Rosendale’s Reusable Resource

In the 1950’s, before the owners fenced and sealed it, you could walk deep into the abandoned cement mine beside Route 213 just outside the village of Rosendale. A moist, steady 52-55 degree-air poured from the mouth of the cave, summer and winter. It was often our destination in the early evening of a hot summer. We would fish in the Wallkill near Perrine’s covered bridge and then go to the caves to cool off. The water in the caves was clear, but other than throwing the occasional stone, we were not tempted to disrupt its mirror surface. There is something uninviting about cave water.

Over and above the Rosendale caves’ natural air conditioning, the livelihoods that have arisen from the limestone beds of the town are many, varied, and in some cases, ongoing. When natural or hydraulic cement was discovered during excavation for the D&H Canal system in the early 1820’s, it brought good times for many local families. Before long as many as five thousand people were employed in and around the small rural village. In fact, it was the cement that spurred the formation of the Town of Rosendale in 1844. According to author Ann Gilchrist in the History of Ulster County, 11,413 acres were taken from the towns of New Paltz, Marbletown, and Hurley to form the new town because the booming cement industry could be more easily governed under one political unit. The vein of natural cement ran the entire length of Rosendale from High Falls to Rondout.

Natural cement’s allure was that it could set up and harden underwater, making it very useful in building canals, dams, bridges, docks and bulwarks-just the ticket in the building boom of a frenetic America. In 1899, cement’s peak year, 4,000,000 barrels were produced by more than a dozen mills in Rosendale. Natural cement from Rosendale was used in the base of the Statue of Liberty, the foundations of the wings of the US Capital, the US Patent Office, the US Treasury building, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Small lighted replica towers of the bridge grace the current entrance pillars of the Snyder Estate on Route 213.

By 1910 there were only a million barrels produced in the entire United States. Natural cement was being replaced by the quicker setting Portland variety and the local industry all but disappeared by the mid 1960’s.

Before its demise though, a mixture of Portland and natural cement was used in building the New York State Thruway. The mixture, called masonry cement, provided the best of both materials—it was sturdy and fast setting. The mixture was also used in other major roads and for the runway at Kennedy airport. According to Gilchrist in her book about Rosendale, Footsteps Across Cement, Andrew J. Snyder continued to produce masonry cement in Rosendale until the properties of natural cement were duplicated by a chemical in the 1960’s.

The abandoned cement mines took on a new life when a mushroom business took advantage of the darkness and constant temperature to grow crop after crop of the tasty edibles on beds of horse manure. After each box of horse manure had grown its final crop, it was dumped outside the caves in high mounds which were visible until recently along Binnewater Road. Caves that contained ice all year were also used to store corn.

Mushrooms weren’t the only good thing to come out of the darkness of the old cement mines. Water, filtered and purified by limestone, is still harvested to fill pools and tanks throughout the region.

Eventually, the mushroom business went to spore and the once again abandoned caves came into a new use: record storage. Iron Mountain Record Storage took over a large section of the cave system. Today, according to Gilchrist, “…between the 24-foot, limestone columns which were left by the miners as ceiling supports, two-story buildings contain the records and some living quarters.” She continues that the quarries are excellent for storage-protected naturally from fire, flood, and even atomic attack.

Another old site, the Widow Jane Mine on the Snyder Estate, has been used for theater and music. It has unique acoustics and other properties making it a natural.

The old caves had another benefit to give-the piles of old horse manure from the mushroom days. Apparently, the stuff is still an excellent material for growing things and entrepreneurial owners of the “matured” manure began to sell it off. Now it is difficult to tell where the mounds once stood twenty to thirty feet high. Ads appeared in local papers for “mushroom dirt as people got wind of its horticultural uses. Today, it is pretty difficult to find.

And finally, because of its history, natural beauty, welcoming residents, and charming village, tourism is another thriving business for Rosendale. Along many roads, especially Binnewater, you can see the banks of cement kilns, odd cave entrances, railroad beds, and buildings once part of the cement industry.

Williams Lake Resort, Hidden Valley Lake Campground, cozy B&B’s, great restaurants, interesting village shops, artists’ studios, hiking, cross-country skiing, fishing, canoeing, and the area’s history coalesce like the cement underlying them, to make Rosendale a solidly interesting destination for resident and visitor.


Thanks to Ann Gilchrist, researcher and author of Footsteps Across Cement, A History of The Township of Rosendale (published 1976), for her detailed and fascinating book. She is a fine teacher and historian.