A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Small City Big Dreams: From the Esopus through IBM, an abridged History of Kingston

by Anne Pyburn Craig   
The Esopus Indians probably lived fairly quietly in what’s now Kingston for many a year before an intrepid crew of Dutch folk came and “bought” land in 1653. Things were cozy enough at first; the newcomers called their settlement Esopus, after the tribe.
That didn’t last long. Early court records accuse the Esopus of “treacherous and intolerable audacity.” No doubt they had their side of the story, but it’s lost to time. The place was renamed Wiltwyck (Dutch for “wild wood”), Peter Stuyvesant was prevailed upon to build a stockade, and the settlers lived inside an eight-foot wall surrounding what is today a few city blocks, aptly named the Stockade District. The court system and the wall were already in place before New Amsterdam changed hands and became New York in 1665. And by 1671, Wild Wood had been renamed the King’s Town.
The history of Revolutionary-era Kingston is the history of New York State itself. New York’s first constitution and state government were born in the heart of the Stockade in 1777, in the Senate House back when it was just “Abraham van Gasbeek’s place.” General Clinton was inaugurated New York’s first governor, and instead of “God save the King!” folks yelled “God save the people!”
That same year, British general John Vaughan landed at Kingston Point with his troops, marched up the hill and set the Stockade alight, famously calling the town “a nest of rebels, a nursery for every villain in the country.” Residents fled to nearby Hurley. They’d already shipped a bunch of provisions to Albany for safekeeping, and were re-situated enough by 1783 to advocate for their city to become the capitol of the newly formed United States.
The Freemasons, with their mystic and sorta-populist take on capitalism, had more than a toehold in Kingston in the before the first Revolutionary shot was fired. The city may have lost out to Washington D.C. for the title of national seat of government, but General Washington himself did come for a visit and say flattering things.
There is still something very Dutch in Kingston’s spirit. Holland had established civil and religious liberty and taxation only by consent back in the 1500s. Anyone objecting to those principles may have a rough go of it in Kingston. Kingston is where the Old Dutch Church, one of the oldest continuing congregations in the US, began Ulster County’s first Sunday school in 1816 with the stated goal of promoting literacy among the African American community, saying publicly that they looked forward to “the time when people of color will be entitled to the rights of citizenship.” Kingston is where the illiterate, freed slave Isabella Baumfree, who would become Sojourner Truth, went in 1828 to seek her son’s freedom in legal action against a rich white guy, and won.
An old postcard shows the Kingston-based office and depot of
S & W.B. Fitch Wholesale Dealers in North River Blue Stone.
Three miles and a world away, on the banks of the Rondout grew one of the most important ports along the Hudson River. Things only got busier after 1825 when the mouth of the Rondout became the end of the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) canal. Coal, bluestone, and Rosendale cement filled barge after barge, and a thriving industry baked bricks, all of which was shipped down the Hudson and beyond. The steep hillside leading to the water was a brawling, working-class burg; atop the bluff, you can still see the houses built by the industrialists and movers and shakers who skimmed the fat.
The latter part of the 19th century saw continued squabbles. Residents sought to free themselves from an entrenched Democratic political machine and argued over temperance. “The definition of temperance is ruling with a strong hand; self-restraint; moderation. It is something greater and grander than abstinence, which is the negative side of temperance,” said Reverend Vandevere of the Old Dutch Church. (Side note: The steeple of the church is said to house a goblin, but congregants have apparently never accorded the goblin voting rights. It’s been known, however, to literally scare the life out of steeple-painters.)
In 1880, a school trustee spoke out against an administrator who was fond of beating kids. In the late 1880s, concerts by the Philharmonic drew crowds of 1,000. In 1927, the newborn Community Theatre (now Ulster Performing Arts Center) was hailed as the most beautiful theatre between New York City and Buffalo.
As the Industrial Era wound down, many a small Northeastern city began to slide. Kingston got a reprieve in the form of the International Business Machine company (IBM), which built a sprawling research and manufacturing facility in the neighboring Town of Ulster that opened in 1955. The Kingston plant played a key role in the development of the Cold War-era Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE)—a sprawling network of mega-computers that shared data, without which there might never have been a World Wide Web.
Kingston’s Wilbur Bridge.
IBM brought thousands of well-paid jobs and encouraged civic involvement and continued education, playing a key role in the further development of this feisty, sturdy place. IBMers served on school and library boards, founded and supported civic endeavors of all sorts, and liked a genteel good time on their days off. With IBM in town, local commerce thrived and neighborhoods flourished. However, when the plant closed in the early 1990s, the city’s economy reeled.
Residents were soon distracted, though, by Mayor T.R. Gallo. Elected in 1993 at the tender age of 33, Gallo was a tireless worker, and a lover of good times. He refurbished City Hall, turned the old Community Theatre into UPAC, founded a local economic development corporation, and threw Fourth of July bashes with nationally known rock bands.
Some sneered at all this playfulness. But now, in the third millennium, this scrappy city’s Stockade is packed with fine restaurants and taverns, and it explodes with art and music several times a year. O+, the revolutionary festival that barters art for health care, is very much a Kingston product, as is the newer Festival of the Arts. On a fine evening, the Rondout District—with its Maritime and Trolley Museums rounding out an entire other sector of restaurants, pubs, and galleries—positively glitters and sings.
In 2007, Business Week named Kingston one of the best places in the nation for artists to live—onetime factories have become lofts and public art is all over the place. People still argue about whether or not this is good. In Kingston, you can learn to salsa, eat truffles, buy a professional-grade Halloween disguise, take a river cruise, rub elbows with political movers, shakers and wishful thinkers, watch a re-enactment of the city’s burning, or just walk the venerable streets, church bells ringing in your ears, the spirits of Sojourner Truth and George Clinton whispering of fairness and freedom. Keep at it, Kingston, they seem to say.