THE CATSKILL GEOLOGISTS: Geologists seek story of South Bay rail bed

WE ARE MORE THAN JUST A LITTLE FOND of the artists of the Hudson River School of Art. That was America’s first recognized school of art. It flourished during the middle of the 19th century. These were landscape artists who focused on the wilderness that was still so common in our country. Many geologists find that when they look into those paintings, they have the same feel for the landscapes as did those artists. The two of us always like to say that their hearts and ours beat as one.

Those artists were far more active on our (western) side of the Hudson, but you had some of the greatest of them living in Columbia County. You have probably visited Olana, the home of Frederic Edwin Church. He is commonly regarded as the greatest Hudson River artist. But you also had one of our favorites, Sanford Robinson Gifford. He lived right in the center of Hudson in a house that no longer stands.

Gifford was not just active in the Catskills; he did some work in Hudson. Take a look at our illustration, a painting of something called South Bay as it was back in 1864. We think it is a great painting and we were very interested in seeing if we could locate where it was painted. That wasn’t all that hard. In the background is Mt. Merino and that, in fact, made it easy to locate. Take a look at our second illustration, a photo we took.

At top is “South Bay on the Hudson,” by Sanford Robinson Gifford. 1864. Courtesy of Joel B, Garzoli of Garzoli Gallery, San Rafael, CA. Underneath is a photo taken by the authors from roughly the same spot in 2020.

Our search took us to South Front Street, just a bit south of the railroad station. We lined up Mt. Merino and, presto, we stood where Gifford stood. The old road is still there but what is new is the railroad line. It appears to run right along the old shoreline. But to geologists, what was most interesting was the landfill found west of the tracks. The South Bay that Gifford painted is gone, filled in with earth. What happened here? Sometimes an embayment like this can be filled in naturally but we are guessing that this was artificial and for industrial reasons. We asked around a little but did not learn much. Maybe you know something. Was it “nature or nurture?” We don’t know. Either way, it’s a shame; Gifford’s South Bay was, long ago, so much more scenic.

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