indigenous tribes and stretching into the 21st century. While the first half of the book explains the patterns of settlement, the importance of the Hudson River, and the advancements in technology that assisted in Albany’s growth; the second half of the book focuses on politics by century in the city of Albany. Although not expressly explained, one can see through the McEneny’s work that the relationship between the residents and the river looses its importance throughout the 20th century.
In the book Wedding the Waters by Peter Bernstein he is able to combine the local importance that McEneny captures with the national significance that Larson discussed. Bernstein explains the impact of trade and transportation on the Hudson River and on the Erie Canal had on Albany’s industrial boom. Beyond the numbers that show the outward impact on the nations economic system, he is able to show the spirit of Albany and how quickly residents understood the importance of the canal. Immediately following the completion of the Erie Canal, local residents lined the banks of the river to celebrate. Bernstein quotes on page 274 Cadwallader D. Colden who said, “The pencil could not do justice to the scene presented on the fine autumnal morning when the Albany lock was first opened”. Bernstein goes on to say, “The crowds filled the windows and the tops of houses, jammed the open spaces in the fields, and lined the banks of the canals for a number of miles”. In Wedding the Waters, Bernstein truly captures the grandness of small-scale impact on Albany.
Clearly the Hudson River was important to more than just the people who worked on the water and for more reasons than the Erie Canal. While not solely focused on Albany in David Schuyler’s book Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909 is able to capture the ways in which the Hudson River impacted the culture of America beyond trade and transportation. The Hudson River became a muse for the arts during the 19th century, which inspired famous works that would shape a national identity. Schuyler’s book looks into the paintings of the Hudson River School who’s movement of landscape paintings was the first American art movement. He goes on to depict the impact that small towns on the Hudson River impacted the writings of famous authors like Washington Irving and now nature itself inspired the essays of naturalist John Burroughs.
In Rinaldi and Yasinsac’s Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape, the authors pay homage to the booming history of the Hudson River in the 19th century while also pointing out the troubling fact that the history has been disappearing before our very eyes. The book discusses the history of companies like Powell and Minnock Brick Company in Coeymans and the Fort Orange Paper Company in Castleton, both of which are close to Albany and benefitted from the Albany waterfront. Both were thriving companies until the 20th century when the economy shifted with the impact of the world wars and changing technology. The relationship between Albany and the waterfront changed, leaving behind the ruins of these companies among other historic sites. This book helps strengthen the historiography by providing a history of the individual sites and a broad history of the region while also engaging in a question of how local history is taught and maintained.
Albany has a long and rich history with the Hudson River, but the connection between the residents and the river has been all but lost. There are movements to enhance the waterfront and books like Hudson Valley Ruins pose the challenge to maintain the history of the waterfront. Overall these books all showed the importance of the region during the 19th century and the connection that Albany and the Hudson had to the Market Revolution as a hub of connectivity.
Larson, John Lauritz. The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
McGreevy, Patrick. Stairway to Empire: Lockport, the Erie Canal, and the Shaping of America. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009.
Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
Schuyler, David. Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.
McEneny, John J., Dennis Holzman, and Robert W. Arnold. Albany, Capital City on the Hudson: An Illustrated History. Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press, 2006.
Rinaldi, Thomas E., and Rob Yasinsac. Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2006.