Every year on April 22, people around the world pause to rally for the planet. Earth Day has become a global event, part demonstration, part celebration, as concerned citizens lend their support to a natural world that’s increasingly in peril. That sense of urgency was there from the very beginning: April 22, 1970, marked the first national Earth Day, and an estimated 20 million people took part across the United States, attending rallies and teach-ins, planting trees, and cleaning up streets, parks, rivers, and beaches.

New York City had a massive turnout, larger than any other city in the United States. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As the New-York Historical Society’s online exhibition Hudson Rising demonstrates, the Hudson River region had been an incubator of environmental thinking and awareness for over a century.

A group of marchers carry a tree on 5th Ave., on April 20, 1970 (Courtesy CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy)

New Yorkers fully embraced the idea of Earth Day. Organizers in New York chose 5th Ave. and Union Square as the primary locations for the festivities. It wasn’t an accident that they picked the historic epicenter of social activism and the dirty heart of the city. “Earth Day is a day of action, education, and involvement—a day when people go into the streets—the teeming streets, if you will—and there have brought forcibly to their attention the filth of the gutters, the stench of the air, the screech of auto horns, the grime of the subways, the taste of contaminated food, and the roar of construction,” the organizers said.

Children of the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Union Square (Associated Press)

How Earth Day First Bloomed

It was just this awareness of environmental destruction and ruin that helped inspire Earth Day in the first place. It was first proposed by Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin who had been frustrated by Congress’s inaction on environmental issues. Citizen advocacy groups were springing up around the country, especially on college campuses, but very little was happening at a national level. In the late summer of 1969, on a trip to the west coast for a series of environmentally-themed speeches, Sen. Nelson witnessed the devastating impact of a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, CA, earlier that year. Inspired by the success of anti-war teach-ins in raising public awareness about and outrage over the Vietnam War, Nelson thought that model might work to educate and energize the American public about pollution and other environmental issues.

Original Earth Day pin, 1970 (New-York Historical Society)

Nelson created a non-profit organization, Environmental Teach-In, Inc., and hired 25-year-old Denis Hayes, a former Stanford University student-body president, as national coordinator. They quickly settled on April 22, 1970, as the date for a nationwide teach-in. It fell on a Wednesday and was between spring break and final exams on most college campuses, thus offering the best chance for broad student participation. Nelson and Hayes worked to keep Earth Day educational and non-partisan and had already agreed that the teach-ins should, wherever possible, be located not on college campuses, but in public spaces within the community. They also sought to enlist the participation of organizations such as labor unions, the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood, the American Cancer Society, and established environmental groups such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

A Hudson-centric poster from the first Earth Day (New York Public Library)

Nelson’s Senate staff lent its full support and guidance to the work of Hayes and his assistants, only a few of whom were salaried at meager levels. Hampered from the start by an extremely limited budget (less than $200,000), Hayes rented an office in Washington D.C. and gathered an enthusiastic cadre of volunteers, most of them students. The most promising and the most dedicated of these were named coordinators for various regions of the country. Working in an atmosphere Midwest Coordinator Barbara Reid Alexander recalls as “mass confusion,” they were inundated daily by torrents of phone calls and overflowing mailbags.

One marketing masterstroke was the purchase of a full-page ad for a national Earth Day that appeared in the New York Times early in February 1970. Almost immediately, contributions started to roll in. Even better, it grabbed the attention of the network broadcasting giants.

Big Day in the Big Apple

New York City mayor John Lindsay closed 5th Ave. to traffic, turning the stretch from 59th St. to 14th St. into a massive pedestrian thoroughfare for several hours in the middle of the day. Participants could stroll down the avenue, where storefronts set out streetside cafés, musicians performed, and the grand main location of the New York Public Library on 42nd St. hosted an impressive line-up of speakers, including Mayor Lindsay and writers Alfred Kazin and Kurt Vonnegut.

The crowd listening to speakers in Union Square, while one man cleans the statue (Associated Press)

Union Square became the focus of dozens of Earth Day observances throughout the day, with 14th St. between 3rd Ave. and 7th Ave. cleared of vehicles from noon to midnight. An estimated 100,000 New Yorkers passed through Union Square that day, stopping at booths focused on everything from clean air and water, to conservation and wildlife, to urban planning and the war in Vietnam.

