The Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 100 years later

July 2009 | A cross between a world's fair, a historical pageant, and a land and water carnival, the landmark Hudson-Fulton Celebration held in New York over two weeks in late September and early October 1909 was organized to commemorate two separate but related events: the three-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson's exploration of the river that came to bear his name, and the one hundredth anniversary of Robert Fulton's first successful navigation of the Hudson River in a steamboat in 1807 (see Fig. 2).1 The celebration took place in cities and towns along the river and comprised such varied events as nighttime electrical displays, swimming and boating contests, and special exhibitions at some twenty-two institutions in New York City.2 Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) agreed to make a series of flights along the river in his biplane, which a reporter for the New York Times predicted "will make history. A flight down the Hudson and around New York Bay will probably be witnessed by the greatest number who have ever beheld a flight."3 The Staten Island Shipbuilding Company built a replica of Fulton's Clermont, and the United States Postal Service issued 50 million Hudson-Fulton commemorative stamps, which were sold in New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, and Washington.4

For the civic leaders who spearheaded the event—J. Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Robert B. Roosevelt, and James Stillman among them—it was not about simply commemorating the achievements of Hudson and Fulton. More important to these members of the city's business, political, and cultural elite was the desire to spotlight both the Empire State and the Empire City on the national and international stages. The city had far surpassed Boston and Philadelphia in terms of population and economic, political, and cultural significance; it had even arguably overtaken London as the capital of the world. In both the size and diversity of its population, New York had no equal. As the historian Kenneth T. Jackson has written, in 1909 "the Hudson River Metropolis had more Irish than Dublin, more Italians than Naples, and more Germans than Hamburg. Indeed, at the turn of the century, Kleindeutschland, a neighborhood below 14th Street, would have ranked as the third largest city in Kaiser Wilhelm II's German Empire."5 The city's skyscrapers and infrastructure were impressive, and in 1900 the Port of New York was the busiest and most important in the world, larger and busier than all other American ports combined.

New York was also rich. While there were certainly large numbers of impoverished immigrants living in the city, many of its residents were incredibly wealthy. According to Jackson, "at the turn of the twentieth century...approximately half of all the millionaires in the United States, and perhaps a third of those in the entire world, lived in the New York metropolitan area," most of them in the graceful mansions and apartment buildings along Fifth Avenue.6 Some of the richest among them played key roles in organizing and supporting the celebration. John D. Rockefeller, for example, contributed $5,000 to the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Fund, making him one of its most generous financial supporters.7
Events officially kicked off on Monday, September 27, with the opening of the exhibitions and an evening reception by the Hudson-Fulton Commission at the Metropolitan Opera House.8 A week of military and naval parades, pageants, and music festivals in New York City culminated in a children's festival on Saturday morning that alone attracted some 200,000 participants.9 The towns along the Hudson and in the various boroughs held their celebrations during the following week.10

A display of beacon fires on the hills stretching for 150 miles along the Hudson, from Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth to the towns of Troy and Cohoes, marked the close of the festivities on the evening of Saturday October 9.11 The string of beacons was accompanied by large displays of fireworks over Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty, and smaller displays at several private houses along the river. Despite the presence of a thick haze of mist that dimmed the effect of the beacons and left some viewers disappointed, one writer for the New York Times described the scene as "brilliant" and "beautiful." He continued, "For miles up the historic stream, winding between hills and which came down to the water's edge, great lights showed up the hilltops, glowing in the surrounding inky darkness...stretching almost from this city to Albany."12

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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