Tuesday, February 23, 2010

America's River

This is the fourth in a series on Tourism on the Hudson...

In order to have a tourism industry, you need three things: a population with enough wealth that they can take time off to go see things, a transportation network to take them to the things they want to see and, of course, something to see.

In the early 19th century, the new country was starting to provide the first, Robert Fulton's new steamship was providing the second, but what about the third? England had long had its “Grand Tour,” a trek through France and Italy to see the great historical and cultural treasures of Europe. But culture and history were still thin on the ground in this new country.

The fact that the first tourist attraction was a medical retreat shows just how limited the resources were. But perhaps because America didn't have the kinds of things that they were supposed to be seeing, the tourists began to appreciate what they were seeing already: the landscape itself.

The Hudson River and the surrounding wilderness became tourist destinations in their own right. The Catskills in particular became the American idea of the picturesque wilderness. Soon American had its own “Fashionable Tour,” the heart of which was a trip through the Catskills and a cruise up the Hudson.

Since people were now seeing the landscape, they wanted to see more. In 1820, the artist William Guy Wall produced the Hudson River Port Folio, a set of twenty engravings that matched the sights seen by tourists. These were the Hudson in pretty and pastoral tones, and it sold slowly but well for an expensive production.

But tastes were changing. In 1825, a young artist by the name of Thomas Cole left New York City in a steamboat headed north. From the sketches he produced, we can see that he took the main trunk of the “Fashionable Tour,” heading north of Albany then back down through the Catskills. The paintings he produced upon his return mark the beginning of the Hudson River School of Art.

Rather than pretty, this was picturesque: twisted tree trunks, jagged rocky ledges and the power of the Kaaterskill Falls. This was the landscape pictured as wilderness, closer to nature than previous works, but with a hint of the romantic. It was the landscape, powerful in and of itself, valued in its own right rather that for what humanity had worked from it.

As America expanded, its idea of what constituted wilderness would shift to the plains, the deserts and the Rocky Mountains. But it never lost its attachment to the Hudson. It's no accident that some of the first organized attempts to protect the landscape began here.

The court battle between Scenic Hudson and Con Edison over the fate of Stormking was a landmark moment in Environmentalism, and it produced a legal framework that now protects lands throughout the country. The Hudson has also seen Pete Seeger's Sloop Clearwater, the Riverkeepers and other early citizen movements to protect the river.

So the simple engine of tourism changed the way that Americans viewed their country. From the deck of Fulton's North River Steamboat, Americans began to see their wilderness as something other than vast stretches of useless emptiness. The land became something valuable to be preserved.

This process that Fulton inadvertently began is continued by Clermont, Olana and all the rest of the historic sites and parks, along the Hudson and throughout New York. We change the way that people perceive their landscape, their history and through those, themselves. It's a legacy that I feel is worth continuing. But whatever happens, it's a legacy that I'm proud to be a part of.

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