Brick Capital of the World

Clockwise from upper left: A beach of bricks by the former Hutton Brickyard (Photo by Stephen Blauweiss); finished bricks inside a shed at Hutton Brickyard in 1939 (New York State Archives); a worker presses bricks air-drying in the open yard (Library of Congress).

A condensed chapter from the forthcoming The Story of Historic Kingston

The common brick has been one of the greatest materials for the construction industry, being fireproof, waterproof, weatherproof, and relatively inexpensive. By the turn of the 20th century, the Hudson Valley was known as the “Brick Capital of the World” due to its tremendous clay deposits and proximity to New York City, which would become the largest brick market in the world. The region produced up to one billion bricks a year and employed nearly 10,000 people in more than 320 brickyards.

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Back in 1771, Dutch settler Jacob Van Dyke found deposits of clay and began producing the first handmade bricks in Haverstraw for use in fireplaces and chimneys. Since then, a wide variety of clay has been discovered along the banks of the Hudson River. While the red-orange color comes from iron oxide in the clay, many factors influence the final quality and color of bricks: the quality of clay, the type of open yards for drying, construction of kilns, and the time and temperature needed for firing. These differed significantly from one brickyard to another, even those only a few miles apart. 

Hutton Brickyard in Kingston operated continuously from 1865 until 1980. As with most brickyards along the Hudson, workers were predominantly Italian and African-American, mainly from the South. The two groups were closely knit at work and socially, despite the racism that inflicted many other aspects of society. Many employees of Hutton Brickyard resided in nearby Ponckhockie while others lived in very basic housing provided by the company. 

Federal-style townhouses in New York City were built with the 1.3 billion bricks manufactured each year in the Hudson Valley at the peak of the industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Photo by Stephen Blauweiss)

Workers made a decent living but the work was backbreaking, and could be dangerous, particularly in the days before automation. High clay walls could suddenly collapse or slump, injuring workers below, so clay banks were mined in terraces that averaged eight feet high. On the plus side, the company allowed employees to borrow mules, wagons, equipment, and manure to use in their own gardens if desired. 

Two events caused an increase in demand for bricks. First, residents of New York City were facing yet another water crisis. In 1832 more than 3,500 people died from cholera as a result of contaminated drinking water, prompting the search for a new clean source. This led to the construction of the Croton Aqueduct built from 1837–1842. The reservoir sat 41 miles north in Westchester and carried water underground by gravity via a brick-lined aqueduct. 

The second event, The Great Fire, happened in 1835. It burned for three days, destroyed much of lower Manhattan — a 17-block area — and engulfed more than 600 buildings, mostly made of wood. A lack of readily available water added to the damage. Thousands of federal-style townhouses were built in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and elsewhere. 

The High Bridge in New York City carried water from the Croton Aqueduct over the Harlem River. (New York State Archives)

The kilns were roughly 40-feet wide by 50-feet high and could fire about a million bricks a week. In the early 20th century, when New York City was at the peak of its tenement building boom, manufacturers in the Mid-Hudson region made 1.3 billion bricks a year, equal to a 40-feet-high, 300-mile-long wall. More than 65 percent of the bricks that built the city came from the Hudson Valley.

The Hutton Brickyard closed in 1980 and sat abandoned for decades until being partially renovated in recent years for events and concerts. Last year, Scenic Hudson built a 1.9-mile trail along several former brickyards, and earlier this year the Hutton Brickyard luxury retreat and event center opened along the Rondout waterfront. 

To see sample pages and information about supporting this 450-page book featuring 850 images that will be released in December 2021, please visit: HudsonValleyHistoryAndArt.com

Check out more articles from this series.