A Catskill Catalog: April 1, 2009
Take a ride on Route 30 around the scenic Pepacton Reservoir to the lower East Branch of the Delaware River. Three miles south of Downsville, an impressive old green Roebling-style suspension bridge marks the entrance to Corbett.
Corbett’s calling cards these days are that bridge and a 75-foot tapered red-brick chimney that rises just beyond it, along with an impressive little white clapboard community center and pavilion a few yards up the road. Otherwise, the hamlet, in the Town of Colchester, is pretty similar to scores of other mountain villages: a couple streets, a bunch of houses, an out-of-business store or two.
The bridge itself might be enough to make Corbett interesting. There are very few suspension bridges in the Catskills. Suspension bridge building was the invention of John Augustus Roebling, a 19th-Century German immigrant civil engineer, whose wire-rope suspension bridge design, made famous by the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, revolutionized civil engineering.
Roebling’s wire rope revolution began on the Delaware River. He built suspension aqueducts to carry the Delaware & Hudson Canal over the Delaware. Today, the Roebling bridge between Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania and Minisink Ford, New York, down on Route 97, is a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
The 170-foot Corbett Bridge was built in 1926, based on Roebling’s design principles. It was built by Corbett and Stuart, the firm founded by a pair of families who built Corbett and owned the entire village for nine decades. In 1892, Julius and Merrit Corbett, John Stuart and their wives bought, from farmer Bryan Landfield, 167 acres along Campbell Brook from Soules Hill to the river. Their purpose – build a wood acid factory. They ended up building what is said to be the largest acid plant ever built. That 75-foot chimney is all that is left.
Wood acid was a major industrial product a hundred years ago. A range of industrial solvents were extracted from the dry distillation of wood, a process of heating, cooling, distilling, and extracting that was one of the earliest manifestations of the emerging American chemical industry. Acetic acid, acetate of lime, wood alcohol, and charcoal were all produced by the acid factories.
According to the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science &Technology, “Many modern chemical engineering operations developed through the study of acetic acid production.” Along the upper Delaware, Neversink, and Susquehanna rivers, there were 45 acid factories in the 1890s. Seventy other factories operated in northern Pennsylvania. Dry wood distillation was big business in the western and southern Catskill region.
Wood distillation required massive quantities of timber for burning and a constant supply of water for cooling. That’s why factories were located along our mountain streams, in places like Cadosia and Cooks Falls, Hale Eddy and Fishs Eddy, Shinhopple and Shavertown. From around 1898 to 1916 an acid plant operated in Arkville on the north side of the river near today’s Pavilion Road.
But the Corbett factory was the biggest. Corbett and Stuart built a large plant with numerous buildings, retorts and ovens that exhausted through that tall brick chimney. They had a company store, a freight house and rail siding on the old Delaware & Northern Railroad, a telegraph office, and a Delco plant to produce electricity. Thirty-five company houses provided homes for workers. Corbett was a company town.
The company employed an army of woodcutters, mostly immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, and the Czech lands. They earned $1.20 to $3 per day, supplying the factory with the 60 to 80 cords of wood it consumed every day.
Such indiscriminate cutting decimated the forest. The discharge of waste byproducts into the streams polluted the waters. In 1890, The New York Times reported on the efforts of fishermen and resort owners to stop the pollution. Naturally, acid manufacturers – Corbett and Stuart was not yet in business – claimed that “the destructive effects of their refuse is greatly exaggerated.”
Corbett and Stuart’s factory reached its height of production during World War I. Critical to the production of gunpowder was one of its products: acetone, a volatile colorless industrial solvent similar to today’s nail polish remover. After the war, business slowed, as other chemical products replaced their wood-based counterparts. In 1934, the plant closed.
But Corbett remained in the family. Leonard and Merrit Stuart, sons of co-founder John Stuart, owned the village. By 1972, Lenny’s widow, Bula, was the lone landlord, renting the former company houses for $32 a month. In 1977, she decided to sell.
I remember when the hamlet of Corbett was for sale. It was a pretty unusual and interesting thing. The Institute of Man and Science of Rensselaerville bought it, as a self-help rehabilitation effort, setting up a village corporation. The Institute’s plans attracted the attention of CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt, and Corbett was featured on that network’s “Sunday Morning” TV program in 1977.
Today, Corbett is a hamlet of the Town of Colchester. A photograph of the acid factory hangs in the community center, one of the few reminders of the company town that it once was.