Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The R.&W. Scott Icehouse at Newton Hook

Prior to the invention of refrigeration, households and vendors depended on naturally formed ice as the only means to keep meat, fish and milk cold and unspoiled. This made ice a valuable commodity that could be harvested in winter and sold year round. To meet growing demand, an ice industry grew up on the Hudson River in the 19th century, concentrated in a fairly narrow section of the river above the tidal salt line and below the shallows that cut off navigation for larger ships and barges.

For the millions of people in the crowded cities, an “ice box,” which was essentially the same as a modern picnic cooler, served the same purpose as refrigerators. From our perspective there is a charming quaintness about such bygone technologies and Thom and Gail Hogan Lucia have done a nice job presenting the history and lore associated with the ice man and his horse-drawn wagon.

Of course, there is also a terrible irony in the fact that our refrigerators, freezers and air conditioning depend on electricity generated largely by the fossil fuels that are warming the climate toward a point that may be irreversible. Even in the coldest winter months the Hudson no longer produces the eight to ten inch thick ice that was so valuable a century ago.

Inspired by this irony, we visited the ruins of one of the great icehouses, built by the brothers R. & W Scott, at Newton Hook in 1885. Located about 120 miles above New York and 30 miles south of Albany, this promontory was called Nutten Hoek by the 17th century Dutch and is now a New York State Unique Area. Access is from state route 9-J a couple miles south of the hamlet of Stuyvesant. A dirt road leads across the Amtrak tracks and a home into a wooded area where the smoke stack of the ice house is soon visible through the trees.

The Scott brothers built a six story 300' by 400' windowless ice house here in 1885 and installed a coal-driven steam engine to power conveyor belts and an elevator. A large gang of men, who worked in farms, brickyards and other warm-weather businesses, was employed here in the winter months.

Using horse-drawn plows, the men cut blocks of ice from the river and hauled them to the conveyor belt which carried the ice to an elevator located in the center of the north end of the building. The concrete supports for the conveyor belt are visible amid the trees that have grown up within the space once occupied by the huge wooden ice house. In Spring and Summer the ice was loaded onto barges for transport south. There must have been a sizable dock here back then but we could no signs of the piling along the river.

The powerhouse was built of brick and its walls still stand, although the roof is gone and the interior is empty. The stack and the walls appear quite sturdy.

Two Department of Environmental Conservation signs offer a brief history of the site. Ice harvesting took place here for about forty years although by the early 1900s grave questions were being raised about the quality of the ice. In those years cities and towns along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers emptied their sewers directly into the river. In 1907 the New York Times published a report from Dr. Daniel Jackson, a chemist for the NYC Department of Water Supply, blaming river ice for outbreaks of typhoid fever. Using samples from various points in the river, he found the presence of typhoid bacteria particularly strong in the region around Albany, just to the north of Scott's icehouse. The science of the time was clear: typhoid bacteria were present in the river and freezing did not kill the bacteria.

Spokesmen for the ice industry challenged Jackson's report and cited their own experts who claimed that long-term storage of ice killed the bacteria. Dr. Prudden of Columbia University claimed that"the danger of the use of impure ice, although widespread, is not very alarming so far as the liability of extensive outbreaks of typhoid fever are concerned because most of the ice which is furnished appears to be of fair quality."

Despite its proven dangers, the sale of ice continued, for there appeared to be no alternative. In this the controversies of 1907 closely resemble those of our own age in which spokesmen for the fossil fuel industry have fought for decades to disprove mounting evidence for climate change.

The technology, in fact, that would eventually doom the river ice industry had already been invented even before the Scotts launched their business. In 1876 the German scientist Carl von Linde developed a process for continuously liquefying gases which became the basis for all subsequent refrigeration, although he did not obtain a U.S. patent until 1903. As the process was refined in subsequent years, its commercial value became clear to major American corporations. In 1911 GE introduced a refrigerator developed by a French inventor and in 1918 GM bought out a small firm and renamed it Frigidaire. By the 1920s, GM and GE were competing with Kelvinator and Electrolux for the electric refrigerator market and the ice industry was obsolete.

Scott's icehouse closed in the 1920s. In 1934 the huge building was sold to Kraus Brothers for use as a mushroom farm, a business which evidently did not long survive. At some point after that the building burned down and the site was abandoned to the forest.

In many ways the Scotts used forms of technology that we would call renewable. Horse and human musclepower harvested the ice, and it was transported by water to the cities, a far more energy-efficient means for moving heavy cargo than the diesel-powered trucks of our era. No electricity was required to store large quantities of ice for a year or two since the quantity alone kept the temperature low enough to minimize melting. Power for transporting the ice to the building, however, was provided by coal, then and now a major source for the greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere for centuries. In that way the Scott brothers contributed to the warming climate that now keeps the river open even in the coldest months.

