Last Saturday’s walking tour sponsored by the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, “Williams Lake: Past, Present & Future,” took participants back through some 400 million years of geological history to the deposition of the Rondout Formation during the Upper Silurian Period. Those are the dolostone layers that put Rosendale on the map in the 19th century as the source of the world’s finest, most durable hydraulic cement. Rosendale cement was famously used in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Federal Hall National Memorial, the west wing of the US Capitol, Rockefeller Center, the New York State Thruway and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Also discussed on the tour was the more recent history of the site, home from 1929 to 2006 of the Williams Lake Hotel. The group’s enthusiastic host was Brian Cafferty, community outreach coordinator for the Williams Lake Project, whose mother worked as a waitress at the hotel during the 1960s and who spent much of his own childhood swimming and fishing at the site’s lakes. “You cannot underestimate the impact that this hotel and this family had in this region,” he said. His commentary also touched on other aspects of the area’s industrial history, including the roles of the D&H Canal, brickworks along the banks of the Hudson, bluestone mining, the Wallkill Valley Railroad and its impressive trestle over the Rondout, even a nearby cooperage that supplied barrels for Legs Diamond’s clandestine brewery in Kingston during Prohibition.
While well-informed about the site and its history, Cafferty was ably assisted in his recollections by a VIP tour member: Edward Williams, a former assistant US attorney and federal prosecutor who is the grandson of Gustave Williams, the Finnish immigrant who purchased the property from the Binnewater Ice Company in 1927. Edward still owns a couple of acres and a small cottage overlooking the lake. Gustave’s son Walter — Edward’s father — was a noted Nordic skier who built ski jumps and a toboggan run at Williams Lake, founded the US Biathlon Association and hosted the first national biathlon championships in 1965; he was also responsible for bringing annual mountain bike racing to the property.
The tour, about a three-mile loop, began with a peek at the former Lawrence Cement Company Office Building, a brick structure that was designated the Honeymoon Cottage during the hotel’s heyday. It was jacked up off its foundations and transported in one piece to its new site, close to the future resort’s entrance, and is being restored and insulated. With a modern addition built onto it there, it will serve as a Visitors’ Center, housing historical exhibits about both the area’s industrial history and its legacy as a popular hotel and day-tripper destination.
Otherwise noticeably missing from the tour was much talk of the “future” piece of Williams Lake’s story. Cafferty’s most newsworthy revelation about the Williams Lake Project was the decision to rename the resort Fifth Lake Hudson Valley, reverting to the lake’s name before the Williams family acquired it. In other respects, there wasn’t much change apparent to the eye other than improvements to the landscaping, including several new low stone walls using locally excavated boulders cemented together in the same rustic style that is typical of the area’s mining era.
Aboveground construction has not yet begun on any of the buildings planned for the future resort — a 130-room hotel/restaurant, spa and 154 single-family homes and townhouses — but pipes can be seen protruding from the earth in their future locations. The new hotel will rise on a former ballfield, at a slightly higher elevation than its former site, and the spa “where the Lakeview Terrace was,” with “an expansive view of the lake.” Most of the underground infrastructure is already in place, including water and sewer systems, according to Cafferty, with groundbreaking for actual foundation construction possible “before the snow flies this year, if we’re lucky, but more likely next spring.”
Progress has been slow since the 2015 demolition of the old hotel and beach pavilion, he said, for a number of reasons — not only the usual supply-chain issues associated with the COVID pandemic, but also the fact that state regulatory agencies are “unfamiliar” with the LEED standards to which the resort is being built, which means that it’s taking longer than normal to get permits for basic components such as the modular water filtration plant. “We want to do everything green, sustainable and state-of-the-art,” Cafferty said.
Saturday’s tour didn’t linger at the future hotel site, but made stops at several former kilns, once operated by the F. O. Norton, Lawrence and Newark-Rosendale cement companies. “Everywhere you look, in every direction, there are cement mines.” One recently stabilized kiln wall next to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail has a 120-foot-long terrace on top that is slated to become a café, with a close-up view of a tall brick chimney.
Walking over beds of “clinker” discarded from the kilns, participants passed through a mined-out exposed vertical dolostone seam that today is used as part of the route for the Williams Lake Classic mountain bike race and the UlsterCorps’ annual Zombie Escape 5K Run, the latter of which will be returning for its 12th iteration on October 29. “I like to refer to this as my own little patch of Middle-Earth, and we’re about to go into Khazad-dûm,” Cafferty said happily as the group emerged from the bike trail and prepared to descend into a “classic” room-and-pillar cement mine with a lagoon at its lowest point. “Most of the mine is under that water.”
Fortunately for the visitors, no eldritch creatures crawled out of the dark pool during that climactic point of the tour, and everyone made it back to the parking lot intact. The Wallkill Valley Land Trust has two more free public tours scheduled in the next couple of weeks: “Fall Migration and Exploration,” a Bird Walk at the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary in New Paltz at 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 17 and a Tree Identification Walk with arborist Erik Richards on Joppenbergh Mountain in Rosendale at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 24. To register, visit https://wallkillvalleylt.org/events-2.