Ask any middle-schooler to name the important figures of the Industrial Revolution and, if she was paying attention in history class, she’ll rattle off names like Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, and Elias Howe. But even her teacher probably wouldn’t include the name Canvass White. That’s a serious omission, especially in these parts. Canvass White was almost singularly responsible for the success of such 19th-century engineering feats as the Erie Canal, the U.S. Capitol, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station and, according to one historian, the modern incarnations of New York City and Boston.
What do those things have in common? None of them could have been built without natural cement, and White was to cement what Whitney was to cotton and Fulton was to boating. Along the way, he helped make Rosendale both the eponym for and the center of the natural cement world.
In a technical-journal article titled “An Overview of the History and Economic Geology of the Natural Cement Industry at Rosendale, Ulster County, New York,” authors Dietrich Werner and Kurtis C. Burmeister tell how the early years of the 19th century “sparked a number of large-scale building projects, including the construction of regional canal networks. These canal projects required quantities of high-quality mortars unavailable in North America prior to the introduction of natural cement.” Unlike other binding agents of the time, cement is able to harden under water. It is made from clay-rich dolostone or limestone, and the Hudson Valley was geologically blessed with large quantities of both.
Canvass White, more than anyone, used this resource to transform the nation and the lower Hudson Valley. As author Bill Bryson writes: “The great unsung Canvass White didn’t just make New York rich, more profoundly, he helped to make America.”
Consolidated Cement Works, circa 1910
Canvass White (1790–1834) was born in the central New York county of Oneida. In 1817, he was an engineer working on the Erie Canal; he went to England to study canal construction, and learned about natural cement. He earned his own cement patent back home and began the first natural cement factory, in Chittenango, in 1819.
The product proved so successful that White quickly expanded operations wherever he found limestone. And the area around Rosendale proved to have the best rocks around, which were unearthed when the Delaware and Hudson Canal was being dug in 1825. Those limestone deposits were vast: 22 feet deep, three miles wide, and extending 32 square miles between High Falls and Kingston. The cement turned out to be so good, the term “Rosendale cement” became interchangeable with natural cement, like Kleenex for tissues.
By then, the cement business was fiercely competitive. White and his partner and brother, Hugh, knew they couldn’t compete from faraway Chittenango. The Whites relocated to Whiteport, near Rosendale, in 1836, “a time of considerable growth in the natural cement industry,” according to Werner and Burmeister’s article.
By the early 1840s, 13 companies produced 600,000 barrels of cement annually. Thanks to the Delaware and Hudson Canal, Rondout Creek, and the Hudson River, these companies were able to ship concrete and import fuel more cost-effectively than inland cement producers. Rosendale cement eventually found its way to every major port on the Atlantic Ocean, and was used in just about every significant construction project of the era. For example: From 1884 to 1886, Rosendale cement from the Widow Jane Mine was carried to Liberty Island, where it was used to build the base for the Statue of Liberty, the largest 19th-century concrete structure in the United States. Behind the granite walls of the statue’s pedestal, the foundation is comprised of massive concrete walls eight to 20 feet thick and 15 feet deep.
In the final year of the 19th century, Rosendale’s cement industry peaked, producing nearly 10 million barrels a year. But as the new century began, builders needed even stronger cement, and a new product called Portland cement rapidly became more popular. In just a decade, from 1900 to 1910, the two products essentially exchanged market share. Natural cement production in the U.S. shrank from 10 million barrels annually to one million, while Portland cement production grew from one million barrels to more than 12 million by 1910. Natural cement held on for a while as a specialty product, but in 1970, Rosendale’s Century Cement Manufacturing Company, the last natural cement works in North America, closed.
Related: How to Spend 24 Hours in Rosendale
All in all, it had been a good run. Thirty-four different cement companies filed a property deed prior to 1900 at the Ulster County Clerk’s Office, says Gayle Grunwald of the Century House Historical Society. “This did not count unincorporated family businesses,” she says, of which there were probably many. During most of the 151-year span of the natural-cement industry, Rosendale produced nearly 50 percent of all the natural cement manufactured in North America.
An early Rosendale postcard
Photographs courtesy of the Century House Historical Society
The empty mines have been used for a number of endeavors — some successful, some foolhardy. Mushroom cultivation and sweet corn storage were winners, but “the trout-raising experiment was doomed almost from the start,” Grunwald says.
The rest of the community has adapted as well. “There are no more guest houses and resorts of the ‘temperance type,’ no more mules plodding along the remaining sections of the towpath of the Delaware and Hudson Canal through Rosendale,” she says. “You won’t see the workers leaving the mine exhausted at the end of the day, but you could see bats in the area that now call it their home.”
What is left is the Widow Jane Mine, the only historic cement mine open to the public on Sundays in May through September. An example of the “room and pillar” method of mining, the mine is relatively horizontal and therefore easy to access. And its mysterious, otherworldly essence plays evocative host to musicians, poets, New Age-y celebrants, and the just plain curious. “Some say the cave feels spiritual,” Grunwald says. “They come to celebrate the summer solstice, hear taiko drummers, serve as an extra in a movie shoot, or just to see the mine and perhaps pay tribute to the cement miners who left us such beauty along the way. Unintentional beauty, but certain beauty all the same.”
The opening of the region’s Beach Mine
The opening of the Wallkill Valley Railroad Trestle and rail trail on June 29 (see page 42) gives hikers the opportunity to walk by the former Williams Lake Hotel site. The bulk of the property is on land formerly held by three Ulster County cement companies: F.O. Norton Cement Company, the Lawrence Cement Company, and the Newark & Rosendale Lime & Cement Company. (They were among the companies consolidated in 1902 to form units of the Consolidated Rosendale Cement Company).
Along the trail you’ll spot cement-industry remains, including mines, kilns, foundations, chimneys, and even the Lawrence Cement Company’s office. The Century House Historical Society is working with the developers of the Williams Lake Project to help design interpretive kiosks that will be placed along this section of the rail trail.
A concert of traditional Japanese drumming, with the group Taiko Masala and its founder, master drummer Hiro Kurashima, along with koto (Japanese harp) player Sumie Kaneko and shinobue (Japanese flute) player Nobuko Miyazaki, takes place in the Widow Jane Mine on July 14 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door, and proceeds benefit the Century House Historical Society (www.centuryhouse.org).