State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Seeger’s Legacy Lives on Aboard Sloop Clearwater

Sloop Clearwater Moored in Kingston, NY. April 2014.

She’s a vision in progress– nearly 46 years old and 106 feet long, moored in the glittering green-black water of the Hudson River.

All winter she’s been docked, waiting for late spring. It’s mid-April when I first meet her, tied up at the waterfront in Kingston, NY. Her sails are down, and half her mast lies onshore beside her. Her deck is strewn with buckets and mops, with tarps and ropes– all the chaotic evidence of preparation to sail.

But tonight, there is no hurry. The rhythms of fiddle and guitar carry on a warm evening breeze, lofted above the din of pleasant conversation. Parents and children, grandparents, gawky teenagers, and languid tattooed hipsters all gather on the waterfront around her, sharing a potluck dinner and song at a fundraiser in her name. She is the sloop Clearwater, and this is what she does. Sailing or moored, she is a ship that brings people to their river.

Sloops are single-masted sailboats, introduced to the United States by the Dutch in the late 1700s, when New York was still New Amsterdam. With their shallow keels and relatively flat bottoms, these ships were well-suited to the shallow, muddy-bottomed Hudson. They were used to ferry building materials and livestock along the river until the early 1900s, when the rise of steamboats and trains forced sloops into obsolescence.

To talk about Clearwater is, of course, to talk about Pete Seeger. In the late 1960s, the legendary folk musician and activist headed a grassroots campaign to build the sloop. That campaign would ultimately place the ship at the center of a massive effort to clean up the Hudson River. Today, the Hudson is revitalized thanks to the efforts of many people, but none so prominent as Seeger and his brainchild, Clearwater. But with Seeger’s death at age 94 this past January, what will become of his cause?


In the Beginning

Onboard the vessel. All photos by A. McDermott

I meet Clearwater cofounders Hal and Debbie Cohen in a quaint café on Main Street, in Beacon, NY. Hal Cohen wears blue denim, punctuated by a silver belt buckle, emblazoned with the Texas star. He rolls up his sleeves and leans back in his chair–he’s part cowboy, part grandpa, half here and half in days gone by. Beside him, his wife of 53 years sips an iced coffee and smiles. She’s fresh from Sunday gardening, wearing a T-shirt printed with the warning “big brother is watching you.”

The Cohens have lived in the Hudson Valley for a long time. They were here in the late 60s, new parents raising their first two children. Back then, local folk musicians played informal concerts regularly in backyards and barns.

At one of these concerts, Seeger broached the idea of building a large replica of a 200-year-old sailing ship. He had read William Verplanck’s The Sloops of The Hudson, and as a Beacon resident himself, had taken an interest in the heritage of the Hudson Valley, and in the river that sustains it. A small committee of volunteers, including the Cohens, rallied around Seeger to make the sloop a reality.

Initially the committee scoured river towns for sunken sloops, investigating rumors, hoping to pull a boat from the Hudson. “We would go down to the shore, see a couple of boards sticking up out of the water, and think that may have been a sloop–kinda looked like a sloop maybe–but nothing was salvageable,” Hal Cohen says, laughing. “Eventually we realized we would have to build one from scratch.”

And build it they did. Under the direction of naval architect Cyrus Hamlin, the committee laid their sloop’s keel: the keystone around which the rest of a ship comes together. Then, through a series of fundraisers, the group raised the money necessary to finish their ship.


A New Message

Looking out onto the Hudson from onboard Clearwater.

By May of 1969 the sloop was completed. But the river itself was sick– an unregulated dumping ground for industrial waste and raw sewage. “You basically knew not to swim in it” Cohen says matter-of-factly. As recently as the mid-1960s, there was no legislation on sewage treatment, so most river towns dumped directly into the Hudson. Add to that the industrial waste and oil pollution exuded by riverside factories, and you’ve got one filthy problem. It wasn’t until 1972 with the passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, now commonly known as The Clean Water Act, that sewage was treated and water pollution became a federal concern.

