Hudson River vs. North River: which is right?

Anyone familiar with old New York maps and guidebooks has probably seen it: the river running along the western side of Manhattan is referred to as the North River, not the Hudson, as we know it today.

I always believed that North River was an old-school name for this body of water that fell out of favor after the turn of the 20th century.

But then I came across this plaque from 1960, affixed to Pier 40, the massive site built as a terminal for the Holland America cruise ship line that now serves as a recreational facility for Hudson River Park.

The plaque refers to the “Pier 40 North River.” As far as I can tell, most people by 1960 were calling it the Hudson. So which name is right?

Turns out the part of the Hudson parallel to Manhattan is actually the North River.

“The North River is that section of the mighty Hudson River which runs from the tip of Manhattan Island, at the Battery, northward to approximately beneath the George Washington Bridge—a distance of 11.3 miles,” states one 2008 book, Railroad Ferries on the Hudson.

“It is always called the North River by people in the shipping industry, with the name Hudson generally reserved for that stretch above Yonkers where Hudson River pilots are taken on board.”

The Dutch apparently named the river the North River to distinguish it from other rivers in the fledgling New Netherlands colony, like the East River and the South River (today’s Delaware River).

Nevertheless, a century later, there must have been some confusion over what to call it. Both names were in use even in colonial times—as this 1781 British map on the left shows.

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9 Responses to “Hudson River vs. North River: which is right?”

  1. Ty Says:

    The nautical industry still use only North River on their charts and communication.

    I always thought it similar to the way NYC Transit still internally refers to the system by IRT, BMT, and IND.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Good analogy! I think that sums it up.

  3. Ty Says:

    The other thing about the North/Hudson river is that it is not even a river until somewhere north of Poughkeepsie. Know-it-alls like me will tell you it’s a tidal estuary.

    I loved the brackish salt water smell, so every evening I’d head out to Pier 66 with my dog and a six pack and, along with others, watch the sun set. Some days the river flowed north, other’s it flowed south and sometimes it just churned, which the seagulls just loved for bringing dinner up from the bottom.

  4. Velvethead Says:

    I learned something today !

  5. Pat Regan Says:

    I must revise my story. I fell off the Bank Street pier into the North River when I was a kid.

  6. Bill Friedman Says:

    Just to throw a curveball in this theory, there is a Hamlet of North River on the banks of the Hudson about 150 miles north of the GWB in the Adirondacks.

  7. Edward Says:

    It’s still in use today, but not by most New Yorkers. In the film “Sully,” Capt. Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) states that he has to make a water landing in “the North River.” I assume the term is still in use in aviation/maritime circles, and on some maps.

  8. Mary Says:

    Can I ask where the postcard image of the North River is from?

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