In my mind, the Hudson River and the Amtrak train that adjoins it always will be linked to my father. Henry S. Fraser, a lawyer and a Scotsman, was born in 1900 and lived in Upstate New York in Syracuse. He had a fear of flying. Throughout his long life he insisted on taking the train whenever he travelled instead of flying the old DC-6s and later the 707s. Train travel was a family tradition beginning with my grandfather, who was a conductor on the old New York Central from Albany to Syracuse.
I too travelled by train when I went to visit him from New York City, where I now live. The quintessential train trip for us was the ride along the Hudson, a magnificent waterway stretching more than 300 miles from Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondack Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean in New York City’s backyard. Who would want to fly after that trip along the Hudson, a divine sight with its sloping banks, inlets, reeds and water birds. No wonder the Indians considered it a god. This is all part of my memory of my father, especially my last trip to Syracuse to his funeral after he died just short of his 101st birthday.
My father was from a different era. He dressed formally in a suit whenever he travelled, whether by train or car. He wore a bowler long after they were out of fashion. He was of average height and weight and bald. Head to toe he looked the gentleman of his era. Conductors invariably addressed him with deference. Some people thought him too straight-laced. Still, in looking back over a century of life, his perspective deserves some consideration. His ideas and notions were formed from the wisdom gained from many years of experiencing the ramifications of progress and change, both good and bad. He was born when McKinley was President and Queen Victoria was on the throne. As an avid enthusiast of classical Greek literature and ancient history, he thought the 20th century among the worst eras of mankind, citing the two World Wars, the holocaust, and the Atomic Bomb.
For most Americans of my father’s generation, the figure of FDR looms tall in any recollection of times past. But my father, being a true Upstate New York Republican, detested Roosevelt, attributing all of America’s post-war tribulations to him. According to my father, the 20th century was the worst one could imagine, not simply because of war and bombs, but also because of “too many Roosevelts in the White House.” Whenever the train passed Hyde Park, Roosevelt’s residence, he would snap the curtain down across the window, whether day or night, to better concentrate and express his anger.
One night passing by Poughkeepsie, bordering the Hudson in Dutchess County where Hyde Park is, a stone crashed against my father’s roomette window. He never tired of telling that story–how someone in Poughkeepsie, the center of state government during the Revolutionary War years, had it in for him. Perhaps, he wryly surmised, it was a New Deal Democrat.
Though they may have disagreed politically, FDR and my father both loved trains and traveling along the Hudson. Roosevelt, however, travelled in a grander style than my father in a presidential special train. Often during his presidency, to escape the rigors of Washington, the president with his party came to Hyde Park by rail along the New York Central’s West Shore line to Highland, N.Y., across the Hudson from Poughkeepsie. An alternate route proceeded from Washington on the NYC’s Hudson Division along the eastern shore directly to Hyde Park.
FDR likened the Hudson “to the Rhine, the fjords of Norway, to the Potomac and to the Columbia. Those who dwell on the banks of these noble waterways have every right to their own preference. We of the Hudson will hold fast to ours.”
My father sought the eternals and was never more at home than in discussing history. I remember one particular trip when I was a young man. On this occasion, we had been discussing Henry Hudson’s first journey up the Hudson in 1609. After that, the Europeans used it as an entrée into the country’s interior. I mentioned that Benjamin Franklin had sailed by sloop up the Hudson in 1754 to Albany, the gateway to French Canada and the fur regions of the northwest. He was en route to participate in the famous Albany Congress, designed to unite the colonies and keep the French at bay in North America.
At this point, gently but firmly my father interrupted. “Not sailed,” he intoned. Back then, he explained, when people went to Albany they spoke of “embarking” rather than sailing, as if they were going to Europe; it was a three to five days’ sail. Ever a stickler for language and exactitude, he never hesitated to correct my grammar or pronunciation. He exasperated me at the time, but I later forgave him, setting it down to his training as an attorney. On the other hand, I owe my love of literature and history to him. To this day, I keep the Oxford Book of English Verse, a gift from him, by my bed.
Watching the sailboats, canoes, and kayaks traveling up the Hudson reminded my father of his first trans-Atlantic journey. He often talked about it and said it was the proudest moment of his life. After graduating from law school, he accompanied U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham to Geneva to assist the League of Nations in drafting treaties concerning territorial waters. He also was serving as a Representative of the Apostolic Christian Church of New York. With a letter of introduction from Geneva, he traveled to Belgrade to seek the release of 150 students of the Apostolic Christian Church who were serving 10-year jail sentences for refusing to bear arms for the Serbian army. At a state dinner, when asked to speak, he instead offered a toast: “To Yugoslavia,” he shouted in Serbian, drawing the attention of King Alexander, who agreed to grant him an audience. The king did pardon all 150 students and even established a program allowing conscientious objectors to serve in non-combat roles.
Though he started to become frail, my father continued to visit me in New York in his 90s. He had to be helped onto the train by the conductor. During one of these visits we attended a show by a dance troupe at the Joyce Theater. We sat in the first row and watched the dancers, most of whom were scantily clad. One wearing an onyx necklace winked at my father. I wondered what his reaction would be. He was chaste as far as I know following the death of my mother at 62 of Parkinson’s. “That’s New York,” he said afterwards with a slight smile, gripping my arm for support as we crossed the street.
Over the years, we grew closer taking that train. Sometimes, in the twilight as the sun dipped down into the river, I would gently poke fun at his fear of flying. Then with a twinkle he’d respond, “If God intended us to fly, He would have given us wings.” For nearly half a century of our travels, it was the same.
He’s gone now. The excitement of a train trip along the Hudson carries with it a sense of loss. But the magnificent views remain–West Point, Indian Point, Bannerman Island, Bear Mountain, and the Tappan Zee Bridge. Their beauty endures along with the memories I shared with my father on the train along the river.
A few of Henry S. Fraser’s many publications may be browsed here.