philosopher's stone

"Abandoned Beauty"

philosopher's stone

Abandoned Beauty

Peterskill Falls & Old Powerhouse
In, Main Router we moved from Lake Minnewaska as a central hub to reference other key destinations and journeys in other essays in this collection, and we glimpsed the lake’s variable manner of presentation during different times. Afterwards, we strolled near Awosting Falls and left off with a tantalizing reference to the two falls across Route 44-55. We pick up that impetus here and investigate the rugged landscape just opposite the carriageway that leads to Awosting Falls.

There are no formal carriageways to accompany the Peters Kill to the other side of Route 44-55. After crossing the guardrail on the other side of the road, one discovers a small canyon that is walled by a high, steep ridge on the far side, and the embankment over which Route 44-55 courses on the near side. Portions of a concrete damn fuse with natural conglomerate to stall the Peters Kill’s flow as the stream scuttles across temporary tributaries before committing to the deeply incised ravine through one of two corridors of exposed bedrock on either side of an intervening landmass. Prior to the remains of an old power station hidden out of view at the bottom of the steepest part of the ravine, the stream converges into a single flow again. The land between the wide corridors drops nearly as steep as the broken falls on either side, forming a steep island wedge that pushes trees and vegetative growth over the inside wall of each corridor. The Peters Kill’s main flow is clearly divergent and withdrawn to the corners during much of the year, but during the spring thaw and after periods of episodic rain, the corridors are capable of throwing their content across the intervening landmass so that the entire canyon is transformed into a thunderous and multi-tiered cascade.

Upon inspection, the scrubby island landmass between the open corridors of rock disclose a large-gauge industrial pipe supported by concrete pillars and an aged set of disintegrating supports. After dropping at a comfortable angle near the top, the pipe drops at an extreme angle toward another concrete pillar near the shell of the abandoned powerplant below. The powerplant was constructed out of local conglomerate blocks in 1924 to service the historic Minnewaska hotels.


Although both corridors have been excavated bare by repeated flooding, they each offer only false promises to the bottom, where the biflow reunites. Extreme care must be taken when scrambling down the rock steps on either side, but in the end, no route is granted to the powerplant directly down either corridor. Sheldon Falls forms the route nearest to the road. It presents an intriguing series of staged descents. When the stream’s flow is light, the water flows only at the edge of the wide corridor of exposed bedrock that sweeps and steps multiple stories on the near side of the landmass.
One’s first instinct is to descend the many open steps and work toward the ruins suggested by the pipe, but the rough landscape has other plans. Initially the open bedrock is wide and welcome, providing a series of platforms that pleasingly present chambers nestled behind large boulders at the edge of the landmass between the falls. As it slices beneath the overgrowth from the intervening plot, water settles into little pools and secret spaces that wrap around interesting forms of exposed bedrock. Behind boulders and concave contours, personal waterfalls are revealed to be jumping off hanging floors that also drip roots and shrubs over the water as it continues to slice an intimate world as it drops. Underground tunnels only a few inches high edge further inland upon the tilted platforms of conglomerate, creating a miniature world that snuggles against the gapped junction between the exposed rock and the land. The comfort of this first series of drops does not last long, however. Soon the corridor steepens and the wide arcing steps fuse into a molded layer of bulging, pillowed steps that twist in unison to turn inquisitively in the direction of the fall’s sister flow on the other side. The billowy mass of conglomerate is coated with a slimy green-yellow moss that lubricates its steepest descent, guaranteeing a loss of footing for any who unwittingly migrates near its turf. The water no longer edges the wide corridor; it plunges through fractures at the junction until the gap transitions into a single flume that shuttles the water just prior to plunging off the platform of a false bottom. There, the broken remains of a large hemlock tree attest to the violence of a once hardier flow. The tree’s form bears witness to the uncompassionate nature of Sheldon’s lower ledges, which form part of a tall stacking that raises a thick wall above the roof of a cave-like dwelling above the false bottom. Prior to the water leaping over the wall, the flume flares into an open pod-shape with a set of well-defined contours bulging to accentuate the flume’s embrace of the internal flow within its gap. During autumn, wet leaves descend the pods entrance and stick to each other to form what looks like a social little cluster of inquisitive leaves. Together, the leaves tentatively descend the first outer step into the moss-covered layers that flare. The little gathering pushes those that remain cautious yet still intrigued by the flow. There, the cluster remains suggestive of a like-minded gathering of conflicted individuals. One day soon, external floods will overtake them and sweep them into their destiny, regardless of their hesitation. For now, despite their interest, the gap receives them with the same disinterest that it receives us.

