Local bluestone paved many an American sidewalk

Workers pose at a bluestone quarry with a large piece ready for transport. (John Matthews Collection)

The sand-sized grains that constitute bluestone were deposited by mountain runoff into the Catskill Delta, which ran from New York to northeast Pennsylvania, and formed under great pressure more than 350 million years ago. The “blue” sandstone from which the name was derived was first discovered in Ulster County in the 1820s, although it had been used for weapons and tools for thousands of years by indigenous peoples.

Bluestone doesn’t get slippery in wet weather, dries quickly, lasts for centuries, and is resistant to abrasion, wear, and smoothing. It was ideal for sidewalks, crosswalks, and curbing. 

Advertisement

Hundreds of thousands of laborers, mostly Irish, immigrated to America in the 19th century to escape famines. They heard the streets would be “paved with gold.” In fact, they would be paved with a product of their own hard labor: bluestone.

As with other industries, quarry work was extremely hazardous. Laborers suffered broken limbs, smashed hands, and blindness. To add insult to injury, breathing stone dust for many years caused lung disease later in life, similar to the plight of miners. Workers could be trapped by rock slides or struck with flying stone. Nevertheless, even children were put to work in the quarries. 

Six days a week, sounds of explosives freeing large slabs and hammers hitting the stone could be heard far and wide. Many workers wore flannel to guard against bluestone dust irritating their skin, even in the hot summer. Garments were often red in color, and quarrymen became known as “red shirts.” Sometimes it would get so hot they would peel off all their clothes, leaving them with nothing but their hat —usually a bowler—and boots. They chewed tobacco to keep their throats from getting dry from the dust. 

The first quarry opened in the 1820s in a hamlet of Saugerties later known as Quarryville. It produced excellent quality stone. California Quarry, one of the largest is located in Woodstock. The largest slab ever recorded measured 25 feet by 15 feet. Competition for the biggest pieces was fierce; William H. Vanderbilt’s agent offered $10,000 bonuses. 

This etching from an Ulster County Atlas circa 1880s depicts the Ezra Fitch and Company headquarters, built from bluestone on Abeel Street, and the bustling activity surrounding it. (Ulster County Archive)

One of the two major middlemen who refined and distributed the bluestone was a firm started by Ezra Fitch, who came to Kingston in 1828. Ezra Fitch and Company became the area’s largest exporter of bluestone. At its height, the company employed 1500 workers and handled $2000 worth of product a day, with up to 200 wagons hauling bluestone to the shipyards. 

In the late 1860s the Fitch family hired architect J.A. Wood, who was responsible for many prominent buildings in the area, to rebuild the company headquarters. The bluestone structure still stands today on Abeel Street. 

The company thrived for 60 years until the bluestone industry began to diminish in the late 19th century. Fitch died in 1888. His namesake grandson partnered with David Abercrombie in 1900  to expand his upscale sporting goods store, which became Abercrombie & Fitch.

Harvey Fite at work creating his iconic Opus 40 in Saugerties, created entirely from pieces of bluestone. (Opus40.org)

In the mid-1870s, a few factors led to a slump in the bluestone market, when prices — and wages — fell. The 1871 downfall of Boss William Tweed of Tammany Hall, who had issued lucrative building contracts, was followed by the financial panic of 1873. Workers went on strike in 1875 in response to wage cuts, and in 1876 created the Workmen Society Corporation and the Quarrymen’s Mutual Protection Union. 

By the 1880s, tourism in the Catskills was in full swing. Hotel guests began complaining about the destruction of the scenery. Noise from blasts and workers’ shouts were drowning out the sounds of nature. 

It is estimated that by 1888 30,000 people were employed in quarries, cutting stone and hauling it to the docks. The bluestone industry had fully rebounded, In 1889, $1.3 million worth of stone came from 142 quarries. 

Soon after the industry’s peak in the mid-1890s, Portland cement, cheaper and easier to produce, began to edge in, marking the gradual beginning of the end of the bluestone industry/

Opus 40 is a 6.5-acre sculpture in Saugerties built by Harvey Fite using only hand-powered quarryman’s tools. Fite fitted together hundreds of thousands of bluestone pieces — without using mortar or cement — to create a series of interlocking platforms, ramps, stairways, moats, and pools. He selected the name Opus 40 because he believed the project would take 40 years. He died in 1976, the 37th year of the project. 

Fite was born in 1903 and came to Woodstock in 1930 and joined the Maverick Theater. In 1933 he became a faculty member at Bard and helped found the fine-arts department. He started teaching drama, and then taught sculpture. In 1938 he purchased an abandoned quarry for $250, and the following year went on an archeological dig in Honduras. Inspired, he taught himself dry keystone masonry, By 1959 the overall shape of the sculpture was complete.

In 2001, Opus 40 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural critic Brendan Gill once described it as “one of the most beguiling works of art on the entire continent.”

To see sample pages and information about supporting the 480-page book, The Story of Historic Kingston, featuring 950 images, please visit: HudsonValleyHistoryAndArt.com.

Check out more articles from this series.