Whaling’s surprising Hudson River heyday

By water, the trip from the Port of New York to the City of Hudson is a journey of about 117 miles. One wouldn’t think that people in the business of hunting whales far out at sea would ever have imagined Hudson to be an auspicious place to set up shop. But they did, beginning in 1783, just as the Revolutionary War was drawing to a close. The industry that was born there sparked the development of one of America’s first planned cities and throve for some 60 years, until the availability of petroleum products all but obliterated the demand for whale oil in the mid-1840s.

The search for a port far inland, safe from British navies intent on destroying Colonial ships, got underway among whalers along the New England coast when the Continental Congress banned trade with England in 1774. Duties had been levied on whale oil exports to Britain eight years earlier: one of many manifestations of “taxation without representation” that got the colonists riled. The British retaliated to the embargo by systematically attacking Colonial ships and ports, with Nantucket, set well off the coast and the busiest hub of the New England whaling fleet, particularly vulnerable to these depredations.

Some Nantucketers fled to Nova Scotia, others to North Carolina. Two prosperous Nantucket-born Quaker brothers named Seth and Thomas Jenkins, who had mercantile interests in Providence, decided to seek promising dockage farther west, off the coast, and began exploring likely sites along the Hudson River: first in Manhattan, then in Poughkeepsie. They didn’t feel entirely safe until they found the site of present-day Hudson, then known as Claverack Landing. At the time it was a tiny farming community with fewer than 150 inhabitants, mostly Dutch. Its biggest commercial draw at the time was a canoe ferry to Esperanza (modern-day Athens) on the Hudson River’s western shore, traversing a canal through the midriver shoal known as the Middle Ground Flats.


To either side of the landing was a bay suitable for mooring deep-drafted oceangoing vessels. Those two bays were about as far as a big ship could sail upriver in those days without the danger of running aground on shifting sand bars. Since the construction of the shoreline railroad in the 20th century, blocking riverine access to the former port, they’re mostly filled in and built up. But in 1783, when the Jenkins brothers, incorporating as the Nantucket Navigators, arrived and bought up the land in between, the double deepwater port promised a haven for a whaling fleet, too far inland for hit-and-run tactics by British gunboats. Thirty whaling families from Nantucket, Providence, Martha’s Vineyard and Newport soon joined the Jenkinses, dividing the land into lots of equal size – 50 by 120 feet – and calling themselves the Proprietors.

Within two years there were enough settlers from the seacoast to incorporate as a city, only the third within New York State, and rename it after the river’s Dutch discoverer. Their early experiment in urban planning succeeded so well that the Proprietors proceeded to lay out all the land between the bays in an even, logical grid of streets, with forethought as to where all the trades ancillary to shipping would best be located. Evidence of that planning still persists in some of Hudson’s street names, such as Rope Alley. They even set aside a parade ground for public recreation. Their settlement, and the businesses brought there by the quickly flourishing whaling industry, was clustered at first in the middle of the grid and then gradually spread sideways. Many of the Proprietor families had brought housebeams and other building materials with them, establishing a center-chimney architectural style reminiscent of New England port towns that contrasted with the Dutch vernacular farmhouses that predominated elsewhere in the Hudson Valley.

By 1785 the new city’s first newspaper, the Hudson Weekly Gazette, was being published; by 1786 the harbor was home to 25 whaling vessels; and in 1790 Hudson was named a port of entry for the new nation – a status that it retained until 1815. European visitors described Hudson at the end of the 18th century as a cosmopolitan, thriving commercial city. It had 2,500 residents by 1790, 4,000 by 1800. And whaling was definitely the driving force. In 1797, a ship called the American Hero brought back the largest cargo of sperm whale oil in American history.

The British again blockaded US shipping traffic during the War of 1812, causing a downturn in the American whaling industry that put the Proprietors’ pioneering firm out of business. But the City of Hudson had developed its own economic momentum by then, no longer dependent upon a single industry. And whaling was revived by a newly formed Hudson Whaling Company beginning in 1829.

Other Hudson River ports were getting into the action by then, as well. Both the Newburgh Whaling Company and the Poughkeepsie Whaling Company were established in 1832. Experienced whalers from Nantucket and New Bedford were recruited to serve as officers and crew, but the investors this time were more local: The Dutchess Whaling Company, formed in 1833, was owned by a US Senator, Nathanial P. Tallmadge. A ship named after him was launched in 1836 – just in time for the Panic of 1837, driven by excessive speculation by banks during the Jackson administration, to usher in seven years of recession.

The price of whale oil collapsed then, and so did the industry, with kerosene filling the nation’s need for lamp oil for the rest of the 19th century. The Poughkeepsie, Dutchess and Hudson Whaling Companies all sent their last ships to sea in the 1840s. But the Great Seal of the City of Hudson sports an image of a whale to this very day.

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