Tales from Hudson’s Shantytown

DSCN3928If you walk past the boutiques and antique stores of Hudson’s Warren Street until the boulevard terminates, then hang a right, you will eventually come upon a scene ripped from time: two rows of dusty shacks leaning over the water around a bay. The shacks are on stilts and are constructed with scrounged materials: roofing from a Polish Church which shuttered in the 1930s; tin from the bottoms of lard buckets; a door from an aunt’s house in Albany.

These 17 remaining shacks have many names, but Shantytown or the Furgary (pronounced fur-GAR-ry) Shacks are the most commonly used. The latter is a corrupted pronunciation of “[Where the] fuck are we?”

The Furgary Shacks were used from the late 1800s until 2012, when the City of Hudson evicted the remaining inhabitants in a controversial SWAT raid. The city was in its rights, because the people using the shacks never owned the land, only everything they built on it.

To say Shantytown was a set of hunting and fishing cabins would be to denigrate them. The Furgary Shacks were a neighborhood, an anarchic collective intertwined by familial ties and shared interests.

Hundreds of people possessed the shacks throughout their history. These are stories from four of them.

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Alfred Turek stands near a shack he used for hunting storage.

Alfred

I met Alfred Turek, now in his early 80s, down at the end of the North-South row of shacks one bright May morning. He brought photographs from what he considered Shantytown’s heyday in the 1960s, when his family owned a shack at the end of a now-collapsed catwalk along the east side of the bay.

The shacks were a two-minute walk through now-deceased tanks yards from Alfred’s house, and he said he “practically lived there.”

He emphasized the sportsman qualities of Shantytown: netting shad, angling, hunting duck and trapping muskrat. He recalls how several Shantytowners would drag nets behind boats on the Hudson to catch schools of shad and herring, but said he never ate the fish, though he feasted on the trout, duck, venison and rabbit the sportsmen brought back.

Some of Alfred’s first memories are of hunting duck with his father George and some of the other men when he was 10 or 11. They used to practice by shooting trap over the North Bay the shacks are built around.

He said many Shantytowners in his father’s generation were part of the Federation of Polish Sportsmen, which still exists.

“The lot of them who were here before WWII all belonged to the Polish church,” he said. “They formed a baseball team, then there was a dispute over the uniforms and one group formed the Federation of Polish Sportsmen.”

Many of the Shantytowners called themselves the “Hootzuloo Gang,” one of a plethora of terms used to identify with Furgary.

As we walked along the rows of now-dilapidated shacks, Alfred pointed out the various materials used to construct them.

The Furgary shacks are constructed almost exclusively from found materials. One of the shack’s walls are made from the bottoms of a baker’s lard tubs. The tin siding of another was taken from the old Jewish Community Center when it was being torn down. Many of the stilts and pilings boosting the shacks over the bay were old railroad ties, cut to size by Alfred’s friends at the old Atlas Cement plant.

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An aerial view of the Furgary Shacks

Before the Hudson sewage plant was constructed in, the city’s sewage would pass raw into the water, flowing past the shacks and deep into the North Bay when the tide came in, and passing out of the bay when the tide turned low. Alfred showed me an aerial photograph of Shantytown from this era, and you could see the lighter-colored sewage being channeled past the front of the shacks with the tide. I asked Alfred if there was a stench, and he laughed.

“The sewage would go up past the front of the shacks, so when we got in the water, we’d kind of hold [our] breath with the shit and stuff floating past to get out past the sewer water [and] in the fresh water.”

“You think back now about sanitation — here are us kids (who) used to swim in the city sewer (water)…but you had to go through it to get back out again…Nowadays, if they spill a quart of oil or something on the road, they have Econ there and all the rest.”

The sewage, disgustingly enough, was what helped preserve the shacks hanging over the North Bay: the sewage was warm enough to stay liquid during the cold months, maintaining a channel of water that kept the ice from expanding and crushing the shacks’ stilts. Alfred said he abandoned his shack after a couple springs of having to re-construct his shack from the ice’s damage.

Even before the sewage plant, the shacks needed constant repairs from the elements: floods, waves from freighters, the occasional fire.

“Everything starts to settle, everything seems to go towards the river…it was a constant battle here against the elements to keep [the shack] level and keep it from sinking — so it was always a job,” he said.

Alfred had to move from his permanent abode after being evicted as part of Hudson’s Urban Renewal in the 1970s, where whole blocks west of Front Street were bulldozed to construct new housing. Without the Furgary Shacks a stroll away, he stopped coming by as much.

One of the shacks became a “drug den,” in the early 1980s, Alfred said, and when he came by in later years, dealers or their friends would demand to know why he was down there.

“I was practically raised down here,” Alfred said. “It used to get me to goddamn mad.”

