|View of town from atop the iconic Rosendale train trestle.|
An Incomplete History from Cement Mines to Street Festivals
by Anne Pyburn Craig
In 1680, a 30-year-old Albany businessman named Jacob Rutsen purchased land from the Lenape for a long-since-forgotten price and hired Phillip Wells to survey his 963-acre realm. A document filed in Albany by Wells in 1685 records that Wells “finished this day a survey of ye pleasant lands of Roasendale.”
For over a century, things were fairly quiet. In 1825, when a 32-square-mile deposit of dolostone was discovered there, the Pleasant Lands began to be dug up every which way. The D&H Canal, begun that same year, used Rosendale cement in its locks. Rosendale cement found its way into the Brooklyn Bridge, the base of the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and (much later) the New York State Thruway, among other noteworthy structures.
With money to be made, the once-peaceful floodplain began to teem with human beings and doings. By 1835, records reflect several stores and houses, a post office, a tavern, and a hydraulic cement plant, and in 1844 the town of Rosendale was incorporated with chunks hacked from surrounding towns.
The Wallkill Valley Railroad arrived in 1872, its trestle a marvel of engineering, its passenger service a boost to the fledgling tourist industry.
In 1895, fire destroyed 26 buildings. The question of whether or not to invest in fire protection had been a matter of considerable debate, and a reporter with an ear for irony picked up on the fact that many of those hardest hit by the blaze had been opposed. In 1899, Joppenburgh Mountain— having come to resemble Swiss cheese in places— caved in, fortuitously while all the miners were out having lunch.
At its peak, the cement industry in Rosendale employed 5,000 people and produced three billion pounds of the hard stuff annually. This dusty work created enough thirst to keep 18 bars hopping. But while Rosendale cement is harder, the Portland variety sets faster, and builders began to increasingly opt for speed.
Between 1900 and 1920, with the cement industry in decline, Rosendale’s population shrank by two-thirds. But word was out about the Pleasant Lands, and tourism began to pick up. In the creation of the Williams Lake Hotel, which opened in the 1920s, a huge pile of cement slag was leveled into what we would today call “wetlands” to make a playground.
The resort’s patriarch, Walter Williams, used to take visitors on “history hikes” and regale them with local lore. As Williams tells it, a “robber baron” named Samuel Coykendall came to town and convinced the cement miners that they should all turn over their holdings and he’d issue stock and tend to matters. The only holdouts were the Snyder brothers, forbidden by the robber baron to use the canal. As competition from Portland cement intensified, Coykendall’s Rosendale Consolidated Cement Company bit the dust, and Rosendalians were left with worthless stock, five thousand fewer jobs, and a withering business community.
There are two versions of a mid-19th century folk song set along the canal. In one version, Sari Jane kills herself after her Samuel’s demise, and in version two she has moved in with “a junk dealer up in Rondout” before the week is up.
Young A.J. Snyder still believed in Rosendale’s grey gold, and did well enough with it to build himself a charming estate and help the Rosendale Women’s Club acquire a historic church for their nascent library.
In the second half of the 20th century not much remained of the once-vital industry besides a few of the bars and A.J. Snyder’s somewhat quixotic operation. Under the surface, cement mines gave way to mushroom caves (producing five tons of mushrooms a day at their peak) and information storage, in the form of the 15-acre Iron Mountain underground complex.
Aboveground, things were never dull for long. The Rondout Creek burst its banks (which has since been revamped by the Army Corps of Engineers). Main Street suffered a couple more fires, but by this time there was a department. A man named Tony Caccio opened a movie theater.
Rosendale’s central hamlet had been incorporated as a village, and by the early ‘70s, there was considerable squabbling betwixt village and town. A conceptual artist named Raivo Puusemp came to town, ran for mayor, and won. Puusemp proceeded to dissolve the village government as a conceptual art piece, creating a work displayed at the inaugural Utah biennial festivities just last year.
Puusemp left, but art had come to stay. Billy Guldy, better known as emcee, host and one-man party Uncle Willy, operated the legendary pub the Well and the Astoria Hotel, putting the town on the rock-n-roll map. Running around, driving old-timers nuts right alongside Uncle Willy were beatniks like George Montgomery, a poet and longtime Kingston Freeman writer, and brilliant then-youngsters like Dietrich Werner, who would later co-found the Century House Historical Society and run Ulster County’s Independence Party. The powers that be shuttered the Well in 1976, and the hippies came back with the first-ever Street Fest in 1978. World-class enterprises like the Rosendale Café and the Women’s Studio Workshop began.
Republicans may grouse when some call it the People’s Republic, but results are hard to argue with. Tony Caccio’s theater is now beautifully run by a collective. The Williams Lake Project will soon erect an eco-friendly resort where Walter walked, where you can swim beginning this summer. The Century House Historical Society hosts spectacular underground doings in the Widow Jane Mine and well-attended lectures. The daughter of the one-time butcher founded a thriving food pantry. The Women’s Club rocks the blood drives, candidates’ nights, and beautification. A local entrepreneur has turned the old Astoria into a boutique inn. The sustainable community center hosts everything from educational events to family birthday parties and celebrations of the dearly departed. And, you can walk across the railroad trestle as part of Ulster County’s rail trail system.
This month, thanks to volunteers and true lovers, the Rosendale Street Fest will fill the onetime Village with music, food, and fun for a two-day party on July 19 and 20. Come. Celebrate the Pleasant Lands.
For more on Rosendale history, visit www.centuryhouse.org.