Here are excerpts from Benson John Lossing’s classic book, The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea, recording in words and pictures a winter on the Hudson River very different from what we experience today.1
From his first night visiting “Peek’s Kill Bay”—where the river was “cold, silent, glittering . . . except a group of young skaters, gliding spectre-like in the crisp night air”—to the next morning when “the bay was alive with people of all ages” and “fun, pure fun, ruled the hour,” Lossing describes the Hudson “bridged with strong ice” allowing “skaters, ice-boats, and sleighs [to traverse] the smooth surface of the river with perfect safety . . . and the counties upon its borders, separated by its flood in summer” to be “joined by the solid ice, that offered a medium for pleasant intercourse during the short and dreary days of winter.”
Let’s strap on our skates and join the fun.
“A few weeks after my visit to the Donder Berg and its vicinity, I was again at Peek’s Kill, and upon its broad and beautiful bay. But a great change had taken place in the aspect of the scene. The sober foliage of late autumn had fallen, and where lately the most gorgeous colours clothed the lofty hills in indescribable beauty, nothing but bare stems and branches, and grey rugged rocks, were seen, shrouded in the snow that covered hill and valley, mountain and plain. The river presented a smooth surface of strong ice, and winter, with all its rigours, was holding supreme rule in the realm of nature without.
It was evening when I arrived at Peek’s Kill—a cold, serene, moonlight evening. Muffled in a thick cloak, and with hands covered by stout woolen gloves, I sallied out to transfer to paper and fix in memory the scene upon Peek’s Kill . . .
The frost bit sharply, and cold keen gusts of wind came sweeping from the Highlands, while I stood upon the causeway at the drawbridge at the mouth of Peek’s Kill, and made my evening sketch. All was cold, silent, glittering, and solitary, except a group of young skaters, gliding spectre-like in the crisp night air, their merry laughter ringing out clear and loud when one of the party was made to “see stars”—not in the black arch above—as his head took the place of his heels upon the ice.
On the following morning, when the sun had climbed high towards meridian, I left Peek’s Kill for a day’s sketching and observation in the winter air. The bay was alive with people of all ages, sexes, and conditions. It was the first day since a late snow-storm that the river had offered good sport for skaters, and the navigators of ice-boats.2 It was a gay scene. Wrapped in furs and shawls, over-coats and cloaks, men and women, boys and girls, were enjoying the rare exercise with the greatest pleasure. Fun, pure fun, ruled the hour. The air was vocal with shouts and laughter; and when the swift ice-boat, with sails set, gay pennon streaming, and freighted with a dozen boys and girls, came sweeping gracefully towards the crowd,—after making a comet-like orbit of four or five miles to the feet of the Donder Berg, Bear Mountain, and Anthony’s Nose,—there was a sudden shout, and scattering, and merry laughter, that would have made old Scrooge, even before his conversion, tremulous with delight, and glowing with desires to be a boy again and singing Christmas Carols with a hearty good-will. I played the boy with the rest for a while, and then, with long strides upon skates, my satchel with portfolio slung over my shoulder, I bore away towards . . . the shores of Tomkins’s Cove, on the western side of the river, four or five miles below.
On my way to Tomkins’s Cove3 I encountered other groups of people, who appeared in positive contrast with the merry skaters on Peek’s Kill Bay, They were sober, thoughtful, winter fishermen, thickly scattered over the surface, and drawing their long nets from narrow fissures which they had cut in the ice. The tide was “serving,” and many a striped bass, and white perch, and infant sturgeon at times, were drawn out of their warmer element to be instantly congealed in the keen wintry air.
These fishermen often find their calling almost as profitable in winter as in April and May, when they draw “schools” of shad from the deep. They generally have a “catch” twice a day when the tide is “slack,” their nets being filled when it is ebbing or flowing. They cut fissures in the ice, at right angles with the direction of the tidal currents, eight or ten yards in length, and about two feet in width, into which they drop their nets, sink them with weights, and stretching them to their utmost length, suspend them by sticks that lie across the fissure. Baskets, boxes on hand-sledges, and sometimes sledges drawn by a horse, are used in carrying the “catch” to land. Lower down the river, in the vicinity of the Palisades, when the strength of the ice will allow this kind of fishing, bass weighing from thirty to forty pounds each are frequently caught. These winter fisheries extend from the Donder Berg to Piermont, a distance of about twenty-five miles.
The winter was mild and constant. No special severity marked its dealings, yet it made no deviations in that respect from the usual course of the season sufficient to mark it as an innovator. Its breath chilled the waters early, and for several weeks the Hudson was bridged with strong ice, from the wilderness almost to the sea. Meanwhile the whole country was covered with a thick mantle of snow. Skaters, ice-boats, and sleighs traversed the smooth surface of the river with perfect safety, as far down as Peek’s Kill Bay, and the counties upon its borders, separated by its flood in summer, were joined by the solid ice, that offered a medium for pleasant intercourse during the short and dreary days of winter.”
Thanks to the Oechsner Archive for allowing us to scan the 1866 edition of Lossing’s book.
- Lossing’s book was published in 1866, but most of the material was first published in magazine form in 1860 to 1861, so Lossing’s trip to the area described in this excerpt probably took place sometime in the 1850s. The wood engravings illustrating the text are all based on Lossing’s own drawings. ↩
- In a footnote, Lossing describes the ice-boats: “The ice-boats are of various forms of construction. Usually a strong wooden triangular platform is placed upon three sled-runners, having skate-irons on their bottoms. The rear runner is worked on a pivot or hinge, by a tiller attached to a post that passes up through the platform, and thereby the boat is steered. The sails and rigging are similar to the common large sail-boat. The passengers sit flat upon the platform, and with a good wind are moved rapidly over the ice, oftentimes at the rate of a mile in a minute.” ↩
- Tomkins Cove is on the west side of the Hudson River, opposite Verplanck. ↩