Looking for Work; Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York
by Peter H. Stott is an invaluable guide to this and other sites of bygone industry, and I cannot recommend his book highly enough. It is published by Syracuse University Press and available at the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Walking in the ruins of the industrial age at Stottville

Approaching Stottville, New York from the west on county road 20. The old Stott/Juilliard factories are across Claverack Creek. The lower dam is visible just past the factories.

The upper dam, as seen from Town Garage Road which leads into the ruins of the factories. Columbia County road 20 crosses Stockport Creek above the falls and continues to Greenport and Hudson on state route 9

A view of two walls of Mill #2 still standing. The roof has collapsed, and there are many dangerous spots where the unwary could plunge through rotted floors. Surprisingly, there are no warning or trespassing signs on the factory property.

Mill#3 is the only building still standing of the four built by the Stott family in the late 1880s. Windows, insulation and other features of this building show twentieth century renovations.

The interior of Mill#3 is still strewn with wreckage of its last commercial occupant, a manufacturer of cardboard boxes.

A box for "adult non-alcoholic whiskey flavored lollipops," which apparently had market appeal when the box manufacturer was in operation. Another set of cardboard boxes lists Kandy Kane King of nearby Hudson as the candy maker. The company is no longer in business.

Going into the office. We tried to imagine the meetings that took place here when company officers and employees realized that that they were going out of business. Where did the workers go when Juilliard ceased operations in 1953? What became of the workers in the low-tech firms that briefly used this building in subsequent decades?

The boss's desk. Among the papers on the floor was a "Hand Glue Record" from June, 24, 1966 which listed orders completed for a variety of packaging clients, including Skinners Nuts, Four Star, and Magic Marker. This was the last date we found. It is likely that the end of manufacturing came around this time. The extent to which papers and records were scattered suggests that employment ended suddenly, without much advance notice.

Time card rack gives an idea of how many workers were employed here even in the latter days of manufacturing. There are no longer any major employers in Stottville, although work is available at Walmart and other retail stores in Greenport. Only a mile or two away, a new mall is under construction by the Widewaters Corporations. Like all malls, it will sell plenty of products manufactured outside of the USA by poorly paid foreign workers, further contributing to the economic decline of the United States.

A card table and two chairs seem to be arranged for conversation. This is one of the few signs that anyone has been in the property for the past forty years. We did not observe any empty beer cans, cigarette butts or candy wrappers. Perhaps adolescents in this area are not attracted to abandoned buildings, or maybe there are not that many children or young people left in a town where jobs disappeared long ago. However, an officer from the Stockport Police did show up when we left the grounds and said he saw our car and was afraid that teenagers were going in the old factory. We assured him that our interest was purely historical.

Before leaving, we visited the field of debris behind Mill #3 stood and noticed this fieldstone foundation below the ruins of the brick mills, possibly from the preceding pre-Civil War era factory. A channel for a sluiceway runs from the lower falls to this location, which would have allowed waterpower to drive the machinery. Cotton fabric was produced from raw cotton in such mills, allowing Northerners to profit from slavery.
As we left Stottville's ruined factories, we talked about those ruins in other parts of the world to which tourists flock. Pictured above is Chichen Itza, a Mayan ruin popular with vacationers in Cancun. Why are we willing to spend money to see the remains of distant, ancient societies and at the same time ignore the rich potential for archeological investigation into our own immediate past?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A visit to Stuyvesant Falls

The old mills from the west bank of Kinderhook Creek

Early 19th century stone mill on left, 1888 brick mill on right
(garage doors a 20th century addition)

Bell tower on the 1888 mill
The dam at Stuyvesant Falls

Above the dam at Stuyvesant Falls

Sluiceway channel running down from dam, carved out of the shale hillside

Pipe of approx. 36' diameter buried in sluiceway
Very early unmortared stone foundations pre-dating existing mills

The Future for Waterpower at Stuyvesant Falls

The Albany Engineering Corporation has the rights to develop the long-unused hydroelectric potential at Stuyvesant Falls and has applied for a license to produce power at the site, listed as capable of generating 1.8 million kilowatt hours. This is only a tenth of that produced by the Mechanicville plant, the oldest continuously operating hydroelectric plant in the United States. Albany Engineering is the leader in hydroelectric power in the Hudson-Mohawk area and successfully operates Mechanicville, Green Island and several other plants.

The falls of Kinderhook Creek was harnessed as early as 1667 by Major Abram Staats, for whom the cascade was at first named. Very old unmortared stone foundations can be seen below the 19th century mills, which probably date from some time after Major Staats and before the water-powered industrial complex grew up around the falls. The great labor entailed in digging out a sluiceway from the rock demonstrates how economically important the falls and its power was in the 19th century. Electricity generation, which began in 1899, furnished power for the Albany-Hudson electric railway that provided completely carbon-free, but not always completely safe, transportation for this area from 1900-1929.

