Pete Seeger and the Hudson River

Pete Seeger

The recent death of Pete Seeger has produced not only an outpouring of tributes for his contributions to American music but also to his work in helping to clean and preserve the Hudson River. In the following passage from The Hudson: America’s River, Frances Dunwell recounts the beginnings of Seeger’s environmental activism and the role these efforts played in the creation of the first Clean Water Act:

This was not the end of the problems on the Hudson, however. Though Rockefel­ler had secured passage of a bond act to clean up the state’s rivers, it took time for sewage treatment plants to be built. The Hudson’s waters were still a “torrent of filth.” A few summers after the 1965 Pure Waters Bond Act passed, state biologists found zero oxygen in the Hudson around Albany and no living fish.

Folksinger Pete Seeger, in Beacon, New York, was one of those who decided this should change….

In 1969, Seeger proposed to a friend that they get a few hundred families together to build a replica of a Hudson River sloop. At first, it was to be just a boat for sailing, a loving tribute to the sleek and beautiful ships that crowded the Hudson during the age of sail. As Seeger later recounted: “It really seemed a frivolous idea. The world was full of agony; the Vietnam War was heating up. Money was needed for all sorts of life and death matters, and here we were raising money to build a sailboat.” However, the idea soon crystallized around building the boat to save the river, to have it be owned by its members, to be “everybody’s boat.” It would be called the Clearwater.

To help raise money, the Saunders family of Cold Spring and the Osborn family of Garrison offered their lawns for a series of song festivals where Seeger, Arlo Guth­rie, and others performed. The first concert drew 150 people and raised $167. Four months later, 700 people showed up—and by the end of the year, $5,000 was in the bank. By 1969, $140,000 in donations and loans were paid to the Gamage shipyard in South Bristol, Maine, which constructed the boat, and on June 27, the sloop Clearwater set sail down the Damiriscotta River and out to the Atlantic coast for its home port on the Hudson, piloted by a skilled captain and crewed by 11 talented musi­cians, including several who knew little about sailing. The boat stopped in Boston, where the crew sang to 10,000 people. A few days later, it sailed into Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport. In early September, it arrived in New York harbor and tied up in Manhattan at South Street Seaport, where brass bands played, and Mayor Lindsay gave his official greetings as press helicopters zoomed overhead. Soon photos of the sloop appeared in newspapers around the country, and the boat became a sym­bol for an emerging movement to clean up the nation’s waterways. The Clearwater organization’s membership grew to 2,500, and the sloop sailed up and down the Hudson, promoting a message of hope. Crowds joined in with Seeger to sing the re­frain of his 1961 song:

Sailing up my dirty stream,
Still I love it, and I’ll keep the dream,
That some day, though maybe not this year,
My Hudson River will once again run clear.

In 1970, the Clearwater crew sailed for Washington, D.C.—joining up with 20,000 people to celebrate Earth Day—and the real work of promoting river cleanup began. “We’ve sailed for a year now up and down the river showing people what the river used to be, how it’s polluted now and what it can be,” Pete Seeger told the New York Times. “We’re going to Washington because the problems of the American rivers can’t be solved by people like me who live on them. Only the Federal Government has the power to enact and enforce the laws that are needed.” Seeger held a press conference in the House of Representatives office building, where he “displayed a pie chart of the national budget, showing big slices for war, for highways and bridges, and a slice for the environment so small it was just a line.” Then he and fellow folk­ singer Don McLean began to play songs about the river. More than 70 members of Congress attended, many pledging to do something.

Two years later, the Clean Water Act of 1972 committed the federal government to restoring America’s polluted waters, providing funds for building sewage treat­ment plants, and requiring polluters to get permits for discharging their waste. The law also halted the filling of most wetlands. It contained a citizen suit provision, modeled on the Storm King decision, and the Clearwater organization promptly filed the first successful Clean Water Act suit against a polluter: Tuck Tape, of Bea­con, New York, which was dumping titanium dioxide, adhesives, solvents, latex, and sewage into the Fishkill Creek near where it drains into the Hudson. The People’s Pipewatch, organized by Clearwater, encouraged citizens to report pollution wher­ever they saw it.

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