The Hudson River: An Overview

The Bear Mountain Bridge across the Hudson River as seen from Bear Mountain

From its accidental discovery by Henry Hudson to its role in the modern environmental movement, the Hudson River has been an integral part of the story of America.

In 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson sailed the Atlantic coast of North America, hoping to find a sea-route to Asia for his employer, the Dutch East India Company. Instead, Hudson entered Upper New York Bay, and from there into the river that would one day be named for him.

Hudson and his small crew took their ship, the Half Moon, upriver for another 150 miles before turning back, traveling almost as far as what is now Albany, the capital of present-day New York State.

The Hudson Valley was inhabited at this time by Native Americans of the Algonquian Nation—Mahicans and Wappingers on the eastern shore, Munsees on the west. The Mahicans called the river Muheconneok, “the waters that are never still.”

Geography of the Hudson

The Hudson is the longest river in New York State. Its source is Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondack Mountains. From there, it flows south some 306 miles to its mouth in Upper New York Bay, which is itself an extension of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, as well as by a section of Northern New Jersey.

From its source in the Adirondacks, the Hudson runs through a region of pristine beauty marked by rapids and waterfalls, slowing down only when it reaches the bend at Hudson Falls. At the city of Troy, the Hudson joins with its main tributary, the Mohawk River. In this same area, the New York State Barge Canal System connects the Hudson to Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain.

The Catskill Mountains rise on the western shore of the river south of Albany. Still further south lies the region known as the Hudson Highlands—historically a fearsome stretch for sailors, with high winds and strong currents. This is also the deepest part of the river, at about 200 feet.

South of Peekskill the river widens into the Tappan Zee, where a suspension bridge connects the populous counties of Westchester and Rockland. The southernmost stretch of the Hudson forms the New York-New Jersey border. On the Jersey side rise the Palisades, a wall of dramatic, striated cliffs. The lower Hudson is densely populated on both sides, forming the core of the New York metropolitan area. (New York Harbor actually lies beyond the river, in Upper New York Bay.)

The Hudson in History and Culture

The Hudson played a vital role in America’s Revolutionary War as a connection point between the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies. Strategic locations were fortified at this time, including West Point, home to the United States Military Academy. A number of important battles took place in New York State. George Washington established headquarters on the river at Peekskill, and later at Newburgh.

In 1807, Robert Fulton sailed his steamship, the Clermont, from New York City to Albany, opening the Hudson to steamboat traffic for both leisure and commerce. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hudson became a major industrial corridor and shipping lane, on which fish, bricks, cement, ice, and iron products were sent downriver to the burgeoning city of New York.

Washington Irving is a beloved literary figure associated with the Hudson. Born in New York City in 1783, Irving was most famous for The Sketch-Book, which includes the short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Sleepy Hollow is in fact a real village, located north of Tarrytown, where Irving established his estate, Sunnyside. Irving is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

In the 19th century, the rugged beauty of the Hudson Valley inspired both the romantic verse of William Cullen Bryant and the paintings of his friend Thomas Cole. Cole is considered the founder of the landscape art movement known as The Hudson River School. Other Hudson River painters were Asher Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford.

The Hudson and the Environmental Movement

During the second half of the 20th century, the Hudson was famous for its pollution. PCBs dumped from General Electric plants between 1947 and 1977 led to a ban on fishing in the Upper Hudson. In 1962 Con Edison proposed building a hydro-electric plant at Storm King Mountain, to the displeasure of local residents. This issue attracted national attention, inspiring folk singer Pete Seeger to form an environmental organization called Clearwater. Members of Clearwater built a sloop that still sails up and down the Hudson as part of a public education program. (Con Edison eventually donated the disputed land for a park.)

In the 21st century, communities on both sides of the Hudson have reclaimed their waterfront areas, re-purposing derelict factory buildings for residential and commercial use, and ensuring that the river is clean and accessible for recreation. The scenery is still majestic, and a vibrant cultural current flows both up from and down to New York City.


  1. Bradshaw, Sarah. “Industry Once Thrived.” The Poughkeepsie Journal. The Poughkeepsie Journal, 10 Oct. 2004
  2. Goodman, Edward C., ed. The Hudson River Valley Reader. Kennebunkport, Maine: Cider Mill Press, 2008. Print
  3. Haynes, Rebecca. “Explore the Hudson Valley’s Rich History.” Historic Hudson River Towns, 2009