Friday, January 11, 2019

Columbia County's Sleeping Dragon: Part VI

I started presenting this series of articles by Margaret Schram a week ago, so it's probably time to restate my reasons for doing so. At the end of the first article, Schram wrote: "The geologists of New York State who were barraged with questions at all hours were kind and patient, not only from a desire to assist, but also because they felt the public should be aware of the problems lake clay can create." My motivation for sharing Schram's research is similar. As proposals for new development and changes to existing structures come before Hudson's regulatory boards, it is my hope the potential for problems caused by Lake Albany clay can be a consideration.

The following article, which appeared in The Independent on August 11, 1988, begins the account of the tragic incident that occurred at the Knickerbocker Cement Plant, located on the current site of ADM, in early August 1915.

The Knickerbocker Cement Plant Tragedy, August 2, 1915
The Knickerbocker Cement Plant was located on Route 23 just west of the bridge dividing the Town of Greenport and the Town of Claverack. The remains of the Lone Star Cement Plant are on the site.
Near the creek and east of the large main buildings was an immense brick and concrete power house where the power for the attire complex was generated. This building also contained the pumping station that supplied water from the creek for generating steam for electricity and for use in the cement-making process. A 100-foot smokestack rose from the building. 
A large packing house, a tower that housed an elevator for carrying stone, a tremendous derrick, a barn, plus several small sheds and workhouses were nearby. A spur of the Boston and Albany Railroad ran through the section entering the power house.
Disaster Cause
Important when looking at the cause of the disaster is the fact that there was a pile of nearly 40,000 tons of crushed rock, "as high as the City Hall," stored as a reserve supply for winter use. Landslides of Lake Albany clay and the factors that trigger the slides were not really understood until a short time ago; even today few recognize the potential for danger.
Quicksand
The most common, and erroneous, explanation was quicksand--at the time, residents and newspapers referred to the quicksand of the area. Only the geologists spoke of the ancient lake bed and its deposit of unstable clay.
Newspapers reported that the ground had been tested and found suitable for building. This might have referred to the main plant buildings that were built on a solid shale foundation, but it was determined later that the surrounding soil was a surface layer of "cemented" sand and gravel of depths from seven to twenty feet. Under this lay the soft, shifting lake clay, in thicknesses of 100 to 120 feet.
Orchard Dropped 10' 
Unusual things had been happening in the area of the cement plant. Not many years before, on the opposite, east side of Claverack Creek, an orchard suddenly dropped 10 feet. The apple trees in full bloom were not damaged and yielded a fine crop that same fall.
About the same time, a break in the soil was discovered in the creek bank near the power plant. Plant authorities had piles driven in near the crack and tied to apparently stable soil.
A locomotive of the B. & A. Railroad had jumped the tracks near the plant in July. One trainman was killed and another injured. No cause was established for the derailment, but some movement of the tracks was suspected.
Ominously, in the fall preceding the slide, more cracks were discovered--a slight earth movement had occurred. Piles were driven in near the power plant. Workers in the plant reported pipes shifting and loosening. Just before the slide, several pipes had separated.
July of 1915 had been particularly wet. Despite the rainy weather, dynamite blasting at the Becraft quarry had continued all during the previous months. The company had large orders to fill, including a massive supply needed in New York City for building that city's subway system. Day and night within the mill the machines roared, grinding the limestone into fine particles for cement.
Ran for Their Lives 
The night shift was preparing to leave and the day shift was just entering at 5:50 a.m. on the hot, sultry morning of August 2. Suddenly, the workers walking toward the power house felt the earth move. They saw the great pile of rock begin to sink and slide; they ran for their lives.
A tremendous noise followed--the rumble of earth moving and the crash of buildings collapsing. Clouds of dust, debris, smoke and steam darkened the area, which was filled with streaks of fire and the terrified screams of trapped men.

Buried Everything
Under the pile of rock, the earth had suddenly dropped into what seemed like a giant pit. Almost four acres of land moved eastward toward the creek, undermining all the buildings and carrying them along. The land dropped 25 to 35 feet, followed by a mass of loosened earth which buried everything.
The workers who had reached solid ground raced back to the scene, but they were sure that anyone trapped was dead, particularly those in the power house. Others ran to the plant office and alerted authorities to rush every available physician and all fire extinguishers and hose in Hudson to the site. With picks and shovels the men worked to rescue the unknown number of workers trapped in the debris, even though there was danger from still collapsing buildings and more slides.

Poured from Ruins
Scalding water, steam and ashes poured from the ruins of the power house. The railroad spur tracks that entered the house were torn away and tilted. The freight cars were almost out of sight.
The great smokestack on the power house, once over a hundred feet high, part of it now a crumbled wreck, could barely be seen. Above the ground, a telegraph pole alongside the power house was buried so that only a bit of pole and the cross arms were visible.
Inside the power house, the first victim was found, his entire body horribly burned from the scalding water and ashes. He died en route to the hospital. A few minutes later another man, similarly burned, was found lying alongside some broken boiler pipes. He was rushed to the hospital, but died the following day.
Another body was spotted in the wreckage, and employees reached the body at 7:45 a.m., after digging through the debris. He had been dead for sometime, and was found in a sitting position with his hands folded over his chest. At 10:00 a.m., the badly cut and bruised body of another worker was recovered. The body of the power plant foreman was located an hour later.
COPYRIGHT 1988 MARGARET SCHRAM

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