Nature’s Air Conditioners
By Jana Seitz
It’s 95 degrees with 85 percent humidity, and I’m charged with taking teen-agers on a 5-mile hike straight up a mountain made of hot stone. No breeze, no water source, nothing to keep us from melting into the earth except the green canopy above the trail and our will to make it. We made it of course, but not without daydreaming of cooler climbs for future hot days, as in cool caves and cold streams, within an hour’s drive from Rye.
There are ample opportunities to keep cool with about a dozen abandoned mines in the square of land west of the Taconic to the Hudson River, just south of Route 301 in Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park. These dark holes in the earth can be safely explored without going deep. These mines produced excellent quality iron ore from 1817 to 1874, which was processed and shipped down the Hudson. Villages sprung up to accommodate the industry, then disappeared once the mining stopped.
The best of these to explore on a hot day is Sunk Mine, a gaping maw in the earth covered in primordial-looking ferns, oozing cold air and mist, 20 degrees cooler than the air around you. It’s as if there’s a glass door between the heat of the day and the cool of the cave, and all you have to do is open it, walk through, and have your picnic at its air-conditioned mouth. It’s deep and dark and fabulously scary to look down, a perfect spot for tales of ghosts, its palpable history washing over you with shadows of the past as the sun casts its own.
During the Civil War, men worked in shifts around the clock to supply iron ore for the war effort. In 1864, near war’s end, Sunk Mine was bought by Paul S. Forbes, who built a narrow horse-drawn railway to facilitate the transfer to Cold Spring for smelting and shipping. In 1875, it was bought by the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company (PRCIC), the nation’s largest producer of coal, but was only operated sporadically until the mid-1880s when ore was discovered in Minnesota and Michigan, and the miners followed.
Thomas Edison gave Sunk Mine a second lease on life when he leased it from PRCIC to try out his newly patented magnetic ore separator. He believed his invention could revive the mining industry in the east by separating the magnetite ore from the rock by pulverizing it, passing it through a magnet, then pressing the powdered, purified ore into bricks for shipping and smelting. Edison spent a great deal of time and money on the project but was met by setback after setback and forced to pull out of the venture in 1894, all but sunk.
In 1915, PRCIC sold the property to Dr. Clarence Fahnestock, whose plan was to create a gentlemen’s hunting club. Unfortunately, he died in the post-World War I flu epidemic while treating patients with the disease. His brother, Ernest, later donated his brother’s 2,400 acres to the Taconic State Park Commission as a memorial. It became Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park, which now totals about 14,000 acres and houses the Taconic Outdoor Education Center, Stonecrop Gardens, Glynwood Farm, and Fahnestock Winter Park, as well as lakes and ponds with beaver dams, pavilions and campsites, and abandoned mines and railways.
You can rent rowboats to cool off in the picture-perfect Canopus Lake. Hike a section of the Appalachian Trail and then top it off with authentic Texas BBQ at The Round Up on Route 9. It’s everything you ever wanted on a hot summer day, at least in my book.
To get there:
*Exit the Taconic at Route 301 West to Cold Spring. There is no exit number. There are actually two exits for Route 301, one just before a bridge underpass, and one just after it. You want the latter. Slow way down before you go under the bridge as it comes at you fast.
*At the end of the exit, make a right onto 301 towards Cold Spring, and drive on 301 for about 3.4 miles.
*Make a left onto Dennytown Road at the sign for the “Taconic Outdoor Education Center.” The entrance to the Center is on your right, and the parking lot for hiking to the mine is just past it on the left. Trailhead for Sunken Mine Road begins in left corner of lot. It intersects Sunk Mine Railroad Trail, about 2 miles in.
One of the happy Rye Nature Paddle Adventure campers
A wondrous spiderweb
Entrance to Sunk Mine