400 million years ago in a time known as the Devonian Era or the fourth period of the Paleozoic Age, North America and Northern Europe were joined together in a single continent named Laurentia situated at the Equator in the Western Hemisphere. The highest elevations of this continent were the Adirondack Mountains, the watershed from which emptied into the Catskill Sea. The climate and conditions would have been similar to the modern day Caribbean or Mesopotamia.
During this period Ireland and Eastern New York State were fused at what is now the location of the Hudson River. In the succeeding Carboniferous Era, characterized by the appearance of forests which upon degeneration added finely disseminated carbon particles to the initial muddy deposits conferring a distinct blue color to the sedimentation.
As Laurentia moved northward and the regolith below the Catskill Sea rose to form a plateaun, Eastern Europe separated from North America eventually creating among other features, the Palisades of the Hudson and the Cliffs of Moher on the western shores of Ireland. The Catskill Plateau gradually eroded away forming deep ravines to expose the extremely resilient and abundantly striated Bluestone substructure of the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers’ watershed.
Many of these same conditions evolved in Southwestern Ireland, an area known today as the Province of Munster. This land was eventually populated by a virulent little people who had now migrated as far west as they could travel. With timber being scarce and ample stone outcroppings everywhere these early Celts soon developed their masonry skills. Through their efforts the craft, industry and art of stonework flourished in this hostile environment as evidenced by the clan meeting house depicted here, circa 600 AD. This beehive structure was built without the aid of mortar or cashel and remains intact today withstanding the harsh coastal climate of the North Atlantic for more than 1400 years.
By the mid 13th Century AD, descendants of the original dwellers, my ancestors, had risen to a position prominence in the Gaelic Legions. As Lords of Munster, the O’Mahony’s built many strongholds throughout the province as shelter from marauding vandals as well as the unforgiving coastal elements. This defensive perimeter wall runs westward from the edge of an upland lake 220 meters feet to the rim of the rocky cliffs 90 meters above the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
The stones assembled here were gathered from the surface of the surrounding promontory now known as Three Castle Head because of the three towers incorporated into the wall. Bombarded by the English in the 17th and 18th centuries it has lay abandoned since; left alone to cope with the environment.
A Roman style entrance arch can been seen here. The O’Mahony masons involved were now using cashel (pulverized stone) as structural reinforcement and no doubt built multiple timber falseworks for the archways while skillfully avoiding any running bonds.
My great-great grandfather, Cain O Mahony, emigrated from Ireland in 1837as he boarded one of the infamous “coffin ships” bound for Canada and laden with Irish peasants. Buoyed with the prospects of free land, he left his home and family at the age of 19 years for a new existence, liberated from English tyranny.
Originally granted a tract of land in Southern New Brunswick, the soil proved too poor to sustain agriculture. He did, however, manage to trade-up a couple times, eventually settling on the upper reaches of the River de Chute, a tributary of the St. John’s River about 150 miles north of its mouth. Believing he was still in Canada he built a substantial cabin with a grand stone chimney on the banks of the “Chute”. Sometime during the late 1850’s, as a team of international surveyors came through officially establishing the border between the United States and Canada. His home and most all of the cleared land, as he now discovered, were not in Canada, but on the American side of the boundary.
During the winter of 1863-64, as the three year commitment of the original volunteers neared an end, The Union Army was now offering a signing bonus of $300.00 for new enlistees. On the 18th of February, 1864, Cain join the 37th Maine and was soon on his way to meet up with the Army of the Potomac then being marshaled in Northern Virginia under its new commander Ulysses S. Grant.
Wounded during the Battle of the Crater, outside Petersburg on July 30th, 1864, he nevertheless returned home safely the following summer, investing his enlistment bonus in land and the welfare of his family. Together with his wife Mary Ann and their nine children, he built a new house, cleared more fields and started raising potatoes commercially; a family business that remains prosperous to this day, although it has mostly moved to western New York.
As the Mahany’s ( the spelling Americanized now) were establishing their potato farms in Northern Maine other Irish immigrants were pouring into New York City and migrating up the Hudson Valley. With the sidewalks in New York City still being made of wood in the mid 19th Century, it wasn’t long before the Irish were bringing Bluestone down out of the Catskills.
The site of the first quarries was the Ashokan Valley not far from the present day town of Woodstock. The stone was hauled in by horse and wagon to Kingston where it was loaded onto barges and transported to the City.
* The Ashokan Valley mentioned is also significant because Eposus Creek, the stream running through it, was dammed beginning in 1912 and finished in 1915, filling the valley to supply New York City with drinking water. The impoundment of the valley was the inspiration for the tune “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar and made famous as the theme music for Ken Burn’s PBS documentary “The Civil War”. Jay was kind enough to let me use another of his tune’s co-written and performed with Molly Mason, “The Lover’s Waltz” as my theme music here on the homepage.
Thank you Jay and Molly. http://www.jayandmolly.com/index.shtml
I was born on the Chute April 21, 1947. My family left Northern Maine for Western New York and better land in December 1949. In the Summer of 1956 my father left the family farming business and we moved to town, first to Long Island and later, during the dark of Halloween night 1957, to Oneonta, New York on the western edge of the Catskill Mountains.
In the Summer of 1961 I took a job as a seasonal laborer on a dairy farm in Roxbury, about thirty miles from our home. A little stream ran through the farm just beyond the barnyard. That stream is the headwater of the East Branch of the Delaware River which cuts through the center of Bluestone country.
The American colonists had cleared this farmland during the 18th century. As I drove the tractor through the hay fields, I often pondered the elegant, yet simple, stone walls that marked the edges of the fields. I spent the next three summers working in these mountains that are now the center of the Bluestone industry.
Graduating from high school in 1965 I entered the United States Military Academy at West Point on July 1st just as President Johnson was ramping up our presence in Vietnam. As a cadet I found myself often at odds with the commonly accepted attitudes of many upperclassmen concerning proper military conduct. As a result I spent more than my share of time “walking the area”, once again offering me ample opportunity to ponder the stonework; this time the fine granite and limestone veneer of the regimental barracks.
As a further result, in the Spring of ’68 I found myself reassigned to the Infantry as a PFC and invited to go to Vietnam where I now had occassion to ponder the fine art of stacking sandbags.
I returned home in 1969 and began to study painting at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1971, I transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. Graduating in 1973 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, I promptly got myself a job as a carpenter.
By 1975 I began taking on jobs installing local fieldstone walls around hot tubs in Sonoma and Marin counties in Northern California.
In ’77 I acquired a Contractor’s Liscense and formed my own company. That company, Eldon Precision Stone, is now based in Royal Oak, Michigan and I now build almost entirely with New York Bluestone and Granite, specializing in the art of drystacking.
“Gravity is still the best mortar ever invented”
I have spent the best part of the last 45 years now selecting and installing natural stone. If you want it done right the first time and pass the test of time, this old Irish stone mason would like to hear from you – go to the homepage and hit “contact”.