Remembering the Haverstraw Landslide
Bricks made the village, and on Jan. 8, 1906, they nearly destroyed it. A series of landslides that night killed 19 people. The resulting pit — at least 150 feet deep — engulfed 21 buildings, five streets and two avenues, about a third of the village at that time.
The incident is considered the worst natural disaster in Rockland's history, and it will be remembered next week during two events.
The first takes place tomorrow — the tragedy's 100th anniversary — at the Haverstraw Brick Museum. The second is set for Wednesday at the Congregation Sons of Jacob cemetery, where Jewish victims were buried.
Haverstraw was a thriving community at the time of the landslides thanks to the many brickyards that lined the Hudson River banks in northern Rockland.
An abundance of the blue clay, deposited along the banks during the last Ice Age, that was used to make the bricks awaited excavation.
Historians said that 3,000 laborers made at least 350 million bricks annually in Haverstraw. That added up to a $2 million-a-year economy, equivalent to about $41 million today.
The money lured workers of all backgrounds including Southern blacks, Dutch, English, Irish, Italian, German, Austrian and Canadian immigrants.
To keep the economy going, manufacturers kept digging up the blue clay, said Thomas F.X. Casey, the Rockland County historian.
"That was the problem," Casey said. "The excavation work got closer and closer to inhabited areas of both homes and businesses and eventually ... the people who were living and working there were in harm's way."
Joseph Albert, who lived and worked on Rockland Street, where he ran Albert's Grocery Market, had raised concerns about the excavating for years, said his great- granddaughter, Helen Albert O'Dowd.
"My great-grandfather kept repeatedly telling them if the digging of the blue clay didn't stop, there would be a landslide," O'Dowd said. He would later die in the slides, his body one of three never found.
A crack had appeared on Rockland Street at least two years before the big slides, and Albert was convinced it was evidence of a greater problem.
Even earlier, in the late 1890s, a series of small landslides had occurred, and while some people voiced concern, manufacturers assured everyone that nothing was wrong.
The Rockland Street crack had widened significantly by 4 p.m., and some landlords told tenants they should evacuate.
But not all residents got the word, and so many stoked their coal fires one last time before going to sleep.
At 11 p.m. the first landslide hit, sending hundreds into the streets in their bed clothes, some still barefoot.
Fires from the stoves that heated the homes and the kerosene lamps that lit them were knocked over, setting buildings ablaze.
Some thought the incident was over and headed back into their homes to retrieve belongings, only to be caught and killed in the second slide at 11:20 p.m. and a third and final slide at 11:31 p.m.
George Leahy's great-aunt and great-uncle, Ida and Lawrence Mannion, were among those who returned; they were swept away in the third slide, and their bodies never found, the Nanuet historian said.
Harriet Nelson LoPresti's grandfather, Harris Nelson, and uncle, Benjamin Nelson, who owned a pawn shop, had returned to the store to retrieve its contents when they were swept away.
Stories about the slide were often told by her relatives.
"They lost everything," the Stony Point woman said. "They had to find food, clothes and shelter."
Fire hydrants froze in the cold temperatures, and several water mains broke, lowering the pressure and making firefighting ineffective. The S.W. Johnson Steam Fire Engine Company in Garnerville responded and helped restore the needed pressure. A snowstorm had coated building roofs, and experts said that prevented the entire village from burning as coal fire embers blew in the wind.
Pat Gordon, director of the Haverstraw Brick Museum, said it was no surprise that the community came together in the crisis. The brickyards had long relied on the community, and the community on them, so the people knew how to work together, she said.
Casey said yard owners even helped organize entertainment for residents and workers, who could listen to a band, see a singer or take in a minstrel show.
The owners also built beautiful homes for themselves along Front Street and Hudson Avenue, in good part to show off their new wealth, Casey said. Those brick buildings, as well as St. Peter's Church and structures along the north side of Broadway today, still show the Haverstraw brick in use.
Tom Sullivan, a member of the brick museum, has a guest book so visitors can enter the names of relatives who worked the yards. Dozens of entries have been made by visitors still awed by, and proud of, the work done at the yards.
The yards were the reason Haverstraw, and not Spring Valley or Nyack, became home to Rockland's oldest African-American and Jewish communities, Casey said. Yard owners brought Southern blacks up North to work seasonally, and eventually some stayed permanently. Jewish merchants came to serve the workers and their families.
LoPresti said she thought about how her mother and aunt struggled in the aftermath of the landslide and the loss of Harris and Benjamin.
"It's a tragic thing, and I hope it never happens again," LoPresti said. "They're doing a lot of building there, and who knows if the clay is still there."
Historian Craig Long, who also is a Suffern police detective, said that different regulations were in place now and that villages employ engineers to help prevent such incidents.
"Back then," Long said, "you didn't have that."
Even before the disaster, the demand for bricks was starting to ebb. Steel and cement, not brick and mortar, were needed as buildings grew taller, Leahy said.
The last yard shut down by 1942, he said, but they left a legacy. Children of the yard workers were given a gift: a chance to enjoy leisure time earned by their parents, who used their bare hands to make a better future for their sons and daughters.
"To see our ancestors, who worked those brickyards, who got up at 5 o'clock every day, and to see their descendants have advanced educationally, occupationally, financially," Leahy said. "That's what they wanted for them."