Empire Brickyard

June 14, 2003

    In June of 2003, we made our first visit to the site of the Empire Brickyard in Columbia County to look for ruins noted on a topographical map. The map we had, which we knew was out of date by at least twenty years, showed a small community alongside the brickyard. This stretch of riverfront was in fact used almost entirely for brick-making or ice-harvesting at the turn of the last century. The only way we would find out if anything was still there was to see for ourselves.  

    After parking my car, we hiked down the old road. The walk was no less fun than  my aborted attempt to drive in, being that all the ruts were filled ankle-deep with water from the previous night's rain. Amusingly we watched small frogs leap across our path as we skimmed the edges of these pools. None of the houses remain, nor could we even find a trace of them, although we did locate some foundation ruins of the brickyard, but other yards in the valley feature more substantial remains. Along the way we came across this car, which was riddled with shotgun bullets and entirely bashed-in. I wonder if its demise began one evening when a young couple drove down to this secluded location for what would eventually be their last date together, and the car got stuck in a large rut. Or maybe it was just intentionally junked. 

UPDATE: December, 2004

    I returned to the Empire Brickyard on November 27, 2004, almost a year-and-a-half after my first and only visit. We didn't find the major brickyard ruins that day, but after a more persistent search I was rewarded on my second trip. The ruins are not on the scale of an intact yard such as the Hutton plant in Kingston, but are no less significant. Despite being one of the more defining industries in the history of this river, very few tangible traces remain of the buildings where thousands of men  made the literal building blocks of our society.

Kiln wall, November 27, 2004.

    What survives at the Empire yard are six permanent kiln walls, a few small foundations, concrete piers for what may have been the railroad spur, and the ruins of the bulkhead. The kiln walls are the most significant feature, as they may be the only such surviving remnants of a Hudson Valley kiln outside of an intact brickyard. Here, bricks were fired at temperatures over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat entered the kiln at arches spaced evenly along the bottom of the kiln wall. The arches here may be indicative of a coal-fired kiln rather than an oil-fired kiln.

Kiln arches.


Kiln walls, looking inwards (east).

    The Empire Brick Company modernized its facility by 1926, meaning it implemented an overhead gantry crane with a "fork pickup" to set the bricks in the kiln and carry them to the boat, and other machines to enable the use of less man-power. (A heap of metal beams today may be part of the remains of that crane.) However, the yard closed by 1940, due to exhaustion of clay, according to The Great Hudson River Brick Industry, by George V. Hutton. Many plants closed during World War II, as brick not an essential item for the war effort, and after 1945 only a few plants reopened. At the old brickyards the wooden drying sheds have long been carted away for fuel or firewood. the rail spurs have been removed, and the gantry cranes dismantled. Shorelines filled with brick may be the only clue to a site's past, but at Empire there are some ruins to pay tribute to the lost industry and the people who worked here.


One more Hudson River sunset at a nearly forgotten ruin.

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