Howe’s Cave Quarry in NY Gets New Lease on Life

Mon July 14, 2003 - Northeast Edition

The Howe’s Cave Quarry, Schoharie County, NY, which has not seen a shovel or a pick in approximately 30 years, is expected to come back to life sometime next year.

The renovation and restoration of the historic quarry and the neighboring abandoned Cave House Hotel, built of cut limestone, also will mark the establishment of a National Museum of Geology and Mining.

Cobleskill Stone Products, Cobleskill, NY, has leased approximately 350 acres of the quarry from Callanan Industries, purchased the company’s facilities there as well as some of the surrounding property and is the leading sponsor of this $7.4-million project.

The Howe’s Cave quarry located southwest of Albany, has been virtually abandoned for several decades. The manufacturing facilities were boarded up and left to rust and vandals. But at one time in the mid-1900s, the North American Cement Company operated there as the county’s largest private employer. The company closed in 1976, leaving 150 people out of work.

In addition to the mining rights, the property includes more than a half-mile of famous Howe’s Cave, which has not been open to visitors for nearly a century.

The vision of Cobleskill Stone Products, which is shared by many area economic leaders, as well as many in the industry, including Caterpillar, Southworth-Milton, Bobcat of Oneonta and the New York State Construction Materials Association, is for a living, working museum and educational site.

According to local historians, Howe’s Cave was “discovered” by the cows of Lester Howe, a local dairy farmer. He noticed that his herd could often be found milling about what turned out to be the cave’s hidden entrance to feel the cool air coming from the cavern below. He offered 50-cent, torch-lit day-long tours of the cave to local residents and curiosity-seekers.

To accommodate the tourist trade, Howe built The Cave House, a gothic-style hotel of cut limestone near the caverns’ entrance to welcome travelers. Visitors entered the cave through a stairway in the basement of the building, and cool air from below ground circulated up through the lodge — providing guests of The Cave House with a natural-form of air-conditioning.

Guests particularly enjoyed visits to the Cave House on hot summer days because the Cave House was kept cool by the 52-degree air that was moved upward to naturally air-condition the hotel.

Around the time of the Civil War, the aggregate business side of the cave began to grow because the area’s high-grade limestone was ideal for making natural cement.

As quarry operations intensified through the years, cavern tours diminished. Surface quarry operations slowly ate into old Howe’s Cave. Over the years, approximately 850 feet of the cave has been destroyed.

Limestone and aggregate production continued through three-quarters of the last century, peaking in the 1950s at 2-million barrels of cement a day. In 1976, under pressure from environmental regulatory agencies, cement production was stopped by then-owners Penn Dixie Cement Inc. All quarrying operations ceased and the natural succession into decay began. Steel salvage companies came and left, picking over the choice pieces of the plant, leaving behind a disheveled mixture of broken buildings, equipment, and waste.

“Today the future now looks very promising for the Howe’s Cave Quarry,” said Emil Galasso, president of Cobleskill Stone Products. He said the quarry project, when completed, will combine the heavy, natural resources industry with elements of tourism, education and agribusiness.

The company expects to begin stone-crushing operations in the quarry in Spring of 2004. Renovations to the Cave House are expected to be completed by 2008 and development of the site is expected to continue for five to seven more years.

Clemens McGiver, of Cobleskill, a Schoharie County Historical Society trustee whose thesis for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, is guiding much of the effort.

McGiver consulted with Ben Guenther of Richmondville, a cave explorer who mapped much of the 150-year-old underground mine that underlies the quarry. “There are mule tracks from a century ago that look as if they were made yesterday,” said Guenther.

The key, besides funding from supporters, is to restart the quarry. Galasso said that resumption of aggregate production using the latest technology to again mine the surface quarry will make the whole project economically feasible.

Callanan Industries has donated approximately 20 acres of the site to be developed as a non-profit museum and educational center for mining and geology. The Cave House, once a hotel, also will serve as the site’s visitor’s center.

The museum will showcase natural resources; industry, past and present; the historic period of Howe’s Cave; and the Cave House hotel from approximately 1845 to 1930.

It also will take a look back at the limestone mine, quarry, and the miners that worked there from approximately 1870 through 1960. (In its heyday the area around the mine, which housed many of the workers, was known as Tite Nippen Town, which was noted for its rough-and-tumble crowd and generally poor reputation.)

Galasso said the Cave House project is a natural extension of the company’s commitment to the industry and the community.

Founded in 1954, Cobleskill Stone Products produces New York State Department of Transportation (DOT)-approved bituminous products and aggregate and does contractual work for the DOT and municipalities, as well as commercial paving. The company regularly contributes materials, equipment, labor and financial support to a variety of worthwhile projects in Schoharie and neighboring counties.

“This is an exciting project that combines several industries to economically revive a distressed community, create jobs, and provide stewardship for an important geologic area,” said Alicia Terry, director of the county’s planning and development agency.

As indicated, The Cave House will be much more than just a quarry or a museum or an educational center. Development plans include the following:

• Reactivate the abandoned limestone mining operation, providing crushed stone and other rough process stone products for regional sales.

• Create a specialty saw shop for cut stone used in the architectural and building trades.

• Renovate the historic Cave House as a combined museum of geology and mining and visitors’ center.

• Offer walking tours of the two caves on the site — Howe’s and Baryte’s.

• Create a geological education center in The Cave House with displays and classroom space for lectures by nationally known experts in the field.

• Create a mining museum at The Cave House, emphasizing the industry’s historic and contemporary importance, and offer walking tours of a working surface mine to show various stages of the modern quarrying, crushing, washing, and distribution processes. Tours also will be offered of the 150-year-old underground mine.

• Construct a combined geothermal/solar greenhouse to provide a stable, year-round agricultural facility using the 54F underground temperature from the mine as its geothermal heat sink. Dedicated to research and development, the greenhouse project will promote similar projects around the region and be a featured part of the walking quarry tour.

• Continue to provide a rent-free facility for the local volunteer fire department association, and expand the center to include others training in emergency response and rescue services for mining and underground rescues.

Galasso said the 11-acre underground cement mine is located about 42-ft. below the quarry floor. He explained that in the early 1800s technology was not available to break rock down to the fine product needed for concrete production. Instead, material was hauled out by mules.

Several unique geological rock foundations are visible underground and will eventually be part of the student tours. Formations such as platelet thrusts and the intersection of two underground rivers are plainly visible, for instance.

Another educational activity under consideration is the display of an old Liebherr 982 mining shovel, which will be restored and be re-equipped with an electric motor that can be operated by a remote joystick which will allow students to actually try their hand at operating the excavator without some of these inherent dangers.

He added that the new mining operation that will be re-opening will be state-of-the-art and as environmentally friendly as today’s technology will allow. All crushing will be conducted under roof and production will continue year round in spite of central New York’s severe winters. State-of-the-art dust control methods will be used.

The project has been greeted with enthusiastic support from all component industries and their affiliates: scientists, educators, town and county officials, and even a local environmental group, Citizens for a Clean Environment.

“The quarry is a wonderful outdoor laboratory with outstanding exposures of the Silurian and lower Devonian rocks of the Helderbergs,” said William Kelly, curator of geology for the New York State Museum. “In addition to the excellent stratigraphy, the mine contains well exposed examples of fault and karst [cave] development. It provides a great location to study geology in the field.”

The Cave House Museum of Mining and Geology is a tax-exempt, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization affiliate of the Cobleskill Community Activities Foundation. The mailing address is Barnerville Road, Cobleskill, NY 12043.