WAWARSING – The little hamlet of Napanoch was a bustling industrial village for about 130 years, beginning in the 1830s. During that time the place boasted several mills making paper, pulp, axes and flour. The population never rose above 750, but at one time in the 1920s, the Rondout tissue paper made there was sold all across the USA.
What was there originally? A relatively narrow stream with a constantly strong flow of water. What was added that made all the difference? The D&H Canal opened in the late 1820s to take coal from Pennsylvania to New York City and opened up routes for local cargo.
The Southwick family became the prime movers of change, setting up a grist mill, a flouring mill, an axe & tool company, a tannery, a related shoe factory, a wagon making shop, a tailors and a general merchandise store. Then this early burst of industry ended with the great economic crash of 1837, resulting in a seven-year period of economic depression that wiped out pretty much everything excepting the axe factory.
The canal was still there, though, and by 1866 that axe factory's blast furnace, now owned by Andrew Schoonmaker of nearby Rochester, was producing five tons of pig iron a day and employing 75 or more men at a time. A new paper mill was started, followed by half a dozen other factories and mills, all powered by the Rondout Creek's rushing waters.
In 1890 the D&H Canal shut down, replaced as the area's main method of transportation by the O&W Railroad because it didn't freeze in the winter. Furthermore, business and civic leaders in New York City started talking about the creation of a new system of reservoirs in the Catskills to supply drinking water to the fastest growing city in the world at that time.
The Rondout Paper Mill began its passage through a dozen companies or more as the industrial sun began to set on Napanoch. And in 1937 the start of work on the Merriman Dam sounded the death knell for Napanoch and what remained of the local mills switched to electric power, the added costs slowly killing them off.
The Humphrey paper mill had shut in 1922 after being bought by the Hornbeek family, who ran the pulp mill at that time. Shook Flour Mill was razed in 1937. Arthur Hornbeek closed the pulp mill in 1946.
In 1949 the old paper mill was bought and restarted with a heavy investment in machinery, but the effort proved unprofitable. That lead to involvement by the Home National Bank and its president Joseph DiCandia, who got in over his head and started hiding bank loans until he was found out and eventually jailed. The mill was then sold by the FDIC to American Paper and Board, in 1959, but that didn't last either as the paper manufacturing business started faltering. The closed pulp mill started being used for storage, and then was abandoned. Vandalized, it was eventually fenced in by the town.
The paper mill went through many owners in a death spiral through the 1970s that ended with the fire in May 1977 that leveled it to a twenty-acre brownfield site with some ruins, some industrial scale rolls of paper, and pits where waste of mysterious origins had been disposed of.
Enter an age of vacancy and vandalism. As well as a new awareness of the pollution old industrialism wrought back when it was well known that the waters of the Rondout Creek could run yellow in the morning and pink in the afternoon, from dyes being applied to paper. Unfortunately, that all came with a cost: heavy metal pollution.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation designated the site as an inactive but hazardous waste disposal site in 1986. They noted that it presented a significant threat to public health and beginning 1991 they removed 6,750 tons of PCB-contaminated paper sludge and soil. Their final report noted the presence of arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury. The materials were taken to Kansas and incinerated in a special process.
Brian Schug, today the building inspector for the village of Ellenville, was then an employee of Westinghouse brought in to run the remediation project.
"Thirty years ago there weren't many facilities for incinerating waste like that. We had to ship it to Kansas and to Utah," he recalled. "It was destroyed with a laser process, which is now much more common. At the time we were using cutting edge technology."
The pits were dug out, the sludge and paper removed. Most of the remaining structures were removed, too.
"It's still being monitored. All the contamination has been removed. There are groundwater wells in place," Schug added. "I believe they are still considering some work in the stream. All this can be found in public documentation."
That work, to remove contaminated sediment, will require "dewatering the Rondout creek" and has yet to be undertaken.
The site was eventually bought by an Ellenville lawyer, James Barry, thinking he could redevelop it. This ended unfortunately for him, as the state sued to try and recover the costs of its remediation and Barry ended up giving the property away.
Today it belongs to the well-known artist Tadasky, real name Tadasuke Kuwayama, who is a prominent member of the Op Art school with works in New York City's Museum Of Modern Art among many venues. It is not known what Tadasky plans to do with the site, other than to return it to nature... its natural beauty restored after years of industry, manufacturing, and eventual toxicity.