Unearthing the History of Neversink Gorge
While the Neversink River Unique Area has become a popular hiking destination in recent years, the stone ruins found in the area date back to the 1800s. Trail Conference volunteer, Nancy Bachana, along with Henry and Gordon MacAdam of the One Room School Houses project, have been working to unearth the history behind the ruins, old roads, and mills in the Hackledam area.
Nancy shared with us some of the research they’ve “dug up” so far:
The shady trails and waterfalls of Neversink Gorge haven’t always been a soothing escape for the hiker. In the 1800s, they were a place of noisy industry. Dutch-speaking lumbermen built sawmills along every stream. They cleared wagon roads so oxen could haul pine logs to the mills. They carted finished boards over Wurtsboro Mountain to the Delaware and Hudson Canal or to Port Jervis. And they dreamed big. Overlooking the rushing Neversink, you can imagine the disappointment felt in 1831 by Otto Van Tuyl of Bridgeville. Looking for a short cut to New York markets, he took $10,000 from the state to tame the Neversink by blasting the riverbed and diverting the falls. The Lenape-named “mad river” had other ideas. Perhaps Otto watched from the shore as test rafts careened downriver only to break up on the rocks at Denton Falls. Today, fly fisherman silently cast their lines from a stone apron built as part of the doomed venture. The hamlet became known as Hackeldam. Ruins of a large water-powered sawmill lie on Wolf Brook where it empties into the Neversink. Two more waterpowered mills, choked by a century of rhododendron, also stand on Wolf Brook. Curious hikers and historians are now identifying and liberating these and other forgotten ruins that lie just steps from the trail. Agricultural censuses tell us that lumberman Elijah B. Silvieus also ran a large farm where he grazed horses, milk cows, and working oxen. He produced hundreds of pounds of butter for sale each year. His neighbors Griffin, Braisington, Clark, and Millspaugh grazed cows, sheep, and swine. They grew modest crops of rye, Indian corn, potatoes, buckwheat, oats, and hay. Near the river lies a large foundation that may have been the “very fine home” of Silvieus. Local papers report it burned to the ground in 1897. Perhaps a smaller foundation nearby was his barn, which met the same fate 20 years earlier. By 1918 the settlement was abandoned, and its schoolhouse moved nearer to the town of Rock Hill. A series of wealthy hunters, fishermen, and conservationists protected the gorge from then until it became a park in 1993. Ambrose Monell of International Nickel Company was the first. In his zeal to return Hackeldam to nature as quickly as possible, he dismantled the buildings down to their stone foundations.
Nancy, the Sullivan County Historical Society, and Volunteer Leader Lou Baldanza aspire to place signage along the trail to mark key historical sites. Although the idea of historical markers is further down the road, historical tours of the area will begin this summer from the Katrina Falls Road trailhead for those who enjoy a bit of history with their hike.
More information on the history of the Neversink can be found on the Rock Hill Business Association website (rockhillny.org/rhhistory), which features a well-done retrospective of the town (from a 1976 printed directory), including Hackledam. The first Hackledam Tour will be Saturday, July 17, at 9 a.m. from the Katrina Falls trailhead. Others will follow through July and August. Details and future dates will be posted to the Neversink Gorge Unique Area Facebook group page by July 1. RSVPs will limit attendance to a manageable group