The Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 100 years later

Editorial Staff

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
Now, nearly a century after the fireworks and beacons have burned out, the lasting impact of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration continues to enrich life in New York and beyond. One enduring legacy was the founding and strengthening of several cultural institutions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, established in 1870, was still a small institution struggling to build its collections when it mounted two special loan exhibitions during the celebration. The first, of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings selected to represent Hudson’s world, included works from several American collectors, among them Henry Clay Frick, George Jay Gould, and Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer. J. P. Morgan (1837-1913) contributed eight paintings and $25,000 in financing to the show. At a time when only a handful of art museums existed in the United States, this display marked an important milestone in the Metropolitan Museum’s history and the country’s cultural development. It trumpeted the fact that wealthy American connoisseurs had staked their claim to European art, and it emphasized to private collectors the benefits of sharing their art with the public. The exhibition also coincided with the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909, which removed restrictive import duties on fine art, enabling American collectors to bring vast amounts of art into the country and, ultimately, leading to the establishment and enrichment of a number of American museums.
The Metropolitan Museum’s second exhibition, a display of early American fine and decorative arts from the colonial and early national periods entitled The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American Industrial Arts, was the first ever exhibition of its type and also had far-ranging consequences (see Fig. 5). One was the elevation of the “industrial arts,” which Americans then understood as objects made using hand tools and simple machines, to the level of art. Another was the 1924 opening of the museum’s American Wing, which was a direct result of the exhibition of American arts that was part of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration. The core of the wing’s collection was the group of objects that the collector H. Eugene Bolles (1853-1910) had loaned to the exhibition and that Robert Weeks de Forest (1848-1931), then the secretary of the museum and chairman of the celebration’s committee on art exhibits, convinced Mrs. Russell Sage (nee Margaret Slocum; 1828-1918) to purchase for the museum.13

It is fitting, then, that the Metropolitan Museum planned the reopening of a major part of its American Wing, which we featured in the May 2009 issue of The Magazine ANTIQUES, to correspond with the centenary of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, and that several other New York institutions are mounting exhibitions this year to commemorate the event.

Seventeenth-century Dutch New York is the subject of an exhibition the Bard Graduate Center has organized in conjunction with the New-York Historical Society entitled Dutch New York between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick. Born in the Netherlands, Varick (1649-1695) arrived in Flatbush, now Brooklyn, New York, in 1686 and set up a textile shop where she sold an array of European and East Indian goods. Using as its starting point a 1696 inventory of her personal and commercial belongings, the exhibition will explore Dutch colonial and commercial networks, the lives of women in the Dutch colonies, and material culture in New York under Dutch and English rule. The exhibition, organized by Marybeth De Filippis of the New-York Historical Society with Deborah L. Krohn and  Peter N. Miller of the Bard Graduate Center, will be on view at the Bard Graduate Center in New York from September 17, 2009, to January 3, 2010.

Hudson’s particular contribution to the development of New York is the focus of an exhibition at the New York Public Library. Inspired by the library’s collection of Dutch, English, and early American maps of the Atlantic coastal regions, Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-2009 will tell the story of how Hudson’s search for a western route to the Orient under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, the quest that led to his discovery of the Hudson River, laid the foundation for Dutch colonization of the region and the fur trade that prospered there. Contemporary maps will bring the story up to date and explore the growing environmental concern for New York’s waterways. The exhibition, which was organized by Alice C. Hudson, chief of the map division, will be on view from September 25, 2009, through June 26, 2010.

The New York State Museum in Albany is also focusing on Hudson with its exhibition 1609, which will examine the explorer’s historic voyage, the myths that surround it, and the legacies of his discovery. This show will take a special look at the American Indian experience in the region-what life was like for them before 1609, how they responded to Hudson’s arrival, and the long-term legacy of the area’s American Indians on American culture today. It will be on view from July 3, 2009 to March 2010.

Two exhibitions focus on the broader Dutch legacy in New York. Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: The Worlds of Henry Hudson, on view through September 27 at the Museum of the City of New York, illuminates the global significance of Hudson’s voyage by focusing on the economic, cultural, and ideological connections that ultimately linked Amsterdam and New York. Presented in collaboration with the New Netherland Project, Albany, and the National Maritime Museum Amsterdam, the exhibition uses sixteenth- and seventeenth-century objects, images, and documents from Dutch and American collections to highlight the Dutch role in creating the character of New York as a place of opportunity, tolerance, and constant renewal.

New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World, which will be on view at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York from September 12, 2009, to January 3, 2010, also explores the Dutch origins of American commerce, trade, and tolerance. Among the historical documents, maps, and watercolors included is the sole surviving document of the period that mentions the Dutch purchase of Manhattan from the Lenape for goods worth sixty guilders, or twenty-four dollars. The letter, written in 1626 by Pieter Schagen, an administrator in the Dutch West India Company, is from the Dutch National Archives, which is lending extensively to the show.

The landscape painters who memorialized the Hudson River valley during the mid- and late nineteenth century are also being highlighted in several exhibitions at smaller museums and historic sites in the region. River Views of the Hudson River School will be on view at the Thomas Cole House in Catskill, New York, until October 31, 2009, and will include a selection of works by Cole, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and Jasper Francis Cropsey on loan from private collections.