Though several other people I talked to said they had pleasant memories of Shantytown in the 1980s, Alfred said Furgary had gone downhill by this time, overrun by a new crew that fought and took drugs.

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Tiffany Martin Hamilton stands on the porch of her family’s shack.

Tiffany

I first learned the family of Hudson Mayor Tiffany Martin Hamilton had a shack during a ceremony to reopen the area surrounding them — the shacks themselves are still boarded off due to structural damage they’ve faced since the evictions in 2012.

A bunch of former Shantytowners showed up to the ceremony, some drunk, and berated Tiffany for what they saw as her compliance with former Mayor Gene Hallenback’s order to clear the shacks. One of them called out that Tiffany’s father would be ashamed of her, and I saw how upset the comment made her.

Tiffany was born in 1970, and spent much of her childhood years around her family’s shack. The oldest section of the shack was built more than 100 years ago and was passed through the generations since then. Along the way, it has been reconstructed, added onto and patched from materials found around town. Part of the shack is constructed from the roof of an old Polish church in town that was ripped down in the 1920s.

“Contrary to popular belief,” Tiffany said of Shantytown, “it was in many ways like a family.”

Tiffany spent a lot of time in Shantytown after school with other children, and her father was also down there regularly, announcing he was going “down to the dock” many evenings.

Shantytown wasn’t the only group of shacks that bloomed out of the shores of the Hudson. Until the 1960s, there was a group of shacks just to the south of Hudson, called the “Southside Club,” where both recreational and commercial fishermen launched their craft.

There was also a group of shacks on the far side of a large island in the Hudson River just

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The Furgary Shack’s boat launch leading to the railroad bridge

off the city. Tiffany’s family owned one of these shacks since they built it in the 1960s, and Tiffany and other children would spend their summer vacations om the island.

Tiffany’s parents were concerned about their children being caught on the river in a metal boat during a lightning storm, so they didn’t allow Tiffany or her friends out on the water when there was rain in the forecast, she said.

“We’d always have to sit and listen to the radio to see what the weather was going to do, and there were days we would just sit here the whole day …[to] see if it would rain or not rain so we could get out on the boat and go over to the island,” she said.

They passed the time listening to the old-timers tell stories, and Tiffany remembered one of them — Remmy — who whittled ducks out of wood while yarning.

The shacks on the island didn’t have electricity, but Tiffany remembers them as “the coolest thing ever” as she and other children explored the island, occasionally checking in with their grandparents.

“You got muddy, you got dirty, you ate food that sometimes fell into the sand…and nobody died, nobody got food poisoning — we all lived,” she said.

When asked what she would like to see happen to the shacks, Tiffany, who is not running for another term, said she would like it turned into a “Nature’s Classroom”-type education center.

“People could come and learn about the traditional use of the river and the North Bay, and maybe have a storage space for kayaks and canoes, and have [Shantytown] be used for what it was supposed to be,” she said.

 

Richelle

I ate lunch with Richelle Matin at the café at Columbia Memorial Hospital where she works as the manager. She also has fond memories of Shantytown and the shacks on the island, but said the latter were burned down around 1980.

Rumors swirled about how the 10-or-so shacks burned, with most people saying a group of kids set fire to them one-by-one in an orgy of adolescent destruction. Another rumor claimed the state, which owned the island the shacks sat on, set fire to the shanties because they didn’t want anyone squatting on their land.

Either way, the culprit was never found, and it wasn’t the first time these shacks were ransacked. Richelle remembers people hiding things before the cold months, when the island lay barren.

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The Furgary Shacks: Detail

“People had hidey holes,” she said. “They would dig holes in the sand, and bury equipment and things they didn’t want touched…we tried not to leave things that people could use to wreak damage. It was really upsetting to go up there the first time (each year) —  we usually weren’t allowed.”

The kids brought bikes across and rode them through the verdant wilderness of the island with zero parental supervision, exploring, romping: being kids.

Richelle and her gang of prepubescents had a clubhouse plastered with magazine cut-outs of Sean and David Cassidy where they would play euchre, rummy and poker over a lit hibachi to keep warm on chill nights. Richelle noted how unsafe it was to have a smoking grill indoors, but it was just part of the devil-may-care attitude of the island’s wildness.

The kid’s chores on the island were like those of the Swiss Family Robinson — keeping the beach clear of eel grass and ferns and throwing dead fish back in the river so the dogs wouldn’t roll in them.

There were parties on the island, Richelle said, including a Christmas in July celebration. Other times, her grandmother would make clam chowder in a giant pot and wheel the results up and down the row of shacks, visiting with each family and eating.

“If someone said, ‘here’s your one day, go back to wherever you want,” Richelle said. “I would totally go there.”

