Getting into the LeHigh Cement plant involved a degree of clandestine planning usually reserved for dodgier military assaults. I thought I was just going to stroll in there one Sunday afternoon, but, in attempting to stroll in there one Sunday afternoon, I was met with a ten-foot chain link fence topped with three vicious lines of barbed wire.
I still tried, managing to mount the top of the fence, but all I got was two puncture wounds on my thigh and a scratched hand.
The next weekend I was prepared. I borrowed my friends pick-up, loaded two ladders in back, then drove the ladders to a drop-off point abutting some train tracks on the side of Route 9W about a half mile from LeHigh. I continued on into Cementon, a hamlet in southern Catskill, and dropped the truck off at the Cementon Sportsman’s Club, which, it turned out, was also abandoned.
I walked the mile to the drop-off point, all the time worrying about the Department of Homeland Security, which my friend said kept an unblinking eye on the train tracks I’d have to cross.
The problem was, there was a sationary train on the tracks, stretching out of sight in both directions. I would have to scramble up the embankment to the train, then crawl under it with the two ladders. I was very worried the train would suddenly shudder into motion and cut me, not to mention the ladders (which I’d borrowed), in half.
When Route 9W was clear of cars, I lurched up the embankment, shoved the ladders under the train, and was clear, the silos and warehouses of the cement plant visible in the distance.
The barbed-wire barrier encircled the whole of the plant’s main structure, the fanged strings on short poles leaning outwards to snatch at people like yours truly.
There was a weak point at the main gate where the poles stood straight up, so I shuffled the ladder up to it, then grabbed the second ladder and hauled it up the first ladder with me, swung it over, and descended down it onto the plant’s grounds.
I was concerned some sort of security personnel would see me on a monitor, and, not wanting to search for me, would simply knock down the ladder, trapping me inside. Or some jackass would just do it. There wasn’t much I could do about the ladder on the outside, but I shoved the second ladder behind some brush for safekeeping.
Some of the buildings were many stories high and the weeks-old air they held was a good 30 degrees colder than outside.
I was still concerned about some officer of the law finding me out, which was not unfounded, since there was an operational plant a half-mile from the one I had snuck into.
It had been raining like mad for weeks, and a brook had formed and now flowed through several of the buildings, leaving clear, green pools in the depressions of the floor.
The LeHigh Cement plant was first opened by the Alsen American Portland Cement Company in 1902, two years after the German company bought the land. The owner built apartments for the workers, and about 300 mostly Eastern European immigrants lived in the hamlet in the 1910s, according to the Catskill Daily Mail.
In 1919, there were three hotels in the hamlet of Alsen, a post office and a school. The plant was purchased by LeHigh Cement in 1939 after being shuttered during the Great Depression, and the new owners knocked the company housing down. The school closed in 1952 when there was a single student left.
The plant continued to operate until 1982, when operations creaked to a halt.
By-products of the plant still floated about: cement powder was heaped around the floors in tiny hills that stuck to my wet shoes, and there was so much lime around that stalactites had formed as the water dripped off the roof-edges, creating rococo deposits when the drops hit the ground.
The plant was set up as a campus, and wide outdoor areas were grown out with bush and saplings just beginning to bud on the warm April day.
Both ladders were still there when I returned. I had to abandon one of them inside the fence. Anyone is free to use it if they want to check out the LeHigh Cement plant for themselves.