Saugerties has a long-enough history that you can just about trace the phases of it in the growth and decline of interest in that history. A look at the earliest photograph of Saugerties is the best way to show history is on the upswing right now.
It is in the possession of Dan Lamb and was in the original frame it was hung in when it was on the wall of the original owner, John Simmons. It had hung on the wall of the Rosenblum and Lamb law firm since Morris Rosenblum acquired it in the 1970s from the last Simmons heir to make Saugerties her home, Evelyn Wachter.
John Simmons came to Saugerties in the 1820s when he was hired to set up Henry Barclay’s Iron Works for the first use of the double puddling process in specialty iron production in America. This was after the operators of the West Point Foundry had bought the land, iron works and water rights from Barclay and renamed it the Ulster Iron Works.
This photograph is of the Ulster Iron Works at the height of its fame when it produced the highest strength iron for cannon banding and bracing. It is from some time between the mid-century and just after the Civil War.
This image carries a lot of information about the way Saugerties saw itself in the antebellum period of American history. It shows what life was like in Saugerties’ south side when the highest degree of resource, enterprise, and residential buildup was happening since the earliest stirrings of an Industrial Revolution in America.
The immensely faded original, now digitally resurrected here, reveals, is now revealed for the first time during Arts and Humanities Month. For me, it makes the point that today’s information age is a new halcyon era for Saugerties, where no one can possibly avoid or be dismissive of the past.
This photograph is presented exactly as it aged in its frame. The discoloration from the acrid, smoky atmosphere of the average household of the pre-1950s has not been Photoshopped out. Knowledge of what is in the finer details of the image is necessary.
There is a lot here, so let’s form an approach to the narrative. We will look at this picture from the foreground to the distant horizon and from the left to the right.
The camera sits on an elevation just above where the sewage treatment plant now is at the base of Dock Street. The area just below it is a stone yard, and the house to the left is where the plant is now. A survey done of this location when the old plant was expanded to handle Barclay Heights in 1978 found the yard was owned by the merchant banker Jeremiah Russell, with a dock and store owned by John Kiersted, Jr.
The freshly built house in this foreground is in sharp focus. There was quite the breeze on that day. To the house’s left is a white blur that is probably the laundry waving on a line. To the right, the treetops are equally blurry. There is underbrush on the hillside, which in a later picture of this bank, taken from the angle of the steamboat docks, shows St. Mary’s on the top of the hill. Every open space had begun to be put to grazing once the population began to boom in the mid-1870s; which helps place this picture in an earlier era.
The ribbon flowing across the mid frame of this picture is the Esopus Creek at its horseshoe bend into the tidewater of the Hudson River. Following it to the right and the cascade below Barclay’s dam, the old Saugerties and New York White Lead mill quays are just visible on the right edge of the image, marking the end of navigable water in those days.
Above the tide level is the new dam of 1858 built by the paper and iron works. Barclay’s original dam of 1825 was a massive stone structure with a concave footprint. This wooden one has a dead straight sill across the top.
Beyond the dam is the Burr arch covered bridge built by Ralph Bigelow for Barclay around 1840. The Burr arch bridge replaced Barclay’s open-arch bridge of 1831, built by Smith Cram. This covered bridge was the longest single span of its day in New York State. It was an attraction when built, and its image is found on banknotes and engravings. This is the earliest photograph to captures it.
The cluster of houses around the bridge’s tollhouse were in a pattern recognizably unique to a high-traffic area such as a bridge. Where congestion forms at a stopping point, a fountain for watering the horses while a wagon waited to go on was supplied. This infrastructure of an earlier time is evidenced around the village in a good half-dozen wide intersections were where these fountains once stood.
It is in curiosities like this example that we learn about the past today. Much of this period is long gone. Photographs of this era are important in creating a curiosity about indicators of change. Later pictures of the lead mill, the covered bridge, and the number structures around the old tollhouse allow comparison. Photographs in “The Pearl,” taken in or before 1875, show the number of houses at the bridge more than doubled. The lead mill is in ruins, and covered bridge is gone, replaced with an iron truss bridge.
Within a decade of The Pearl’s pictures, the Ulster Iron Works would also be gone from this view. Here, though, we see to the left between the Esopus bank and the “putty gut” an immense supply of coal and wood for the iron-works furnaces, an indicator of robust activity.
As far as the iron works go, here I would be dearly indebted to someone knowledgeable in the history of industrial processing of iron to explain what each structure shown in this complex was used for. The papers of John Simmons are spread about in engineering-specific and general archives from here to the West Coast, and I would guess they contain plenty of clues. Vivid period accounts provide impressions of the heroic atmosphere of this workplace, but my interest is in the specialty products it made. Relating that craft to these structures would give a better idea of the quality of the talent that inhabited Saugerties at this time.
