One hundred years ago this month, New Yorkers went wild over two heroes of our history -- Henry Hudson and Robert Fulton. One man, Hudson, discovered the river that bears his name. The other, Fulton, 200 years later, built the first steamboat to sail up the river that defined our state.
We New Yorkers made quite a fuss about this duo in 1909. What’s amazing -- and disheartening -- is that so few of us are paying any attention to it today.
Partly, perhaps, it is because pride in history seems to have a very low priority these days. History is taught in schools, but hardly emphasized. In this age of computers, the nearest any youngster or adult can get to the sweep of history seems to be when he or she Googles something in search of a particular fact.
In 1909 millions of people lined parade routes. There were electric light displays, airplane flights and parades of ships. As historian Kenneth Jackson said, civic leaders needed something to celebrate in 1909. “They were caught up in an international mania for world’s fairs and they wanted to use the Hudson-Fulton Celebration to call attention to their skyscrapers, infrastructure and cultural institutions.”
Said Jackson: “They needed reassurance; they needed their own versions of Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. They wanted to establish the fact that New York also had a long and distinguished history.”
So there was an economic motive and also a need for asserting pride for this city [that for so long had competed for attention with Boston and Philadelphia] to celebrate its own heroes.
Who were these heroes that New York celebrated? Henry Hudson sailed into our harbor in 1609. After studying the land cautiously, Hudson, on September 11, 1609, just 400 years before the fateful 9/11 that we will soon commemorate, sailed his wooden vessel through the Narrows and into the river that would bear his name.
Historian Kate Johnson told me that Hudson, an English mariner who sailed under the Dutch flag, was a tenacious and courageous adventurer who was seeking a northwest passage to the orient. Hudson and his crew marveled at the high hills of Manhattan and the beauty of the Jersey Palisades on the western shore. Ultimately, he piloted his ship all the way to present day Albany and, disappointed that he had not found the long sought Northwest Passage, turned around and came back.
Robert Fulton, Ms. Johnson says, was both an artist and an engineer, “an intellectual powerhouse, the Thomas Edison of his day.” He developed the steamboat Clermont, which sailed at a rate of 5 miles an hour the 150 miles to Albany, spewing out smoke, sparks and ashes that frightened some spectators on shore. This trip upriver opened the Hudson and New York to extensive commerce. Indeed, Johnson recalls, Fulton and Robert Livingston, his partner, soon had a virtual monopoly over Hudson River traffic.
Fulton tried to sell the idea to Emperor Napoleon in Paris but the French bureaucracy held it up. After Fulton’s Hudson River success, it was too late and, reportedly, Napoleon said: “I should have been master of the world but those idiots of savants made fun of his invention!”
Some little celebrations of our two early heroes, Hudson and Fulton, have been scheduled at various small towns along the Hudson but the state and city of New York are not planning anything notable. Perhaps it’s a shortage of money. Perhaps it’s just a plain failure to have reverence for our history. Ms. Johnson points out that Jamestown, Virginia had a big celebration of its history in 2007.
The Queen of England herself came to honor the town and its heritage.
In the interest of full disclosure I should say that my own father, Benjamin Pressman, an immigrant boy of 17, won a high school essay contest back in 1909 when he spoke of the remarkable exploits of these two men.
There should be a citywide essay contest this year. Maybe it’s not too late. Instead of just teaching our kids to pass reading and math tests with high grades, how about teaching them to love history by giving them prizes for writing about it?