High Falls Historic District
The High Falls Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination documentation. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The High Falls Historic District is historically and architecturally significant as highly intact collection of commercial, residential and civic architecture, which developed around the Delaware and Hudson Canal and Aqueduct at High Falls (National Historic Landmark Designated, 1966). Between 1825 and 1880, High Falls emerged from somewhat isolated agricultural settlement in the town of Marbletown into a full-blown manufacturing and transportation center. The High Falls Historic District is significant for its well preserved example of mid-nineteenth century semi-urban land planning and its varied village architecture, which represents the domestic, commercial, and social lives of merchant and manufactory worker and management. Its industrial and technological history are a rare development that gives it a peculiarly rich history and are closely bound to distinctive national nineteenth century industrial and transportation developments. After the canal closed down in 1899, the construction in the early twentieth century of the Ashokan Reservoir and its aqueduct brought some economic revival to the place.
High Falls evolved at a junction of roadway and creek. Its earliest history is related to the settlement of Wiltwyck (modern Kingston), which was flanked by two prominent creeks, the Rondout and the Esopus. Considerably inland from the Hudson River and upstream along these creeks, relatively vast and unusually attractive agricultural land in their spreading broad valleys attracted settlers to the hinterland. Further these two streams afforded some waterpower, notably at modern High Falls.
Local terrain and agricultural usage characterized High Falls neighborhood through the Revolutionary era. The Rondout Creek here cuts through large rock formation forming a powerful waterfall that attracted settlement and the development of mill sites in the early eighteenth century. Initially farmsteads were laid out at the easterly bank of the Rondout Creek alluvium. Around the time of the Revolution and after, the mill sites were expanded and bridge construction over the Rondout established the road leading between Stone Ridge (Main Street Historic District, National Register Listed 1988) and Rosendale. This led to the hamlet's initial modest growth. Then a cotton and woolen factory at High Falls made a significant contribution to the town's economy in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In addition to manufacture of cloth, these cloth mills likely served as mechanical back-ups for tasks of carding and fulling in support of the town's substantial home production of 28,832 yards of cloth. By 1855, wool, cotton, and linen textiles produced at home had declined to only 2778 yards, reflecting overall changes in American manufacture and market distribution.
With the advent of the Delaware and Hudson Canal in 1825-1828, a process of change, dominated by industrial and transportation developments, was initiated. The discovery and subsequent manufacture of natural cement and the seven canal locks set the stage for dense, town-like development at High Falls.
Construction of the Delaware and Hudson Canal began in Spring 1825. The canal extended from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to Rondout, Ulster County, crossing the Rondout Creek at High Falls by means of a substantial aqueduct. Its course through Marbletown runs relatively close to the Rondout Creek, cutting across the "kite tail" of the township in a northeasterly direction. Here seven locks were constructed with five of them concentrated in the High Falls hamlet and the other two in the immediate environs. These were Lock Numbers 14 through 20 (National Historic Landmark Designated 1966).
The canal was intended as the means by which the discovery of anthracite coal in northeastern Pennsylvania could be exploited. By 1812 new coal lands were sought to provide anthracite coal as an alternative to wood as the primary fuel source for New York City. A corporation was formed to construct a canal to bring Pennsylvania coal to the city. In 1825, Philip Hone presided in 1825 at the beginning of the company. Benjamin Wright was engaged as chief engineer, but John B. Jervis, of the Erie Canal effort, was assistant who became head engineer. In 1828 to get funding, another $300,000 from the state, Hone wrote his diary in November that when he "...rode with Mr. Martin Van Buren the Governor elect, I took occasion to interest him in the subject of the D and H Canal and hope he may be induced to direct... the attention of the Legislature to this object."
The first boats with coal cargo arrived in New York on December 10, 1828, bringing the 7000 tons of coal to the city. However, the city continued to consume wood and the canal was first used primarily to haul more wood to the city. In the winter of 1828-29, 20,000 cords of wood were shipped into the city via that route.
The canal was enlarged in 1850 to float a 140 ton boat. At High Falls, where the canal crossed over the Rondout, a new aqueduct was built with heavy timber around two heavy wire cables, the ends of which were embedded in masonry. The stringing of these cables was supervised by John A. Roebling, who made use of the local cement in the masonry, and who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge. With the advent of small railroad systems, canals held less importance and finally in 1899 the company asked to change its name to the Delaware and Hudson Company — dropping the word "canal." A fire effectively destroyed the aqueduct in 1917 and subsequently its ruins have been dismantled.
