There are places we go to for a sense of primeval wildness, for the illusion (and it is, always, an illusion in our region) that we are perhaps the first humans to have walked there. Joppenbergh Mountain, in Rosendale, is not such a place. On my recent walks there I felt as if I were turning the pages of a complex history, in which signs of human presence and activity are impossible to disentangle from the rock outcrops and diverse plant and animal life hunkering down for winter.
Joppenbergh Mountain’s claim to fame, along with that of Rosendale, is literally, set in cement. When the Delaware and Hudson Canal was being dug, a search began for a local source for the cement needed to build the canal’s system of locks and aqueducts. With the 1826 discovery in the Rosendale area that a chunk of ‘burnt’ limestone, ground up and mixed with water, would set up and harden, a new industry was born. The synergy between production of Rosendale cement and construction of the D&H Canal led to a commercial boom in this part of the Hudson Valley. “Rosendale cement” is a natural hydraulic cement, able to set up underwater, so it worked well for the canal. Barges then brought Pennsylvania coal to Rosendale on the canal, and carried its cement to the Hudson and more distant markets, including New York City, where it was used for the footings of the Brooklyn Bridge and the base of the Statue of Liberty.
On our walk up Joppenbergh Mountain we could not see signs of the disastrous mine cave-ins in 1899 that spared the lives of 150 workers only because they happened to be outside eating lunch at the time, or of the landslides that followed, cutting off traffic on both the canal and the roadway. But the ruins of old kilns, their brick arches set in the masonry retaining wall at the trailhead testify to what was once a powerful industry, capable of gutting and undermining a mountain. The wavering reflections of drooping yellow-branched willows in the water pooled up below the kilns belie, in their quiet beauty, the furious pace of the mining that took place here. Leaving “Willow Kiln Park,” we entered a trail marked by a hand-lettered sign, climbing to the top of the retaining wall. Here, nestled among the mosses, we found two clumps of a small and uncommon fern, the purple-stemmed cliffbrake, its blue-green leaflets poking out like tiny fingers from between stone blocks. This fern favors limestone ledges, as do a number of other fern species uncommon or rare in our area.
Limestone is calcium carbonate rock, but the rock of Joppenbergh Mountain is actually dolostone, in which much of the calcium has been replaced by magnesium. Dolostone is more resistant to weathering than limestone, which dissolves so readily that the landscapes it underlies, in humid regions, are often riddled with natural caverns and drained by streams that disappear into sinkholes to flow underground. “Karst” topography, as geologists call it, is hard to make out on the dolostone here and the mountain’s hummocky surface has also been shaped by glacial deposits, and by human activity, in the forming of extensive mining excavations.
As we followed the trail past the hull of a vintage car rusting into the ground, we notice the unusual diversity of trees, including some not often seen growing together: large cottonwoods and big-tooth aspens, sycamores with peeling bark, white oak, shagbark and bitternut hickory, tulip, white ash and white birch, to name a few. Crossing an open meadow, we see stands of spindly winter weeds, including the round seed heads of Oswego tea or bergamot, the two-parted capsules of butter-and-eggs and the woolly seed tufts of thimbleweed that remind me of the tussled heads of children.
After crossing a power line cut bordering what appears to be an old quarry, perhaps a remnant of early cement mining on the mountain, we began climbing again, getting views to the south and east of Rosendale with its blue steel bridge. We paused to watch an immature yellow-bellied sapsucker working his way around a young tulip tree, perhaps drilling the sap wells for which he is named. Compare his modest holes, drilled only to obtain the sap that nourishes him, with the mile-long tunnels gouged into this mountain by the human woodpeckers seeking ever-greater profits!
After a short, steep climb, we reached what appears to be end of this trail, such as it is. Here a pile of debris, mostly wood scraps, wire and metal antennas and switchboxes, apparently the ruins of an abandoned TV or radio tower, confronted us. We turned back from this point, carrying a few pieces of debris to leave at the pile forming for removal near the trailhead, enjoying the view north and westward of the Catskills as we went.
Before reaching the trailhead, we stopped in a clearing as, one after another, a large band of wintering bluebirds flew into the shelter of low shrubs and weeds. With their sky-blue wings and russet breasts they “carried the sky upon their backs,” in Thoreau’s phrase, and brightened the overcast day for us, as they always do. Just before emerging from the trail into the park, I looked back at a pocked and pitted dolostone boulder and spotted a lacy Woodsia fern, another uncommon lime-loving species, sprouting on it. We were glad to end our walk with those bluebirds and ferns. In their delicate and fleeting beauty, they seemed good emblems of the resilience with which the life of a place persists and returns, however heedless the ravages of our species have been there.