In Haverstraw, brick-making was once big business —and a big danger.
They Paved the Way
Haverstraw’s brick industry helped build New York City
By A.J. Loftin
A dirty business: Rockland brick workers pose for an early photo.
Traveling through northern Rockland County, you can see vast deposits of clay along the western shore of Haverstraw Bay. This geological stroke of luck brought decades of prosperity to the people who figured out how to turn clay into brick. Brick — relatively fireproof and age-proof — was used to rebuild New York City after 1835, when 674 wooden buildings caught fire in lower Manhattan. And that’s how the tiny village of Haverstraw grew into the bustling and prosperous town known as the “brick-making capital of the world.”
During its heyday in the 1880s, Haverstraw was home to more than 40 brick manufacturers, which employed Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants as well as newly freed black slaves. The work was hard, but not especially dangerous; although low by today’s standards, the pay was ample enough to put food on the table. When the ground and the river froze in winter, brick-makers became ice-makers, cutting blocks from the Hudson to send downriver to their urban clientele. During this gilded age, Haverstraw’s port housed scores of sailing ships, elegant river steamers, brick-bearing schooners, and barges. And along with the brick manufacturers came textile printers, stone-crushers, farmers, feed millers, iron rollers, banks, hotels, and retail shops. There were even two weekly newspapers.
Brick-making began thanks to James Wood, an Englishman from a brick-making family. In the early 1800s, Wood began making bricks on the Hudson’s eastern shore at Sing Sing, but by 1815 he’d moved west to the far richer clay deposits at Haverstraw. He rented property from the DeNoyelles family, a name that would soon become synonymous with brick-making. In 1829, Wood patented the use of pulverized coal as an additive to the brick material mixture. His invention cut both the firing time needed and the kiln’s wood consumption in half.
The region’s entrepreneurs were quick to adopt Wood’s methods. Soon dozens of small manufacturers were taking advantage of Haverstraw’s natural resource, for as Wood himself pointed out, “Brick-making was a poor man’s game, as it required no capital to start with.” Wooden sheds covered the easily made molding machines and kilns; horses and men furnished the power; nature provided the raw materials.
By 1870, Rockland County’s brickyards — at Stony Point, Grassy Point, Haverstraw, and South Haverstraw — had become the nation’s dominant producers of brick. And working in the business was often a family affair. Wives helped their husbands with brickyard tasks. Children carried breakfasts and dinners to the workers in pails, or tackled small jobs at the brickyard. Brick-making businesses passed from fathers to sons.
Historians are fortunate to have two excellent books on the region’s brick-making industry, both written by descendants of brick-makers. In The Hudson River Brick Industry by George V. Hutton, readers learn about the Hutton Company of Kingston, which supplied bricks for the Empire State Building, the Cloisters Museum, Hayden Planetarium, and other New York City landmarks. Within These Gates, by the late Daniel deNoyelles, depicts Haverstraw as a prosperous community of hard-working, hard-partying immigrants. DeNoyelles recalls his own “incurable restlessness” every spring while waiting for a new brick-molding season to begin: “Crowds of townsfolk would gather in front of the United States Hotel on Main Street to watch for the first fissures in the ice. Finally one day they would cheer as the frozen surfaces cracked with the tides: the ice was breached! And the villages would celebrate the first tow upriver.”
Workers who had passed the winter months cutting ice — or, as some newspaper ads
recommended, pursuing matrimony and child-production — turned back to bricks. First they had to cut the clay and mix it with sand and coal. Then came molding and drying and firing. Finally, the finished product would be loaded onto schooners and barges bound for the city. The DeNoyelles children toiled alongside the workers. Nina DeNoyelles Decker, who now volunteers at Haverstraw’s Brick Museum, said her father was “one of seven children who were expected to know the business. They weren’t little rich kids who sat home all dressed up.”
For the people of Haverstraw, 1906 was the best of times and the worst of times. That year, the region’s 130 brickyards had an annual yield of 1.3 billion bricks, enough to build a four-foot-high, 12-inch-thick wall all the way from Buffalo to Albany, a distance of 300 miles. But 1906 was also the year when greed gave way to gravity. In their avid excavations of riverbank clay, the brick-makers had been pushing ever closer to the town’s residential and business districts along the river. And on the cold, snowy night of January 8, an 800-foot stretch of riverbank simply gave way. The January 11 issue of the Rockland County Messenger reported the story as follows:
The first slide took place at 11 o’clock and caved down the section of the bank between Liberty and Division Streets, just back of Ohler’s barn. Five houses and sheds went down... The people were in a turmoil when the second, larger and more horrible cave-in descended. With this crash Rockland Street between Division and Jefferson was swept away in a moment’s notice. Six [more] houses were engulfed and a dozen souls dashed into Eternity! Not a person in those houses had time to realize what was happening and thus were doomed to death.
Fires from overturned kerosene lamps and stoves finished off what was left of the homes. Children were left orphaned; 19 people died in all.
Amazingly, the industry survived what became known as “the Great Landslide.” Other forces, however, soon threatened Haverstraw’s way of life. First among these was competition from other regions of the country, especially once rail and truck transport replaced water transport. Aggressive manufacturers in the South and Midwest cultivated New York’s housing bureaucracies to secure large contracts. Pennsylvania and Ohio makers had a natural advantage in that their clay had none of the higher calcium content that plagued the Hudson River deposits. North Carolina’s clay was geologically superior: it needed no added sand, and lacked the high silica content that caused wear on machine parts.
The first decade of the 20th century also brought a challenge from brick’s greatest competitor: concrete made from the rapid-setting Portland cement. Though less fireproof and more subject to cracking, concrete was cheaper. By the end of that decade, use of cement had risen from 10 million to 80 million barrels.
Still, author deNoyelles ultimately blames the demise of Haverstraw’s brick industry on the manufacturers themselves. “It was the euphoria — the complacency about the future of our giant industry... that led, more than anything else, to the decline and death of brick-making. Falling demand and falling usage were thought temporary. No one dreamed brick-making would end.”
Like bread and cheese, history is perishable. It takes a village, or at least a few dedicated citizens, to preserve a way of life that would otherwise be obliterated in the mad dash for new technologies. Fortunately, anyone interested in Rockland County history can stop in at the Haverstraw Brick Museum, and spend a few minutes with Museum Director Pat Gordon. Born and raised in Haverstraw, Gordon is knowledgeable, modest, and delightfully funny, claiming no special credentials other than persistence. “I’ve never been a history student, I could never remember dates,” she says. “But I kept saying we needed a brick museum.” It took her nine years to get the museum established in a former hardware store on Main Street, a downtown area that has seen far better times, but is now undergoing a renaissance of sorts. “Everybody thinks I’m n-u-t-s,” Gordon confides, “but I love this place, I really do. It will come back.”
Tom Sullivan, a retired police officer in Haverstraw, is too young to remember the business firsthand. But he remembers playing on the roofs of Haverstraw’s abandoned brick sheds, and he knows the family stories: how his grandfather Sullivan met his wife at a boarding house where new Irish immigrants stayed; and how his grandparents, who lived two miles from the riverbank, first learned of the Great Landslide when they awoke to find their hanging laundry filthy with soot.
“I’ve been collecting bricks since I was a kid,” says Sullivan. “I found a lot of them walking along the river at low tide.”
You can see Sullivan’s collection at the brick museum — with each brick stamped with its manufacturer’s name.