Below the flume, there is no route down the sheer wall for our descent. The water leaps over the edge with a peppering of submerged leaves to collect in swirling pools before the flow drops again to prepare to merge with its sister falls prior to the stone ruins of the old powerhouse. Retreating, we climb partially up the stepped falls, hugging the embankment until it provides access to Route 44-55 once again. The road offers a footpath that leads to the old ruins further down the road.

One Man's Junk

A number of sources tell us that the adaptable little powerhouse remained in operation until the late 1950’s. Forest ranger Edward Henry informs us that the powerhouse is a remnant from an era of self-sufficiency for the hotels. It burned harder ‘clean’ coal at a time when it was not widely used, and then switched to wood when access to fuel was low, as during the Great Depression. Discovering how this adaptability functioned with the variable flow of water for hydroelectric generation or turbine cooling would be, no doubt, an interesting exercise in archival history.

In scale, the old powerhouse is not an impressive structure by any means. Today, one visualizes giant turbines larger than the building itself— yet its intimate size and the large blocks of local conglomerate grant it immense charm. Accessed from the footpath, stone blocks gate the entry on either side of a short walkway that leads to a doorway just outside the remains of an upper landing. Entering the walkway, the cubical pillars that once held a gate are transitioned to half their thickness, appearing like tombstones standing shoulder to shoulder and forming, thereby, two rows of large crooked teeth. The walk is short, and leads to a small upper platform within the structure. Extreme care must be taken, as in any abandoned building. The interior of the building is open to the environment through windows on all sides and the absence of a roof. A partial foundation on the upper landing extends only a few feet from the doorway, while the rest of the floor is absent. The landing offers a rapid survey of the interior guts, but the dismembered hardware below can only be approached through another set of doorways on the east side of the building, after descending the abutting hill.

In his indispensable Gunks Trails hiking guide, forest ranger Edward Henry described the ruins of the old powerplant as an “eye-sore” within the greater environment. From a perspective that is deeply embedded in the rich details of a natural ecosystem— as Mr. Henry is impressively well versed— the ruins are no doubt an unwelcome disruption to the natural continuity of the ecosystem. Still, there is a different set of vantages from which the powerplant is not only intriguing, but the harbinger of another kind of beauty— in fact, a hidden treasure. Aside from the intriguing historical narrative that it participated in, a first revolution around the local setting discloses the block building to be built directly into the sloping terrain that situates atop a fractured stacking of rock slabs. The rough foundational stacks appear to slide over each other so as to hover over the flowing water. Rough-hewn, the broad layering provides sufficient height above the water to raise the structure during periods of very high flow. Exposed ends of the stacked rocks jut out, chipped and flaked, above water that pools two different flows nearly ninety-degrees apart. Each flow has been fed from a different waterfall. The fractured, fault-like exhibition of both corridors is impressive, and each falls is unique, though only a short distance separates them. Between their broken forms, the thin, interrupted line of a large pipe that is raised high by upright pillars and weary hardware, descends aggressively en route to a similar large-gauge pipe that angles upward from the old powerhouse in anticipation of their approach. Like a brick oven attached to the plant, an appendage to the stone building receives the intake pipe— though it looks like a massive cannon directed outward from an overgrown fortress. In tandem with its sturdy, though modest structure, the pipe-cannon gives the old building a resilient, almost defiant air that the surrounding ecosystem appears to respect. It feels right, moreover, when one investigates the bold, angular falls on the right side of the little canyon, as we will do after a glimpse of the old plant’s interior. The large concrete base to what was once a pillar to receive the pipe’s angular drop now squats with the heaviness of an ancient ruin just meters beyond the rusted pipe’s outlet from the building.