Coincident with the construction of the Delaware and Hudson Canal was the discovery of a natural hydraulic cement. Marbletown had long had an unusually high number of mill sites throughout its history, suggesting that various early industries had a significant place over and above agriculture in the local economy. Such waterpower drove several types of local enterprise — concerned with stone, cement, and various wood products. Furthermore, the very name "Marbletown" was given by Governor Francis Lovelace who recognized an exploitable resource apparent in a fine white limestone then more abundant than is now evident. The stone was probably not a true marble, but of considerable commercial importance as an alternative superior to Cologne millstones. Writing in the mid-eighteenth century, New York historian William Smith described the resource that had been developed during the colonial period: "At the commencement of the range of the Appalachian hills, about ten miles from Hudson's river, is an inexhaustible quarry of millstones, which far exceed those from Colen [sic] in Europe, formerly imported here and sold at £80 a pair. The Marbletown millstones cost not a fourth part of that sum."
In his 1813 and 1824 New York gazetteers, Horatio Gates Spafford noted the abundance of the "marble" and described the material as "of superior quality, finely clouded, and... [quarrying] well and receives a high polish..." Although the mill-stone trade fell off, quarrying of native stone suited for construction has continued to hold a prominent if not somewhat peripatetic place in the town's industry.
None of this seemed important with the exciting discovery of natural cement. Hardly had Spafford published his 1824 gazetteer, when what would prove to be a far more significant resource was discovered in the High Falls neighborhood. In connection with the construction of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, plans to bring hydraulic cement from Chittenango, Madison County, were set aside when, during the summer of 1825, cement rock found near at High Falls held promise as a hydraulic cement source. The first specimens of rock were burned in a blacksmith's forge at High Falls, reduced to powder by pounding, and then the material tested actual use.
Further experiments were undertaken in the autumn and in the winter of 1825-26, preparations for local manufacture and for use in canal construction were made in a contract with a John Littlejohn. "In the spring of 1826 he commenced quarrying, burning, and grinding. The first kiln was near the sulphur spring below High Falls, about where James H. Vandemarks's kilns are at the present time. The burnt stone was drawn to the old Simon DePuy mill and ground. Then it was drawn in bulk to where it was to be used and shoveled into sheds. ...When the DePuy mill proved insufficient to do the grinding other mills were erected. When the canal finished this early manufacture ceased. Mr. Littlejohn completed his contract for the canal and closed the works."
For a period of time, cement manufacture was discontinued but then Isaac L. Hasbrouck established the mill at High Falls. This was subsequently owned and operated by F.O. Norton in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Farther down stream, near the canal aqueduct, Jacob H. Depuy's earlier grist mill became the property of the canal company and then of Delafield & Baxter. By 1878 it was changed to a cement mill operated Sherman Brothers and owned by Widow Delafield, who resided on Leggett Road. In neighboring Rosendale, manufacture was revived by Judge Lucas Elmendorf.
The enlargement of the canal in 1850 had considerable ramifications for High Falls. To provide for enlargement and rerouting of the canal, the canal company purchased three large farms along the creek. Portions of this land was subdivided into streets and lots, thereby essentially establishing much of present day High Falls.
In the post Civil War era, three cement companies at High Falls took full advantage of the shipping capability afforded by the canal. With the opening of the Mohonk Mountain House (National Historic Landmark Designated 1986) in 1869, the road leading south from High Falls to Marbletown's rural Clove neighborhood assumed added significance as it bore travellers from the canal or trains to the Mountain House. Perhaps because it gave access to the Mountain House in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, High Falls became established as a resort community in its own right and has attracted summer and weekend people to the present day.
Despite limited new construction and some building alterations, the High Falls Historic District with its intact collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century resources, maintains its general setting and plan. As such, the High Falls Historic District has survived as an intact example of the evolution of a rural crossroads hamlet into a bustling commercial center of the nineteenth century. The High Falls Historic District has an outstanding level of architectural integrity and survives as an important reminder of the evolution of the town during the period of significance.
County Atlas of Ulster, N.Y., Walker & Jewett, N.Y., 1875, p1. 84.
Early Architecture in Ulster County, Kingston, N.Y.: Junior League of Kingston, 1974.
Fritzpatrick, Edward J. "Old High Falls," The Home Country Magazine. March 1923.
Harlow, Alvin F. Old Towpaths, The Story of the American Canal Era. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press. 1964.
Map of Marbletown, 1797, from Dorothy Pratt, Town Historian.
Map of Ulster County, N.Y. P.H. Brink & O.J. Tilson Pub. 1853.
Reynolds, Helen W. Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley Before 1776. New York: Payson ad Clarke, 1929; reprint ed., New York: Dover Publications, 1965.
Sylvester, Nathaniel B. A History of Ulster county, New York, Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1880.
Kingston, N.Y. Ulster County Clerk's Office: Records.
†C. Sharp and T. Sharp, Consultants HADAC, and Larry Gobrecht, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, High Falls Historic District, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.