Bricks, Early Brickmaking Along the Hudson River Bricks, Early Brickmaking Along the Hudson River
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Brickmaking Along the Hudson River

The extent of the industry

At its height, the brick industry in North Rockland employed some 2500 men in the brick plants, and 10,000 men, women and children were supported by the industry.

The Haverstraw bay area, including Haverstraw, West Haverstraw, Grassy Point, Garnerville, Stony Point, Tomkins Cove and Jones Point, was once the greatest center of brick production in the world.

When World War II came, brickmaking was considered a non-essential industry - it had flourished for about 75 years, beginning to grow when an improved brickmaking machine was invented in 1852 by Richard VerValen.

A spectacular deposit of rich blue clay was formed by blankets of ice weighing millions of tons during the last Ice Age, which had crushed the rocks of many mountains into a flour-textured clay. This came to rest in the bays and coves of the newly carved Hudson River. In 1928 test borings made in the Hudson off the old Cofferdam in southern Haverstraw, drilled 100 feet deep without drilling through the clay.

In 1883 there were 41 brickyards in North Rockland, and over a century of manufacturing, 148 brands were moulded in the vicinity. In a single year 300,000,000 bricks were shipped out of the Haverstraw Bay area for the NY metropolitan markets, which at times were using over a billion brick annually. The Great Depression began the decline, coupled with European brick coming into the markets after WWI, and then engineering ideas changed, and glass, aluminum and veneers over poured concrete foundations were used instead of brick for building.

In 1863, for example, a schooner (sailboat, wind-driven) named E. Washburn was launched - it carried 60,000 brick, which was enough for a moderate-sized house. Steam-powered vessels took over about 1880.

It is reported that two plants were still operating upriver in 1980.

How the Bricks Were Made

The principal divisions of Brick Manufacturing,

1. Preparing the clay
2. Moulding the soft brick
3. Drying the brick
4. Burning the brick
5. Shipping to job site

Trestles, which are raised rail-lines, were built to carry small, side-dumping carts which carried the clay dug from the shore or from under the river, to the brickyards. The beach sand mixed in very well and improved the quality of the brick, but in some places there was up to 12 inches of oyster shells lying on top - these had to be removed, as the chemical reaction from the slaked lime would crack the brick. Some coal dust was added because it made them burn better, and some companies added red oxide for coloring, some didn't. The clay had to be dredged in early spring or late fall to allow time for seasoning - the water must drain off.

In 1835 there was a terrible fire in NYC: 674 buildings in the Wall Street area were burned, and 13 acres of the financial district devastated. This, along with the growing population of NYC due to immigration, created a great need for building materials. Then, in the 1890's there was a stupendous building boom in the NYC area.

Before VerValen invented his machine in 1852, the clay was forced into the moulds by hand, and therefore had to be rather soft - and when the bricks were dumped out of the moulds, many became misshapen. VerValen's machine made it possible to use stiffer clay. Quoting from the book:

"..the VerValen machine forced the raw clay into the moulds with a machined packer. The moulds held six brick paralleling each other. Under this newer method a stiffer clay could be used, which made a brick more square. The moulds were drawn by hand from a revolving sander where the iron oxide was added to the flour-like moulding sand. This dusted the insides of the moulds and allowed the soft brick to slip easily to the surface on the drying yards. Of course the filled mould were first 'struck off' by a two-handed knife about two feet long. This made the brick smooth on the exposed plane. This knife was called the moulder's strike'."

"The tempering of the mixture was effected back of the press by a steel shaft pinned with steel knives which extended into the raw clay, sand, and coal dust which had been conveyed above the press by a chain and bucket elevator."

"Red coloring was added to the outside of the newly-moulded brick by adding iron oxide to the moulding sand in the patent sander ca. 1885. Before that time, brick had been burned in their raw state, resulting in a light pink color with a yellowish tint at times. With the use of red ochre, as some oldtimers called it, the hard-burned brick had a deep red, and in some places, a rich purple hue."

In 1828 it was discovered that 'culm' - fine coal dust - added to the mixture reduced burning time for a kiln by one-half, from FOURTEEN DAYS to SEVEN. The kilns were originally fired with wood, then some used anthracite coal, and one eventually used oil. The bricks were arranged into arches and the fire built inside the arch - the bricks themselves were the kiln.

Another machine was invented in 1874 to automatically 'sand' the moulds, so that it could keep up with the VerValen moulding machine.

Quotations from Daniel deNoyelles "Within These Gates",
Copyright ©1982

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