Beacon’s Building Blocks

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.

Mike Cullinan at the remains of a Dennings Point Brick Works kiln (Photo by M. Turton)

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.

A Dennings Point Brick Works brick (Photo by M. Turton)

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.

A few of Beacon’s brick buildings (Photo by M. Turton)

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.

Brick Trivia

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.

Detail of brick work in Beacon (Photo by M. Turton)

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.

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10 Responses to "Beacon’s Building Blocks"

  1. Leslie Smith   December 17, 2018 at 10:12 pm

    Loved the article on brickmaking. My great-grandfather was Joshua Babcock, owner of the Moore & Babcock Brick Co. of Albany. Our family home on Morton Avenue in Albany was built with M&B bricks.

  2. Ginny Buechele   December 18, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    How many local buildings made of these bricks still stand?

    • mm
      Michael Turton   December 18, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      Almost all of the many old brick buildings you see in Beacon today were built with bricks manufactured in nearby factories.

  3. Pat Kelley   December 18, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    If you go to Davis’ furniture on Route 9 in Poughkeepsie, the entire floor of its main showroom is paved with a collection of Hudson Valley bricks.

    • Julia Whitney Barnes   December 21, 2018 at 3:26 pm

      Love that floor! I’ve asked them if they know the history of the floor and all the associate I spoke with knew was that the building used to be a car showroom.

  4. Rob Doyle   December 18, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    From the Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation: “In 1860 there were almost 100 brickyards in the Hudson River Valley. The explosive growth of New York City fueled the expansion of the brick industry. Each season the industry turned out over 500 million bricks. According to James Wood’s formula, 22.5 tons of coal was used per 450,000 bricks.”

    Therefore, not handmade … not unique … not rare.

    • mm
      Michael Turton   December 18, 2018 at 5:03 pm

      Bear in mind this industry evolved over time — from its start in the 1600s through the early to mid-20th century. The early bricks were handmade in very small molds. Before being shaped in the molds, the clay was tempered using human feet in the early days — think “grape stomping.” Over time, the process became more mechanized but for centuries still involved a great deal of physical labor.

      Pulverized coal was added to the clay-sand-water mix because when fired it ignited inside the bricks, reducing the time each brick had to be baked. What makes the story interesting, if not unique, is that an entire industry that once was so widespread and contributed to the construction of so many buildings, including Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building, disappeared completely. What would be rare today would to find an old brick building in Beacon that was not built with Hudson Valley brick.

  5. Bob McCabe   December 18, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    Bricks were used as ballast low in the holds to stabilize ocean vessels in olden days — helped in the sale of bricks. And the Haverstraw collapse, which buried whole blocks of houses, was caused because the clay had been excavated from beneath the village for … bricks.

  6. mm
    Site Editor   December 21, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Julia Whitney Barnes used Hudson Valley bricks to create a 150-foot-long map of the Hudson River that she has exhibited in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie. (Photo by Sean Hemmerle)

  7. Diane Lapis   December 21, 2018 at 9:33 pm

    Stop by the Beacon Historical Society to see an original Dennings Point Brick Works mold and early photographs of the brick works. We are located at 17 South Ave. Visit beaconhistorical.org for hours.