by Terence P Ward
Two hundred years ago the Catskill Mountains were covered by a nearly impenetrable forest of hemlock—dark and foreboding. It was a forest that invited tales such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, who once wrote of the region, “[O]f all the scenery of the Hudson, the Kaatskill Mountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination.” Growing thick with trees that hampered vision and sunlight and didn’t yield a particularly attractive wood, the Catskills were mostly avoided by traders and trappers alike, until it was discovered that the bark of that tree, the hemlock, is very useful for the tanning of leather.
In a lecture entitled Tanning Industry of Ulster County, historian Philip Ryan laid out the impacts of that industry on Ulster County during the 50 or so years it was in operation—about 1817 to 1850. “It was an enormous environmental catastrophe” that befell the land of Natty Bumppo and the Headless Horseman, he explained, but not a very surprising one given the attitudes held by the people of that time, who thought the United States had “limitless resources and boundless frontiers, all of it God-given.”
Tanning is the process by which the skin of an animal is cleaned, softened, and preserved as leather so it can be used for the production of garments and tools. Ingredients tried by different cultures have included such pleasantries as bird dung, urine, and “animal innards,” as Ryan put it; the common denominator being an incredibly bad smell. Tanning, termed the “odoriferous trade,” was a task left to the lowest classes (largely Irish and German immigrants at that time). Like so much work given to the poor, it was as important as it was unpleasant. In 19th-century New York, leather was not only used for boots and shoes, but also saddles, harnesses, and industrial belting in mills and factories.
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is strong but not attractive, since the grain is very coarse and the wood tends to splinter when sanded or planed. It was the dominant species of the Catskills forest, and if it weren’t for its value in tanning, it would likely still be the main tree there today. As it happens, the bark of the hemlock, once powdered, yields enough tannic acid to do the important work of softening hides into leather.
Peeling bark for the tannery in Prattsville, NY, during the
1840s, when it was the largest in the world.
The bark peelers would do their work for about six to eight weeks, when the sap was rising, cutting down the trees and trying to remove the bark up to the first branch in a single sheet, to make it easier to quantify for sale. With the amount of sap that coated their clothes, peeling was probably a messier job than the tanning itself. The logs were used to make plank roads, upon which sledges of hides were hauled to the tanning pits, or just burned.
The tanneries themselves were temporary operations, packing up and moving whenever the nearby supply of hemlock ran out. The hides—coming from as far as Argentina and Brazil—would be brought up the Hudson and the Rondout by clipper ships in winter, and then loaded onto sleds and pulled all the way to Samsonville, about 20 miles west of Kingston. It was not only easier to move the heavy loads over snow, but it was probably also less noxious. As Ryan describes it, the hides still had hair and flesh attached, and as a result were crawling with vermin and teeming with fungus. The first step in the tanning process was to dump the hides in a pit and cover them with lime to loosen the hair and meat before they were moved to the first pit of tannic acid. Once in the vats of acid, the skins might sit for months as they softened, checked from time to time, until they were deemed ready to be worked over by the curriers, who brushed and finished the hides, and the fullers, who beat the leather that was destined to be clothing so it was softer still.
While tanneries were temporary in nature, they were by no means small operations. Hundreds, if not thousands, of horses were used in a single operation, together with the men who did the work. Tanneries were always located near a stream, because the water was needed to make the tannic acid; those streams were also where the used acid and various waste products of men and animals invariably ended up.
The height of the boom was fueled by the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, with leather being in high demand for military uniforms and equipment. The yellow smoke from the tanneries could be seen a mile away.
By 1870, the hemlock supply had been depleted and the tanning operations had all but ceased. The deforested land was first used for farming, but the growing was difficult, and after a time the most common crop was oats for the many horses working in the mountains. Much of that land was eventually seized by the state over unpaid taxes. Due to lack of trees, the land began to erode into the Hudson River, causing such problems that the state legislature declared the area “forever wild” around the turn of the 20th century, establishing a forest preserve some twenty years after the tanning industry had folded up due to a lack of hemlock bark. The forest that grew back was not the same one known to Washington Irving. Instead of a dense thicket of hemlock that was all but impenetrable to human travel, a more diverse woodland grew up in its place, arguably a more beautiful and ecologically healthy one than the monoculture that was destroyed.
“People have romantic notions about those times, but this was a business of filthy excrement and chemicals,” Ryan said, comparing them to the plumes of coal smoke which hovered over Rosendale during the cement boom. Tanners were driven purely by economics, with no notion of environmental impact, and yet they laid the groundwork for the work of John Burroughs and ideas like the “forever wild” forest preserve. That something beautiful emerged in the wake of an environmental debacle is a testament to the resilience of nature.