The Hudson River School

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, November 1, 2020

You’re probably more familiar with the term “Hudson River School” as a reference to 19th Century landscape paintings emphasizing pastoral views depicting the Hudson River Valley in the state of New York.  Aperture’s 1985 book The Hudson River and the Highlands; The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum, provides the following commentary about this, on page 13 of the book’s opening essay, “The Hudson”, by James Thomas Flexner:

Hudson River School paintings, although for several generations eclipsed by new aesthetic importations from Europe and our own development of Abstract Expressionism, have returned to their stature as the most beloved (and among the most valuable) exemplars of American art.  And the Hudson Valley still inspires, although in new mediums such as photography, important artistic creators.

The relevance of this to TRAINS readers?  Some of these more recent creators of photography have focused their efforts on railroads and trains.

First, however, some background.  In addition to the Hudson’s early, and ongoing participation in water transportation, it is effectively bracketed on both sides by major railroad lines, one on each bank, for much of the distance between New York City and Albany.  By the early to mid-twentieth century, a single road, the New York Central, controlled and operated both.

On the west side of the river, passenger service didn’t see the 1960s, with trains north of West Haverstraw, New York being discontinued in 1958, and the remaining commuter service south of that point vanishing in December 1959; through freight service continued, however.  The east side, the NYC’s fabled Hudson Division, featured extensive passenger operations, including commuter service south of Poughkeepsie, 70 miles north of Manhattan, as well as a moderate degree of freight operations to and from “the City” (as opposed to the West Shore’s services, which terminated in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan).

Today, almost all freight operations, now by CSX, are on the west bank. On the east side, virtually everything currently is passenger-oriented, with Metro-North and Amtrak dividing the responsibility for the physical plant at Poughkeepsie.

Back when the New York Central both ran, and promoted, intercity passenger trains, the railroad that styled itself the “Water Level Route” (a dig at its competitor the Pennsylvania Railroad’s route through the mountains in Pennsylvania) promoted the scenic highlights of the ride along the Hudson early and often. In a 1956 version of its “Magic Windows” brochure describing highlights of its routes for passengers, three and a half panels of the 16-panel product are devoted to the 142.2 miles of the railroad alongside (for the most part) the Hudson River between Albany and New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  In comparison, the 200 miles between Albany and Boston rates only a single panel, as does the St. Louis-Cleveland line that was over 500 miles long.  For that matter, the Hudson Highlands region (essentially Cold Spring-Peekskill, about 15 miles) was accorded the better part of three-quarters of a panel.

Railroad photographers have certainly not ignored this beautiful region, both those employed by the railroad, such as Ed Nowak, and others meriting the descriptions of enthusiast and/or railfan.  Kalmbach Books published New York Central in the Hudson Valley in 1995, featuring a host of well-known railroad camera artists, including Jim Shaughnessy, Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., John Pickett, Frank Quin, Theodore Gay, Bert Pennypacker, David Salter, Wayne Brumbaugh, Robert R. Malinoski, T. J. Donohue, John P. Ahrens, R. E. Tobey, and William D. Middleton.  Heavy-duty professional photographic talent is also present: there are credit lines for David Plowden and even O. Winston Link, the latter featuring a picture taken sans artificial lighting.

As an example of why the Hudson Highlands  region continues to attract railroad photographers, consider the shot above, taken on September 6, 2013 showing an eastbound Amtrak “Empire Service” train on the east bank of the river, and a westbound CSX autorack movement on the west, taken from the east side of the Bear Mountain bridge. I suspect that there will be a continuing Hudson River School of rail photographers for many years to come.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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