A Catskill Catalog: August 8, 2012

Catskill Mountain bluestone helped build America in the last half of the 1800s and the first couple decades of the 1900s.

From 1850 to 1920, bluestone was the material of choice for building foundations, sidewalks, and curbstones in New York, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and other major cities. Bluestone was prized for being hard, long lasting and quick drying. It does not become slick with wear, and makes a perfect paver.

The Ulster County ports at Rondout and Malden were major shipping centers. Barges and sloops loaded with cut slabs of quarried rock ferried the stuff to New York, where it was used, or shipped further, some sent overseas. Havana, Cuba boasts Catskill Mountain sidewalks.

Bluestone is rock composed of compressed sand that lay on the floor of ancient rivers and seas, 380 million years ago. That was the Upper Devonian Era in geologic time, the period when the earliest vegetation grew. The Gilboa fossils, artifacts of that age, provide us a glimpse into Devonian Seas in a roadside display on Route 990V, north of Grand Gorge.

That water-bottom sand was covered with earth many times over, as the eons progressed, before time existed, before humanity’s creation.

As layer upon layer of earth pressed down on the sand, new particles interlaced with the old sand, each earth layer pressing inexorably down, hardening rock. Bluestone!
Not all bluestone is blue. The eons-long process creating the stone included the addition of particles with differing chemical components, resulting in a color palette that runs from the typical blue-gray to purple, brown, and yellow.

Slabs of bluestone had been used by people for centuries before anyone recognized its commercial value. Native people and colonials alike used pieces for walls, chimney caps, tombstones, well covers, and building blocks. The opportunistic use of useful slabs of found stone continues to this day. Stone cut by local artisans for horse troughs and hitching posts preceded bluestones commercial awakening.

In 1831, Silas Brainard developed the first commercial mountain quarry in Ulster County. Brainard had worked at a quarry in Coeymans, up in Albany County, and he recognized the bluestone that formed the very ground on William Van Valkenburgh’s farm, located on today’s Fish Creek Road, in the Town of Saugerties, between Route 212 and Glasco Turnpike. He bought the land and started to take out stone.

Soon, a bluestone road was laid to the Hudson, and big pieces of stone were going downriver to New York.

The boom hit about 20 years later, as cities began a last-half-of-the-century burst of municipal improvements – sewers, water systems, paved roads, curbs and sidewalks. Catskill Mountain bluestone proved to be the perfect material for growing cities.

The road west from Kingston, precursor to today’s Route 28, soon became a bluestone road, with quarries in West Hurley, Olive and Shokan. The old road traveled south of our present highway, and much of the old “Bluestone Way” is now under the Ashokan Reservoir. But quarry after quarry sent bluestone-laden wagons down the road to Rondout for shipping.

In Hurley, a piece of the old road is still visible. Tremendous thick slabs of bluestone paved the road. In them, the heavy stone-laden wagons wore ruts in the stone, tracks that soon became the inverted rails wagon-wheels followed.

In 1938, sculptor Harvey Fite bought an abandoned 13-acre quarry near the original Fish Creek site. It is said he paid $250 for the place, an open pit of empty spaces and broken stone.
He started to cut and dig, with an artist’s eye, and cut and dug and built and placed stone for the next 37 years, creating, by the time of his death in 1976, a monumental stone-works sculpture over six acres in size.

Today, Opus 40 is open to the public, Thursday through Sunday, May to October. It really is a must-see. Famed New Yorker critic Brendan Gil has called Opus 40, “the greatest earthwork sculpture I have ever seen,” and “one of the most beguiling works of art on the entire continent.” It all started with Catskill Mountain bluestone.

The 3,000-acre Bluestone Wild Forest, just three miles west of Kingston, is a state recreation area created from lands that had been heavily quarried in the 19th century. Onteora Lake is a long narrow, 16-acre waterway, popular with kayakers and anglers, formed in former quarry lands. The forest is dotted with used-up quarry sites, a great example, really, of industrial land reclamation and the adaptive re-use of mines.

Today, the center of the bluestone industry has moved west, to western Delaware County and eastern Broome, and down into Pennsylvania, where Montrose, PA, 50 miles north of Scranton, is today’s Bluestone Capital.

But once, the stuff now promoted as Pennsylvania Bluestone carried the Catskill Mountain brand, and our rock paved the world.
billbirns@gmail.com