Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Power Along the Hudson, and Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger’s big birthday party last weekend reminded me one of the best environmental history books I’ve ever read, Power Along the Hudson (E.P. Dutton, 1972) by Allan R. Talbott.

Sadly, its fascinating study was told too soon — before the environmental movement really broke loose — and ends a little too soon, so PAtH is not only out of print but unreviewed on Amazon and almost unavailable from used book dealers. Because the book ends before its actual story concludes, it’s unlikely to be picked up and reprinted by Purple Mountain Press. But if you ever see it forgotten in a bookstore — grab it! Talbott is a talented storyteller, and it’s a spellbinding story.

By “power along the Hudson” the author means, literally, power, as in financial and political power. But that kind of power was largely controlled by the magnates who controlled the supplies of power: of coal, gas, oil, steam, the railroads and shipping lines, and finally, electricity. By the end of the book, financial and legal power have lined up against an expansion of electrical power, as the Rockefellers and their allies, through the creation of Scenic Hudson, challenged ConEd in the Storm King case.In only 244 pages, Talbott tells first the story of how New York (City, mainly) was powered. Where did coal and water come from? [New York City’s water has its own wonderful history.] How did households and businesses manage power? Waste? Coal ash? How did the gas companies move into the cities? Where was oil used? These histories should take many hundreds of pages but Talbott moves economically through them all. Robert Fulton and Commodore Vanderbilt and Robert Moses come and go.

Finally, there’s room for a brief history of Storm King itself: the brooding mountain north of West Point, called Boterberg (Butter Hill) by the Dutch. It was inspiration for generations of poets and painters. Even during the busiest industrial shipping years of the mid-19th century, artists flocked to paint and draw Hudson River traffic at Storm King’s feet.

In 1963, considering New York City's long-term power demands, Consolidated Edison proposed an upriver project. It would create a reservoir on top of Storm King and drill out the core of the mountain for water shafts and turbines; some power lines would tunnel beneath the Hudson and others would line the Valley itself.

Led by some of the Rockefeller brothers, Hudson Valley landed gentry mounted a legal battle again ConEd. It was back and forth through the courts throughout the 70s and ConEd finally abandoned a smaller version of the project in 1979, which is why Talbott’s book ended too soon. The 17-year-long court battle ended with the Storm King decision, now considered the beginning of U.S. environmental law. It was groundbreaking because it gave individuals the legal standing to speak on behalf of the environment. Before that time, natural entities had no legal voice.

A ConEd advocate once jeered, “There never would have been a court case if the place were still called Butter Hill.” Perhaps. But during the 1920s, New York State built a highway across the face of Storm King, which for some years was considered one of the world’s engineering marvels. The Storm King Highway, which takes the driver along the edge of the United States Military Academy at West Point, is a breathtaking drive, although the road is often closed entirely during the winter. There’s something about the mountain’s majesty that transcends its name — although the name doesn’t hurt! Nor does the fact that it faces Breakneck Ridge across the river.

So in its final pages, Power Along the Hudson is the story of the first dawn of the new day of American environmental law. Pete Seeger’s role in it is a whole nother story. Happy birthday, Pete!

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