In the City of Hudson, known to tourists for its antique shops and fine dining, a cluster of century-old fishing shacks from the Hudson River estuary’s once prosperous shad fishery teeters on the waterfront.
Some of the shacks were once used as year-round residences by sportsmen and commercial fishermen over the years, said Leo Bower, 63, who grew up in Hudson and now lives in the neighboring town of Greenport. As a resident historian, Bower has collected binders full of black-and-white photographs of the shacks and shares stories with visitors about the fishermen and hunters he met who used the shacks.
For the most part, he said, the shacks were used for getaways and as staging areas for people fishing in the river and hunting on the bay and on a nearby island for duck and deer.
When he was a boy, he said, it was also a place where older fishermen told stories and taught practices from an earlier era.
Now, an effort to preserve some of the 17 remaining shacks is underway.
The shacks sit on city-owned land on the shore of North Bay and have been vacant since the last denizens were evicted in 2012. The site has appeared on maps since the 1880s.
In 2015, Hudson’s City Council voted to demolish almost all of the shacks, but before the razing began, the New York State Historic Preservation Office declared the site eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
On Aug. 1, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state would award a $10 million grant to the city for waterfront and downtown projects. Listed in the application was $165,000 for stabilizing structures and improving access on the North Bay at the site known by various names, including the Furgary, Shantytown, the North Dock Tin Boat Association and also “the shacks.”
“It’s part of Hudson’s really sordid and unique past and I think it should absolutely be preserved,” said Sheena Salvino, head of the Hudson Development Corporation, which helped prepare the city’s grant application. “In what form, I don’t pretend to know. But with a little creativity something cool could happen.”
Bower and another resident, Timothy O’Connor, have begun planning to preserve 10 or so of the shacks. O’Connor said he envisions a museum showcasing tools and memorabilia from the shad fishery, which closed in 2010.
“We would like to see the shacks that are preserved be used in commemoration of the river activities, which were always the focus of successive generations of Shantytown dwellers,” he said.
O’Connor, a bird-watcher who was the personal assistant to the poet John Ashbery for 10 years, said $165,000 would be more than enough to preserve the shacks, especially if volunteers helped.
“These are shacks,” he said. “They require annual work after the winter. But it’s not a great deal of work.”
Mayor Tiffany Martin Hamilton said an effort to save some shacks needs to begin as soon as possible.
Hamilton, whose grandfather built one of the shacks, said the site was one of the last remnants of “Old Hudson,” which was a closer community than today’s version of the small city.
“It’s a forgotten era, a closed chapter in Hudson’s history. It represents generations of people — old Hudson grit in a good way. And it represents all of the things our community struggles with today — economic disparity in the community that drives this divide between people. It all played out here,” she said.
Last year, Hamilton had fencing removed to restore access to the land surrounding the shacks, including the boat launch.
Bower reconnected with his estranged father nearly 50 years ago at the shacks. They netted shad and herring on the river, made turtle soup over a wood-burning stove and prepared fish for a homemade smoker at the site. The younger Bower held his wedding reception outside of the shacks in 1983. He kept a 13-foot boat docked there that he used to take his wife and two sons on river excursions.
In the 2015 report for the state’s historic preservation office, the authors Linda Mackey, a historic preservation specialist for 14 upstate counties, and Daria Merwin, a co-director of the cultural resource survey program at the New York State Museum in Albany, wrote that the site has “the tangible remains of a traditional way of life that is rapidly disappearing,” which “represent a time when sturgeon and shad were abundant in the Hudson River, and people made their livelihoods fishing the river and selling their catch on the shore.”