As we mourn the shrinking of wilderness in modern times, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that our landscapes today are in many cases much cleaner and greener than in centuries past. As European colonists moved inland from the East Coast, primeval forests fell before them: harvested to build dwellings and ships, burned for warmth or to make charcoal, stripped of bark for tanneries, the once-wooded land cleared for agriculture. The Industrial Revolution, and in particular the intensive use of coal as a fuel, choked 19th-century skies with smoke. Massive infrastructure-building projects such as railways, canals and aqueducts tore great gashes in the landscape that in our time are softened with greenery once again.
Gazing over the patchwork landscape now under the stewardship of the Mohonk Preserve, it’s tempting – but misleading – to picture its evolution from its wild state as calm and gradual. The turbulent actual process came clearer in the photographs and maps shared by Paul Huth, the Preserve’s research director emeritus, in his presentation “The Altered Landscape,” given last Thursday at SUNY New Paltz as part of this year’s free lecture series sponsored by the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership (SRBP) and coordinated by Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park Preserve.
The focus of Huth’s talk was the Mohonk Preserve’s most recent large land acquisition, known as the Foothills, now partially traversed by the River-to-Ridge Trail and home to the Testimonial Gateway Tower, whose site is currently being landscaped into a major trailhead. Startling images dating back to the early days of photography, and continuing into the postwar era, showed that the bucolic rolling hills and fields punctuated by woods that we now associate with the land between river and Ridge were once far more denuded than the present day.
The first land clearings west of the Wallkill River began around the time of the signing of the New Paltz Patent in 1677, Huth explained, with the southern part of the Foothills parceled off to Jacobus Bruyn in 1682. The earliest dwelling known to have been built in the area, the home of George and Anna DuBois, appears on an Ulster County map made in 1829. The building itself burned down in 1865, but another one built on more or less the same site became the hub of what is now known as Brook Farm.
When it came to growing crops, New Paltz’s Huguenot settlers and their descendants preferred the fertile alluvial plain we now call the Flats to the Foothills, whose thin soils are littered with glacial erratics that make great stone walls but ruin plow blades, and are plagued by high water tables in those level pockets of meadow where the soil is better. Although some pioneer families moved into farmhouses they built in the areas known today as Brook, Pine and Kleinekill Farms, it was a “pretty hardscrabble” way of eking out a living, Huth said. “There was very little tillable ground.”
Once cleared of trees, that stony land proved hospitable to pasturage and haymaking. In the early days of Mohonk Mountain House, between 1884 and 1925, hotel founder Albert K. Smiley purchased eleven farmsteads on the eastern slope of the Ridge and 17 parcels connecting the Mountain House to the Wallkill Valley. By 1930, according to Huth, about 1,500 acres of surrounding land had been put into agricultural service to the Mountain House, comprising “seven big farms on both sides of the Ridge,” managed by tenant farmers. Most of this was to support the hotel’s extensive dairy herds. Huth showed slides of carefully kept records of milk production for each of the farm parcels; a 1917 inventory by Dan Smiley, Sr. indicated 19,000 pounds of milk being produced in a single year. Only in 1951 was the process of pasteurization brought in, Huth noted.
In addition to dairy cattle, the Mountain House also kept more than 100 horses, for livery, stagecoaches and heavy farm work. All these large ungulates required feeding over the winter, so hay production was a “big commodity” in the Foothills, peaking around 1920. “It was gathered by hand, with about 600 tons of hay stored each year,” Huth noted. “In 1947 they finally bought a modern baler.” Much of the pastureland was turned over to haymaking when the dairy operation ceased in 1965: “That’s when the return to wildness that we recognize today really began.”
An 1892 photograph taken from somewhere in the vicinity of Sparkling Ridge depicts a landscape that seems shockingly treeless to modern eyes. “The vistas are very prominent,” Huth said, pointing out a plume of smoke from a smoldering charcoal pit. Not only was the land being claimed for agricultural purposes, but charcoal production was also a booming industry in the late 19th century: “very impactful,” and “a smoky, dirty business.” He showed photos of a demonstration burn, illustrating a 30-foot-diameter framework of 13 to 14 cords of wood, surrounded by a small earth berm and covered with leaves, dirt and debris. The charcoal thus produced was “principally used to run big blast furnaces for smelting iron.” Two large nearby furnaces, in Ramapo and Millerton, required “600 acres of forest to run for a year.”
Today’s primary route to the foot of the Ridge, Route 299, wasn’t built until the 1950s. The construction of the 23-mile New Paltz/Wawarsing Turnpike in 1856, traversing the “shortest cross-Ridge distance over the mountain” through the Trapps Gap, was a major driver of the land clearances in the Foothills. Also providing access was Pine Road, which fed into Old South Road, leading up to Mountain Rest. Lenape Lane, built by 1882, led through the original Mohonk Gatehouse, where the Testimonial Gateway Tower was constructed in 1907/08 to mark the 50th wedding anniversary of Albert Smiley and his wife Eliza. The allée of stately pin oaks that lines the road was planted in 1909, and ponds and a gravity-fed fountain installed near the base of the tower. Duck Pond was built around the same time.
Most alarming of all the historic photos shown were those documenting the construction of the branch of the Catskill Aqueduct that traversed the Gunks in 1912, including shots of a stone-crushing operation near Canaan Road and a deep ditch dug for a temporary rail line. “They built an impressive tunnel under Bonticou Crag. The construction disturbance was extensive,” Huth said. “Look how extensively this front part of the Crag was quarried for crushed stone!”
Today, no trace of that massive-scale excavation is apparent to the eye. And modern technologies have eliminated the need for Mohonk Mountain House to be self-sufficient in ways that once scarred the landscape, such as dairying and cutting firewood and ice-harvesting. Under careful stewardship, nature is showing its astonishing capacity to heal human damage. Vistas of the Ridge are now narrower than they were in the 1890s, more sporadic, deliberately curated to spring surprises on us as we come around a bend in the road: what landscape architects call a “Zen view.” It’s a comfort to know that, in our neck of the woods at least, humanity’s harsh and heavy footprint is shrinking.