Once dominant, the local brick industry has vanished
By Michael Turton
Mike Cullinan marvels at Beacon’s beautiful old buildings and until a few weeks ago wondered where all the brick came from.
For the 75-year-old Cold Spring retiree, who began work as a mason at age 14, answering that question became a mission.
While tracing the origin of the millions of bricks that form Beacon’s churches, fire houses, industrial buildings, homes and Main Street, he discovered that the city was once the epicenter of the nation’s most prominent brick-making region.
At its peak around 1910, more than 120 brick factories dotted the banks of the Hudson River from Haverstraw in Rockland County to Mechanicville, about 20 miles north of Albany. They employed more than 10,000 people. (Andy van der Poel, a brick collector who lives in Kingston, has identified more than 370 Hudson Valley varieties. See brickcollecting.com.)
The first modern brickmakers appeared in the Hudson Valley near Albany in the 1650s and prospered because clay was so abundant along the river. Deposits that went 240 feet down were discovered and were mined just north of Newburgh. Transportation was also readily available to take the brick to New York City, first by boat, later by rail.
By the 1860s, Haverstraw had 41 brick factories, and Beacon was not far behind. By the end of the 19th century, there were at least 38 brickyards between Chelsea, 3 miles to the north of Beacon, and Dutchess Junction, to the south. Dennings Point Brick Works and the Brockway Brick Co. were two of the largest factories on the river.
Clay was discovered at Denning’s Point in 1880. By the 1920s, the factory there was firing 400,000 bricks a day. It closed in 1939, moving north to the Brockway brick yard and new clay deposits.
Today, Dennings Point is part of Hudson Highlands State Park. The building that housed the factory power plant is now the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries. Ruins of the decaying factory and its kilns can still be seen.
The Brockway Brick Co. was located upriver from Dennings Point, directly west of present-day Dutchess Stadium. The only remnant of that once bustling factory is the rusted trestle bridge over the Metro-North tracks. Broadway bricks can still be found on the low, undeveloped lands west of the tracks.
Brickmaking dates back to 4500 B.C. Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq.
It’s believed the first brick used in New York was at Albany’s Fort Orange in 1630.
Brick used in New York City’s early history was often imported from Holland.
By 1872, New York City had 261 miles of brick-lined sewers.
“The frog” is the indentation on the top of bricks, used for company brands, such as DPBW. The frog helped bricks dry and fire quicker and required less clay.
Hudson River clay is typically grey-blue but when fired produced red bricks due to iron content.
Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building contain brick produced at Dennings Point.
In 1906, excessive excavation of a clay embankment in Haverstraw caused a landslide that destroyed homes, businesses and killed 19 people, including four firefighters.
The 130-foot-deep clay at Dutchess Junction made it ideal for brick production, and more than 25 brickyards operated there between the 1840s and 1930, supported by a robust community that included a train station, ferry, freight docks, repair shops, brass factory and homes.
The industry got a boost after the Great Fire of 1835 that destroyed 600 buildings over 50 acres in lower Manhattan, many of which were of frame construction. The fire fed a demand for fire-resistant building materials; brick was less costly and more readily available than marble or brownstone. A second great fire 10 years later led to a New York City law requiring that “party walls,” common to adjoining buildings, be made of brick or stone.
Brickmaking thrived along the Hudson for parts of four different centuries but by the World War I the industry was in serious decline. Steel and concrete ate into profits, and only a handful of factories held on. By the mid-1940s, fewer than 12 remained in the Hudson Valley.
Cullinan says he continues to marvel at the number of brick buildings in Beacon and their construction. “The craftsmanship, the detailed brickwork, the time it took,” he said. “You don’t see that kind of brickwork anymore.”
Today, none of the region’s 120-plus brick factories remains in operation; the Hudson Valley’s last brick was fired at East Kingston in 1979.
Thanks to Mike Cullinan for sharing his research.The Current is a nonprofit supported by its readers; please consider a tax-deductible contribution.