Much-loved among rock climbers, the striking geological feature known as the Shawangunk Ridge doesn’t actually terminate at Sam’s Point in the south. While its upper layer, the white Shawangunk conglomerate that forms its shining cliffs, gets less conspicuous as it crosses the New Jersey line, its underlying Martinsburg shale extends all the way down into the coalfields of Pennsylvania.
The Ridge’s northern end peters out at Rosendale, not crossing the Rondout Creek. But the geologically uninitiated can be forgiven for thinking that Joppenbergh – a/k/a Jacob’s Mount, after Rosendale’s first settler, Colonel Jacob Rutsen – is the Gunks’ last gasp. Its light-colored stony outcrops, looming some 500 feet above the shops of downtown Rosendale, seem every bit as craggy and wild. But they are actually formed from dolostone, a type of fine-grained limestone that cleans up nicely when baked in a kiln, crushed and mixed with sand and water to form an excellent, highly durable form of cement.
Gazing at Joppenbergh from the middle of the restored Rondout trestle – the linchpin of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, connecting Gardiner with Kingston – it’s easy to see the caves and mine adits that were left behind after the collapse of the Rosendale cement industry. On December 19, 1899, a group of approximately 150 miners narrowly escaped death due to the fact that they happened to be sitting outdoors eating their lunch when a spectacular cave-in occurred. The mine shafts that honeycombed the mountain had compromised its structural integrity to the point that landslides had been occurring around it for several weeks preceding the big boom, so the miners may have been warier than usual. In any case, the event closed Main Street for a time, shook the trestle and signaled the end of Joppenbergh’s day as a cement source.
Rosendale residents found other uses for it, though. From the late 1930s until 1971, the steep-sided little mountain became the site of ski-jumping competitions, which drew skiers from near and far, including several Olympians. A special ski run was constructed for summertime use, covered with straw and pine needles and a slippery coat of borax. Even in wintertime, snow sometimes had to be shipped in by the truckload before a competition.
The last decades of the 20th century were uneventful for Joppenbergh, as its private owners allowed tree cover denuded during the mining days to grow back and wildlife to return. The first cable TV antenna was constructed atop the mountain in the 1980s, while hikers and hunters were the primary visitors.
In 2003, the Town of Rosendale leased some land at the base of the mountain, behind the Rosendale Theatre, to create a municipal parking lot and what is now known as Willow Kiln Park. That’s where you can find the trailhead if you’d like to explore Joppenbergh. The loop trail extends about 1.5 miles, with an elevation gain of 435 feet. While not blazed with tree markers, it’s easy to follow and affords fine views of the Gunks, the Catskills, the town, the trestle and the ruins of the D & H Canal. You can also make out where the skiing used to happen. For the determined and well-shod, a steep path down the west side of Joppenbergh also connects with the rail trail, the trestle and the Binnewater Kiln parking lot on Binnewater Road.
Access is free of charge, with walking, hiking, running, snowshoeing permitted from dawn to dusk. Rock climbing, spelunking and motorized vehicles are prohibited, and at present the trails are considered too unstable for mountain biking and cross-country skiing. Dogs must be kept on a leash.
In late 2009 the entire mountain was put up for sale, and in 2011 the Open Space Institute purchased the 118-acre property and turned it over the following year to the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT). A land management process involving considerable public input soon got underway, leading up to the development of a Joppenbergh Mountain Land Use Plan. If you visit WVLT’s website, you can participate in a survey that the not-for-profit organization is using to gather information about visitors’ preferred uses for the site. The WVLT’s “ultimate goal is to make this public space more accessible and inviting for the residents and visitors of Rosendale while preserving, and hopefully enhancing, ecosystem integrity.” To add your voice or to find out more, visit www.wallkillvalleylt.org/index.php/joppenbergh.