Friday, January 4, 2019

Columbia County's Sleeping Dragon: Part I

Back in 1988, Margaret Schram, the author of Hudson's Merchants and Whalers: The Rise and Fall of a River Port, 1783-1850, wrote a series of articles, which she titled "Columbia County's Sleeping Dragon," about the Lake Albany clay, a major component in the soil beneath Hudson and much of Columbia County. The articles were published in The Independent during the summer and fall of that year. I have been aware of these articles for quite a few years now, but recent events and circumstances--a landslide that damaged the foundation of a house on Tanners Lane, the proposal to construct new buildings on the north side of State Street, the omission of soil maps and erosion issues in the Open Space and Natural Resources Inventory being developed by the Conservation Advisory Council--have inspired me to want to share Schram's research on Gossips. The following article appeared in The Independent for July 7, 1988.

Landslides a Deadly Threat to a Growing Community
The following is an introduction to a series of articles on landslides of the past, and the potential for future landslides in Columbia County.
During research on the 1915 Knickerbocker Cement Plant landslide that killed five men and injured seven others, it was learned that additional landslides occurred in the Claverack-Greenport area during the following 10 years.
Investigation uncovered more landslides in Stockport, and an ongoing problem in road maintenance due to slippage throughout the western part of the county.
The geological reports on the Knickerbocker and other slides blamed clay, not quicksand or erosion. The clay was described as yellow and blue, and it had reached a semi-fluid point where it squeezed out of the surrounding strata and precipitated the slide.
A trip to the New York State Museum and a conference with Robert Fickies, associate engineering geologist with the New York State Geological Survey, and an expert on geological hazards, revealed a potential for disaster still exists in Columbia County and surrounding areas.
Readers connect the California coast with mud slides, not realizing that the Hudson Valley is also prone to slides, only one of two such areas in the state, and one of the very few in the northeast.
The problem here is not mud, but clay, deposited when the last glacier (Wisconsin) was melting and receding.
A lake, or series of lakes, extended from Rhinebeck to Glens Falls, and on the east from the area near the Columbia County airport westward to the cliffs of the Heldebergs. The lake is called Lake Albany, and the clay, deposited in beds sometimes hundreds of feet deep, is known as Lake Albany clay.
It was this clay, known then as blue clay, that was used for making bricks in the brickyards along the Hudson River. This clay also was utilized in cement production.
 Dangerous Slopes
The danger lies on the slopes of hills composed of Lake Albany clay. Most are "marginally stable" in their natural state, though they are moving imperceptibly.
However, when the clay is infiltrated with water, it becomes slippery. The soil on top is floating on a sea of quivering ooze. At that point, a landslide can occur spontaneously, as happened in the Episcopal Church cemetery in Stockport in 1908.
Thousands of small slides occur each year, usually not noticed because they happen in woods or in uninhabited areas. In many cases, these slopes find their own gravity, and simply change shape.
The focus of the articles to follow is what happens when man changes the natural equilibrium of these slopes. The Albany-Troy area is a perfect example of disaster in the making since houses began sliding down State Street in the city's early history.
 Troy Landslide
Lake Albany was at its widest in this region, and both cities are built on deep deposits of clay--as is the city of Hudson. In 1843, 15 people were killed in a major landslide in Troy, with whole blocks of houses wiped out after a January thaw.
More recently--1973--a Troy Hills apartment project had to be evacuated when the building was found to be slipping sideways after a landslide.
When the Empire State Plaza was built on what was know to be a landslide prone area in Albany, 20,000 steel piles were driven deep into the more stable ground to anchor the complex.
In 1982, a landslide in Elsmere threatened to break a 48-inch pipeline supplying water to Albany--an event that echoed a similar slide that came inches from destroying Hudson's water pipe 64 years ago.
Pressure to Build
There is pressure today to build on hills that offer views of the river or creek valleys. Where lake clay is present, additional weight should not be added to the hill, nor should it be excavated. Drainage should be rerouted to assure the slope does not become waterlogged.
Adding soil to extend a yard or lessen a slope will exacerbate the problem by placing more weight where ideally there should be none.
Mr. Fickies describes water saturated lake clay as resembling toothpaste. If a brick is placed on a tube of Crest, and the cap removed, the paste will flow out rapidly and the brick will sink. This analogy occurs in many lake clay landslides; in others the hillside simply flows to a lower position.
This series will begin . . . with an explanation of Lake Albany and the clays that take its name. Other articles will be about some Columbia County landslides.
The final article cannot rightly be under the heading of "Historic Columbia County." It will deal with today's problems with this clay, and the precautions, if any, that are being taken to assure that there is not a repeat, on any scale, of the 1915 Knickerbocker landslide.
That article will also feature a reproduction of the Columbia County section of a map entitled "Landslide Susceptibility Within the Lake Clays of the Hudson Valley, New York." It will illustrate where the beds are located, and where there is a potential for landslides.
Writing this story required the help and experience of a long list of knowledgeable people who had to deal with someone totally ignorant of every facet of geology, soil science, and engineering. It was a learning experience, and I now view the topography of the county with entirely new eyes.
Public Awareness
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 the lake clay can create.
Finally, I should apologize for the melodramatic title. To label the series "Problems with County Clay" would certainly not have attracted readers. As the series continues, and the properties of this clay are described, I hope the readers will find the sleeping dragon appropriate.


  1. Interesting ... have we had anything approaching a landslide or even a mini landslide here in Hudson?

    1. Actually, there have been several--on both sides of town. In December, I reported on one that occurred in 1900 on South Second Street: As I mentioned in the introduction to Margaret Schram's article, there was an incident, very likely attributable to Lake Albany clay, on Tanners Lane just last month. Margaret Schram names other instances in her subsequent articles, all of which I intend to share on Gossips.

  2. Thank you for this instructive introduction to our Lake Albany clays by Margaret Schram. I hope more's on the way!

    I've seen the City of Hudson's "blue clay" brought up from a depth of 50 feet, and its a goo that's very nearly runny. The warmer-colored clay above it for about 30 feet was nearly as hard as rock. The first 18 feet or so was a mix of soil and clay. That's what came up in one location anyway.

    But it's our vulnerable slopes that have left them wooded for the most part, preserving miles of forests to the north which conceal a surprising number of mature trees. It's a gift that nobody was ever able to build there.

    Over the last few years Hudson's soil and erosion issues were repeatedly brought to the attention of the CAC, yet as Gossips mentions neither appear as subjects in the CAC's new inventory. In my opinion, too much of the "inventory" is taken up with climate predictions rather than existing conditions. Now, why is that?

  3. There have been several landslides in Greenport behind the Sons & Daughters of Italy clubhouse, some threatening its safety. However, these may have more to do with being close to the Claverack Creek than with the type of soil.