Pete Seeger (Credit: Clearwater.org)

Peter Dykstra: Saviors of the Hudson

"America's first river" is a long way from total salvation, but 50 years ago, two men stepped up to rescue it.

On April 1, 1969, a garrulous sportswriter released a book about his true passion. A month later, a smiling folksinger launched a refurbished boat – his true passion.


Robert Boyle and Pete Seeger never saw eye-to-eye on many of the details, but both men played key roles in launching one of America's most storied conservation efforts.

Boyle, who penned many classic Sports Illustrated stories since the magazine's first year in 1954, was an avid fly fisherman who wrote The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History. Seeger, blacklisted during the McCarthy era and arguably the most unlikely member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, launched the Clearwater, a Hudson River sloop that became an icon of conservation and activism.

In the unusual venue of SI, Bob Boyle wrote about his beloved river, and was among the first to cover the Northeast's acid rain epidemic. His stories on widespread PCB contamination in the Hudson from two General Electric factories far upstream helped spur a billion-dollar cleanup, and the eventual ban on PCB's in the 1970's. Thus, a magazine known for covering football, golf, boxing and swimsuits became an environmental leader.

In the mid-60s, Boyle got involved in opposing the Storm King project. Con Edison, New York City's utility, planned to hollow out Storm King Mountain, 60 miles north of the city, to build a pump storage power facility.

Environmentalists triumphed in a lengthy court battle, and Con Ed abandoned the project in what is considered an early landmark in environmental law.

The compulsively genial Pete Seeger helped build an organization that captured the imagination of millions who lived in the Hudson watershed. The Clearwater sailed the mighty river from Albany to the Statue of Liberty, giving kids and adults what was often their first exposure to environmental values.

Two of the early Clearwater crewmembers went on to skipper their own eco-boats: Peter Willcox was captain of the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, for years; and John Cronin became the first Hudson Riverkeeper.

Cronin dogged factories, railroad yards, municipal sewer systems, and other polluters for years, scoring impressive successes with the help of Boyle and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Bob Boyle (credit: lohud.com)

He sleuthed a fleet of Exxon tankers as they sailed well up the river, past their terminals and refineries for no apparent reason. It turns out the tankers were using clean Hudson water to clean their tanks and fill their ballast with fresh water for Exxon's refinery in Aruba. Cronin and Kennedy won a $1.75 million judgement against Exxon. What began in the Hudson has gone international: RFK Jr. founded the Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999, and today there are hundreds of River-, Bay-, and Lake-keepers from Labrador to Vietnam.

Today, the Hudson is far from pristine, and the Trump Administration is far from helpful. In April, EPA issued a certificate of completion to GE for its Upper Hudson cleanup, all while admitting that PCB risks remain. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has vowed to sue the federal agency to force further action.

I did a documentary on the Riverkeeper and the Hudson's recovery in 1997. I saw impressive results achieved by groups that don't always play nicely with each other, and heard a little squabbling over relatively minor differences in policy, and who gets credit for a cleaner Hudson (a manifestation of cleanness envy?).

Boyle was generous with me with his time and stories; Seeger was equally generous with his stories and music. But both men politely declined to appear together.

A third group, Scenic Hudson, was founded by some well-heeled river lovers in 1963. They all deserve credit, and stand as a lesson that some battles take years, but they can be won, and are eminently worth winning.

Pete Seeger died in 2014. May 3 would have been his 100th birthday. Bob Boyle died in 2017. Thanks to them, and the many who carry on their work.

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