bluestone A Typical Bluestone Quarry
legend has it that the region's bluestone industry was dicovered by accident in a snake den

Bluestone History

Sullivan County has had, in its albeit brief existence, just three great industries, tourism, tanning, and timber rafting, probably in that order of importance. While bluestone was never quarried here on the scale the industry attained in Ulster County, it, for a few years at least, rivaled the big three.

It has been said that the first bluestone quarry in Sullivan County was discovered by accident sometime around 1830, when “Uncle Steve” Griffin, a local rattlesnake hunter of some renown, was exploring a den near Westbrookville when he inadvertently exposed a large deposit of the valuable stone.

“ He had found unmistakable indications of a rattlesnake den and with his crowbar was prying in a fissure to make room for inserting his material for making smoke,” the New York Times recounted in an article on January 17, 1872. “While thus engaged, he was astonished by the splitting of a thin, smooth, slab, several feet in dimension. He did not attach any importance to his discovery, merely remarking when he returned home that he had ‘killed more’n a thousan’ rattlesnakes, and had buried ‘em under a patent grave-stone he’d found up there.’ He subsequently exhibited his ‘patent grave-stone’ to others, who at once pronounced it a bluestone quarry.”

This quarry was not developed until 1865, when George Waters, the son of the operator of Ulster County’s first quarry at what became known as Quarryville, made a prospecting tour through Sullivan and Orange Counties and became convinced that the Westbrookville site could be a valuable one. He immediately purchased the land and set up an operation with John Fletcher Kilgour.

The Empire State Building and the base of the Statue of Liberty, contain Hancock Bluestone.

Born in Kingston in 1841, Kilgour had worked as a teamster for his father, “an impoverished bluestone quarryman” and owned his own bluestone operation in Ulster County by the time he was 21. He was already worth more than a million dollars by the time he came to Sullivan County.

Six boat loads of stone were shipped to market on the Delaware & Hudson Canal that initial season, the first stone ever sent from Sullivan County, but a mere pittance compared to what the county would produce over the next few years.

By 1868, Waters and Kilgour had quarried the Westbrookville property clean and had sold the business. They purchased 3,500 acres near Pond Eddy. Although Waters and Kilgour were convinced the area would yield a profitable deposit of bluestone, others were not so sure, and by the spring of 1869 they had been able to employ but a few men. By the following June, more than 80 men were working the land, and they had only begun to scratch the surface of the bluestone there.

Kilgour bought out Waters’ interest in the quarry and became such a prominent businessman in the area that the post office at Pond Eddy, New York officially changed its name in 1871 to Kilgour. By that time, Kilgour’s bluestone companies on both sides of the Delaware River employed more than 600 men in the summer season and about 400 in the winter. Many others were involved in the shipping and handling of the product.

Typical bluestone wall used to divide properties.

Typical bluestone wall used to divide properties

“It ships most of its stone by the Erie (Railroad) of course,” the Times reported, “although the past season about 800 tons were sent down the canal. The railroad shipments are immense. During the year 1871, the Company shipped 3,700,000 square feet of stone to market over the Erie, returning a revenue for freight to the railway company of over $100,000.”

Success was short-lived, however, as the operation faltered in the financial panic of 1873 and Kilgour lost everything.

Undeterred, Kilgour started anew. He bought out a number of smaller quarries, eventually owning over 30 operations along the Erie Railroad and the D&H Canal. and expanded his holdings into fields other than bluestone, as well, purchasing the Shohola Glen excursion resort, among other businesses. But like so many before him who had built their fortunes on bluestone, his was not to last.

By 1886, Kilgour had begun experiencing serious financial troubles again. His bluestone company failed in July of that year, with the Port Jervis National Bank foreclosing on a $25,000 mortgage it held. A year later, Kilgour had managed to retain control of the property and was doing business on an even larger scale than before. Then on the morning of March 3, 1891, he took an early morning train to New York City, bounced a $500 check at a saloon he frequented there, and disappeared.

His finances were found to be in disarray, and the Port Jervis National Bank immediately moved again to foreclose on a $60,000 mortgage, seizing control of his properties, his machinery, and Shohola Glen. Creditors estimated that Kilgour’s companies were more than $100,000 in debt, but the worth of his holdings far exceeded that.

About three weeks later, Kilgour sent a telegram to his family from some small village near Montreal, Canada. One of his sons, A.S. Kilgour, promptly went north to find his father, but was unable to locate him. Locals at Riviere du Loup told the son that Kilgour had stayed there a few days, spent money lavishly, and talked extravagantly of buying up all of the asbestos mines in the area. After a few days of trying to pick up his father's trail, the younger Kilgour returned home alone.

A mad scramble ensued to obtain Kilgour’s seized holdings. The Union Bluestone Company of Ulster County, which had built a virtual monopoly in the industry, tried desperately to purchase from the bank Kilgour's Pennsylvania quarries, but a pair of Port Jervis businessmen got their first, preventing the monopoly from being extended.

John F. Kilgour finally returned home, but the bluestone industry in Sullivan County had long since passed its peak. He was eventually found to be mentally incompetent, and was a patient in an asylum in Morris Plains, New Jersey when he died on November 1, 1904. In noting his passing in a brief article, the New York Times called him “a mental wreck due to the succession of disasters which followed his last attempt to build up a fortune after having built up and lost six.”

The "Bluestone King" was survived by six children.

RETROSPECT — Bluestone, ©John Conway, 2009.

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