Cold Spring Diary: Zephyr and the Icicle

by David St.-Lascaux


“Ice-Boat Race on the Hudson” from Currier & Ives

14 March 2014

THE HUDSON IS HUMBLING, and its grandeur at this time of year bears reporting. In February, it was essentially iced over, with jagged plates protruding willy-nilly in translucent disarray. The Lenape called the Hudson the Muhheakantuck – the “River that Flows Both Ways.” (Spencer Finch’s so-named stained glass windowpanes at New York’s High Line pay allusive homage.) At twilight, my son and I watched icebergs gliding silently upstream about fifty miles north of the Hudson’s mouth. We imagine a trip downriver with the outgoing tide to be rapid, if frustrating: the tide’s reversal, I read, is such that it takes driftwood a year to flow downstream, a bit like the tortoise and hare in Zeno’s Paradox.

I had learned a fascinating bit of Hudson folklore earlier when visiting Fiddle Lake Farm in Thompson, Pennsylvania, in Susquehanna County, where the proprietor had an antique iceboat that was said to have “beaten the train” in an upriver race. Indeed, such a story was once reported in the New York Times:


Exciting Race Along the Hudson – Contest Between Ice-Boats and the Chicago Express Train – The Latter Gloriously Beaten – Enthusiasm of the Passengers – The First Fatal ice-Boating Accident

From Our Own Correspondent

Poughkeepsie, Sunday, Jan. 22, 1871

The ice-boating thus far this Winter has not been very good, but nevertheless the owners of boats have entered into the sport with much zeal. On Friday of last week there was a novel scene witnessed on the river north of here. It was a race between the two ice-boats Zephyr, owned by Mr. J. Buckhout, the Icicle, owned by Mr. John Rosevelt, and the Chicago express train from New-York. These two boats are among the fastest in the Poughkeepsie Ice-Boat Association….

The Times’s account continues colorfully, as “the steel runners commenced humming over the clear, smooth, black ice…,” and concludes with a dramatic flourish:

Soon the novel craft had passed the fast train and were far ahead, slipping over the ice at the rate of a mile a minute. Never was there a prettier race and never was a railroad train, and a fast train at that, so very badly beaten. Running into the poor ice district the victors whirled about like a flash and headed down the river, again giving the engineer of the train as it came along a parting wave, the latter sending whistling shrieks from his machine in response, and the passengers also giving farewell waves of hats and handkerchiefs.

A VENA CAVA like the Hudson must be fed, and the eastern Hudson valley hills abound with water in cascading capillaries and pent-up reservoirs. Just east of Cold Spring recently, we observed a pair of bicyclists on Canopus Lake in Clarence Fahnestock Park just west of the Taconic Parkway, whereat also ice fishing and, on land, snowshoers and cross country skiers. Canopus and the many man-made lakes in the region present beautiful, if artificial, vistas. The Army Corps of Engineers have certainly been busy, if concrete-souled and dubiously pelted beavers.

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March 15: A Walk in the Park

Text copyright © 2014

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