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Constructing 290 Oak Hill Road by Allan Shope: Journal Entry 11: The Hudson River Renaissance

September 28, 2013
At first glance, the land on Oak Hill Road looks like untouched wilderness, but if you observe closely and delve into its history, surprising narratives unfold.

The most visible remnants of the past are the brick kilns, peaceful now, nearly hidden, in various states of disintegration, testaments to the industrial commotion that took place little more than a century ago.  In the late 19th century, iron manufacturing magnates identified ample, high-quality ore deposits in Mount Tom, southeast of the Oak Hill property.  The enterprising businessmen also found the topography of the area advantageous for their venture: a continuous downhill slope all the way from the mouth of the mine to the Oak Hill Road riverfront enabled them to use the power of gravity to transport the mineral blocks along an elaborate, 3.5-mile mini-railroad system that they constructed – including a bridge crossing over the Hudson River Railroad tracks – to a dock from which ships carried the ore to an ironworks upriver in Troy.  Just before reaching the dock, the train cars full of iron ore ran along a ledge above a row of nine kilns, each sixty feet high, twenty feet wide, and capable of roasting one hundred tons of ore per day.  The cars dumped their contents into the tops of the kilns, where it was burned with coal dust to remove impurities.  After cooling, workers loaded the purified ore from the bottom of the kilns into empty cars that then rolled another couple of hundred feet downhill to the boats at the dock.

In its heyday, hundreds of men toiled in the mining operation, helping to feed our young nation’s voracious appetite for Bessemer steel to build railroads and bridges.  Numerous rough, unpainted, two-family wooden dwellings were built on the Oak Hill Road land for the workers who operated the kilns and loaded the boats.  Nearly all the trees of the virgin forests for miles around gave their lives in support of the iron roasting and house building enterprises.  A scattering of white oaks, tasked with the mission of providing shade instead of fuel or lumber, were spared the ax.  The business lasted a mere two decades and shut down shortly after 1900, unable to compete with the vast deposits of superior quality ore discovered at Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.  Only the crumbling kilns and traces of a few stone foundations remain, along with the rare, ancient, white oak survivors sprinkled amid the second-growth forest.  Nature has bounced back from man’s assault.

Similar dramas pervade the Livingston property.  Animals once on the verge of extinction thanks to human transgressions have been drawn back from the brink.  New York State accommodated abundant wild turkey populations before the Europeans arrived.  The early settlers cut down the forests for timber and to create farms, destroying the turkeys’ habitat.  They also killed the large fowl for food all year round, hunting without restriction until, by the mid-1840’s, not a single turkey was left in the state.  A full century later, after farming had declined and woods had begun to grow back, a small remnant population of wild turkeys in Pennsylvania crossed the border into western New York and took root.  Their presence ignited interest in bringing them back throughout the state, and, after several false starts, conservationists succeeded in reestablishing plentiful, healthy populations of the bird, enough to allow seasonal hunting (although my vegetarian family keeps the wild gobblers on our land safe from any close encounters with cranberry sauce, no matter how extensive the flocks).

The bald eagle demonstrates another such triumph.  Trapping, shooting, and poisoning, as well as reproductive impairment from pesticides (especially DDT) and toxic compounds in the fish they consumed, decimated the eagle’s formerly bountiful numbers in the last century.  The banning of DDT and countless conservation efforts over the past few decades led to a dramatic resurgence, even prompting the eagle’s removal from the Endangered Species list in 2007.  While the iconic bird of prey still struggles with such threats as habitat destruction from logging and development along waterways, lead poisoning from ammunition in prey shot by hunters, and power line electrocution, New York’s bald eagles fledge approximately ten percent more offspring each year than the year before.  It seems that lessons have been learned, and Americans feel such a passion for protecting our majestic national emblem that its future appears secure.  Few sights surpass that of a bald eagle fishing in the Hudson River.  Since their recovery, that rare treat has become a frequent viewing experience on the Oak Hill Road land, yet no matter how common, I will always find the spectacle breathtaking.

The entire Hudson River valley presents a story of rejuvenation.  As the last glacier receded twelve thousand years ago, it left behind magnificent mountains, a glorious clean river flowing down from the Adirondack Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, a vibrant, diverse ecosystem, all of which stirred thousands of years of human inhabitants to treasure the region.  The Native Americans who lived there – Mohicans in Livingston – trod softly, making full use of nature’s bounty respectfully and sustainably.  The settlers who ultimately drove them off the land behaved far less charitably towards the wilderness they occupied.  In a relatively short period of time, a small number of short-sighted, arrogant people inflicted enormous damage, exploiting the land and treating the river like a sewer.Eventually, the residents of the river valley rose up.  In 1969, Pete Seeger spearheaded the construction of a traditional Hudson River sloop named Clearwater.  The replica sloop was to be owned by its contributing members (“everybody’s boat”) and sail along the river “… showing people what the river used to be, how it’s polluted now and what it can be,” arousing awareness and passion for the mission of saving the river.  Along with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, many outstanding organizations sprang up – including Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and Hudsonia – to reverse centuries of abuse and propel the river and its surroundings towards a full ecological recovery.

These stories have no end.  The forces that want to capitalize on nature, no matter the cost, and the forces that struggle selflessly to revitalize and protect the environment, will always be locked in a tug-of-war.  But when I stand on the land in Livingston and see a bald eagle snatch a fish from the river, or watch Clearwater sail along carrying a load of eager schoolchildren, I feel inspired by nature’s ability to recover from atrocities and mankind’s willingness to change to a more just path.

Sailing up my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.  – Pete Seeger

In my next journal entry, I will discuss architecture as a reflection of human potential.

Until next week,

Allan

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