The Regal Fight for Storm King Mountain

By Madison A. Hayes

Storm King Mountain is an imposing force along the Hudson River. The river itself has played a significant role in the Hudson River Valley for centuries, and Storm King has also been a part of this role. The ‘60s was a tumultuous time of civil rights, war, and music, but environmentalism also came to the forefront during this time (as seen from Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring). When the electric company, Consolidated Edison, proposed a hydroelectric plant along the river at Storm King, environmentalism efforts were sparked locally, which then had ripple effects throughout the nation. It can be said that this fight for Storm King brought environmental efforts into the public’s eye, resulting in many environmental actions and even laws, as well as music.

Con Ed probably would likely not be considered a “bad guy” in most narratives, but it posed a threat to Storm King Mountain. In the 1960s, Con Ed was the leading gas and electric company in the United States.[1] They provided power to a wide region, including New York City. In 1962, New York City was seeking more energy sources, so a hydroelectric plant was suggested to provide this extra stored energy.[2] Con Ed “planned to install an 800-foot-long powerhouse at Storm King Mountain, with a huge reservoir atop it,” which would have made it the third largest hydroelectric plant and the largest pumped storage hydroelectric plant.[3] At the time, energy use was a large concern nationwide. Con Ed claimed that building the hydroelectric plant would avoid the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, both of which had a negative reputation at the time.[4] Indian Point (which, coincidentally, was built by Con Ed) was a nuclear power plant that had been known to negatively affect the Hudson River. This nuclear plant had caused major fish death, which added to the already poor image of nuclear energy.[5] Because of this, alternative energies were needed. Yet Con Ed had a history of negatively interacting with the river, so the retaliation of their Storm King proposal could have been anticipated.

Con Ed did not foresee severe backlash from their proposed actions, but there were certainly concerns. The Hudson River, whose waters the hydroelectric plant would use, had a romantic history. The Hudson River Valley, as would be expected from the name, has loved the lordly Hudson for years. In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, celebrated the sublimity of the river, “the awe and reverence inspired by nature” through works of art.[6] This appreciation of the aesthetic carried on into the 1960s. Storm King was seen as “sacred” to many Americans due to its history of art, its draw for tourists, and its connection with nature.[7] By building the hydroelectric plant, people felt it would mean the desecration of a naturally beautiful image.[8] Considering its sacredness, this could be compared to desecration of one’s holy place, such as a temple or sanctuary. It is not unreasonable then to understand why people would be upset at such destruction. The initial reaction to Con Ed’s proposal was for these aesthetic and spiritual reasons, but reactions also had a more scientific approach.[9] As mentioned previously, Indian Point had raised concerns about fish death from river contamination. It was thought that the hydroelectric plant would cause similar fish deaths due to the significant water necessary.[10]

Con Ed was willing to compromise with the situation due to the reactions of locals and other people committed to Storm King’s wellbeing. Con Ed claimed that beauty could not only be maintained but also improved by a “handsome” design of the power plant, in addition to the alternative energy they could supply to many people.[11] The conservationists, however, did not want to compromise. They claimed “any power plant at Storm King would be an industrial intrusion on an area that had become a symbol of wild, unsullied nature.”[12] Again, the history of Storm King’s association with sublimity played a role in these people’s minds. These general concerns gained public interest, and organizations, such as Scenic Hudson, The Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater were formed as a result.[13] Storm King was a rallying factor, and these organizations, while committed to Storm King, were also committed to raising awareness of the river’s health in general.

Clearwater was a particularly interesting endeavor. The Clearwater sloop was formed with help from the famous folk singer, Pete Seeger, as well as a variety of other sponsors. In 1965, Seeger and others were concerned about the environment, especially the Hudson River. At the time, the Hudson was known for its toxins and PCBs, making it comparable to a dumping ground. [14] Pete Seeger learned about the history of sloops on the Hudson River from his friend, Victor Schwartz.[15] In the 1600s, Dutch tradesmen had used sloops to navigate the river for trade reasons.[16] It seemed that Schwartz and Seeger realized the value in recreating a historical boat in a contemporary context on the river. In 1969, Seeger proposed that a replica of a Hudson River sloop be built to raise environmental awareness, specifically of the condition of the Hudson River.[17] Hudson River Sloop Restoration, Inc. built the boat, and Pete Seeger and the rest of the crew gave concerts up and down the river at river towns.[18] Using the Dutch sloop of the past, Seeger and the Clearwater crew were able to navigate the river they sought to save and spread the word to those they encountered. Seeger claimed that “we cannot experience the modern river or plan for its future without feeling the pull of its rich past.” This acknowledged the romanticized past while educating the people of the present about the environment. [19] The Clearwater’s efforts were successful, not necessarily due to Seeger’s presence, but due to people’s interest in the river and the fight for Storm King.[20] The fight for Storm King was crucial in the sloop’s development, as well as its success. The sloop, in turn, helped lead to environmental awareness and bringing change to the Hudson River’s health.

