Bluestone Wild Forest reveals itself to Paul Rubin a bit at a time as he walks, examines, investigates and documents the forest’s evidence, data, characteristics and beauty. Rubin, a geologist and hydrogeologist, has explored this forest for thousands of hours over the past three years.
Bit by bit, an inch there, a foot here, and a mile there, Rubin has been chronicling the geological features, quarries, wagon roads, remains of stone foundations, and more. His findings have sparked new questions.
Kathy Nolan, the Catskill Mountainkeeper research director, has hiked and appreciated the Bluestone Wild Forest for decades. Thanks to Rubin, she says she now looks at this forest with new eyes. Seeing it his way has made Nolan even more determined to enhance the sharing of his discoveries with the public and to protect the forest for those who come after.
You do not have to be a geologist to observe and discover what this deep forest reveals, as I found out hiking it for about five hours with Rubin on a sunny spring morning. You can be attuned to the forest landscape around you. You can see signs of the ways that massive glaciers shaped its character eons ago as you enjoy its majesty — hiking, biking, camping, and more.
The forest still holds the evidence of substantial bluestone enterprises on this land throughout the 19th century, when workers extracted, shaped, and transported bluestone. The results of their activity are still visible in places that nature has taken over, including wildlife habitats. Layers upon layers of geologic and industrial history provide a magical forest today.
An initiative is proceeding to strengthen the protection of the historic, archeological and environmental assets of the state-owned Bluestone Wild Forest more strongly. In large part due to the documented discoveries of recent years, the state government determined in 2020 that approximately 884 acres, called the Hemlock Bluestone Quarry Archeological District, was eligible for inclusion in the New York State Register of Historic Places. This designation would give the forest special consideration during environmental reviews.
Rubin, the Catskill Mountainkeeper, the Woodstock Land Conservancy and Friends of the Bluestone Wild Forest/Save Onteora Lake are working to apply by next year to get the forest on the State Register, which would mean automatic placement on the National Register of Historic Places. This endeavor gained urgency several years ago when a developer proposed a concrete and steel fabrication plant off Route 28 near Onteora Lake. After much public outcry and organized opposition, the Town of Kingston’s planning board in 2021 reversed what appeared to be a green light for this industrial proposal and voted to require more rigorous examination of environmental impacts. It has not gone forward since.
How’d it get the way it is?
On the morning of my walk with Rubin, we entered the forest from a parking lot on Morey Hill Road (the lot is about a half-mile from Route 28). Listening to Rubin as we progress along a trail, I was – as I often do while hiking – taking in and admiring the trees and the many varied shapes and incredible sizes of the boulders in the forest. How did they get here, and what does their presence tell us? To tweak an old Rod Stewart song, every boulder tells a story, don’t it?
The story is one of how the movements of enormous glaciers produced the unique character of the 3000-acre wild forest holds. A wide range of glacial landscapes and features took shape as glaciers stagnated, melted and receded. Glaciers sculpted the forest’s popular jewel, Onteora Lake.
Rubin’s research maps and interprets these features. He discussed the bluestone quarries and the wagon roads that connected the quarries.
Melting glaciers left hundreds of knolls, topped or flanked by jumbles of boulders, and kettles (depressions), creating a hilly or “hummocky” landscape, as Rubin explains it. Glacial ice, hundreds of feet in depth, picked up a lot of debris. Rocks spread through the tops of the most recent glacier.
The bluestone that later became a prized product of Ulster County’s extraction industry is a bluish, clayey type of sandstone. Bluestone Wild Forest became strewn with clusters of massive sandstone boulders that accumulated below open shafts in the glacial surface known as moulins or at the base of melting glacier fronts. Seeing the massive rock everywhere in this forest provided me a sense of a slow, massive transition in the receding of the last glacier.
This was one happening, bustling area during the times of the bluestone industry, which began in 1831 when bluestone was discovered in Ulster County. This land became a place where quarry workers labored, day in and day out, to take out of what the end of the glacial age had left to extract. Prior to the widespread use of Portland cement, there was a gargantuan appetite for bluestone in the growing cities throughout the 19th century. It was grueling, risky work. We still see today the sidewalks, steps, curbstones, building stone, windowsills, and other applications throughout Ulster County and the Hudson Valley.
Quarries and roads
“These quarry workers had to deal with what the geology had left them,” says Rubin, president of the environmental consulting firm HydroQuest.
