Skip to main content

Hudson River Waterfronts

By the early 1800s, Hudson River communities were growing. The easily navigable Hudson River made transportation easy in a region beset by mountains, streams, and creeks and without reliable roads. Access to the river and other navigable waterways influenced where people lived. Industrial factories, too, sprang up along waterfronts, for easy access to building materials, raw materials to process, and fuel. The river was at the center of everything, and nearly every part of life was touched by sailboats.

Starting in the 1790s, Americans were more and more interested in canals, and by 1817, construction on the most ambitious canal to date, the Erie Canal, had begun. Essentially artificial rivers, but without hidden sandbars and rocks or dangerous waves and tides, canals represented the peak of New York’s water transportation enthusiasm. Three major canals were constructed between 1817 and 1828 - the Champlain Canal (1823), Erie Canal (1825), and Delaware & Hudson Canal (1828). All connected to the Hudson River, these three canals opened access to Lake Champlain (and Vermont timber), the Great Lakes, and Pennsylvania coal country. These three canals helped New York, especially New York City, boom.


What makes a boomtown? In New York City, trade was what greased the wheels of commerce. Trade goods came in from all over the world, and New York was deeply involved in the Triangle Trade of enslaved people, sugar and molasses, and rum between the Northeast, West Africa, and the Caribbean. Sailing ships made that all possible. But trade goes both ways. 

The Hudson Valley’s rich natural resources made trade with New York City and the world possible. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, New York was America’s breadbasket. Bluestone and bricks, grain and produce, natural ice and hay for horses flowed out of the Hudson Valley and tea, sugar, coffee, chocolate, china, and fabric sailed back up.


New York City was a natural end point for many Hudson River sloops, offloading cargoes for use in the city itself or for transfer to larger ships for trade overseas. Many sloops and schooners didn’t stop at New York Harbor, but sailed on, trading with coastal neighbors, or crossing the ocean. Hudson Valley bluestone ended up in communities up and down the eastern seaboard. Natural ice ended up in places like the Caribbean and India, and Hudson Valley grain and apples were sent to Europe. Sail freighters made the local economy global.