Friday, March 27, 2009

from the Gifford Foundry to Iron Mountain

Columbia County in the 19th century was the site of iron mines and foundries that helped to build the American economy. Of the families that grew wealthy in iron and steel, the Giffords of Hudson were among the most influential. Although few signs of their industry remain, the art created by one of the heirs to that wealth is still celebrated. In 2003 the Metropolitan Museum sponsored an exhibit of seventy paintings by Sanford Gifford, who has long been ranked with Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and other painters of the Hudson River School.

In 1823, the year when Sanford was born, his father Elihu Gifford founded Starbuck, Gifford and Company. Elihu subsequently organized the Farmers' Bank and the Hudson and Berkshire Railroad. Sanford’s mother, Eliza Starbuck Gifford, founded the Hudson Orphan Asylum in 1846. The Gifford family continued to produce a variety of machinery in Hudson for a hundred and fifty years.

In 1856 the Giffords constructed one of Hudson’s oldest remaining industrial structures. Located at 736 Columbia Street, the exterior of this building retains its 19th century details, although its interior is much changed and has been used for many years as a warehouse by Van Kleeck’s Tires.

By the late 19th century, the Giffords specialized in the production of ice harvesting machinery, and merged with a Massachusetts manufacturer in 1905. The combined Gifford-Wood company built a new plant at 1 Hudson Avenue in 1910, using the latest steel frame and glass curtain wall construction, and continued to flourish for another sixty years. When the ice industry declined, as has been documented here at Upstate Earth, the Giffords shifted to coal-handling machines. During World War II, the firm operated round the clock to produce defense material. Among the company’s contributions were components for the landing craft which carried American forces ashore at Normandy and Iwo Jima.

After the death of Benjamin Gifford, the company was sold to Stowe-Woodward Industries, which went bankrupt in 1972. The advantages of the 1910 building, however, proved attractive for many years to another manufacturing firm, W.B. McGuire, which specialized in the production of the loading dock equipment much in demand during an era of imports.

There are certainly few traces of the iron foundry and the other Gifford industries. Heavy machinery is no longer built here and nearly every manufactured product that we use comes to us from foreign factories. The ore that was forged into steel lies unused deep in our nearby hills. The mine at Mount Tom just south of Hudson that once employed 550 men, and the railway from the company port on the river, has vanished expect for this old machine shop, where locomotives and ore cars were repaired a century ago.

The old mineshaft that lies behind this gate into the side of Mount Tom, however, has had a very different fate. This mine became the center for a very successful, multimillion dollar international company, Iron Mountain, Inc., that has flourished in the global economy of our time.

Iron Mountain was founded by Herman Kraus, who had used the abandoned shaft since 1932 to grow mushrooms. In 1951, when nuclear war seemed imminent, he rebuilt the mine as a bomb-proof repository for corporate documents and his firm began to grow. In succeeding decades, as the fear of doomsday receded, Iron Mountain expanded into records management, secure shredding, and data protection. Iron Mountain currently serves 120,000 corporate clients in 31 countries and five continents. Only a few employees, however, work in the old mine shaft and the huge company’s presence is nearly invisible in the life of Columbia county.

Sources of information:

The single best source for information on the old industries of our county is Peter Stott's Looking for Work; Industrial Archeology in Columbia County. Mr. Stott will be leading an industrial archeology bus tour on April 25, 2009. For information, contact the Columbia County Historical Society.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Cary Brickyard at Newton Hook

On both sides of Route 9-J just south of Newton Hook are the remains of what was once a prosperous brickyard employing up to 150 men and supplying building materials to the growing cities of New York and Boston. The site, which covers perhaps a hundred acres in total, is littered with thousands of bricks bearing the Cary name. This brick is in the roots of a fallen tree.

The brickyard and its docks were on the west side of the Amtrak rails and the pits that supplied the clay were on the hillside to the east of 9-J. In winter this tall brick stack can be seen amid the leafless trees. In summer the region is very overgrown and shows no signs of any recent human visitors. It is sure to be full of ticks.

A few walls from the old brick sheds surround the stack in what was once the center of the plant.

According to Peter Stott's comprehensive history, Looking for Work, Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York, William Cary built this yard in 1902-1903 as "the most technologically advanced of any of the Hudson River valley brickyards" of its time. Cary patented a portable "clay house" which allowed his crew to dig clay through the winter months. According to Stott, Cary boasted a skilled work force superior to the seasonal laborers employed in other yards. He also pioneered the use of steam to remove moisture from the bricks.

Bricks were fired, however, in old style clamp kilns made by piling bricks in a long wall often as high as 30 feet, leaving arched openings in bottom where a coal or wood fire was built then sealed. After several days, the whole stack was dismantled. This is one such overgrown clamp kiln.

The raw materials for this thriving industry were located on site. As Robert Yasnisac and Tom Rinaldi say in their book, Hudson Valley Ruins, the fine blue clay is a product of the last ice age and “perfect for making brick when mixed with beach sand found at the river's edge.” Cary built a trestle to carry the clay from the hillside across the railroad into the brickyard. Above are concrete supports for the trestle, which are plainly visible on the east side of 9-J.

The hillsides have been deeply mined for clay, as in the above view. This area is very difficult to explore during summers, due to the extensive growth of brambles. The only trails are those made by deer.

The ruins of three buildings are located on this side of the road, with foundations built of Cary bricks. Perhaps they were offices or housing for workers.

The narrow gauge railway for transporting carts full of clay operated by gravity, according to Peter Stott, and it required only a single horse to draw the empty carts back to the pits. Above is a piece of narrow gauge rail.

One of the most impressive engineering feats at the site is a 2500 foot canal across the marshes between the brickyard and the Hudson. A long berm of burnt and damaged bricks covered with earth forms the north side of the canal. The DPBW imprint on the bricks indicate their manufacture at the Denning Point Brick Works in Beacon. Cary probably bought these simply as fill from the other brickyard.

The canal is still filled with water, although the entrance is silted in, and partly blocked by bricks. Perhaps a final order of bricks was dumped here just as the company went out of business forever. Another curious feature of the canal is that its final five hundred feet is blocked by a berm, converting that section into an enclosed pool. The purpose of this section is unclear. Perhaps Cary decided he did not need as long a canal as he originally constructed, and blocked off the excess portion. Surprisingly, it is still full of water.

There is very little remaining of the loading area on the canal, where millions of bricks were once shipped south. Above is a gear caught in the roots of an old tree, probably part of machinery for loading the barges.

Blocked from access by the railroad and the tangled woods that have grown up in the old brickyard, the Hudson River beach here is quite isolated and beautiful. The above is a view down the Hudson from the edge of the old canal.

In contrast to our modern economy based largely on the consumption of imports, the Cary yard was part of an era when local materials and energy resources were the basis for building the great cities of the Northeast. Cary's firm operated successfully for many years shipping bricks, made entirely from native raw materials, by water to New York and by rail to Boston. Gradually, the widespread use of concrete led to a decline in demand for brick. And this spelled the end for the Cary yard sometime in the 1930s.

 Blue clay is still plentiful near the old brickyard. 
This sample was gathered by a local pottery maker.