Kate Giglio ’07
On this weekend afternoon in October, two brothers visiting the Hudson River Maritime Museum zip back and forth, under and around several boat hulls, old steamboat bells, and rows of vibrant storyboards. As they ruthlessly spin a captain’s wheel that looks at least 100 years old, I cringe a little, then almost jump to pull one boy back from incessantly ringing another bell. But their enthusiasm stops me—and I realize these artifacts are as durable as their legacy.
The weathered brick museum building, featuring vibrant scenes painted on its windows, huddles near Kingston’s East Strand. It houses the most comprehensive assemblage of Hudson River maritime artifacts and information anywhere. Indeed, the museum is really the only place dedicated to the Hudson’s maritime past—and it shows. Antique tools, aging photographs, yards of spliced line…all of it is labeled as meticulously as a display in the Smithsonian.
A small lobby gives way to cozy rooms focusing on nearly every aspect of sailing or boating on the Hudson. There are paintings, prints, photographs, vessel blueprints, and ship models, as well as a research library.
Through a set of double doors, one finds a warehouse-like display of small boats and various relics. A waiting-room bench from the old ferry building in Newburgh looks larger than life, positioned across from a tiny replica of the steamboat Hendrick Hudson. Antique bells, wheels, and rudders are scattered across the space. Also on display are a lifeboat from the famed steamboat Mary Powell, a lighthouse tender, and several ice yachts. Outside, the 1898 steam tugboat Mathilda looms above the many Sunday visitors milling around the docks on Rondout Creek. Next to it sits a 100-year-old shad boat.
The museum was founded in 1980 by members of the Steamship Alexander Hamilton Society, the National Maritime Historical Society, and local historians. But its history dates nearly four centuries earlier—to 1609, when Henry Hudson declared Rondout a prime spot for a trading port. From that point on, the Hudson River would be an artery of commerce, teeming with all kinds of vessels, and Rondout (later to become part of the City of Kingston) would be the major port between New York City and Albany.
Some days, replicas of historic ships dock near the museum. The slave ship Amistad visits periodically from its home base in Mystic, Connecticut, reminding visitors of the West African people who were captured and brought across the Atlantic. At other times, the Clearwater can be found bobbing beside the museum, its staff eager to discuss the Hudson’s environmental welfare.
Each year, the museum hosts a special exhibit focused on a specific river related theme. This year’s is “Racing the Wind: Two Centuries of Iceboating on the Hudson River.” Throughout the year, the museum also features many activities and events to enrich the public’s understanding of both the history of the river and the Rondout area. These include a series of lectures. Recent featured topics were the building of the sloop Woody Guthrie, Hudson Valley Indian history, and a behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s ship- and boat-building exhibit.
Besides such temporary exhibitions, the museum houses several permanent collections. The Donald C. Ringwald Hudson River Steamboat collection, The Cornell Steamboat Company collection, Feeney Reliance Marine Boatbuilding collection, the Ray Ruge Iceboating collection, and the Staples Brick Company collection are just a few examples, many of which include photographs, prints, paintings, ephemera, and artifacts such as gauges, bells, and tools. Plans are in the works to open the 1898 steam tug Mathilda, which has graced the museum’s grounds since the autumn of 1983.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is open May through October from noon to 6 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. More information can be obtained by logging onto www.hrmm.org or calling 845-338-0071.