Richie Garrett, president of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association (HRFA), which had been pursuing industrial polluters on the Hudson River for almost five years at that point, spoke to the crowds in Union Square, along with Leonard Bernstein, cast members from Hair, the singer Odetta, actors Paul Newman and Ali MacGraw, and various New York state politicians. “The Hudson is my life,” Garrett told the crowd. “The country has problems with drugs and crimes and racial hatred. But the way I figure it, clean water and clean air and a clean earth is the most important issue of all. If we lose our rivers, the other social problems will be dwarfed. Black or white, hawk or dove, we’ll all drown in garbage up to our eyeballs.”

A Pace College student in a gas mask “smells” a magnolia blossom in City Hall Park in New York City on April 22, 1970 (Associated Press)

The HRFA was a key participant in an ongoing battle against Con Edison’s proposed hydroelectric power plant on Storm King Mountain, a story that’s detailed in Hudson Rising. By Earth Day 1970, the fight over the plant had been going on for seven years. As part of that struggle, the fishermen drew public attention to the massive fish kills occurring at Con Edison’s Indian Point nuclear power plant, just down the river from Storm King. On Earth Day, some young demonstrators sought to make that issue visible—and pungent—to New York City residents, displaying dead striped bass and telling onlookers, “You’re next, people! You’re next!” Con Ed, for their part, supplied the brooms, shovels, and rakes used by fourth graders from the Sacred Heart School to clean up Union Square that morning, and provided Mayor Lindsay with an electric-powered bus to move from speech to speech on Earth Day.

Another prominent New Yorker traveled to Washington, D.C., to spread the message. Folk singer and Hudson River activist Pete Seeger, a resident of Beacon, N.Y., and another figure in Hudson Rising, sailed his new sloop Clearwater down the Hudson and on to D.C. where he performed for crowds on the Washington Mall and spoke to Congress. (Read more about Seeger’s life and activism here.)

The sloop Clearwater sails past a junkyard in Newburgh, New York, on its way Earth Day activities in Washington, D.C. (Chapman University/Getty Images)

Legacy of the First Earth Day

Earth Day did more than bring people out into the streets. The scope of Earth Day activities demonstrated for both the American public and the political establishment that there was real momentum behind the environmental movement. In New York, where state voters had passed a Pure Waters Bond Act in 1965, designating nearly $1 billion for sewage treatment plants and other efforts to clean up the Hudson River, April 22, 1970, marked the creation of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, one of the first such agencies in the nation. By the end of 1970, Congress and President Richard Nixon had agreed on the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the Clean Air Act, requiring federal emissions and air-quality standards. Legislation which would become the landmark Clean Water Act (passed in 1972) was also underway.

Hudson Rising traces the interconnections between humans and their environment since the beginning of the industrial and fossil-fuel age. Earth Day 1970 marked a period of intense environmental activism, when Americans stepped up to reclaim places like the Hudson River from the impacts of intense industrialization. This activism built on the mobilizations and strategies that had helped protect the Hudson River in previous years and continues to provide a model for the challenges we still face today. “The tasks ahead are enormous,” Denis Hayes wrote in the months leading up to Earth Day. “But there’s little survival value in pessimismand we are beginning to dare to hope.”

Written by Bekah Friedman, Project Historian for Hudson Rising

Sources:

New York Public Library’s “Informed Archives: The Environmental Action Coalition and the Birth of Earth Day,” Meredith Mann, April 20, 2017

Denis Hayes, “Environmental Teach-In,” p. 13, Living Wilderness, Spring 1970. Text of a statement given Jan. 20, 1970

Jack Lewis, “The Spirit of the First Earth Day,” EPA Journal, January/February 1990

New York Public Library’s “Informed Archives: The Environmental Action Coalition and the Birth of Earth Day,” Meredith Mann, April 20. 2017

New York Times, April 23, 1970  “Millions Join Earth Day Observances Across the Nation,” p.1, 30

John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., The Riverkeepers (New York: Scribner, 1997)

Denis Hayes, “Environmental Teach-In,” p. 13, Living Wilderness, Spring 1970. Text of a statement given Jan. 20, 1970

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