Seeger himself wrote about the deplorable state of The Hudson many times, beginning in the mid-1960s. In a 1976 interview for Pickin: The Magazine of Bluegrass and Old Time Country Music, Seeger said, “Every year 100 billion gallons of gook are dumped into this water. Who’s to blame for this pollution? Behind that question lies a still more basic one: To whom does a river belong? The Algonquins who used to live along the Hudson had no trouble answering. ‘We are stewards of the river,’ they used to say. ‘Not owners. Caretakers.’ Isn’t that the attitude we should be taking?” With that in mind, the sloop was built and called Clearwater, in honor of Seeger’s broader environmental vision.

Once Clearwater was fitted out, it embarked on a series of fundraising concerts to pay off the last of its building expenses. The sloop docked in river towns along the Hudson on its way to New York City, where Walter Cronkite and then-mayor John Lindsay would greet the boat with a show of pomp and champagne. Folk singers were Clearwater’s first crew, and among them the Cohens rode on that maiden voyage in late June 1969.

Upon Clearwater’s arrival in New York City, the crew held an impromptu board meeting. It was a pivotal moment. “At that point it became obvious that we couldn’t be a historical restoration when we were sailing in a sewer” Cohen says. “The issue of our purpose came up then. Are we a floating museum? What about all that garbage in the river?”

After several months of debate, the committee agreed that Clearwater had to be more than a floating museum. Between the summer of 1969 and spring of 1970, the group launched an environmental organization known today as Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc.

“How could we not be involved in environmental issues?” Cohen asks. “When you’re on the river, you’re talking about the river. You’re sailing, you’re part of the earth and the tides and the wind, of course we were thinking about the environment.” Debbie Cohen thinks for a moment, and then replies to her husband, “I think it was coming. Environmentalism was in the popular consciousness.”


A Confluence of Factors

The Crew gathers on Clearwater.

In the summer of 1962, seven years before Clearwater, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had launched a widely publicized, nationwide debate on the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use. The book inspired immediate controversy, bringing environmental concerns to public light.

In the wake of Silent Spring, a small group of Hudson Valley residents rallied for environmental protection, forming the Scenic Hudson Preservation Coalition in 1963. That same year, Scenic Hudson launched a legal battle against Consolidated Edison, opposing the utility company’s development of Storm King Mountain in the picturesque Hudson Highlands. It was a landmark case, and in 1965 set precedent for an environmental group’s ability to sue in the name of public interest.

At the same time, beginning in the mid-1960s, much of the industry in the Hudson Valley fled. Companies like DuPont and Nabisco, once major employers along the Hudson, left to find cheaper sources of labor, often overseas. Factories that for decades had dumped industrial waste into the river were abandoned, creating new hope for a Hudson cleanup. Because Seeger was a prominent celebrity, his involvement drew unprecedented attention to the Hudson River cause.

Allynne Lange, curator of the Hudson River Maritime Museum, spent much of her childhood playing along the river. She witnessed the rise of environmentalism as an adolescent in the 1960s. “I think everybody got on the [environmental] bandwagon as the decades went by,” says Lange. “[Seeger] probably wasn’t really the start, but I think he was a real important catalyst, because he was well known.”


A Legacy on the Hudson

Preparations to sail from the Kingston, NY waterfront.

Since these beginnings over 45 years ago, Clearwater Inc. has followed a twofold mission, promoting both environmental education and advocacy on the river.

Sloop Clearwater has been used as a sailing classroom since the 1970s, offering onboard environmental education programs to school groups and other community organizations. The curriculum includes aquatic ecology, maritime navigation, water quality testing and Hudson River history. As a part of Seeger’s legacy, Clearwater also builds folk music into its education programs, teaching traditional sea songs on afternoon sails and offering onshore music workshops as well. The sloop, named to the national register of historic places in 2004, is a means of connection with nature, reintroducing locals to a river once dismissed as a sewage dump.

In addition to its education programs, Clearwater also advocates for the Hudson through myriad environmental initiatives and campaigns. The organization has held public forums and rallies to generate support for environmental legislation such as the 1972 Clean Water Act, and has been awarded several large grants through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of these initiatives.


The Peripheral Legend

David Conover, 55, is Clearwater’s education director. He’s been with the organization off and on since 1991, and reminds me, immediately, of a St. Bernard. Easy-going, friendly and tall, with shaggy brown hair tucked under a baseball cap, he shows me around the sloop Clearwater, moored in Kingston, NY. As we stroll around the vessel, Conover explains Seeger’s more-recent role.

Below deck on Clearwater.