In January of 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law. The law “created a national environmental policy by seeking to infuse environmental values into the decision making of the entire federal government.”[21] The act required “an environmental impact review of all major projects proposed by or requiring approval from [the] federal government.” This principle was largely established from by the Storm King efforts.[22] After this, the first Earth Day was celebrated in the spring of 1970. This signified a shift in environmentalism efforts because the focus became more on pollution than preservation. What this meant, however, was that the main stream of the population had accepted the Storm King struggle and sided with environmentalists.[23] Con Ed’s intents unintentionally helped spark the environmental movement due to their attack on Storm King. This fight for Storm King officially ended (although it had been fizzling out for the past decade) on December 19, 1980.[24] After nearly two decades of conflict, the land was returned to the people.[25]

Clearly the fight for Storm King had far-reaching effects that no one likely anticipated. Con Ed may have had good intentions for the people with their energy plan, but it was evident that its more important for the people to maintain the mountain’s environmental integrity. What was significant about the fight for Storm King was the reaction from the people. This indicated an investment in the environment, which then sparked other environmental efforts, such as Pete Seeger’s Clearwater. Con Ed’s hydroelectric plant was not built due to local efforts and commitment to the environment. As a result, people today can benefit from hiking Storm King and observing the river for themselves and realizing its sacredness. 

 

For more information:

Works Cited:

Dunwell, Frances F. The Hudson: America’s River. New York: Columbia University Press: 281, 284-285, 290, 292, 298.

Hansen, Kris A. “Hidden History at Storm King Mountain.” The Hudson River Valley Review. no. 1 (2007): 101.

Harrington-Hughes, K., and D.V.F. “Clearwater Sails for Cleaner Hudson.” Journal (Water Pollution Control Federation). no. 2 (1979): 219-220.

Lifset, Robert Douglas. Storm King Mountain and the Emergence of Modern American Environmentalism, 1962-1980. PhD diss., Columbia University, 2005. UMI (3182964): 15, 17, 161, 342, 345-346, 405, 408, 535.

Stanne, Stephen P., Roger G. Panetta, and Brian E. Forist.The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to the Living River. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996: 100-101, 109-110, 134-138.

Work Referenced:

Chaffin, Tom. “Keeping the Faith.” Horizon, October 1981, 42-47.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Robert Douglas Lifset, Storm King Mountain and the Emergence of Modern American Environmentalism, 1962-1980. (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2005), UMI (3182964): 15.

[2] Stephen P. Stanne, Roger G. Panetta, and Brian E. Forist, The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to the Living River, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 134-136.

[3] Kris A. Hansen, “Hidden History at Storm King Mountain,” The Hudson River Valley Review, 24, no. 1 (2007): 101; Robert Douglas Lifset, Storm King Mountain and the Emergence of Modern American Environmentalism, 1962-1980. (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2005), UMI (3182964): 17.

[4] Frances F. Dunwell, The Hudson: America’s River, (New York: Columbia University Press), 285.

[5] Lifset, Storm King Mountain, 161.

[6] Stanne et al., The Hudson, 109-110.

[7] Dunwell, The Hudson, 281.

[8] Ibid., 284.

[9] Stanne et al., The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to the Living River, 134-136.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dunwell, The Hudson, 285.

[12] Ibid., 292.

[13] Stanne et al., The Hudson, 136-137.

[14] K. Harrington-Hughes, and D.V.F., “Clearwater Sails for Cleaner Hudson,” Journal (Water Pollution Control Federation), 51, no. 2 (1979): 219-220.

[15] Lifset, Storm King Mountain, 342.

[16] Stanne et al., The Hudson,100-101.

[17] Dunwell, The Hudson, 298.

[18] Lifset, Storm King Mountain, 345.

[19] Stanne et al., The Hudson, 137-138.

[20] Lifset, Storm King Mountain, 346.

[21] Ibid., 405.

[22] Dunwell, The Hudson, 290.

[23] Lifset, Storm King Mountain, 408.

[24] Ibid., 535.

[25] Hansen, “Hidden History at Storm King Mountain,” 101.

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