Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Story About Earthday

Hudson River Sloop riding tide upriver through Haverstraw Bay,

while the sidewheeler Daniel Drew heads south beneath Hook Mountain.
Oil Painting by William G. Muller

Scenes like the one above were common in the 1700's - 1800's and inspired the Clean-up of a River forgotten for it's Beauty

Pete Seeger, The Clearwater and the Hudson River

Earth Day and Earth Week have come to an end. It is 39 years since the first Earth day was declared in 1970. A few things fueled that idea, including the Cuyahoga River that caught fire in June 1969.
The Cuyahoga, which means crooked river in Iroquois, meanders through Ohio, flowing south from Hambden to Akron and north from Akron to Cleveland where it empties into Lake Erie. Pollution then was thought to be the price of industry and doing business. After all, the Cuyahoga, caught fire in 1952 and at least 9 other times, beginning during the 1860’s.
But, I’ve never seen the Cuyahoga River and this piece is about the Hudson River, a river that has been called the American Rhine; a river you can grow to love for all it’s majesty and surrounding countryside.
The Hudson never caught fire but was chocked full of pollutants which by-and-large could be visually overlooked. My father, who’s father was an occasional yacht captain in the New York area said to me, when he was growing up, he used to swim in the Hudson. We both agreed, during the 1960’s, that would be a really terrible idea. The Hudson over the centuries had been polluted by open sewage and by the 1970’s large amounts of PCB’s.

PCB’s, a group of Polychlorinated biphenyls and are plenty useful ….

PCB were used as dielectric fluids in transformers and capacitors, coolants, lubricants, stabilizing additives in flexible PVC coatings of electrical wiring and electronic components, pesticide extenders, cutting oils, flame retardants, hydraulic fluids, sealants (used in caulking, etc), adhesives, wood floor finishes,[1] paints, de-dusting agents, and in carbonless copy paper.[ref. Wikipedia]

However General Electric (GE) elected to dump this, mostly yellowish, sticky, highly toxic and not in anyway biodegradable ooze into the Hudson rather than dispose of it responsibly. By 1937 a conference held at the Harvard School of Public Health warned the industry and anyone else interested in listening that PCB’s were hazardous. This warning remained largely ignored by GE and other industries.
The Hudson River, is tidal estuary, divided into the Upper Hudson and the Lower Hudson or North River and South River. The River begins in upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountains and flows 315 miles down to the Battery in Manhattan. As well as a tidal estuary, the tide flows north from the Battery all the way to Troy, NY. This divides the river into the Upper Hudson and the Lower Hudson or North River and South River. The Iroquois, native American name, for the Hudson was Muhhekunnetuk (Great Mohegan) or the river that flows north and south.

By the 1970’s Commercial Stripped Bass fishing was banned on the Upper Hudson and Seabirds that were washed up on the shores showed significant amounts of PCB’s which are not only toxic but carcinogenic. (Frankly I don’t know anyone who would have deliberately eaten any fish at that time from the Hudson River). But by the mid to late 1980’s, in Kingston, NY, where there is a fresh water and salt water exchange, the River-side town hosted a Shad and Shad Roe barbecue that I attended. Shad, a fish which spawns much like Salmon, in fresh water were migrating up the Hudson River.
We also noted that Swans were back in Cold Spring Harbor and Eagles were nesting again up by Bear Mountain, areas south of Kingston and within about 100 miles of New York City.
So what brought back the Eagles, Swans and Shad?

The biggest culprit in the deadly PCB overload was GE, but if anything we can learn from the present corporate mess of Banks and Car companies is the ability to regulate or police itself; as long as it’s profitable ‘who gives a PCB’.

Enter now, in 1966, not a big government agency or powerful advisory to pollution but a home spun, modest folk singer named Pete Seeger. He lives in the Hudson Valley in the Town of Fishkill, initially building his own log cabin there, and after reading a book about the great Hudson River Sloops, that traded up and down the river in the 1700’s and 1800’s, he has a visionary moment. Seeger thinks by building one of these magnificent 100 foot Sloops, which carried over 4,000 sq. ft. of sail, everyone would once again see the Hudson River as it had been, when it was called the American Rhine. Pete and his wife Toshi and a few friends commissioned the Harvey Gamage Shipyard, in S. Bristol, Maine to build a replica Sloop.

The Clearwater, a replica of 18th & 19th century Dutch gaff rigged Sloop, was laid down in Oct. 1968 and Launched on May 17, 1969. from South Bristol, Maine. LOA: 106 ft., Beam: 25 ft., Draft: 8 ft., Auxiliary Engine, Sail: Main, top and jib;- 4,305 sq. ft. The Sloop was sailed down from South Bristol, to the Hudson River; offices home based in Poughkeepsie, NY.
The Clearwater's mission was well defined by 1966, but the unfortunate or maybe fortunate blaze on the Cuyahoga River in 1970 hit Time Magazine (remember this River had been on fire at least 9 times before since the 1860's) and a swell of indignation rose throughout America.
Since the 1960's a Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson had been ineffectively campaigning for an environmental turn around. In 1969 Senator Nelson announced grass route demonstrations in the form of peaceful 'teach-ins', in part inspired by the effectiveness of the Vietnam demonstrations. On April 22, 1970 it is estimated 20 million people gathered throughout the United States demonstrating for environmental clean-up;- Earthday was born.
The Clearwater continues to actively navigate the Hudson River for Environmental clean-up.
Pete Seeger will be 90 years old on May 3, 2009 and will be honored at a concert in Madison Square Garden, at the date. For more information about that event;- http://www.seeger90.com/
Keep the Scene Clean,
Bill Osmundsen