Successful civic enterprise in 1909

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Successful civic enterprise in 1909

By Paul M. Bray

In doing some work assisting the state commission planning for the 400th anniversaries in 2009 of Champlain and Hudson’s explorations, I’ve learned that 1909 and 2009 share many things in common.

1909 was a time of technological transformation with the applications of electricity and the advent of flight and the automobile. Waves of immigrants were arriving and environmental preservation instincts arose especially with regard to the Hudson River Highlands.

Approaching the Hudson-Champlain 400 in 2009, we are again seeing remarkable technological transformation in the digital age. We are on the threshold of breakthroughs in bio-tech and nano tech. New waves of immigrants are arriving in New York City and are expected to add a million new residents there in the next decade. Environmental instincts are strong as Governor Pataki called for a swimable Hudson River by 2009, more open space to be protected and new buildings to be green.

Organizers of the Hudson Tricentennial showed awareness of their own time. Doing more than look back 300 years; they made the celebration a portal into the future, a vehicle for engaging immigrants into America and a catalyst for protecting the scenery of the Hudson.

Instead of following the tradition of international exhibitions that began in 1851 with the cast-iron-and-glass Crystal Palace Exposition in Paris, the organizers in 1909 used the entire city and the picturesque Hudson River from New York City to Cohoes as a stage.

Looking forward, the Tricentennial made extensive use of electric light along the River. Clusters of incandescent bulbs were strung along New York’s nighttime streets and on skyscrapers like”cranberry chains on a Christmas tree”. Wilbur Wright was hired to make a flight witnessed by 500,000 people clogging the Brooklyn shores and similar crowds in Lower Manhattan. Wright circled Governors Island and headed for the Statute of Liberty for the first public showing of flight.

One awe-inspired watcher was 10 year old Juan Terry Trippe who became the father of the commercial airline industry in the 20th century. Another watcher of Wright’s memorable flight was Clinton R. Peterki, a junior partner of J.P. Morgan investment banking. Peterki called Wilbur and set in motion the creation of the Wright Corporation with a capital stock issue of $1 million. The tricentennial was helping to set the course for the future.

Organizers in 1909 reached out to immigrant communities in New York City to be part of the “sweet Land of Liberty” through parades and other events. The tradition of diversity and tolerance that began in America with the Dutch settlement was highlighted to new waves of immigrants. Immigrants were getting a taste of their new home and being invited to share its patriotic fervor.

The Tricentennial was also a catalyst for scenic preservation of the Hudson River. Before 1909 quarries relentlessly gnawed away at the Hudson River Pallisades, a geological wonder. Advocates for preserving the Pallisades connected with leaders of the Hudson-Fulton festivities. The official dedication ceremony for a 37-mile-long linear Palisades Interstate Park was timed to coincide with the opening of the 1909 commemoration.

Torches and fireworks were lit in communities from New York City to Cohoes creating what publicist Edward Hagaman Hall called “a jubilee of happiness”. The Tricentennial was a civic enterprise continuing to pay environmental, economic and social dividends.

Lincoln Diamant, a Hudson River historian, whose father, a Dutch reporter, sent dispatches on the Tricentennial to Dutch financial daily, published his father’s articles in a book entitled “Hoopla on the Hudson”. Lincoln concludes by declaring, the Tricentennial “was the precursor of the civic and conservationist efforts that followed. The latest, the Hudson Valley Greenway, reflects the ideas and actions of a group of dedicated men and women whose thinking was inspired by the great 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration”.

We will find out in 2009 if we can rekindle the flames from 1909 to realize the opportunities of today’s emerging technologies, to embrace new immigrants and to continue to protect our natural and cultural heritage.

Paul M. Bray is President of the Albany Roundtable civic lunch forum. His e-mail is