Plans for Saugerties cultural center are dependent on funding

Patrick Wadden with a model of the fourdrinier machine, which manufactures paper in continuous rolls. (Photos by David Gordon)

The past and the future of a lot adjacent to the village park off Bridge Street was the theme of a walk-and-talk from the Saugerties village beach to the site last Sunday led by Arm of the Sea Theater co-director Patrick Wadden and historian Caleb Lang.

Wadden talked about the future. Planned are The Tidewater Center for the arts, sciences and local history, which would incorporate an aquatic classroom for river education; staging areas for citizen-science projects; a meeting hall and performance space; public access for tidewater fishing; a waterworks playground, and finally a kayak launch and way station for local travelers.


Arm of the Sea has been seeking funds. According to a chart shown at the event, the time line includes making the property safe, installing bathrooms and a pavilion, and providing for performances in 2019. The following year would see the addition of a tent or shelter for performances, as well as the kayak launch and waterworks playground. The timetable is dependent on finding funding for these plans.

Wadden and Laura Kopczak performed a short play on history of the site. “That is the purpose of The Tidewater Center — to tell the interwoven stories of this place,” Wadden said.

In his talk on the history of the site, historian Lang emphasized the paper industry, which occupied most of the property. Henry Barclay’s paper mill was completed around 1827. An iron mill, completed a little later, was on the left. 

Barclay, wealthy patriarch of Saugerties, saw the potential in local water power. The first dam was built with stone and wood around 1825 or 1826. The dam, built on an existing waterfall, increased the height of the falls. In the 1870s, when the old dam was falling into disrepair, a concrete dam was built, Lang said. The existing dam was built in 1929.

“This October will mark the 191st birthday of this building,” Lang said, standing in front of the remains of the paper mill.

Caleb Lang in front of the largest section of the former paper mill.

The machine that manufactured paper in continuous rolls, called after its patent-holder a Fourdrinier machine, had been in use in England and France and Scotland. Its installation in Saugerties marked its first use in the United States, Lang said.

The structure remaining on the property today is the basement of the paper factory that once stood there, Lang said. “There would have been two more stories and a large roof loft on top of that, plus two additional wings.” The machinery, powered by a large water wheel inside the building, was replaced around 1849 with a Parker Wheel, a “more perfected version of what people were using as water turbines at that point.”

Norman White and Joseph Sheffield leased the plant around 1848 and later bought it. “They began upgrading the plant, putting in the Parker Wheel and other new equipment.”

On July 9, 1872, the entire mill, then built mostly of wood, burned to the ground. “By 1873 this entire mill would have been rebuilt completely in brick,” Lang said. There were three stories above the basement. In 1877, another mill was built, extending the complex “pretty much down to East Bridge Street,” Lang said.

The remains now on the property are what is left of buildings constructed in 1868 to 1873, Lang said. While the building has stood up to more than 130 years of wear and tear, it is not safe. Holes in the floors and occasional collapsing brickwork make it hazardous.

Following Sheffield’s death, several groups tried to keep the mill going. In 1900 to 1905 there were agreements between Joseph Sheffield’s heirs and the Diamond Mills Paper Corporation, said Lang, “but we don’t know when they actually opened the doors and said okay, everybody come in, you’re hired again.”

Diamond Mills invested in upgrading the building and machinery, and ran the operation until around 1945. Both Diamond Mills and Martin Cantine had some trouble with unions, and after 1945, the company left Saugerties. Fabricon, a company that manufactured packaging for food, took over the plant, “and by the mid Fifties a corporation came through — I don’t know the name of that one, but I know they turned into what was known as the Empire State Paper Mills, which was vacuum bags, pretty much.”

Lang said much of the brick for the plant was made locally in Malden and Glasco. The fire brick was made by a company in New York City. Washburn Brick, a local company, produced most of the brick that can be found on the site.

Lang went into some of the history of the apartment complex known as “The Mill,” which was at one time a book bindery. It later housed a mushroom-growing operation, followed by a chicken factory. “It took a while, but I did find an article in an old newspaper describing the hygienic state of the chicken factory on East Bridge Street,” Lang said. The building was abandoned until the late 1980s or early 1990s, when it was converted to senior housing.

Patrick Wadden hoped the property will be safe for people to walk on within a year. The Tidewater Center is raising money. “The first hundred thousand dollars goes to just making the property safe, cleaning up the coal bin and bringing in some basic services,” he said.