A Catskill Catalog: May 7, 2008
The first settlers in the Ulster County Catskills discovered on their properties outcroppings and ledges of a hard bluish-gray stone they soon found could be mined and cut and put to a variety of uses around the farm. Catskill Mountain Bluestone began as a domestic product: a carriage stone here, a pickle-crock cover there, a walkway around back, a flat piece of bluestone on the chimney top, propped with stones to create a downdraft-reducing chimney cover.
In the early 1800s, domestic use gave way to commercial trade as local artisans developed a bluestone craft, creating durable, practical, and beautiful bluestone livestock troughs, chicken feeders, hitching posts and other implements of rural life. By the 1830s and 40s, the inland trade spurred by the Eire Canal brought new importance and prosperity to the port cities of New York and Albany, and that urban growth led to a desire for improvements, like paved sidewalks. “North River Bluestone” was the perfect paving material, and a quarry industry developed.
Catskill gold mine
A quarry in the Catskills soon became something like a gold mine as, first, Albany and, then, New York City went on mid-19th century sidewalk-building binges. Quarries abounded throughout Ulster County, giving the Saugerties hamlet of Quarryville its name, dotting the banks of the Sawkill Creek, the Hurley Woods, the local hillsides. Bluestone is highly desirable for sidewalks because it is very hard and durable, dries quickly after a rain, and doesn’t wear to a slippery sheen with constant use, as many other stones do.
In the years before the Civil War, bluestone from the Catskills was dragged out of the mountains to Hudson River sloops; which took the stone to pave sidewalks in cities as distant as Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, and even Havana, Cuba. When the Ulster & Delaware Railroad opened in 1871, new quarries opened along the railroad line for ease of transport. Mines were established in Phoenicia, Margaretville, Roxbury and throughout Delaware County.
Catskill Mountain Bluestone is a kind of layered sandstone that was formed by the action of a great inland sea which, when it withdrew and dried up millions of years ago, left compressions of sand become stone: bluestone. It is made of feldspar, mica, and sand, and largely free of organic elements. It may appear blue or gray or even a bit pinkish-brown, its name derived from the color of the stone first dug and cut in eastern Ulster County.
Today’s bluestone industry has migrated to the west of our mountains. We have largely exhausted the rich line of bluestone deposits that stretched from Albany south, through the eastern Catskills, down to Pike County, Pennsylvania around Milford and Matamoras. Pennsylvania Bluestone – today’s preferred name – is quarried out of over 150 mines in western Delaware County, south-central New York, and north-central Pennsylvania. Montrose, Pennsylvania is today’s unofficial bluestone industry center, an industry that produces about $100,000,000 of bluestone a year.
On the last weekend in March, the center of the Bluestone world was the Veterans’ Arena in Binghamton, as the New York and Pennsylvania Bluestone Associations jointly sponsored Bluestone Expo 2008, a trade show. Made curious by the poster in my bank’s window, I went. I found an arena floor filled with 66 booths representing the varied businesses that serve, and prosper from, the quarrymen who dig out the rock. Banks and insurance companies, energy suppliers and engineers, dealers in tires and forklifts and lubricants and lumber, all were there to do business.
Everywhere were the myriad tool companies who manufacture, or import, and sell the diamond bluestone blades, carbide chisels, rock drills, and other tools that are essential to the quarryman. Central to the Expo were the guys who dig rock every day: two separate truck raffles were open only to New York or Pennsylvania quarrymen who had paid-up their dues. I spoke to one who works a mine in Trout Creek. He’s been quarrying 30 years. “It’s mind over matter,” he told me when I suggested quarrying must be hard work. “It don’t matter if you don’t mind.”
The states of Pennsylvania and New York were on hand, our state represented by a couple of mining and reclamation specialists with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. As you might expect, quarrying today is a highly regulated activity. To start, one needs a Bluestone Exploration Authorization through an application process with the DEC. If the quarrying exceeds certain limits – in amount of material extracted or size of mine – one needs to get a Land Reclamation Permit. Today’s quarry needs to be cleaned-up when the mining is done.
The New York State Revegetation Procedures Manual lays out the requirements to grade and reduce the slope of former surface mines, rebuild the layer of topsoil, and plant appropriate grasses, legumes, trees and shrubs, returning the quarry site to something like its pre-mine state. Several of the state brochures informing me of these facts already had Governor David Patterson’s name on them. Talk about reclamation!