By Heejin Park
Suppose that you are walking in a forest in Kingston, upstate New York. The first thing you will notice is that trees there look quite young. Then, you will be surprised to notice something unusual about the rocks there in the forest. You will see that their edges are carved perpendicularly – something you do not easily see in common forest rocks. What happened to those rocks? Who is responsible for their odd shapes? Why do the trees look so young? All those questions can be solved by just one answer: the forest you are walking in used to be a bluestone quarry.
Then you will question, “What is a bluestone quarry? Does it mean that there used to be a business in this forest a long time ago?” First, to answer the second question, yes. There used to be a business there – not just a business, but quite active one, in fact. The bluestone industry was inseparable from the urban construction of New York City in the late 19th century and early 20th century. “Bluestone,” a product unique to the quarries in this area, was a main material for the vast network of sidewalks that stretches along the city of New York. You are now walking in a forest of trees, which is a remnant of a big urban project – the one that enabled early New Yorkers to walk in the forest of buildings.
Bluestone refers to the series of feldspathic sandstones produced mainly in eastern North America. In German, the term “feldspath” means “a field rock that does not contain ore.” The term “sandstone” stands for a sedimentary rock which consists essentially of quartz. Sandstones in general are relatively soft compared to other kinds of rocks. Furthermore, bluestone is fine-grained and evenly bedded. Yet, bluestone’s most distinguishing characteristic is that it tends to split along planes parallel to the bedding, so as to yield smooth, thin slabs – much like slates. As much as it is a combination of the characteristics above, bluestone is very easy to process, and therefore, suitable as a construction material.
Yet, the fact that bluestone in itself is chemically apt for a construction material was not the only factor that led to its extensive use in New York City. Bluestone’s characteristic as New York State’s unique specialty also contributed much to its popularity in the Big Apple. In fact, the term “bluestone” itself was coined after the bluish gray-colored sandstone first discovered in Ulster County, New York. Bluestone is speard among one-third of New York State’s total area, which includes the Hamilton, Portage, Chemung, and Catskill. Even in New York State, the counties in Hudson River Valley, such as Ulster County, Greene County and Albany County were the most distinguishable areas in their concentration of bluestone. Many bluestone quarries operated in southern Greene County and northern Ulster County. The largest bluestone quarry in New York was at West Hurley in Ulster County.
Bluestone quarries in the Hudson River Valley were small local enterprises. Since such was the case, workers mined bluestone usually without any mechanical equipment, even at the turn of the 20th century. Yet mechanized mass transportation definitely had its place in the exuberance of the bluestone quarries. The wide occupancy of the bluestone business in New York State was made possible by the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, founded in 1866. Once bluestone was produced from the quarries, it was transported by the railroad to the bluestone business’s chief shipping points, in Catskill, Saugerties and Kingston. There, bluestone was purchased by middlemen at river docks, and then sent to the markets in eastern cities, by barges. Bluestone was relatively light, as it did not contain any ore in it. Such characteristic made the transportation of bluestone inexpensive and efficient.
The establishment of Ulster & Delaware Railroad concurrented with the heyday of the bluestone business, which was from 1870 to 1910. By 1889, at least 10,000 people in Ulster County gained their livelihood in the bluestone industry. In 1912, the total product amounted to $824,949, which is $18,931,738 in 2011 dollars. It was made possible with the popularity of bluestone as an urban construction material which lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The bluestone quarries in the Hudson Valley had easy access to the local labor market, since most quarries were worked intermittently by farmers in the off season of their usual occupations. So the quarries did not have to worry about a shortage of labor in the region.
However, while there was a peak, there also was a downfall, beginning in the mid-1910s. There were mainly three reasons behind the downfall of the bluestone business. First, the demand for bluestone in general began to wane because of the increasing use of cement in street work. Second, the enactment of New Workmen’s Compensation Law in 1910s led to the inactivity and abandonment of many quarries. In 1913, the total product made in the bluestone industry began to decrease, amounting to $753,510, which is $17,117,616 in 2011 dollars. Then in 1914, the total product from the bluestone industry only amounted to $546,314 ($12,286,601 in 2011 dollars). Yet the final, and the most striking reason behind the downfall of the bluestone business was the outflow of labor from upstate New York. In New York State, there had been much abandonment of farms from 1929 to 1940s, mainly because of the Great Depression. This was striking for the bluestone business which depended much on the labor of the off-season farmers in the region. Eventually, by the mid-20th century, the majority of bluestone quarries were abandoned and their lands mostly became forest areas under the ownership of the state government. The abandonment of bluestone quarries continued throughout the late 20th century, and the latest quarry abandoned was disposed in year 1990.
Things change over time. The bluestone industry in the Hudson Valley also could not avoid that simple truth, no matter how it flourished in its old heyday. Yet even in our days, we may experience the traces of its glorious history both in the nature and in the urban landscape. Abandoned bluestone quarries in forests give us peculiar sights to see. The urban landscape of New York would not have been the same without its sidewalks, once covered with shiny bluestone. In the deep blue color of bluestone lies a history – the history of the Empire State.
1. Dickinson, Harold. “Quarries of Bluestone and Other Sandstones in the Upper Devonian of New York State,” New York State Museum Bulletin 61. Albany: NYS Museum Publications, 1903.
2. “Hudson River Bluestone,” The Manufacturer and Builder 21. New York: Western and Company, 1889.
3. Kudish, Michael. “Forest History of the Catskill Mountaintop Heritage Trail,” Hudson Valley Regional Review 14. New York: The Bard Center. 1997.
4. Newland, D. H. “The Mining and Quarry Industry of New York State: Report of Operations and Production during 1914,” New York State Museum Bulletin 178. Albany: NYS Museum Publications, 1914.