Update 4/18/2009 - Good News
Power plant originally built by the Albany & Hudson
electric railway company in 1899

On February 23, 2009 I spoke with Jim Besha, president of Albany Engineering. He said that he expected to get the Federal go-ahead soon to begin work on renovating the old hydroelectric plant, with the goal of getting it on line in a year or so. By early May, renovation work was well underway.

Update 2 - June 6, 2009

The June issue of the complimentary magazine, Berkshire Home Style, contains an article on local efforts at developing alternative energy that effectively sums up current efforts to again generate electricity at Stuyvesant Falls. Its author, Ned Depew, reports that the town of Stuyvesant and Albany Engineering have been collaborating on a co-licensing agreement to have the power plant up and running by 2010 According to Depew, “AE will provide the expertise to move through the permitting process. They will also bear the capital costs of replacing, repairing and upgrading the equipment required to control the flow of water to the turbines, the operating turbines and generators, and the buildings and grounds at the site. They will oversee the day-to-day operations of the plant.

In return, the company will earn a substantial share of the revenues from the power the plant generates. The Town will participate as a sort of “silent partner,” providing the legal leverage for obtaining the license and sharing in the revenue on a sliding scale that will increase the Town's percentage as gross revenues increase.”

Because of current energy regulations, the partnership will not be able to sell the power directly but will have to wholesale it through a broker into the grid but even so the arrangement should prove profitable both to the company and the town.

The entire article is well worth reading and also contains information on alternative energy efforts in Kinderhook and private homes in our area.


If you visit Stuyvesant Falls during the summer, do not be tempted to dive into the creek near the Falls. There is a small park on the east side of the creek, nice for picnics, but the No Swimming sign is there for a reason. The pool below the falls appears to be calmer than it is. But the water is very dangerous and even an experienced swimmer can find himself powerless and go under. This to a 16 year old boy in 2002.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Factories at Stottville

For centuries after the arrival of Europeans in this corner of New York State, people produced their own food, clothing and shelter without the reliance on foreign imports characteristic of our time. The waterpower which now races unharnessed down our many streams once drove the machinery to produce textiles, lumber and grain. From the earliest times, the Dutch colonists used the power of falling water to grind grain and cut lumber, and produced their own clothing at home.

Inspired by the English factory system, the Americans began to manufacture clothing on a mass scale in the late 1700s, drawing on water power to run the machinery. By 1793, Samuel Slater's water-powered mill in Rhode Island was processing cotton from the slave states. The example soon spread to this region of cascading streams.

There are few places that better illustrate the old sustainable economy of waterpower, and its decline, than Stottville. The village takes its name from Jonathan Stott, a captured British soldier who chose to remain in the US after the War of 1812, and who has left many descendants. Inspired by his father's success as a manufacturer back in England, Jonathan started a weaving business in Hudson, NY. In 1828 he bought the hamlet then known as Springville from the wealthy landowners, the Van Rensselaers, in order to take advantage of the waterfalls in the Claverack Creek. Today all that remains of Stottville's 120 years of textile manufacture are the ruins of a large brick factory and the dramatic cascade over an adjacent dam.

Jonathan Stott’s mills specialized in the production of felt from wool and beginning in 1846, he replaced his earlier mills with what eventually became four large brick mills, all driven by the power of the creek. The Civil War was a prosperous time as the factories, under the direction of Jonathan’s sons, supplied Union army uniforms. The years after the war were also good for Stottville and the fourth five story brick factory was completed in 1876. Three dams furnished power for the textile machinery.

The Stotts were very much committed to state-of-the-art technology and from an early date maintained steam engines to run the machinery when drought or ice jam reduced the water flow. And Stottville was the site of the nation's first hydroelectric power generator . The turbine, a Morgan Smith, and waterwheel were installed in 1871.

The Panic of 1893 was the first blow to the long prosperity of the Stott enterprises and by 1901 both of Jonathan’s sons had died and the firm went bankrupt. However, textile manufacturing was still a lucrative business and Augustus Juilliard, a wealthy manufacturer who later endowed the Julliard School of Music in New York, bought the mills and his firm successfully ran them through World War I, the Depression, and World War II. In 1953 Juilliard went out of business, part of mass closings as the textile industry fled the Northeast in a pursuit of low wage workers that continues to this day.

For the next thirty years the four mills were mostly empty and falling into decay, despite a few efforts to use the buildings as the home for other smaller-scale industries. In 1978 the county demolished Mills 1 and 2, and in 1994 Mill 3 was destroyed by fire. Mill 4, stripped of much of its interior and its roof gone, still stands as a ruin beside the waterfalls.

