hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2019-January 2020


Tale from a river town

Conflict over Hudson fishing shacks provides inspiration for novel


A real-life controversy over a cluster of old fishing shanties along the Hudson River in Hudson, N.Y., has become the basis for a local author’s new novel. Susan Sabino photo


A real-life controversy over a cluster of old fishing shanties along the Hudson River in Hudson, N.Y., has become the basis for a local author’s new novel. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


In the pre-dawn hours of a summer morning in 2012, Hudson’s city police were dispatched to evict the occupants of a cluster of 17 fishing shacks along the Hudson River.
The 3 a.m. raid abruptly ended a simmering dispute over control of that part of the city’s waterfront, although the fishing shanties have lingered, abandoned and deteriorating, in the years since.

Now this slice of Hudson’s recent history has become the basis of novel that draws its inspiration from the waterfront community that was variously known at the Furgary Boat Club, Shantytown and the North Dock Tin Boat Association.

William Shannon, author
William Shannon of Germantown wrote the novel, “The River’s Never Full,” based on his own experiences and research into the history of the fishing shacks and their occupants.
“Something about the shacks has always fascinated me,” Shannon said. “I thought their history and the circumstances surrounding the evictions would make a great story.”

Shannon’s book, published by Two-Headed Calf Press and due out Dec. 8, will be available at Spotty Dog Books & Ale on Warren Street and online via Lulu.com.

By coincidence, the book’s release is happening as the city is preparing to release a long-awaited plan to start rehabilitating the site of the shacks with a $150,000 state grant. What’s unknown is whether city officials will propose to demolish the shacks or to preserve at least some of the structures, as local history enthusiasts have urged.


Link to a city’s past
The 17 ramshackle buildings, some of which are believed to date from the 19th century, are clustered along a couple of dirt roads on the North Bay of the Hudson River, just beyond the intersection of North Front and Dock streets. The buildings are just across narrow inlet from railroad tracks that carry a daily fleet of Amtrak trains between New York City and Albany.
Although the fishing village is within walking distance of Warren Street’s restaurants and boutiques, its location along the waterfront below downtown gives the site a remote and mysterious air.

The waterfront area was once a center of activity. The shacks were built individually over time, beginning around the 1880s, as part-time or seasonal dwellings in an era when people regularly caught shad and sturgeon from the Hudson. Most of the occupants were local people of modest means, and they often built the shacks with salvaged materials. Some of the occupants fished for recreation; others did so for income.

People bought and sold the buildings over time or passed them down in their families, but the ownership of the land underneath the structures was ambiguous.

The shacks’ image and reputation evolved over the years. Some families lived there seasonally for vacations. But especially in more recent decades, the Furgary shacks were known as a place where men escaped to fish, hunt, drink and carouse.

Some say the encampment’s reputation took a darker turn after the 1970s, when the activities of some occupants turned to more dubious pursuits such as hard drug use. Some people in the wider community perceived the shacks and their occupants as unwelcoming to outsiders.
The shacks became a source of contention in their later years. About a decade ago, a group of owners of the buildings went to court in an effort to gain legal ownership to the land under their structures, based on their long-term occupancy of the site. But the court ruled against them.
The city later gained legal ownership of the land and made plans to demolish the fishing shacks, citing them as a legal liability. City officials served eviction notices to the occupants in 2012.
A group of the shacks’ residents refused to leave. Tensions rose until the police showed up at 3 a.m. to evict the shanty dwellers.

Since then the shacks have been vacant and in limbo. The structures are still standing, but their condition has deteriorated.


The River's Never Full, William Shannon book coverTruth in fiction
Shannon’s novel covers the period around the evictions. Its plot centers on a young newspaper reporter who spends time getting to know the Furgary community and its occupants. The story reaches its climax with the eviction, including a raid with a SWAT team.

Shannon, who was a reporter for the Hudson Register-Star at the time of the eviction, stressed that his book is a mixture of fact and fiction. The plot does not follow the actual events exactly as they occurred, and the characters are fictitious.

“It captures the history and basic events in general,” he said. “But I did take some liberties. I decided to write it as a novel rather than a straight history, because I think in some ways you can be more truthful in a work of fiction.”

He said “The River’s Never Full” also addresses larger themes.
“It’s a story that repeats itself in different forms at different places,” he said. “Cultures come and cultures go. This was an example of a little culture being taken away and dying.”
He also was interested in how human nature played out in the differing actions and responses of the members of the Furgary community, city officials and others.

“There were egos involved, which led to conflicts,” he said.
Shannon, who grew up in Germantown, is currently on the staff of Camphill Hudson, a supportive community for people with developmental and other disabilities.

He is also a freelance writer for various publications including The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. (Among other articles, he wrote a feature story on the shacks for The New York Times in 2017.) He also has written an oral history, “Hudson River Zeitgeist,” and has an online blog of the same name (hudsonriverzeitgeist.com).

Shannon, who is also an amateur student of marine life and an avid kayaker, said his interest in the Furgary shacks extends back to his youth. He and his friends spent a lot of time at the waterfront community when they were teenagers.
“I always felt comfortable with the people there,” he said.


An unfinished story
Shannon left Columbia County to attend college. He was a student at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, and then moved to New York City, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism in 2012 from Columbia University. He covered the Occupy Wall Street protests and murders in the Bronx while interning at the New York Daily News.
Then he returned to the area and joined the staff of the Register-Star.

“The events leading to the evictions were coming to a head at that time,” he recalled.
The idea of a novel grew out of that, and Shannon said he actually wrote the book about four years ago.

“But after that, I put it away,” he said.
Then a filmmaker, Devyn Waitt, heard about the book.
“She reached out to me, and I sent her a copy, and she said she wanted to publish it under her new publishing venture,” Shannon said.

In reality, the story of the Furgary shacks is still an unfinished tale. Since the 2012 evictions, the shacks have remained in a kind of limbo.

Although city officials and others have expressed general agreement about the need to do something with the site, there have been differences about what that should be.

Some see the shacks as a remnant of local history that should be preserved in some form. Others believe they are derelict and dangerous eyesores that should be demolished. Some have suggested stabilizing and preserving at least one of the shacks as part of a new park on the site.
A cleanup of the site was included in a package of 13 city or private projects to be funded through a $10 million grant from the state Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

A city committee now is drafting a plan for the $150,000 earmarked for the Furgary shacks site. Details of the plan are expected in early 2020.