“In the beginning Pete was very involved, but he left the board as an officer of the organization. His feeling was probably that he set the thing in motion, and that it was time for other people to carry it through. But he’s always been our founder, and a guiding light in many ways.”

Although Seeger stepped back, he never really left Clearwater, contributing as a spokesman and figurehead, particularly as a headlining musician for the Great Hudson River Revival, Clearwater Inc.’s major annual fundraiser.

Revival is a two-day music and arts festival, held each June in Westchester County, NY. Revenue supports Clearwater’s education and advocacy programs, and funds maintenance on the sloop.

The organization has grown for nearly 50 years now, evolving from a grassroots campaign to make a boat into a professional nonprofit.  “Clearwater has been through a lot of changes, and we’ve been able to adapt to those changes without forgetting the core mission, which is to reintroduce people to the river, get them engaged, and get them involved,” Conover says. “Maybe we’re doing it in a different way than it was done back in the ‘60s, but I think we still do it pretty effectively.”


Today’s River

River pollution has decreased dramatically since the 1960s, thanks in large part to growing public awareness of environmental health. Clearwater Inc. and other community-based organizations like the nonprofits Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper have contributed significantly to the Hudson River cleanup, rallying for water quality legislation and educating the public about their river.

The Hudson is much less polluted than it was 50 years ago, but there is still cleaning to do. Andrew Juhl is an aquatic ecologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, NY, monitoring river contamination and microbial water quality.

“I consider the Hudson river estuary an environmental success story in the making, considering where things were in the 1970s and where they are now” Juhl says. “Nevertheless, there is still quite a bit of room for improvement. Enforcement of existing laws and other forms of management guidance remains a challenge.”

The Hudson is much healthier today, but there is still work to do.

In New York, state water quality regulations are also outdated. “In the Hudson, the biggest source of [potentially harmful bacteria] is poorly treated human sewage. Unfortunately, there are still too many days when the river has localized, or even widespread, sewage contamination. If we could bring the system into compliance with the most up-to-date EPA guidelines, it would be a huge improvement,” Juhl says.

Although sewage is now usually treated before it enters the Hudson, there is still very limited funding to update or improve infrastructure. Raw sewage is still occasionally discharged into the river, as during 2012’s sewer main break in Westchester Country.

“After really heavy rainstorms, some of these plants still overflow,” says Lange, of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. “A lot of these cities are doing the best they can to build storm sewers and it is happening slowly, it’s just a matter of the funding. The state doesn’t really have the money and the cities don’t really have the money.”

However, there is cause for optimism. The “Sewage Pollution Right to Know” law, enacted in New York in 2013, has helped raise public awareness of sewage contamination. The law requires that publicly owned sewer systems and treatment plants report discharge of untreated or partially treated sewage to the public. Nongovernmental organizations like Clearwater, Scenic Hudson, and Riverkeeper are critical to the success of environmental laws like this one.

“NGOs play a big role in helping to focus the attention of the public and officials, which helps create and move legislation forward, and then they also play a big role in helping to ensure enforcement. Both of these are critical,” Juhl says.


Sailing into the Future

Sunset in Kingston, NY.

Today Clearwater’s initiatives include a campaign to close the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant, and to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Upper Hudson, discharged into the water as industrial waste from the late 1940s through the late 1970s.

The accumulation of PCBs in human tissue (linked to the consumption of contaminated fish) is acknowledged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a cause of human health disorders, including implication in some cancers. The organization also sponsors several other initiatives in urban sustainability and environmental justice.

Looking to the future, Debbie Cohen says, “Clearwater has to grow up a little bit, I think. You can’t just get by on music and love, you know?” She sighs. “It’s not a question of ‘Pete died and what are we doing tomorrow?’ Pete has been somewhat disengaged for a very long time, and the organization has had to learn to get by without him. That’s not something that happened overnight.”

Clearwater herself is pushing 50 now. She takes regular maintenance, and over the years so many parts have been replaced that she is essentially a different sloop than the 1969 vessel. Yet, she’s the same Clearwater– she has the same soul.

The same is true for Clearwater Inc. Seeger may be gone, but his legacy of environmentalism on the Hudson River, like the ship he founded, will sail on.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
10 years ago

Admiring the persistence you put into your site and in depth information you provide.
It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the
same outdated rehashed material. Excellent read!
I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my
Google account.