Suffice it to say that multiple furnaces were in some of the buildings that have chimneys and open sides for ventilation. The rolling mills and hammers were probably in the long buildings below the white-painted structure up the steep bank at their back, which looks like it governs the force of the water to the mill wheels below.
That particular tiny feature in the photo is also in need of expert scrutiny. At that moment in time America was transitioning into the age of steam power. This may be the only photographic evidence of how water power was applied to the earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution.
What I see here is simply a reservoir backed up behind what looks like a huge half-barrel. A house is attached directly to it atop a white painted structure that continues down to the level of the factory buildings. The edge of the cliff this all sits on today measures nearly forty feet high there.
How the reservoir worked, could not have been figured out without this photograph. The full weight of water is directed to the rolling mills and hammers of the iron mill. The overflow visible at this tap has the water dropping a good ten feet before it drives the wheels of the paper mill. This regulation of the water power was set by the agreement between the paper mill and the iron mill when the dam was replaced in 1858.
What sits atop the palisades in this picture is the most interesting thing about this photograph, not the mills at their base, which have plenty of written documentation. When the iron mill and the pulp mill that replaced it were gone, J. G. Myers, the builder of Stroomzeit, ended up owning all this. Just before the turn of the century, he made a brochure for selling it that documented exactly what is seen in this picture from perhaps a half-century before. This brochure is also in Dan Lamb’s possession.
Lining the reservoir and climbing the rock formation that drops precipitously into the gorge of the Esopus are a variety of residential structures that show what this brochure described. This was later called Cantine Island because Martin Cantine’s company bought it.
This was a densely populated area, and what is seen in this picture also references another heavily populated area known as the English settlement, built on the slopes up to Barclay Heights. What is shown here are the diversified and sophisticated lifestyle of the early craftsmen of a Saugerties at its industrial origins.
Our focal point here is the picket fences reflected in the reservoir. On its left bank is the fence that surrounds the home of Edward Simmons, the master of the rolling mills and brother of John Simmons. This property extends across East Bridge Street to his stable, where the road to Kingston forks away from where the street drops down to the steamboat dock. The road that continues along the bias of the hillside becomes what is now Valley Street, which takes it on up to Barclay Heights. Behind Simmons’ stable is the back yard of William Beckley, a master puddler who arrived before mid-century.
Across from Simmons, at the corners of Ann Street’s south intersection with East Bridge Street, are two hotels. Beyond them, in the distance, are several large houses following the ridgeback, at Theodore Place, where now the firehouse and its parking presently are. This line of houses ended at the main store for this side of the Esopus.
Most clearly informative is what is the foreground, on the land across the Ann Street bridge. On this side of the channel to the reservoir the street became Canal Street. The picket fence reflected in the reservoir is along the back yards of a row of 14 tenement dwellings built of stone in the earliest days of the mills. They were two stories high fronting on Canal Street and three on the garden side at the reservoir. Their privies are painted sanitary white at the corner of each back fence.
Several frame houses are seen across Canal Street from this row. At the end of the street, separated from the end of the row by a treed area, is the cubic, pyramidally roofed office building at the iron-works gate. Behind the gate is the incline down to the enormous slag dump to the iron-works complex. From written accounts of the mid 1830s we know this access was limited. They wanted the industrial process practiced there kept confidential.
Behind the offices is the stable and wagon barn of the company. Across Canal Street from the offices, surrounded by a picket fence, is the large, Greek columned residence of the iron-works manager. There are some peculiar landscape features in the area where this fenced yard is below the mansion, plus what appears to be an addition on the back at the higher level. This property is a full block deep. The house, built to rise to a level where its porches have the advantage of the best views, dominates the complete community setting.
Behind runs in a line a half-dozen or more multi-storied houses at staggered depths back from a common lane, all appearing to be arranged around open spaces. Those to the rear are built right up to the edge of the escarpment. This line of houses continues at the same level and direction as those that are along Theodore Place, as if all were designed so as not to block each others’ views from this height.
There is no smog or smoke. There is no smokestack. There is no appearance of a Turner-esque atmosphere that would indicate the horrors we think of as common in this period of industrialization. This is a photograph of Saugerties that is a true snapshot of a time, not an abstraction tainted by the opinions and angst of a writer or painter. I think it looks like things were done right.
Compositionally, I think this photograph has value as an art work, both visually and in the way it speaks to truth. I will be featuring this image, in that context, in a talk this Friday, on how art informs us about history. I will be joined by Tad Richards, who will talk about the more recent art of Opus 40, and by Michael Nelson, who will place our artistic soul in the Hudson River School of painting, at a free talk set up by ShoutOutSaugerties and hosted by the Saugerties Public Library. It’s on Friday, October 6 at 2 p.m. in the library’s community room. I hope to see you there.