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Fulton, Hudson milestones show our obligation to the past 3-13-07

March 13, 2007

By Fred LeBrun
Times Union

Beginning in mid-August, and for two years and two months after, New York will be overwhelmed by its own dazzling biography.

On Aug. 18, we will celebrate the actual 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton's chug up the Hudson in the steamboat later named the Clermont. The boat, powered by a 24-horse, English-made steam engine, made it from New York City to Albany in a sprightly 33 hours, not exactly jet-propelled. However, the sails on deck, brought along just in case, were never raised. Thus the age of steam was ushered in, akin in its time to the arrival of the Internet today; everything changed because of it.

SR-71 on the Deck of the Intrepid

SR-71 on the Deck of the Intrepid, publish courtesy of www.pdimages.com/NewYorkpics.htm

The eyes of the world were on New York then, envious eyes.

Curiously, Fulton's breakthrough in technology won't get the attention it deserves until 2009, when it's grafted onto something much bigger, the Henry Hudson-Samuel de Champlain celebrations. Why that is has never been well explained, since Fulton had nothing to do with the Age of Discovery. Probably it has to do with compressing history into the doable in terms of rah-rah celebrating.

Yet to my mind, poor, old Pennsylvania-born Fulton, whose life as an inventor was primarily consumed with military issues -- submarines and explosives -- gets short shrift as a result. I'm hoping that this year we can shoehorn in a little extra historical importance when nobody's watching.

The bigger deal, of course, is the 400th anniversary of both Henry Hudson sailing up the waterway he called the North River to Albany, and Champlain discovering for Europeans the lake that has his name.

Champlain was fiddling about in northern New York in July, and Hudson hit Albany sand bars and parked on Sept. 19 of the same year. Yet they never connected, nor is there any record that one knew about the other. I stress that the historical record suggests that they were ignorant of each other, but more and more we've learned that the native communication system was far quicker and more reliable than previously thought, so who knows the truth at this point?

I find this sort of conjecture fascinating, whether they were aware of each other. Although I no doubt come under the category of doddering historical buff, which raises a disconcerting if not downright depressing note about this singular historic celebration looming ahead of us.

Will anyone care, except other dodderers like me?

From July 4 to Oct. 4, 2009, celebrations are planned from Quebec City to New York City. During that time, you will have the chance to see more tall ships and replicas and recreations than have been on the river for a century at least. The river will be choked with them. Every burg in the valley will have something going, and a major confluence of period boats and ships will reach Albany on Sept. 17, coming down from Canada and up from Manhattan.

Will we even have docking space for them? Albany is notoriously boat-unfriendly in that regard. But greater than that, will the public embrace all of this? Does history matter still?

The pessimistic words of Norman Rice, esteemed former director of the Albany Institute of History and Art, ring in my ears. He was asked to compare the huge enthusiasm and dedication of resources and scale of celebration that occurred for the 300th anniversary in 1909, with what we can reasonably expect in 2009. He said the following to reporter Paul Grondahl on the upcoming quadricentennial:

"We live in a vastly different time, and the days of huge historical parades and vast commemorative events like the 1909 celebrations are behind us. It takes the personal enthusiasm of a governor or a leader to electrify the people behind an anniversary."
So there's the challenge, I suppose, for Gov. Eliot Spitzer on whose watch this will happen, and for the rest of us. We all have an obligation to the past, and I'm certainly going to start a tom-tom beat from time to time with this column.

I've come to believe that what New Yorkers need most are about a dozen good therapy sessions on self-esteem. Too often I hear, "We can't do it. Taxes are too high. We aren't what we used to be."

We simply do not think as well of ourselves as we have a right to, and frankly, an appreciation for the biography that is about to overwhelm us is a good place to start our rehab.

Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.


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