Many years ago I took an introductory photography course where one of the assignments was to visit an old junkyard to generate abstract images. Today this is a whole genre onto itself, but at the time it was a novel exercise that widened my sense for the possible. The exercise was not meant to generate overtly symbolic or metaphoric images— it was not intended to image items, subjects, or settings that could tell a story by means of images— rather, it was designed to unleash one’s eye for the rhythm and arrangement of form alone; particularly as form emerged by the imposition of the frame that created the photograph. Entering the old powerhouse excited a similar kind of potentiality, although it was a more intimate and limited space. I arrived at the powerhouse during a second trip soon after sunrise, just as the sun provided filtered light through the building’s eastern entrances. Fortunately, much of the residual hardware and two of the old generators remain situated side-by-side and crowded toward that end of the structure. The most striking feature of entry was the shock of strong colors still flaking from the gritty surfaces of the old generators. Saturated blue, green, and yellow mechanical forms populated the little space. The same bold colors penetrated layers of surface coatings on massive belt-driven wheels that attached themselves to the generators like the clumsy cartoon ears on a mechanical creature. The oddity of form and color was seamless to all appendages, including the small motors at the base of the workhorses, and graffiti-covered art near the old electric panel. Rust-encrusted nuts circumscribed various shaped openings that were flanged with pitted surfaces— their mysterious chambers lined with silken strands of cobwebs, granting a touch of delicacy to that which was once functional. Chalky blues underlay deep velvety greens to offset the bright orange color of large nuts that remained fused with rust around sturdy bolts— all of it raised on a surface that every painter in the world would strive to layer-up after witnessing. The surfaces and the forms had become, like the goal of a certain strain of painting: a piece of nature in and of itself. Still, only the border constraints of a photograph could separate structure from function to a degree, for the forms never entirely betrayed themselves as anything but machinery.

The Japanese suggest that if you want a naturally artful character upon forms, you must design them with a controlled directness— and then let them sit for a few hundred years in the elements. Indeed, the surfaces within the powerhouse had gone through the Japanese formula— although truncated in time, and overdoing the use of color— but still the natural grit was wonderful, even while the direct boldness of the objects bore the stamp of American lore simply by comprising machinery that was once exhausted in the service of self-sufficiency.

And there it all stood, silent and damp: simply hardware worn hard. Still, that simple presentation of nothing more than itself sloughed off a significant measure of the functionality that offered its self-evidence as "generators" directly to the mind. A foreign, or at least different beauty attached to the intimate surfaces submerged in the low intensity light. It was that light that contoured the fitted, sweeping surfaces and brought the glass lens of my camera to its light gathering limits, mere inches from contact. There, a different kind of mechanical magic occurred in-between breaths. Light bathed the layers of the activated dyes that were embedded in the transparency film that I had chosen. They began to resonate and couple with the energy of the light before locking their coded forms into the emulsion purely by means of molecular shape and structure. Indeed, I had considered that the subject matter required a different kind of receptivity than the acquisition process of a modern digital camera. It required a molecular coupling with the old gritty surface. To my mind, that which was minutely physical required a physical etching, even if I was driven only by a sense for the archival. The benefits of digital photography and its capacity to unveil the shadows seemed inappropriate for shadows that were naturally encased in mystery. For me, the particular subject matter that lay hidden within the old ruins hinted to more than itself— not through reading it symbolically, but rather, because the expression of feeling was directly transmitted— even physically transmitted— in the soft morning light, from mere objects. This session produced the ‘Abandoned Generator’ photographic series that is available below.
At the top of Sheldon Falls, on the other side of the damn, after a short walk over rocks and rounding the corner into the rapidly dropping ravine, an entirely different character than Sheldon’s inside tract is revealed. Many guidebooks either identify this as part of Sheldon Falls itself, or do not mention it at all. Peters Kill Falls is often described as a smaller waterfall downstream from the powerhouse below. Despite this identification, some older park literature still describes the powerplant as positioned at the base of Peters Kills Falls, which would make it the falls to the right as one faced upward from the powerhouse. Regardless of the correct identification of Peters Kill Falls, the falls to the right of the powerhouse is as impressive, and probably more impressive, than the corridor we ventured down earlier. It feels more alien as it hugs the outside sweep into the mini canyon. The open platforms and tree-shaded flow upon the sculpted white conglomerate streambed has a more secretive beauty than the side nearest to Route 44-55. It displays more contrast, with black organic material peppered in the recesses of the white-yellow bedrock.

