Monday, January 14, 2019

Columbia County's Sleeping Dragon: Part VII

The following article, which appeared in The Independent for August 18, 1988, is the continuation of Margaret Schram's account of the dramatic and tragic landslide that occurred in Greenport in the summer of 1915.

Section 2 The Knickerbocker Cement Plant Tragedy, August 2, 1915
As well as the five men killed, seven others were injured in the August 2, 1915, landslide. One employee was hospitalized with severe burns, three others with some burns, and three had only slight injuries. If the slide had occurred during a shift when all the men were in place, rather than at the change of shifts, the death and injured toll would have been much higher.
One of those who escaped from the power plant reported that when he went in investigate the sound of a steam pipe breaking, he discovered the walls crumbling. Dashing outside, he had to leap over wide cracks in the ground, up to 30 feet deep.
Creek Bed Lifted 20' 
There was another serious problem. The creek bed had been lifted up nearly 20 feet and carried some distance. This movement happened so rapidly that some fish were left high and dry. Then the loose clay and soil, including blocks of earth, moved into the creek, damming it entirely. This dam caused trouble for the knitting mills on the creek to the north of Stockport. They had to suspend operations until the flow of water was restored.
On the southern side, the creek backed up, and the rising water overflowed the fields and covered the bridge. During the morning, workers using dynamite attempted to cut a ditch through the debris. Trees had to be cut away and their roots dynamited out to make the channel.
Torrential Rains 
To add to the confusion, the rains began again, incessantly and at times torrential, for the whole week. The creek waters rose over the dam of debris, but the current widened the channel. 
In one of the barns, the company's chauffeur had been cranking up the company touring car when the barn tipped and the car slid out of the barn and into the hollow, while the chauffeur was tilted to a 45-degree angle. One of the first things retrieved was the car, found to be in perfect running order with minor damage to the chassis.
Hudsonians were thankful that the slide had not traveled in the other direction, where the underground waterline to the city lay 101 feet away. Had the pipe broken, the water from the two reservoirs and the Churchtown dam would have emptied into the area. If the slide had occurred 10 minutes later, the B. and A. Railroad switch line would have been on the tracks.
Streams of Spectators
The highways were soon filled with streams of people hurrying to the disaster. By 6 a.m. that morning rumors had spread through Hudson that 30 men had been killed; that dynamite had exploded and the entire plant destroyed; never less than 25 men had met their death. The roadway was blocked with spectators all day and night. Fearing another slide, plant authorities placed guards along the perimeter of the plant with orders that no one could enter without a permit.
The landslide and the resulting loss of power left the 400 men employed at the plant without jobs. Plant managers announced that the men would be used for cleanup and rebuilding. Tons of cement stored in the toppled pack house were covered with canvas to save as much as possible.

  Working 24 Hours/Day
The Albany Southern Railway Company provided enough power, by adding by cables, to keep the main plant in operation. Working 24 hours a day, 200 employees cleared the wreckage and built a new power plant. The ground slid slightly again on Wednesday, but that was attributed to the earth settling because of the heavy rains. The 100-foot chimney of the power plant, partially disintegrated by its collapse, had to be broken up by hand.
The new power plant was being constructed near the main buildings, on the same firm shale foundation. A portion of the 40,000 tons of crushed stone was used in its foundation. Six boilers and two large turbines were removed nearly intact from the wrecked power house and installed in the new one.
A new pumping station was built next to the creek, and a 30-inch line carrying 3,400 gallons of water a minute led to the new power house and the other buildings.
Righted the Barn
The barn, left at a 45-degree angle, was righted and propped up by supports. The sheer banks left by the slide were graded; the deep depressions were filled with earth dug for the foundations of the new power house. Authorities expected the plant to be back in order and functioning normally by the first of November.
The county coroner held an inquest and workers and managers testified. The state geologist, still making test borings at the site, gave his testimony. It was his opinion that the heavy rains of the past month saturated the clay "formed in the lake which existed under the site in prehistoric times." He believed that most of this water came from the hill across the highway. "The weight of the overlying material forced a squeezing-out of this liquid stratum until the plastic mass formed an outlet to the Claverack Creek."
The coroner pronounced that "the catastrophe was a result of natural phenomena absolutely unpreventable," and he exonerated the company from any blame. The district attorney concurred.
This disaster is a perfect example of the classic Lake Albany clay landslide. The 40,000 tons of rock collapsed into the void left when the 100 feet of thoroughly saturated and unstable clay moved toward the creek, whose banks were undermined by the heavy rains. This initial movement worked in domino fashion to release the surrounding clay. As this slid eastward, it was followed by clay, sand and soil loosened by the slide.
Lake clay is also susceptible to vibration and tremors. The continuous blasting at the nearby quarry contributed to the instability of the clay. The depth of the clay should be of no surprise to those who worked in the clay pit attached to the plant. The now water-filled pit had been dug to a depth of 60 feet.
Gossips has been reproducing the images that appeared with Margaret Schram's articles in The Independent. As a consequence of multiple reproductions, they are not as clear as they might be, so we share these images of the aftermath of the landslide, which provide greater clarity.

Photo: Greenport Historical Society

Photo: Greenport Historical Society


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