Back Out On The River

By Mary McTamaney

For all those who reminisce about Newburgh’s past: the bustle of its downtown neighborhoods, the friendliness of passersby, the variety of things to do, the beauty of looking out on the river and the joy of riding out on the water, know that all that is back. In this 300th birthday year, the tipping point seems to have come and people are proud again of Newburgh’s many assets. More positive conversations reach my ears than negative ones.

The best indicator of hope occurred this past weekend during our community Flag Day celebration when I watched our children sing, play music and march proudly out to the river to proclaim that we are the world and we are the greatest. The other quiet indicator occurs each evening when I see parents bring their youngsters aboard the Newburgh-Beacon ferry for a pre-bedtime ride. They enjoy the breezes from the top deck, point out the sights on either shore, answer questions about the river and the many boats going by and they promise “yes, we can come back again.”

This is an exact return to the past of my 1950’s childhood when my parents and grandparents took us out to ride back and forth to Beacon for all the same reasons. The “old” ferry that ended its 220-year run in November 1963 when the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge opened had been more than a means to cross the river to jobs and trade. It was an adventure for every generation that grew up in Newburgh or Beacon. I have so many wonderful memories of looking over the side of the ferry the way I watched children last Sunday looking over the rail of the Coast Guard cutter U.S.S. Sturgeon Bay. I watched the waters of the Hudson churning under the engines of the ferry or steamboats. It sparked my imagination about what lay below that water and what lay out beyond it as well. That is what we want for our children today and that is the goal of Newburgh’s participation in the state’s quadricentennial: to bring families back to the river and to experience all its potential.

The old Newburgh ferry used to carried people and vehicles. In the 19th and early 20th century, it carried animals as well – some as the horsepower attached to the wagons and some just as commodities heading for pens in a new location. One early drawing of a Newburgh Beacon winter ice boat ferry shows passengers huddled against the harsh winds sheltered behind a heard of sheep! That must have been quite a ride.

Our old ferry was begun before our nation was formed. It was a colonial ferry and needed a charter from the British governor to begin operation in 1743. During the war for independence it played a crucial role in bringing men and equipment back and forth between encampments and supply depots on both sides of the river. George Washington was a frequent rider each week. The many ways a ferry served our sister cities across this bay made it particularly sad to lose its heritage to the rapid bypass of a bridge.

Now we have both: bridge and ferry. Increasingly, people are clamoring for more ferry service and what started as a commuter route is becoming a recreational route as well. If we all keep taking ferry rides, we can show decision-makers how much it means to us and that it can be profitable again.

Next, we are bound to see larger boats (maybe not as big as the long-ago Dayliners) taking us on rides from town to town along the mid-Hudson river corridor. Then we will be connected again as neighbors around this wonderful bay enjoying the best face – the riverfront face – each town has to offer.

The above article by Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh Historian and Society board member, has been adapted from column originally printed in the June 17, 2009 issue of the Mid-Hudson Times. Posted here with permission.

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