Before the real action of the drop begins, driftwood and isolated pools occupy the corridor in tandem with long gaps and fractures in the bedrock. Even though this tributary gathers from the same general flow as the other falls, the water usually drapes thinly over the angled steps that begin to drop steeply and abruptly, giving the landscape a more primordial feel than the open expanse of its sister flow. A deep, rust-orange color embeds the fractured rock with a mineral quality here, sometimes precipitating a white crusting on the layered platforms. While Sheldon presents hundreds of steps to descend the steep drop, the platforms of this falls descend with stacked and broken landings, not individual steps. Intermittently, there are abrupt drops of significant height, at the bottom of which reside poles that have been stripped bare. It is evident that the large poles were once trees, but they look polished and processed— their former roots now woven and fused deeply into the upright slabs of fractured rock. It is these broken platforms that assist the guidance of the water in the form of partial walls. The poles and broken debris create the framework for natural bridges caught early in the act of nature’s design process. Hardy, or perhaps foolish trees occasionally grow amidst the matrix of these remains— their own roots embracing the angular slabs in order that they might stand firm amidst the onslaught. Down these primordial drops the water flows in wide sheets, often frothing up a ghostly atmosphere that hovers to smooth out its soft rippling turbulence. This kind of inhabitance is appropriate for a terrain that appears to reach deeper into history than even nature’s time.
Gollum— that quintessential character for which every mysterious darkness seems to call forth a creep into the modern imagination— would perhaps be at home here; although the region suggests its own personality. Rather, it lends itself to an inanimate dwelling that is more mineral than humanlike personality. All of this, of course, is not simply a projection of our imagination, but a suggestive response from our presence to another presence; or perhaps merely a splitting of presence during that formative transition from pre-reflective perception to reflective thought— the same transition that parallels our preoccupation with the movement of pre-dawn to dawn. But unlike other regions in the Gunks, the character at this falls does not entirely alter during the belly of the day. It often remains in the shadow of strangeness, even when there is bold light. At its bottom, and still within the vicinity of the old powerplant, a pool is wrapped in stacked orange platforms that simultaneously create poolside seating in a mysterious amphitheater for some equally mysterious society. Dark organic staining spans the thickness of each layer while bright green moss introduces even more contrast to the red-tinted environment. The broken angular fragments of these red-orange platforms transform the powerhouse just below into a kind of inevitable occupancy at the base of the falls. The little broken plant is not just another collection of debris, one that has, perhaps, been overly organized to suggest a human past. Nonetheless, it stands with a kind of inevitability, as it forever succumbs to the larger presence of the fractured, fault-like canyon and the falls that once fed it.

From here, rather than stick out like the eye sore it may be when greeted from the woodland environment on the other side, the powerplant inhabits the land like an appendage to the falls, and like the ghostly, mysterious flow that occasionally hovers in its midst. Here again, the irony of the Gunks pierces through this oddity— or rather, it remains free to present its ironies— for the falls retains a palpable sense of strangeness even during the lucidity of a bright and sunny day.

C.H.Carver excerpts from "Philosopher's Stone"
The links below access the online adapted version of the book and do not correspond to the order published in the physical booklet. Only a few master copies of the book remain (published 2018), so this set constitutes the original impetus of the work in a different order. In the physical book, the essay "Intimate Otherness" (below) introduced the Gunks through Mohonk Mountain House, the historical introductory anchor to the region. Don't forget to check out related Gunks landscapes (on istockphoto by Getty Images).


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