There is something about walking up and down through strata of stone that gives one a feeling for the ancient and vast rhythms of geological time, and the relatively miniscule cycles of human history within them. This is the sense one gets at Onteora Lake, situated where the Hudson Valley meets the Catskill Mountains. The lake is rather long and narrow, 16.5 acres in size, and flanked by ridges on both sides. As I leave the parking area and walk past the log-lined, gravel paths and pads the DEC has put in place for primitive camping along the western shore of the lake, I am intrigued by the rock ledges along the ridge to my left. Though stuccoed with lichens and carpeted with mosses and ferns, I can easily identify the rock as sandstone. The term bluestone bestowed upon this sandstone by those who began using it for paving stone in the 1830’s stuck when the quarries boomed in this part of Catskills into a major industry in the 1880’s, and persists to this day.
“Bluestone” belies the variability of this sandstone, which ranges in color from bluish or greenish gray to slate gray to rusty red. To the touch, it feels like the grit of fine sandpaper. I can imagine sheltering under one of the ledge rock overhangs during a storm, or perhaps camping under the largest of them. Where the overhanging strata broke off into slabs that littered the ground, it’s easy to see why this rock appealed so strongly to local settlers looking for a doorstep or chimney cap. Bluestone was found to be hard and durable but relatively easy to work, splitting readily along its bedding planes. Since it doesn’t tend to get slippery with wear, it was a natural for sidewalks. At the height of the bluestone industry, massive stones were hauled by horse-drawn wagon to be loaded at river docks for transport to New York City, and from there to cities along the Atlantic seaboard and beyond. But it must have started with folks experiencing the properties of this attractive rock, as we can still do at places like this, and experimenting with uses for it.
I pass by a stand of wool grass, with its nodding heads of brown, fuzzy seeds, growing on the lakeshore. “Wool grass” is really a type of sedge, and is a wetland indicator. Other plants typical of wet places I find along the shore include red maple with its plump red flower buds, alders, whose seed cones look like tiny pine cones, and buttonbush, well named for its button like brown seed heads. Yet within a few feet of this marshy shoreline stand birches, white pine seedlings, and mature chestnut oak trees. Chestnut oaks are usually associated with dry, rocky soils, and places where wildfires have swept through. With their distinctive thick, blocky bark, they can survive the heat of most fires. There is also one large pitch pine, studded with persistent cones, another fire-resistant tree. The pitch pine, like the oaks, is older than most of the other trees here, suggesting that the forest around the lake may have burned repeatedly, but not in the past 20 years or so.
The trail I followed, marked by yellow discs nailed to trees, continues past the north end of the lake, and turns to the right onto what looks like an old woods road. It soon becomes clear to me that this must be one of the routes along which teams of horses, driven by cursing teamsters, mostly Irish immigrants, pulled wagons loaded with tons of bluestone. I find grooves in stone surfaces exposed on this path that must have been cut by the steel rims of those wagons’ wheels, well over a century ago. When I pause for a moment to take in the silence of the woods around me, I try hard to imagine the clanging, thunderous noise that bluestone quarrying must have made here in those days. Soon I encounter the squared-off depressions, lined with rock layers, where the stone was quarried out. Some are small and roughly square, just ten or fifteen feet wide or so, while others are longer chasms in the earth. The small ones suggest cellar holes, especially since the rock layers within them are so fractured that they look like laid-up stone walls.
After passing a bike trail loop branching off on the left, I follow the yellow markers to the right, where the trail leads to another narrow body of water, called Pickerel Pond. I recognize immediately the work of beavers here: a lodge on the near shore, and another across the water, with a feeding pile of branches floating nearby. Also, there is a beaver-felled sugar maple, and a kind of log cairn of beaver chews where the trail turns again, short logs with pointed ends bearing the marks of the beaver’s chisel-like incisors.
The trail loops to return along the other shore of Onteora Lake. I walk down to the foot of a series of rock ledges, into deep time, as it seems to me. These layers, looming above me now, deposited as fine sand by rivers as part of the great Catskill delta, were laid down from here to the western end of what are now the Catskills some 350-million years ago, during the Devonian period. Some sandstone layers tilt and overlap each other in a pattern known as “crossbedding” found in rocks formed from river channel deposits.
On the walk back I reflect on the strenuous and often dangerous work of bluestone quarrying. First, blasting powder was used to remove the “overburden” of soil, then layers of stone were freed by means of wedges hammered between them. Men drilled rows of holes in the rock layers using “jumpers,” or handheld stone drills, driven by sledgehammers, to break off slabs as large as 60 by 20 feet. Besides suffering from lungs clogged by stone dust, workers risked death from blasting powder, and smashed hands and broken limbs from falling rock. When Portland cement came into use in the 1880’s, bluestone quarries began to be abandoned, one by one.
Bluestone quarrying left its mark upon the land, to be sure. Forests were felled to make way for it, and the soil stripped away in many places to remove the stone and transport it. But those scars have begun to heal here, and the forest is reclaiming the old quarries. As intensive as this industry was, its impact on the land was limited because it depended mostly on the muscle power of men and animals. It seems instructive to compare bluestone quarrying with a modern extractive industry being promoted by some for this region, hydraulic fracturing of shale for natural gas. What will happen here when immense drilling rigs and high-pressure pumps, with vast quantities of water, sand and toxic chemicals take the place of men and horses in the effort to extract wealth from the earth? What will result when natural limits to the plunder of formerly inaccessible resources are removed? Will the land be able to heal again? I can’t help asking, as I leave this wounded, but still vital and lovely place: do we really want to find out?
Onteora Lake/Bluestone Wild Forest is located on Route 28, about three miles west of NYS Thruway exit 19, Kingston, adjacent to a group of stores including “La Bella Pasta.” Walk or drive from the DEC sign for Onteora Lake to the lake and trailhead.