When Richelle reached her teens, her parents started to try to ban her from Shantytown because they were concerned she would go down there and drink.  Richelle would sneak out at night to do just that.

There was a division of opinion in Hudson about Shantytown while it was open, Richelle said.

“You either knew someone down there and hung out down there, or you hated the place,” she said.

“The misconception is, around the older — I’m going to say among the older Republican males in this town — is that, [Furgary] was sucking a lot of city taxpayer money, like to maintain it…but the truth was, they didn’t really take anything from the city, everyone down there took care of their own stuff.”

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Leo

Leo Bower led me through the shacks with a bow-legged jaunt, pointing to each structure and rattling off the names of the former owners and a quick description of what went on inside.

He gestured to the shacks’ boat launch leading into the North Bay.

“Here’s where a man drove down here,” he said pointing into the bay. “Thought it was a driveway. He was in the car in the water all night long and then we got him and the ambulance came and took him.”

I asked him if the man was drunk.

“No, just an old man, — getting dementia or something and he just didn’t know.”

Leo is now in his early 60s, but he reserves the term “old-timer” for the people he mentions in his stories about the shacks — people older than his father’s generation, all gone now.

“I try to keep their memories alive with people and that, because they were unique people, you don’t find people like them, not anymore, not like that.”

Leo’s family lived at the intersection of Second Street and Allen when Leo was growing up. His father, Phillip, bought the families first shack in the late 1960s.

Though the people of Shantytown never owned the land the shacks stood on, it wasn’t uncommon for the shacks to be bought and sold. The prices were low, partially because the transfer of property tended to be between close friends and families. Phillip Bower sold one of his shacks to Leo’s friends in 1986 for $350, or $780 in 2017 dollars.

Many of the old-timers were iron workers, Leo said, living in Hudson and traveling to work on projects across the Capital Region.

“Them guys were a tough crew,” Leo said. “I told people they could chew nails and spit them in the wall; they were tough.”

There was a big drinking culture in Shantytown. It was mostly beer — Leo said the drink of choice was kegs of Genny Cream Ale.

There were also parties in Shantytown — Leo and others remembered a traditional fest in Spring to commemorate the beginning of the warm season, and Leo said they held big fish-fries after Shantytowners went angling in the Atlantic.

It was more common for Shantytowners to net fish out of the Hudson, but Leo said they

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Phillip Bower’s shad shack

only went for ocean fish that migrated up the river and avoided the polluted fish that lived there year-round. Many netted shad and herring, and at least two, including Phillip Bower, sold them.

The shad were soaked in a mixture of brine, sugar and molasses for about a day before they were smoked, then sold out of the shacks for $2 a half.

Leo also dined on turtle soup and frog legs from the river, which he insists were delicious.

Women, at least in his area of the shacks, were scant, Leo said.

“A lot of women weren’t allowed down there,” he said. “It was mostly men — that was like a man-cave type thing — fishing, hunting, that’s what it all was about.”

One woman who did make it down to the Furgary was Leo wife; they married there in 1982 after living together for ten years, and are still married today.

“I had my reception down there, [it was] the happiest time of my life,” Leo said. “I got married on the boat at the boat club, then I had my reception down [at Shantytown], because I only had two quarters to put together. It costs money to have a wedding.”

Though a couple of people I talked to said no one lived in the shacks year-round, the opinion is split, with Leo saying he knew several people who lived in the shacks permanently. The shacks were sophisticated enough to have electricity, though this led to a row when the administration of then-mayor Gene Hallenback called National Grid on Shantytown, and representatives of the power company came down to see if the residents were siphoning juice.

The representatives arrived and found every shanty with electric had a meter and was paying their bills, so left apologetically, but it was viewed as a tactic by the city to shut down Shantytown, something that was accomplished only a few years later.

There were dark stories from Shantytown too. Leo recalls a Shantytowner who drank himself to death, and how he confronted the man’s friends afterwards.

“I said you killed Steve…the man don’t work, the man don’t got no money, he lives at his father’s house up on the hill…how he’d get drunk, how’d he get high every day? — his friends.”

Leo is attempting to get Shantytown on the National Register of Historical Places, but the actual owners — the city — has to sign off on it, something Mayor Tiffany Martin Hamilton said is cost-prohibitive, because of the cost of rehabbing the shacks and liabilities.

Shantytown is in ill health now. The windows have all been busted out, timber has rotted, and several shacks off a boardwalk wrapping around the West side of the North Bay have collapsed into the water.

Leo said the ice will eventually destroy Shantytown. Shantytowners would repair the damage from the ice every Spring after the sewage plant was built, but as they now lay uninhabited, the shacks will all crumble into the bay, and the ancient neighborhood will only exist in memory.

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