Across the river at Olana, Frederic Edwin Church’s estate, Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Edwin Church’s Views from Olana, which will be on view in a new gallery on the second floor of the house through October 12, highlights Church’s sketches of the Hudson River, made over years of watching its changes from his studio (see Fig. 4). River Views was organized by Nancy Siegel of Towson University in Maryland; the curators of Glories of the Hudson are Evelyn Trebilcock and Valerie Balint, Olana’s curator and associate curator respectively.
Home on the Hudson: Women and Men Painting Landscapes, 1825-1875, opening June 7 and on view through September 7 at the Boscobel Restoration in Garrison, New York, moves away from the three Cs (Cole, Church, and Cropsey) to feature works by a selection of lesser known but interesting artists—including Seth Eastman, John William Hill, Thomas P. Rossiter, and Jervis McEntee—who lived and worked along the Hudson (see Fig. 6). A special focus of the exhibition are the women who worked alongside the men, painters such as Eliza Pratt Greatorex, Julia McEntee Dillon, and Julie Hart Beers (later Kempson), sister of William and James Hart (see Fig. 7). Some of these women, like Greatorex and Beers, painted major landscape canvases, while others excelled in the popular nineteenth-century art of china painting. Examples of both may be seen in the exhibition, which also examines the ways these landscape views functioned in domestic interiors (see Fig. 3). The exhibition was organized by Katherine Manthorne and a group of her students in the Ph.D. program in art history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, who all collaborated on the accompanying catalogue.

The centenary has also occasioned the publication of the first full-length study of the event, The Hudson-Fulton Celebration: New York’s River Festival of 1909 and the Making of a Metropolis, written by Kathleen Eagen Johnson and published by Fordham University Press and Historic Hudson Valley. A particularly interesting chapter, “Symbols, Souvenirs, and Sales,” focuses on the conflict between the commercial and commemorative in the minds of the celebration organizers, who, according to Johnson, “were anxious to rectify New York’s money-grubbing reputation.” It was their desire to mount an educational celebration rather than what Johnson terms “a glorified trade show” that led them to reject the typical world’s fair conception of exhibition halls filled with contemporary arts and industry in favor of the celebration’s more varied format.14 These progressive civic leaders believed that exposure to history and art could transform society. One of their earliest acts was to commission a series of commemorative medals and badges in the American renaissance style that expressed their noble aims and seriousness of purpose. Their moralistic attitude, however, did not keep other enterprising merchandisers from selling less lofty souvenirs-items such as photograph albums, postcards, and trading cards that were more fun and less tied to ideology (see Figs. 1, 8). An online exhibition of such materials, designed to accompany the book, is available at

The projects described here represent only a fraction of the yearlong series of happenings across New York planned to celebrate what is being officially recognized as the state’s four hundredth anniversary. A look at the exhibitions, festivals, sporting competitions, boat rides, and other commemorative events scheduled, which may be found at, almost makes one think we are back in 1909 again.

Dutch New York between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick · Bard Graduate Center, New York · September 17, 2009 to January 3, 2010 ·

Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-2009 · New York Public Library · September 25, 2009 to June 26, 2010 ·

1609 · New York State Museum, Albany · July 3, 2009 to March 2010 ·

Amsterdam / New Amsterdam: The Worlds of Henry Hudson · Museum of the City of New York · through September 27, 2009 ·

New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World · South Street Seaport Museum, New York · September 12, 2009 to January 3, 2010 ·

River Views of the Hudson River School · Thomas Cole House, Catskill, New York · to October 31, 2009 ·

Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Edwin Church’s Views from Olana · Olana Historic Site, Hudson, New York · to October 12, 2009 ·

Home on the Hudson: Women and Men Painting Landscapes, 1825-1875 · Boscobel Restoration, Garrison, New York · June 7, 2009 to September 7, 2009 ·

1 The Fulton Centennial Celebration Committee had originally planned to commemorate the event in 1907, but in January 1906 the Fulton committee joined the Hudson Ter-centenary Joint Committee in proposing a dual celebration capitalizing on the close relationship between Hudson and Fulton’s contributions to New York history. See The Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 1909, the Fourth Annual Report of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Commission to the Legislature of the State of New York, 2 vols. (J. B. Lyon Company for the State of New York, Albany, 1910), available online at
2 For an overview of the events, see “How New-York Will Honor the Deeds of Henry Hudson and Robert Fulton,” New York Times, September 19, 1909. 
3 “Wright to Attempt Long Flights Here,” ibid., August 24, 1909. 
4 See “To Build the New Clermont,” ibid., March 22, 1909; “Adopt Hudson-Fulton Stamp,” ibid., August 18, 1909; and “250,000 Hudson-Fulton Stamps,” ibid., September 26, 1909. 
5 Kenneth T. Jackson, “Foreword” to Kathleen Eagen Johnson, The Hudson-Fulton Celebration: New York’s River Festival of 1909 and the Making of a Metropolis (Fordham University Press, New York, for Historic Hudson Valley, Tarrytown, N. Y., 2009), pp. 15-16. 
6 Ibid., p. 16. 
7 Mark F. Rockefeller, “Special Message,” ibid., p. 7. 
8 “Hudson-Fulton Programme,” New York Times, September 27, 1909. 
9 “200,000 in Children’s Fete,” ibid., July 17, 1909. 
10 “Hudson-Fulton Programme.” 
11 “Thick Haze Bedims Fulton Beacons,” New York Times, October 10, 1909. 
12 Ibid. 
13 See Frances Gruber Safford, “The Hudson-Fulton exhibition and H. Eugene Bolles,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 157, no. 1 (January 2000), pp. 170-175; and Amelia Peck, “Robert de Forest and the founding of the American Wing,” ibid., pp. 176-181.
14 Kathleen Eagen Johnson to Elizabeth Pochoda, February 2, 2009.