By LOUIS C. JONES; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July 1951.
For miles through the silent mountains the trickle flows-a vagrant brook playing at the feet of mountains-from the beginnings to the sea, guarded and shadowed by mountains.
Cabins and shabby forms lie beside it-housing men to whom guns and a rod are dearer by far than the ho and the plow. There are singers among them and fiddlers and builders of tall and magnificent lies. And there are old chests in the darkened corners and rockers so long in the family they’re known by the name of some ancestor, for all else forgotten. And beside them, all higgledy-piggledy, the newest devices from Montgomery Ward.
It widens and deepens-a brooklet grows into a river. Thus it was flowing when Burgoyne and his regulars met the long rifles at Old Saratoga and a tide that was drowning and stumbling rebellion was halted. Jan McCrea knew the river-and thought of her red-coated lover, never suspecting her scalp lock would cry out to Yankees and Yorkers for vengeance and stir to a blazing the smouldering fires of the forest. And Dame Schuyler, setting a torch to her wheat fields lest they should nourish the British, added her footnote to history, her hammer blow to forging a nation.
Beverwyck, Fort Orange, Albany-the trappers coming in from the forests-the silent Indians with furs on their backs-the Dutch burghers piling the pelts in their steep roofed houses-changing the fashions in Holland and Paris. The silversmiths followed the money; the suave grace of their spoons added beauty to the tables laughing with victuals and brews. The weathercock over the First Church saw the little stockade village sprawl up the hillside. Pinkster Mondays he watched dancing Negroes dressed in their gayest, the wild African rhythms beating on State Street and Market, while the Dutchmen and English stayed home-peaking out at the mystery of slaves become men for a day.
Thus far the “Half Moon” had traveled and on one of these sand spits Kidd buried his doubloons and diamonds and a dead boy to watch over them. The whalers came out of Nantucket and settled at Hudson. Sperm built their houses and their womenfolk watched the bend of the river, waiting and waiting-fearing and waiting as the women of seafarers ever must do.
Up in the hills at New Lebanon and the Shakers offered their hands to work and their hearts to God, dancing like David, before their Lord. Their great farm prospered while seed and herbals were sold to a nation, and the prim beauty of their furniture was like one of the younger sisters, graceful and useful, offering no hint of frivolity-only devotion to function.
To the west, the voluptuous Catskills, purple to indigo, majestic, mysterious, haunting-among them young Washington Irving went wandering-into the drops that huddled the killsides. From the talk of the idlers in taverns came “Rip” and the players at nine-pins-thundering, rumbling, over the Hudson.
Young Thomas Cole, that ambulant artist, lugging his paints and his canvas, trudged into identical mountains-the forest was deep in its darkness, the sunlight brightened green patches. He captured the mountains, but more than that happened. The mountains, the valley, the river had captured the first of the painters to love them, and paint them. Happily, there were others to follow.
And while you’re about to consider “Toot” Fulton, painter and crackpot inventor of submarines and other horrendous devices. It was August of eighteen and seven, hot, with a wind blowing southward. At five miles an hour “The Clermont” chugged up the river, her smoke like the plume of a knight in full armor. Both going and coming he laid over at “Clermont,” home of Chancellor Livingston, his friend, his Maecenas. His heart lifted-with Harriet Livingston soon to become Mrs. Fulton, with Albany now but a day and a half from New York-and steam had come to the river.
Two Presidents sleep in the Valley, both of them sons of the Dutchmen, and one could remember his grandfather singing the song for the Dutch children, “trip trop a troontjes.” The voices of Holland left names to remember: Kinderhook, Rhinebeck, Claverack, Moordenerskill, Kaatskill. Not Poughkeepsie-the Indians left us Poughkeepsie; not Germantown, where the Palatines tarried before they set forth to Schoharie and into the Iroquois country.
The Dutch left us houses, still standing some of them made from the brick brought for ballast out of the home land. And the Huguenots, too, have bequeathed us their little stone cluster at New Paltz, a corner of France but transplanted. Much later, romantical, gothical cottages of Andrew J. Downing set a new style for the country, a style that was known by the name of the river.
Much changes over the decades: the brick kilns are rotting into decay, the wheels of the potters at Athens are lost or rotted away, the Day Line and Night Line no longer come north of Poughkeepsie. But still the shad run in the spring and the ducks drop down in autumn and the apple trees send forth their fragrance.
The hills do not change nor the hearts of the river folk neither. They like to quote Captain Hudson, who wrote in the log of the “Half Moon,” “As fine a river as can be found… and pleasant a land as one need tread upon”-the words hold and time has but tightened their meaning. Truly, as pleasant a land as one need tread upon.