Monday, January 7, 2019

Columbia County's Sleeping Dragon: Part III

Here is the next installment of Margaret Schram's series on Lake Albany clay, which appeared in The Independent on July 21, 1988.

An Industry from Lake Albany Clay
The Clavers, the tall cliffs that rise just north of the city of Hudson, gave the region its early name of Claverack, or Claver-Reach. The "reaches" or "racks" of the Hudson were visible for some distance to the first Dutch mariners sailing the river. These Albany Lake clay cliffs, which extend for over two miles from the city, were devoid of vegetation. Sections were stained white by the salt magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) that trickled down the banks from mineral water channels in the clay, making the Clavers a beacon for river travelers.
From the mouth of the Roeliff Jansen northward, there is little Columbia County shoreline that is not comprised of deep beds of lake clay, but only the section of the Clavers has the bleached appearance.

Benevolent Side
Before there is a detailing of the sinister aspects of the "sleeping dragon," it is well to consider the benevolent side. The blue clay left by Lake Albany was discovered very early in the settlement of the valley to be excellent for making bricks. Eventually the industry of brick-making employed thousands and brought profits to the brickyard owners, who set up their yards on both shores of the Hudson River.
Clay is composed of a mixture of clay minerals, leached in a weathering process from ancient rocks, and is very fine-grained. The "blue" clay of Lake Albany, or structural clay, consists of illite, a mixture of potassium, iron, aluminum silicate and a great deal of water (hydrated). 
Turns Brick Red
Several other minerals are found in the clay, each imparting a different color. It is the iron content that turns bricks red when they are fired. (Shale bricks--shale is compressed and hardened clay--were made in Catskill and provided paving materials for New York City.) Pure clay will crack when heated (also when exposed to air, another problem for building on clay soil), so sand is added to the clay "soup."
A simple pug mill would stir the sand and clay into a stiff paste, and molds were used to shape the bricks. The molds were dipped in water and then sand to enable the brick to slide out easily from the mold. These "green" bricks were dried in open-sided sheds for several weeks and then fired in kilns. The fires in the kilns' brick channels were burning continually for at least 10 days.
Paid for Clay 
In the 1630s, Killian Van Rensselaer complained about the lack of [a] brick-maker for his colony. He insisted that he be paid for the clay taken from his land at Fort Orange and used for brick-making elsewhere. 
A "steenbaker" (brick-maker) arrived in Rensselaerswyck in 1653, and John De Hulter, owner of the works, began a lucrative business making bricks and the curved roofing tiles called pantiles. This early establishment of brick-making in the Hudson Valley should put an end to the continuing legend of the bricks of our eighteenth century buildings being constructed from "bricks brought as ballast from Holland."
Brick Ingredients Here
All the ingredients necessary for brick-making are found in the valley--even lime for mortar was available in the limestone at Becraft, Mt. Ida, and other occasional outcroppings. Neighborhood brickyards existed throughout the county in the eighteenth century. They were not industries with grandiose plans for expansion, but rather operated to answer a temporary need for building material. Our fields near old brick buildings will disclose deposits of broken and blackened bricks--the sites of small, private brick kilns.
By mid-nineteenth century, brick-making had become a big industry on Hudson's shores. Cities were expanding so rapidly that there was no limit to the demand for bricks.

Dug Clay by Hand
The waves of Irish immigrants were welcomed to the brickyards, where the strong-backed "brickyarders" dug the blue clay by hand from the river banks. The freshly dug clay was left to dry until it disintegrated. The crumbled material was mixed with sand and coal dust, molded, dried, and then fired. 
Brick-making was a summer occupation, until super-heated drying chambers were developed that reduced the drying period from weeks to one day, and the back-breaking digging was replace by earth-moving equipment.
Smoke constantly rose over the yards, and the flames from the kiln fires glowed in the night. Lines of barges waited at the shore to carry the bricks to city markets. Roads from the deserted yards to rotted docks are still covered with the red brick dust.  

1 comment:

  1. I believe the location of George Nedtwick's ca. 1890 primitive painting of several of the "clavers" is just south of Murderer's Creek in Athens. The house in the picture is long gone, but the painting is at the Albany Institute of History & Art:

    In an undated essay titled "An Aside on the Clavers," Conrad Vispo of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program speculated on the appearance and scale of the original, undisturbed clavers, and how much material was subsequently removed:

    "Today, it is hard to believe that the Dutch could have been so struck by the few spots of white clay currently visible from the River (Fig. 1). However, it is likely that the Dutch saw a very different sight ... [L]andscape paintings from the mid-1800s hint at what they encountered ...

    "The obvious question is, ‘what happened to the clavers? It is likely that the brick industry may have played a substantial role in their disappearance by mining them for clay. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest the potential for this. If we assume (based on the literature) that it took 3m2 of clay to make 1000 bricks, that the Greenport brick factory produced 150,000 bricks/day, and that it worked 150 days/yr for 45 yrs, then one can guestimate that they used about 3,000,000 m2 of clay during their entire operation. Of course these numbers are very rough, but they do not take into account any of the other North Bay brick makers further south, and so may well be conservative. 

    "If we assume the clavers were 30m high and were right-angled planes down to the river, then that amount of clay mining could move them back 100m from the shore over a 2000m length of shoreline. Of course, the clavers were cut down as much as back, and their prominent faces may have been largely erased. They were probably further eliminated by the construction of the current landfill site and by their use as fill during building along the edge of North Bay (Frank Wall, pers. comm). 

    "It thus seems likely that the brick making history of this area has a larger impact on the current shape of the land than we may realize, influencing not so much what we do see, but what we don’t see (i.e., the prominent clavers)."