Fish & Ships celebrates the waterfront history of the Nyacks (NAY-ACK is the Native American term for “fishing place.”) The benches and shade structure of this overlook celebrate the waterfront history of the Nyacks and the beauty of the Hudson — under the water. The two rows of timber-clad stainless-steel benches, each with its own “fin-like” fish tail, call to mind the river’s schools of fish. The shade structure, ribbed like a boat hull, takes its inspiration from Nyack’s shipbuilding history.
ELEVATION OVER WATER AT THIS POINT
APPROXIMATE MILE MARKER
Gifts of the River
Long before canoes traveled the Hudson River, and long before bridges carried vehicles across it, there was only one kind of traffic, and it was made up of fish — lots of them. Before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans (members of the Lenape tribe) built summertime camps along the river and feasted on the river’s bounty. In fact, the name Nyack derives from an Algonquian Native American word that means “Fishing Place” or perhaps “Point of Land.”
More than 200 species of fish and shellfish still call this tidal estuary home. Many of these species were once plentiful before decades of pollution and overharvesting led to declines in their populations. The first Europeans to visit this area, including Henry Hudson, made note of their abundance and well into the 19th century, piles of discarded shells were heaped along the river.
The Big Four
Waters both fresh and salty can be found in the Hudson River. Sturgeon, shad and striped bass are anadromous fish; born in freshwater, moving to saltwater to grow, and returning to freshwater to reproduce.
The largest fish in the Hudson was and still is the Atlantic sturgeon. A pre-historic-looking creature with skin resembling armor, the Atlantic sturgeon is an anadromous fish, one that lives in the salty ocean but spawns in the fresh water of the river.
It appears in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s immortal 1855 poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” as “Mishe-Nahma…the sturgeon, King of Fishes…” In the poem, Hiawatha and the leviathan engage in an epic battle — spoiler alert: Hiawatha wins in the end — during which the monstrous fish swallows the brave Native American, his squirrel companion and his birch canoe. Fishermen who have battled the sturgeon in these waters might say that the poet exaggerated – but not by much. A mature Atlantic sturgeon can grow to 14 feet and tip the scales at 800 pounds over the course of its 60-year lifetime.
It's no coincidence that a shrub called the shadbush flowers the same time each spring as the American shad, another iconic Hudson River fish and the largest members of the herring family, enters the river for its annual spawning run. So regular a part of nature's cycle has been the appearance of the shad that fisherman called different stages of the run by the names of other plants flowering on shore: forsythia early in the season, then dogwood and later lilac.
The sturgeon, the shad and another iconic Hudson River fish, the striped bass, all of which spend most of their adult lives in the Atlantic Ocean, supported a thriving commercial fishing industry on the river, one that in many cases passed down through families for generations. Beyond that, during periods of economic hardship, the Hudson’s bounty provided both food and work.
Striped bass adults spend most of their time in coastal waters and return to the fresh water of the Hudson River each spring to spawn before returning back to the Atlantic Ocean. They can live as long as 30 years and grow to lengths of up to five feet. Large fish can weigh more than 70 pounds.
The Early Days
The first recorded European to settle in this area came in 1675 to trade for beaver furs and to farm a tract of land purchased from the Tappan Tribe — for whom the bay called the “Tappan Zee” is named. Others followed, and Nyack remained a small farming community into the early 1800s. Farmers supplemented their crops by quarrying rich deposits of red sandstone on the banks of the river. Demand for the rock, used for brick-making, grew quickly as New York City began to grow and build the iconic neighborhood row houses called “brownstones.” At the time, since roads were primitive, the fastest way to move material was on the water. As the need for river transport grew, Nyack became by far the largest shipbuilding port on the Hudson, turning out a single-masted sailboat based on a Dutch design called a sloop.
A Bustling River Town
In the early 1800s, the brothers Tunis and Peter Smith bought the land that would become downtown Nyack. They launched stores and a hotel, laid out streets, and divided the land into lots. A steamboat business was started at the foot of Main Street, John Van Houten was building boats in Upper Nyack, and Henry Gesner opened a yard at the foot of Clinton Avenue in today’s South Nyack.
By 1860, expansion of quarrying and shipbuilding, steamboat transportation and the opening of the Nyack Turnpike from Suffern had ballooned Nyack's population to more than 2,000. In addition to a bustling downtown, small neighborhoods developed around boatyards in Upper Nyack and South Nyack. Although the appearance of sleek, fast-moving steamboats in the early 1800s relegated the once-majestic but slow-moving sloop to the mundane work of carrying heavy cargo, shipbuilding continued at a brisk pace.
Captains of Industry
Nyack yards turned out flat-bottomed scows, steamboats, sloops, schooners, ferries, and more. Local inventors devised ways to increase the speed and safety of steamboats and reduce costs. Captains of industry came to Nyack for luxurious yachts, including J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor. During both World Wars, Nyack shipbuilders produced submarine chasers for the U.S. Navy. One of them, the USS SC-742, built in 1942 at Petersen’s boatyard, picked up survivors from the American tanker Virginia Sinclair off the coast of Cuba after it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. Now known as North River Shipyard, Petersen’s yard dates back to the 18th century.
the clearwater's mission
A stately replica of a 19th century sloop called the Clearwater helps tell the story of the Hudson River in more recent times. The Clearwater began its educational mission in 1968, at a time when the river was suffering from years of degradation. Its once fabled oysters had disappeared, victims of industrial runoff and overconsumption. Similarly, pollution and habitat destruction had caused the populations of the Atlantic sturgeon and shad to crash.
To further its conservation mission, the environmental organization with the same name partners with communities and schools to educate the public about importance of preserving the Hudson River, its tributaries and watershed, and other similar river systems. Alongside Clearwater, organizations such as Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, the Billion Oyster Project and the National Resources Defenses Council have worked to preserve and protect this river.
To protect fish and the estuarine environment during the construction of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, the New York State Thruway Authority adopted stringent measures to prevent erosion and churning of silt, monitor water quality, and minimize underwater noise caused by construction. The steps it took included placing gravel on the riverbed in dredged areas; frequent water sampling to ensure quality was maintained; relocation and restoration of vulnerable oyster beds; and limiting the noisy pile driving to allow fish movement. All of these efforts have helped to protect Hudson River aquatic life during construction.
Use of advanced air bubble “curtains” to dampen sound waves during pile driving helped to ease the impacts of underwater noise on aquatic life in the river.
did you know?
Nyack’s harbor has seen its fair share of nautical history. It even has a ghost ship lying in the water not far from here. It’s a barge made of, believe it or not, concrete, and designed to carry cargo on the Erie Canal during World War I. The idea was that these vessels, 150 feet long by 21 feet wide, could be built quickly and inexpensively. The problem was that they were as fragile as eggshells, and sank quickly whenever they hit anything. A concrete barge used in the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge in the 1950s is visible today just off shore from Memorial Park in Nyack.