High Falls is a place of two trails, and both have stories to tell. The trail that starts at the DePuy Canal House tells of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, which transformed this region when it was built in 1825. Several of the locks that raised and lowered barges carrying coal from Pennsylvania and local cement and other goods to the Rondout are exposed here. Lock 16, adjacent to the Canal House, is in particularly good condition. Here the canal’s walls of Shawangunk conglomerate blocks precisely fitted without mortar can be seen. Grooves still show in the stone “snubbing posts” from the ropes mules pulled, trudging the towpaths on either side of the canal, to move canal boats along. Mule drivers were often children, subjected to grueling labor in the service of the “canawlers.” Though the D & H Canal Museum is closed in the winter, a guide booklet to the “Five Locks Trail” is available there, and interpretive signs describe what must have been a bustling, boisterous period in the history of this area. Together with the cement industry, the D & H Canal transformed towns like High Falls and Rosendale overnight. The canal brought the supplies of coal needed to ‘cook’ the local dolostone rock into Rosendale cement, which was milled at the falls more profitably than grain had been previously. The 19th century saw the growth of these sparsely populated farming communities into thriving industrial and mining towns, and now that those enterprises, too, have faded, we can still read their story in the landscape here.
Opposite the DePuy Canal House on Route 213, a trail leads through second growth woods along the canal route to the banks of the Rondout. The story here is related to that told by the canal locks trail, but its principal characters are the primal elements of water and stone. Perched high above the stream on opposite banks are the abutments of the aqueduct designed by John A. Roebling, architect of the Brooklyn Bridge. This aerial section of the canal, borne above the Rondout by a suspension bridge, with a railed towpath alongside it, must have been one of the engineering marvels of its day when it was completed in 1849.
I turned to follow the trail upstream from the aqueduct abutment, noticing that the loftiest trees in this riparian habitat were the cottonwoods, with their deeply furrowed bark, and the sycamores with their peeling bark, a mosaic of tan and gray patches. Closer to the ground, the red, bristly canes of wine raspberry, or wineberry, backlit by the late afternoon sun, add glowing color to the monochrome tones of winter. The trail itself diverged from the stream and approached the stone ruins of a cement factory. I veered to the right at this point, treading carefully among the large blocks of ice that still littered the ground to get closer to the falls. There are actually two waterfalls here. The downstream falls has a drop of only a few feet, while the upper falls drops more than 20 feet and is the source of power for the hydroelectric plant, operated by Central Hudson, and enclosed by wire fencing. Yet it’s possible to stand on the rocky shore and admire the expansive waterfall, much broader than high, like a miniature Niagara, and forget for a moment how its power is being harnessed. Instead, one can simply appreciate the way the glassy surface of the creek tumbles down the sheer rock face and explodes at its foot in froth and fury, unleashing the raw energy of falling water.
The rocks across the creek are striking also because of their alternating reddish and gray strata. At one point near the falls these strata, exposed in a high cutbank, are warped into an upward fold, or anticline. The anticline tells a much older story, of forces strong enough to crumple layers of solid rock, when plates of the earth’s crust bearing the continents of Europe and North America collided raising the Appalachian Mountains, including the Shawangunk Ridge, 350 million years ago. Ten thousand years ago or so, just yesterday in geologic terms, the last continental ice sheet retreated from the region, having shifted the course of the Rondout to the east, so that it flowed across beds of hard Rosendale dolostone. Differential erosion formed the falls: the stream drops from a ledge of hard cement rock to fall upon the softer sandstone and mudstone strata below it. And these falls are moving in more ways than one, retreating gradually upstream as their dolostone lip, undercut by erosion, breaks and falls away.
In an age when “nature” seems threatened on all sides by the industrial society we’ve created, I find it soothing to view human history at a place like High Falls, against the backdrop of water and stone, primal forces and geologic time. With the perspective I gain in this way, even in the shadow of a hydroelectric plant, I can contemplate the fate of my species more calmly, though still with grave concern. Earth history encompasses and transcends the brief tenure of our species, and the study of it calms with its reminder that even this crisis we have caused for the planet, this too, shall pass. The actions we take now, or fail to take, are fateful not for the earth itself, but only for our continued survival on it.