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BLUESTONE INDUSTRY

With the discovery of bluestone and the opening of the Delaware and Hudson Canal in 1828, the beginning of a new industry began.  Bluestone from the quarries in Ulster County became a big business.  With the Irish potato famine of 1845 came the influx of Irish to Kingston and surrounding areas.  Most were poor, illiterate and unskilled.  The quarries provided them a means to support their families.  Stonecutters and others came to work the quarries.

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Large bluestone businesses built company houses or “shantys” to house the quarryman and his family. These houses were 16 x 30 feet with hemlock siding, a wood shingled roof, a narrow stairway and four rooms upstairs with small windows. A woodstove heated the house. A typical family of six to ten children plus parents and maybe some elderly folk lived there.

Many of these houses still exist today but have been modified. You’ll know they are quarrymen’s houses by the small windows on the second floor.

Quarrying was carried on eight or nine months of the year. In many quarries no work was done during the winter due to the freezing of reeds in the stone. During months of no work the quarrymen survived the best they could. Many times, they would rely on the “Overseer of the Poor” to see them through the worst of times.

For the quarryman, a good quarry was worth its weight in gold and times were very good. He could provide for his family and have a bit left over. This was a time when a quarryman could be rich in a couple of years. There was great demand for stone and men could command almost any price. This was a time of prosperity and bluestone was sought. Intense competition and cut-throat operations became the norm.

In the Town of Kingston some of the best bluestone came from the Stony Hollow and Jockey Hill areas. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Brooklyn Bridge, the base of the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Pentagon, “Shrine of Our Lady of the Hudson” in Port Ewen, the spillway of the Kingston Reservoir in Zena, to mention a few, are said to have come from these quarries. Throughout the northeast, bluestone was used for sidewalks, curbing, window sills, doorways, benches, fountains and much more.

Examples of Bluestone Use

Transportation

It took teams of six to ten horses to haul the bluestone from deep within the forest to the stone docks on the Rondout.  Sometimes the stone slabs were so large, it took two to three days just to haul them out of the woods.  Deadly accidents were a common occurrence.  Explosions, lung disease, falling rocks, fatalities involving horses and drivers, to name a few, were just a small part of the dangerous conditions quarrymen faced each day.

Accidents

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Driving wagons down steep grades was dangerous and many fatal accidents occurred.  The danger lay in the hills.  Often the teamsters would have long hauls from the quarries to the foot of the hills and then on to the docks.  Depending on the distance of the quarry, it could take up to two or three days just to haul it to the road.  From there stone wagons were driven to the docks.  If the hill was steep not only going up was a problem for the horses but more worrisome was going down.  These loads could weigh as much as 15 to 20 tons.  Sometimes the brake would give way or the momentum too much for the horses.  It was not unusual for there to be fatalities for both driver and horses. 

This 1895 picture shows an accident at the corner of North Front Street and Washington Avenue.

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Bridge Stone

To transport the stone to the railroads or docks, teams from two to eight horses were used.  Many times, special wagons with up to eight wheels were used.  The wheels were about 2 inches wide and were very destructive to the plank or wooden roads.  In 1870 the planks were replaced with bluestone.  This stone was called “Bridge Stone”.

The bridging consisted of thick stone laid as a track for the wagon wheels.  Many heavy wagon loads of stone and barrel heads moving over the roads wore deep groves in the center of the stone.  When the groves became too deep the stone was broken in two places and replaced with new stone.

Tools of the Trade

All mining and finishing were done by hand with hammers, wedges, hand drills and stone axes.  In the early days holes were drilled by using hand drills and points.  In later years equipment included steam or air drills.

The Quarry Shop

Thee shops were set up to repair and sharpen tools.  Some quarrymen became expert blacksmiths and made their own tools out of steel bars of various shapes and sizes.  The quarry shop was built of frame construction or stone walled along the sides with wood or a tar paper roof.  During cold weather the shop was used as a place to eat dinner and exchange news with other quarrymen.

William Hulsair is pictured here repairing and sharpening tools.

Rondout Dock

The Hudson River Bluestone Company was owned by Hewitt Boice. In the years around 1900, sales from this dock were $350,000 to $450,000 annually.

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Largest Bluestone

From an article in the Popular Science Monthly Volume 45 of July 1894 written by Henry Balch Ingram.

“At the docks at Wilbur this piece of bluestone, 20 x 24 foot in surface area, 9 inches thick without a flaw, weighed over 20 tons.  It was quarried in Sawkill in the Town of Kingston and said to be the largest stone ever brought to the tide water.  It took eight horses to haul it to the docks over a stone tramway and it is alleged that the side of the toll gate had to be taken down to allow the stone to pass through.”

Decline of the Bluestone Industry

The decline of bluestone began in 1866 with the development of Portland cement.  Many of the quarries were now exhausted of bluestone, prices dropped and quarrymen could no longer provide for their families.  Quarrymen who once gained a good payment for their hard work were now barely surviving.  Delivering stone to the docks was not profitable.  After cartage, tolls and rent were deducted there was very little left over.  Families struggled to survive.  Thus, began the unrest, strikes and violence that followed.

There are many stories about the corruption and violence in the Town of Kingston that led to its division in 1879, however, we must remember there are two sides to every story.  Strikes and fights were common in many of the surrounding areas where bluestone was prevalent as well.  This was a time when the Irish immigrants came in large numbers to work the quarries, therefore, prejudices ran high.

Many stores had signs that read “Irish need not apply”.  Anti-Irish stories and biased comments were printed.  The Town of Kingston became the focus of an effort to discredit and distort the actual events taking place in the town.  Newspapers continued to add to the volatility of the times by distorting or exaggerating the facts.  While the Kingston Argus attempted to give a more objective view, it failed to investigate or challenge any of these accusations.  While it is true that the quarrymen were certainly a rough and uneducated breed of men and that many times heated arguments lead to violence, it was not just in the Town of Kingston.  We must also remember during this time in our nation’s history there were no social services to help those in need and the well-to-do ignored their plight.  This is not to say there was no corruption, but it was rampant in surrounding areas as well.  Misleading reports and eye witness accounts varied according to the person’s allegiance.

To the quarrymen, there were just two parties, the “rich man’s party” and the “poor man’s party”.  Samuel Tilden, a Democrat, represented the “poor man’s party” and Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, represented the “rich man’s party” it was felt.

The Final Outcome

Finally, the State commenced a long and thorough investigation into the corrupt activities of the Town of Kingston.  This led to the demise of the Democratic Party and the merciless division of the town.

Though the town certainly had its share of political upheaval, violence and yes, probably some corruption, questions remain as to why the Town of Kingston was ostracized in such a public way.   Chronicles of Ulster by Robert P. Donaldson gives the reader another view into this perplexing time.  We leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

With the division of the town and decline of the bluestone industry those remaining were left to survive as best they could.  It is interesting to note that in “1875 there were 4,507 men, women and children in the Town of Kingston.  By 1880, after the town had been divided, there were 1,093 men, women and children in the town”.   Chronicles of Ulster by Robert P. Donaldson, page 859.

With the dissolution of the old town in 1879, the Town of Kingston was now “little more than a cluster of hamlets bound together by only a legislative act.”  (Burgher manuscript; Town of Ulster History) Now, the town, meager in population, with a territory small in acreage with rocky, thin and sterile soil was left to devise a means of survival.  Local residents farmed and did “piecework” as a means of support.