Monday, February 27, 2012

The Golden Age of Hudson Valley Brickmaking, 1: An Industry Is Born


In the first decade of the 20th century, the Hudson Valley was the largest brick-producing region in the world.
The Hudson Valley produced more than a billion bricks a year, accounting for 10% of total U.S. brick production.
By the turn of the present century, the last surviving brickyard closed, and the once mighty molded-brick industry of the Hudson Valley was no more.
 This is the story of that now-forgotten chapter of local history.

Brickmaking Comes to the New World
Babylonians and Egyptians made bricks, the oldest manufactured building material, as early as 4000 B.C. For centuries, bricks were sun-dried. Around 1000 B.C. someone discovered that they could be hardened by fire. Since then, every civilization has burnt bricks.
Dutch and English colonists brought with them the brickmaking skills of the mother country. Small deposits of clay were everywhere in the new land, and it was not unusual for bricks to be made at building sites.
In the construction of the John Jay homestead in Katonah, for example, bricks were made from clay dug and burned at the site. At the Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton, demonstrations of how molded bricks were made in Colonial times are occasionally given.
The father of Hudson Valley commercial brickmaking was an Englishman with brickmaking experience, James Wood. Arriving in Westchester in 1801 at age 28, he set up a brickyard at Sing Sing and then at George's Island. Upon learning of vast clay deposits on the opposite shore, he crossed over to Haverstraw, where he leased land and established a brickyard.
With its more abundant supplies of clay, the west bank of the Hudson eventually surpassed the east bank in production. Nevertheless, for 75 years after 1850 a busy brickmaking industry flourished in Westchester in the area between Croton and Peekskill.

A City’s Need for Bricks
During the first half of the 19th century, New York grew faster than any other American city to become the principal metropolis of the nation. By mid-century its population was more than a half-million inhabitants.
Fires were the dreaded hazard in cities, where closely packed houses were constructed of wood, and fireplaces were used for cooking and heating.
Small fires inevitably spread to become conflagrations of disastrous proportions involving whole sections of a city.
In 1835, the need for an adequate supply of water in New York was underscored when the city suffered one of the worst disasters in its history. The great fire of December 17th wiped out many buildings that had survived an earlier fire of 1776 when the British seized the city during the Revolution.
Before the conflagration was extinguished, it leveled 20 blocks, destroyed 674 buildings, 530 of which were warehouses or housed commercial establishments. Estimates of property loss ranged between twenty and forty million dollars. Some 1500 merchants were ruined, and nearly all of the city's fire insurance companies went bankrupt.
An adequate supply of water was one solution to the city’s fire problem. Actual construction of the Croton Aqueduct would not begin until two years late, in the midst of the financial panic of 1837
Some 55 million locally-manufactured bricks would be consumed in building this engineering marvel. But five years would elapse before water would begin to flow to the city.
Another solution to New York's increased threat of fire was to erect fire-resistant buildings--and to construct them of brick.

Early Westchester Brickyards
One early brickyard was between Verplanck Point and Montrose Point, at Green's Cove, named for Isaac Green, a settler from Vermont. In 1833 or 1834, Green began to manufacture bricks on land leased from Joshua T. Jones.
In 1837, William A. Underhill began making bricks on land owned by his father, Robert Underhill, on Croton Point.
Extensive deposits of clay and sand were discovered on Verplanck Point, and it became the center of the early brickmaking industry in Cortlandt. An early brickyard operator was William Bleakley, former town supervisor of Cortlandt and later sheriff of Westchester County.
According to the N.Y. State Census of 1855, 37 brickyards employing more than a thousand workers were operating in the town of Cortlandt. The only other brickyard in Westchester was located near Sing Sing in the town of Mount Pleasant and employed 16 men.
One legacy of the intensive brickmaking on Verplanck Point is the community of Verplanck itself. Still remarkably intact, it is a veritable architectural museum. Its brick public buildings and modest brick homes and row houses in simplified Greek Revival style are seemingly frozen in time.
In 1836, John Henry and nine other investors purchased Verplanck Point with the intention of establishing a village to rival Peekskill. Theirs was an ambitious plan for small lots along 37 numbered streets and six named avenues (Water, Hudson, Highland, Broadway, Westchester, and Union).
The expected population never materialized, however, and only eleven streets and four avenues were cut through. In 1866, Henry sold much of his land to the Hudson River Brick Manufacturing Company. Initially, this company did not engage in brick manufacture but leased land to others.

Brickmaking in 1884
Because brickmaking was an unglamorous industry requiring comparatively little capital or equipment, few records have survived. We get a glimpse of its extent in Cortlandt in 1884 from J. Thomas Scharf's two-volume Westchester County history.
On Verplanck Point ten brickyards employed 425 men and manufactured 400,000 bricks daily. Frank A. Timoney leased three yards and employed 150 men. Patrick King also operated three yards employing 125 men. Adam Fisher's yard (50 men, Thomas Vaughey's yard (25 men) and John Morton's two yards (75 men) were all leased.
One of Morton's yards manufactured what was described as "Croton front brick," priced at $10-12 a thousand. The other made "common brick," priced at $6 a thousand.
At Green's Cove, between Verplanck Point and Montrose Point, were the brickyards of Cyrus Travis, then the town supervisor of Cortlandt, and O'Brien & McConnon, each employing 50 men.
On Montrose Point was the brickyard of James D. Avery, with 30 men. Farther south were two brickyards operated by Orrin Frost with 100 men. On George's Island were three leased brickyards, employing 130 men. Two were operated by Tompkins & Bellefeuille and the third by Edward Bellefeuille.
At Crugers, John Peach Cruger owned two brickyards employing 70 men; one was leased to Adam Fisher.
Croton Landing had two brickyards. The northern, smaller yard was operated by Schuyler Hamilton of Ossining and employed 30 men. To the south was the yard of the George D. Arthur Company, owned by Francis Larkin and Marcus L. Cobb, both of Ossining, with 50 men.
Croton Point had two yards--one made 60,000 Croton front bricks a day and another turned out enameled bricks for tiling and wainscoting.

Westchester Brick Brands
Early brickmakers occasionally scratched their initials in their bricks, but by the 1880's templates were used to enable uniform marks to be made. Eventually, rectangular wooden plates were fixed inside the molds at the bottom. These produced an indentation in each brick called a "frog" in which brickyards' names or initials appeared in raised relief.
The frog not only yielded a lighter brick but also conserved raw material. It also made for a better bond between bricks laid with mortar. Builders soon recognized brands whose quality was consistent and bought such bricks.
Most Westchester brands are easily identifiable by their names, but some initials can pose a problem. Verplanck yards: CC (Charles Carman); K&L (King and Lynch); O&McC (O'Brien & McConnon); PO (Patrick O'Brien). Crugers yards: LHL (L.H. Lynch); L&O (Lynch &  O'Brien). Croton and Croton Point yards: CPB Co (Croton Point Brick Company); EF (Eugene Frost); JM (John Morton); WAU (W.A. Underhill).
Bricks of the Anchor Brick Company of Croton were distinguishable by an anchor embossed in the frog. Some W.A. Underhill bricks displayed the letters IXL ("I excel").
Despite their size and weight, and the difficulty of exhibiting them, collectors eagerly seek examples of brick brands. The Brick Museum in Haverstraw, N.Y., has exhibits tracing the history of brickmaking in the Hudson Valley, and is well worth a visit.

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