Harris Nelson woke up on a normal day in January, 1906 not knowing he, his son, and fifteen others would be swallowed by the earth just after lunch.
Harris was a merchant in the small but prosperous town of Haverstraw, located approximately 60 miles south of the Hudson River Maritime Museum in New York’s Rockland County. The day Harris Nelson died the town boasted around 6,000 residents, with a population nearly double that today. Inventively called “Bricktown” more often than not, Haverstraw in 1906 was still benefiting from the Hudson River brick industry boom following the great New York City fires of 1835 and 1845, which left hundreds of wooden structures destroyed and a huge demand for brick as a less flammable building material. The Hudson River Valley, with its abundance of clay deposits left behind in the wake of post-glacial lakes nearly 12,000 years ago, stood up to answer the demand. Including the one in Haverstraw, over 40 brick factories cropped up along the Hudson, and where there were factories, there were often mines.
During most of the 19th century, clay was extracted from beneath Haverstraw until its residents lived and worked on hollow ground. The eventual and somewhat inevitable partial collapse of the mine began without fanfare, a slow cracking of the ground that some Haverstraw residents paid no mind. When it was evident homes and lives were in danger, it was too late for Harris and Benjamin Nelson, both of whom were either crushed in the collapse or killed by the ensuing fire, sparked by the toppled stoves of destroyed homes. The initial disaster took twelve lives, the additional five lost by men and women rushing to the aid of their neighbors.
Adding fuel to the literal fire was the frigid weather, which discouraged residents from leaving their homes, as well as a water main break that prevented fire-fighters from dousing the flames. It seemed that residents were attacked on several fronts by forces that merged to make the clay pit disaster an incredibly deadly one. And yet, Haverstraw’s residents carried on in its wake, and managed to rebound from the landslide of 1906 to continue as a place worthy of the name “Bricktown.” Remembering this dark spot in Hudson River history is not merely a cautionary tale in resource depletion; Haverstraw’s ability to carry on and grow into the diverse and history-rich village it is today also serves as a needed reminder that there’s a tomorrow after even the worst of times.
Audrey Trossen is a Hudson Valley native and worked as an intern with the Hudson River Maritime Museum during the summer of 2017. She is a current undergraduate student at Smith College in Northampton, MA where she majors in Geology and concentrates in Museum Studies.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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