Unlike depleted oil wells and ruined coal country, the water power of this region is as inexhaustible a resource today as it was four hundred years ago. It will be up to us to remember how to use it.

(For those interested in further reading, I recommend Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape by Thomas Rinaldi and Robert Yasinac)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Waterpower in Valatie

Kinderhook Creek in Valatie

When the first Dutch settlers came to this corner of Columbia County in New York state around 1650, they took advantage of the ample water power to establish mills for the grinding of grain and production of lumber. In the early 1800s the industrial revolution initiated in New England came here when the English-born Nathan Wild built cotton mills on the Valatie and Kinderhook Creeks. Valatie became one of the first American factory towns, dominated by Wild's mills and the mansion that he built near the confluence of the Valatie and Kinderhook Creeks. These early mills and factories directly transferred the energy generated by falling water to looms and other machinery.

The unskilled work force was largely composed of young women drawn from the desperately poor farms and villages of New England and New York. The raw cotton was produced on plantations in the slave states and shipped north to towns like Valatie for processing into fabric.

The dam on Valatie Creek

Near the ruins of an old mill is a dam on Valatie Creek where many potential kilowatts of power rush through a gap in the broken stonework. A close look at this dam suggests that it may have been built on an earlier Dutch structure. The lower levels, which have been exposed due to the effects of time and persistent tree roots, reveal unmortared and unshaped field stones which may date back to the first European presence.

Unmortared field stones at base of Wild's dam may
go back to an earlier Dutch dam on the site

The stone walls of an early mill can be found on the west bank of Valatie Creek adjacent to the dam. Presumably, this is one of Wild's first mills or at least its site. Edward Collier (1914) reports that William P. Rathbone built a wadding factory on the site of Wild's Valatie Creek mill in 1866, and this may be the Rathbone mill.

The ruins of a mill on west bank of Valatie Creek

According to Collier, author of A History of Old Kinderhook, Nathan Wild built the mill later known as the Beaver Mill on the site of a 1712 sawmill erected by Johannes Van Deusen. After a fire in 1851, this mill was rebuilt and enlarged, passing through several owners before it was destroyed by fire during the blizzard of 1888. The foundations are easily seen from the Beaver Cotton Mill Lookout.

Ruins of the Beaver Cotton Mill, seen from
the overlook on route 203 in the center of Valatie.

A few hundred feet away the ruins of Wild's second mill lie beneath the Valatie Medical Arts building. Not surprisingly, health care is now the biggest employer in an aging region where so many once prosperous industries have closed down.

Although the mill has vanished, the housing that Wild built for his workers can be found on nearby River Street. The apartment-style building has long been vacant, and its interior shows signs of serious decay.

Housing for mill workers on River Street (1850)

Interior of mill worker housing

Also on River Street is Gimp Mill, the last knitting mill to be built in Valatie (1896) and also the last to close (1995)

Gimp Mill

Happily, the old mill building is still in active use by Energy-Onix, Inc, a manufacturer of broadcast transmitters whose website boasts:

Manufactured in the United States
USA Quality
USA Factory and  Sales Support

Since its founding in 1987 by Bernard Wise, Energy-Onix has provided over 750 AM, FM and Short-wave transmitters to broadcasters throughout the United States and the world. Energy-Onix transmitters are "On The Air" in Central and South America, Mexico, Iceland, Turkey, Africa, Greece, Australia, the Philippines, Korea and other international locations including 'Radio-7' - the first commercial radio station in Moscow, Russia. Energy-Onix's export activities have earned the Governor's Export Achievement Award (NY) and have been recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Two hundred years ago, waterpower led to the growth of manufacturing in such towns as Valatie. Many of these early industries switched to steam and later hydroelectric power before succumbing to the nationwide collapse of manufacturing over the past three or four decades. The renewable energy that could have kept this region self-sustaining indefinitely now flows untapped down our local streams, while we buy nearly all our manufactured goods from foreign countries.

The success of a company like Energy-Onix, Inc., however, is a hopeful sign that strong, innovative American companies can compete in a globalized economy.

Update June 5, 2009

According to ccScoop, Columbia County’s Home of the Web: “A group of residents and elected officials want to take “green” to the next level in the Town of Kinderhook, allowing residents and others to create their own electricity and share it with their neighbors. The Kinderhook Power Authority Task Force, which met for the first time in April, is working toward the goal of creating a district in the town that would be incorporated in a power authority district.”

This is certainly good news and offers the hope that the plentiful waterpower now rushing over the two falls in Valatie will be tapped in the foreseeable future.

Wasted waterpower at the broken dam in Valatie