During the Lower Silurian period, 417 to 440 million years ago, a geological formation of quartzite conglomerate bedrock came into being within the Appalachian mountain chain, rising from what is now eastern Pennsylvania and passing through northern New Jersey into southeastern New York. We know its pale grey ramparts of stone as the Shawangunk Ridge, whose northern terminus occurs in Rosendale, just shy of the Rondout Creek.
Across the water looms another outcrop of rock, about 500 feet in height and equally stark and imposing in its own way, although covering hundreds of acres rather than hundreds of square miles. Formed of dolostone, a fine-grained limestone that makes the excellent water-resistant cement that long supported Rosendale’s economy, this mini-Gibraltar was named the Joppenbergh, or Jacob’s Mount, after the town’s first settler, a merchant named Colonel Jacob Rutsen – more formally, Jacobsen Rutger van Schoonderwoerdt.
Gazing at the southern flank of the Joppenbergh from the Rondout trestle – the linchpin of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, recently reconnecting New Paltz with Kingston – one may view the caves and mine adits left behind after the collapse of the Rosendale cement industry. In December 1899, about 150 miners narrowly escaped death due to the fact that they happened to be sitting outdoors eating lunch when a spectacular cave-in occurred. Though the event wasn’t lethal, it closed Main Street (Route 213) for a time and signaled the end of the Joppenbergh’s day as a cement source.
Rosendalers, with the urging of Nordic skiing enthusiast Gus Williams of Williams Lake, found another use for it, though: to entertain visitors. Seeking new activities to attract tourism during the winter, the Rosendale Township Association approached a Brooklyn-based telemark skiing club in 1936 with a proposal to build its new 40-meter/130-foot ski jumping slope on the site. A lease was obtained from Joppenbergh owner Warren Sammons, Norwegian ski hill designer Harold Schelderup was brought in to design a ski track and Rosendale’s first ski jumping competition scheduled for January 1937. But bad weather caused the cancellation of competitive events in favor of exhibition runs.
Undaunted and unwilling to wait for the next winter, the club decided to cover the slope with mats, carpets, straw, pine needles and slippery borax for a makeshift summer competition. That tournament took place in July 1937, drawing a crowd of 3,300 people. Olympic skier Ottar Satre set a record jump of 112 feet/34 meters that year. In 1938, a 25-foot/7.6-meter extension was placed atop the mountain to increase jumpers’ distance. Norwegian skier Nils Eie jumped 128 feet to win the competition that January. In 1941 the length of the slope was increased once again to 50 meters/160 feet, but the onset of World War II created a demand for skilled skiers to join the military; competitions ceased until the 1960s.
The Rosendale Nordic Ski Club was organized in January 1964, immediately creating the Joppenbergh Mountain Corporation (JMC) to manage the property. Three hundred shares of stock were issued at $100 per share to raise funds to buy the mountain itself from owner Mary Sammons. Upon gaining control of the property in August of that year, JMC announced its intent to build a new ski slope on the site of the original one, as well as a parking lot capable of holding 10,000 cars. The goal of the club was to make Rosendale the “Nordic Ski Capital of the East.”
A new 70-meter/230-foot slope was completed in November 1965, augmented by a snowmaking system to provide artificial snow. When ski-jumping competitions resumed in January 1966, Leif Bringslimark achieved a 152-foot/46-meter jump from the new slope. The winner of the January 1968 tournament was Per Coucheron, a 22-year-old Dartmouth student who reached 206 feet/63 meters.
At a two-day competition in January 1969, Olympic medalist Franz Keller jumped 212 feet down a 65-meter (213-foot) slope on Joppenbergh, after having managed to reach 214 feet during practice. It had rained the week before the competition, and although 20 truckloads of snow were brought in, the condition of the track was described at the time as “extremely fast.” Several participants fell, and one was hospitalized in Kingston.
At a Rosendale ski meet in February 1971, Keller’s record was broken twice by Middlebury College student Hugh Barber, with heights of 213 feet and 217 feet during competition; he made 226 feet during practice, in front of 3,500 spectators. Although Barber characterized the ski hill as in “great condition,” 10 to 15 percent of participants had fallen during the tournament.
Consistently unfavorable weather conditions and lack of profitability were the major reasons skiing stopped on Joppenbergh in the 1970s. The slope was subsequently abandoned, though the JMC continued to own and maintain the property after skiing ceased. During the last decades of the 20th century, Joppenbergh’s private owners allowed trees 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 and view the remnants of the ski jump. 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. 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 2011 the Open Space Institute purchased the 118-acre property, turning it over the following year to the Wallkill Valley Land Trust. A land management process involving considerable public input soon got underway, leading up to the development of a Joppenbergh Mountain Land Use Plan. Funding for habitat restoration and resource management from the New York State Conservation Partnership Program began to flow in 2018. Perhaps someday the trails of the Joppenbergh will host the gentle schuss of skis once more.