Rubin’s investigations in the forest, buttressed by other experts with whom he consults, have documented dozens of bluestone quarries in the forest, the remains of an interconnected network of highly engineered wagon roads, unique geological features, stone walls and foundations, bluestone slabs, and other features. Some are readily identifiable, others remain mysterious.
As Rubin’s public presentations made clear, those exploring the bluestone forest will be amazed and informed by knowing more of the forest’s glacial and industrial history.
We headed early on along the Red Trail, then going off it a bit and returning a number of times. Rubin pointed out various geologic features: knolls topped by boulders; quarries that caused me to understand just how difficult it must have been for laborers to pry out the bluestone, stone walls that indicated some type of enterprise, and remnants of wagon roads. The heavy bluestone slabs that quarrymen took out required an intricate network of roads, complete with connectors and loops, for the horse-drawn wagons to transport the bluestone out of the area, usually via the Hudson River.
Rubin has uncovered evidence of thousands of feet of wagon roads, with grooves, ruts, and rubble either visible or underneath the grassy or leaf-strewn forest surface. Every significant quarry, in a place with a high concentration of such sites, had a wagon roadway or tramway to link it to more established roadways for transportation to markets via the loading docks at Wilbur. Delineating features — distinct parallel wagon wheel ruts, faint parallel grooves beneath the cover of leaves, and places where a wagon-wide roadbed is built above grade on one or both sides — indicate where the wagon roads were.
The Waughkonk road, a major route, is still visible from many parts of the forest. Some believe that this wagon road followed the pathway that native peoples had used in earlier times. The wagon road snaking through the forest was important to the operations of the quarries. It was included on the 1858 map of Ulster County that J.H. French made from surveys. Much of the road remains intact today, as well as the varied remains of the bluestone works, foundations, and connector roads near it.
Not an easy or safe job
Intensive, difficult labor took place here. The walls, cliffs, and other unique formations of sandstone are stunning to behold. Standing where the quarrymen extracted bluestone, I saw them in a whole different way. Rubin identified the varied physical features: long cliff quarries; trenches (both short and long), pit quarries (deepened cliff and trench quarries now flooded), and wildcat quarries (small test-trench quarries).
The bluestone we admire in a wall, sidewalk, curb, lintel, or other form is finished, neat, and striking. The quarries show it in raw form. A long cliff quarry called Hemlock Quarry shows a thick layer of “shaley stuff” at least three feet on top of the bluestone. The quarrymen had to remove the top layer to get to the bluestone by blasting, hammering, and drilling. Drill holes can be found in some bluestone slabs today.
As historian Alf Evers wrote in 1972, “Theirs was not an easy or a safe job. Broken limbs, smashed hands, blindness, dust-caused lung disease, and other calamities were frequent.”
The forest held a mixture of sites and uses beyond the bluestone quarries, much of which Rubin has been analyzing in his more than 60 visits to this land. He shows one area where three stone foundations are near each other. “Archaeological work would be of real value here,” he said. “This was one lively spot.”
Rubin has mapped out four possible pasture areas in the southeastern portion of the forest. He has documented evidence of a farmstead located along Waughkonk road, with a foundation, cellar, a six-foot dug well, and a stone-walled pasture. “There’s so much to learn,” Rubin says.
A deeper appreciation
Concluding the hike after savoring the peacefulness of Pickerel Pond, I was exhausted but exhilarated. I had just visited a historic, geologic, archaeological, and cultural site.
Much additional work is planned and already under way to strengthen its preservation. With all that has been discovered in recent years, Catskill Mountainkeeper plans to expand public awareness and appreciation through written materials, hikes, and interpretive information, said Nolan.
With the recent discoveries in the Bluestone Wild Forest, Nolan said she treasures it in even deeper, more complex ways. “I’ve always appreciated it as a recreational site, for the beauty near the water, for the natural areas – for the marshes, turtles, fishes, the eagles. The wild forest element has been there for me,” Nolan explained.
Now she senses even more the layers of history – how the native tribes lived here, how the bluestone industry operated here. “I am asking a lot more questions about the layers of history rather than just thinking of [the forest] in the present, which is very beautiful in itself,” Nolan says. “It has layers of depth that connect me to the people who were here before, and now I know I need to work to protect it for those who come after.”