Rosendale, a town of 6,000 just fifteen minutes south of Kingston, played an out-sized role in the Hudson Valley’s history and the development of New York City.
Local resident and former Army historian Gilberto Villahermosa discussed his new book on the history of Rosendale at a Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society talk Monday, filling in the crowd about the rise and fall of the town’s greatest contribution: the world-famous Rosendale Cement.
“It’s cement that put Rosendale on the map,” Villahermosa said.
Rosendale Natural Cement was a particularly impenetrable building material, and this quality made it sought around the world. Rosendale Cement accounted for 25 percent of all “natural cement” produced in North America for the 150-year span of the product’s history, according to Villahermosa’s book.
Rosendale Cement was used to construct the base of the Statue of Liberty, a wing of the U.S. Capitol, the New York State Thruway, the Ashokan Dam and NYC’s aqueduct system, European military defenses during WWII, and was used “in every iconic building in New York City,” according to Villahermosa, who is currently tracking where the cement was used overseas.
The limestone used to create Rosendale Cement was discovered during the digging of the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal in 1825, and the cement serendipitously became one of the major products the canal carried, according to Villahermosa.
The growth of the industry was explosive. A solitary cement plant producing 500 barrels a day in 1836 became 16 cement works producing 600,000 barrels a day in the 1840s, according to the book.
By the mid-1800s, Rosendale was honeycombed with cement mines. The Widow Jane Mine – now open to the public – once plunged 2.5 miles into the rock, Villahermosa said.
More than 5,000 people worked in the mines at one point, more than 90 percent of them European immigrants, according to the book.
Many of the workers were teens and children, according to Villahermosa.
In a time before child-labor laws or any type of welfare, many children worked in the mines to help support their families.
“Without their contribution, their families wouldn’t survive,” Villahermosa said.
The rest were orphans, exploited for their ability to crawl into the mines’ claustrophobic crannies, and the paucity of questions raised if the children never came back to the surface.
Though Villahermosa did not give numbers on how often children died in the mines, as comparison, 12 children drowned in a single year during the construction of the D&H Canal, he said.
The industry built around Rosendale Cement began to decline at the turn of the 20th century, as natural cement was replaced by Portland Cement.
Natural cement, of which Rosendale Natural Cement is the most famous example, is simple to create, requiring only one base material. However, the proper limestone is hard to come by, and the finished product is slow to dry, taking days or sometimes weeks.
Portland Cement is made from several base materials extractable from all over the U.S. and is much quicker to dry, though to this day remains weaker and quicker to weather than natural cement.
The Rosendale Cement industry experienced a partial renaissance during WWII as the resilient material was used in Allied military bases, according to Villahermosa. The cement was so good at building defenses Europeans called it “ballistic cement.”
After the war was over, the era of Rosendale Cement came to a close.
Herman Knaust first bought one of the abandoned mines to grow mushrooms, then snatched up other mines on the cheap as his business profited, according to Villahermosa. The operation eventually became the largest in the U.S.
“If you ate Campbell’s Mushroom Soup between 1930 and 1960, you’ve eaten a Rosendale mushroom,” Villahermosa said.
However, as the arms race between Russia and the U.S. accelerated in the 1950s, Knaust found a function even better suited to the caves: bomb shelters.
Some of NYC’s elite bought caves so they could ride out a nuclear disaster underground, and businesses followed. In 1966, IBM started constructing an ultra-secure storehouse in a 32-acre area of the caves near Binnewater Road – a space the size of about 25 football fields.
Iron Mountain, the international ultra-secure storage company, now owns much of the caves, though some of the facilities from the atomic age remain. Though Iron Mountain refused to participate in research for his book, Villahermosa said the company’s caves contained a five-story building, a parking garage, and a 65-room hotel.
Today, Widow Jane Mine is open to the public, and a popular small batch whiskey is produced from the waters of Rosendale’s Turkle Mine.
Villahermosa’s book, “Rosendale,” part of the Postcard History Series, can be purchased here.