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A Hudson River View


Nearly 400 years ago Henry Hudson, thinking he had found a route to China, sailed up the river that would bear his name, passing Indian settlements on the Westchester shore. His ship, the Half moon, was 58 feet long and looked like a gravy boat, with high stern and bow, and had small cannons sticking out of the portholes.

Last month, the 150-passenger John Jay, 98 feet long and weighing 90 tons, named for the country's first chief justice and resident of Westchester, began a new ferry service across the Hudson between Haverstraw and Ossining.

In between, the Hudson has seen days when hundreds of sloops and schooners sailed from New York City to Albany. It has seen sailboats by-passed by steamboats; some racing recklessly, some with passengers dancing on the decks, and one with a calliope whose tinkling melodies could be heard on shore.

The steamboats in turn gave way to the Post Road and the railroad. which carried their former passengers and most of their freight. Today one can see only a few barges a day. The Tarrytown Lighthouse, built in 1883 to warn steamboats offshore, has had its light extinguished for almost 40 years. The only sailboats-except for an occasional spectacle like the Tall Ships on July 4-are pleasure craft, racing up and down and across, mostly on weekends. A few sightseeing boats and an occasional charter vessel cruise the river in good weather. The river is no longer the "Main Street" it once was.

The early sloops in the 1600's and 1700's brought goods from the Far East, Dutch West Indies, England and Holland, to a trading post at Albany. The Westchester ports were at Peekskill, Ossining (then known as Sing Sing, after the Sint Sinck Indians), Tarrytown, and Yonkers. By 1810, there were 206 sloops on the Hudson and they carried passengers as well as freight. The poop decks were big enough for dancing, and there were staterooms below. Some boats took as long as four days to sail from New York to Albany, but sometimes, when the wind and the tide, which rolls up the river from the Atlantic as far north as Albany, were right, the trip could be done in 16 hours.

In 1807, Robert Fulton's steamboat, "The Clermont," chugged its way to Albany, opening the river to a new kind of craft.

In 1825, the Erie Canal was completed, linking the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and down to New York Harbor. The engineering triumph was celebrated as the first steamboats from Lake Erie plowed down the river, with cannons saluting and church bells ringing from each town and village as they passed.

Cornelius Vanderbilt start a steamboat fleet on the Hudson, and competing boats raced each other up and down the river, with Vanderbilt offering prizes of $1,000 and $2,000 to the winner. Captains became reckless, pushing their engines so hard that they exploded, and passengers were killed. Some of the boats began trailing barges where the passengers could ride out of harm's way, until 1849, when steamboats were made safer.

Meanwhile, cross-river traffic flourished. The first ferry service, the "King's Ferry," began before the American Revolution, when small barges rowed by several men crossed from Verplank (which still has a road named King's Ferry) to Stony Point.

During the Revolution the ferry service was taken over by the military, and records show that 164 boatmen operated it.

Another line was "Dobbs Ferry," which at that time meant the boats rather than the town where it operated and which crossed from the present Dobbs Ferry to Sneden's Landing.
As steamboats plied up and down the Hudson, they also took passengers across the Hudson, zigzagging between Tarrytown and Nyack as part of the north-south trips.

An early dry goods store in Nyack gave Tarrytown shoppers free boat rides on a ferry called the Tappan Zee if they would shop at the Nyack store.

Today the ride from Haverstraw to Ossining takes 25 minutes, and so far the passengers are commuters, crossing the river to catch the train to New York in the morning and the ferry back to Haverstraw in the evening. It is the first passenger service across the Hudson since the Tappan Zee Bridge was built 25 years ago and operates only on weekdays thus far.

No food is served, and there's no dancing, and the fare is $3 each way-many times what the early boatmen must have charged.

But who knows, if the romance of the river stirs the commuters, maybe the Hudson may become, if not the highway of the future, at least a country road.