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Ancient trails, old roads and paths to the future


Many of you will mistakenly believe that you know little of old roads and archaic trails. You may even think that they are unusual or even rare. You will be wrong on both counts. You drove or walked here on routes or streets that have been used by many for untold centuries and they are actually very common. They range from the well-known and well-used county, state and town roads to the faint corridor of a remnant old farm road fading into woods that were once a meadow and is now overgrown and the barely-discernible crease of an old quarry-road curving across a modern lawn. While these paths of history indeed surround us, they are disappearing rapidly as towns grow and development encroaches on wood and field. I have ideas on how we can slow this process down but first we have to understand what archaic trails and old roads are.


As a child in Maine in the ‘50s I loved to follow old roads, which seemed to be lost to everyone else but to my fertile imagination teemed with the echoes of Indian and settler traffic. In 1980 I met Alf Evers (noted local historian and writer) and as time went by we grew to be good friends who shared many interests - a love of the land, an appreciation of maps and a deep fascination with old roads. As I was avidly exploring Woodstock’s back woods I would tell Alf of the many roads - blueberry-, farm-, logging-, mill- and quarry-roads - that I was finding and mapping (he was exploring vicariously through me because he couldn’t anymore due to failing health),expecting him to be familiar with them, or, if not, to at least know where to find references for, or maps of, them. Much to both of our chagrin, it turns out that most of Woodstock’s old road-survey maps were lost when Shandaken separated from it The upshot of this realization was that I vowed to map out all the old roads of Woodstock. Little did I know what I was getting into!I thought I could do the entirety of town in 10 or 15 years and now 25 years have gone by and there’s still much to do.


In exploring our back woods it becomes apparent rapidly that this entire area was a very busy place in relatively modern times (17th-, 18th-, and 19th-centuries) These hills, valleys and mountains are threaded with hundreds upon hundreds of what we consider old roads now,many of which were “new” not that long ago, made to promote the movement of quarried bluestone, farm-products and timber to market and mill. However, some roads were already oldwhen settlers arrived, long used by natives. The old Waghkonk Road is one of these. Believed by Alf to be the earliest road from Kingston to Woodstock (called Waghkonk on the earliest maps) and the Overlook quarries, it winds up over the hills from the Old Plank Road (now Rt.28), meeting several other roads in Zena. It was very definitely used as a popular bluestone road in the 1800s, evidenced by the deep ruts the quarry-carts made. Another very old road adapted to modern use was the Whispell Road, which went from Woodstock hamlet of Lake Hill,over the pass between Mt. Tobias and Beetree Hill, to the hamlet of Wittenberg. Used as a vital connector between Little Shandaken (as Lake Hill was then known) and the hamlet of Wittenberg, it was widened to become a major thoroughfare. What is most interesting aboutthis now-abandoned road is that it was once part of a vital native trade-route between the St. Lawrence valley and the Delaware. It was called the Old South Road and little evidence of it exists now in our area except for Mink Hollow Rd., the Whispell Road itself and the Old MineRoad (now Rt. 209). In addition to the long-distance paths there were also many that were usedfor more localized, day-to-day purposes, like moving from village to village. These foot-paths sometimes followed ridge-lines for summer use (cooler, drier, more wind) or along valley-floors for winter usage (out of the wind). Other, no less important routes ran along either side of major streams. The Sawkill, for instance, has an old road on either bank (one became Sawkill Road),as does the Esopus. Of course, fording-places were used wherever it was practicable. These historic trails became modern roads (whether major or minor routes) were used over long periods of time, far preceding the current era and every step should be taken to make sure they are preserved and protected from the type of encroachment that has destroyed permanently so much of our heritage. What became known as Ulster County was a nexus of this old trail-network, with its focus being the Rondout, where all these ways converged.


Probably the most-travelled and utilized path in our region is a river-path - the mighty Hudson,the Mohicanituck - " the river that flows both ways". While it might seem that there is little evidence left of it's historic use for travel, all one has to is to study the high proliferation of nativesites which surround it. At every major creek-mouth there is evidence of habitation and trade.In particular, for the purposes of this study, the mouths of both the Esopus and the Rondoutcreeks show that this is the case. In addition, along the Esopus Ridge between Kingston and Saugerties, much evidence has been found of flint-working on a large scale from the exposed major horizons of high-quality chert throughout this strata. Right there is a major item that was in great demand in our region - and beyond. Ideal for arrowheads, hand-tools and spear-heads,it was probably exported in all directions by land and by water. Whatever tribe, or confederacy of tribes, that controlled these mines had to had to have been very powerful in their time and I'm sure would have insisted on controlling the routes over which they were exported, so they wereprobably dominant in both the land- and maritime-environments. Part of that dominance wouldmost likely have included control of the heights-of-land, the mountain-passes that the land-trails would have to navigate to access the other watersheds and their trails. Most obviously and importantly of these in our area would have been: the high pass at what is now Highmount,connecting the watersheds of the Esopus Creek and upper Delaware River; and the pass at thetop of the old Mink Hollow Road, vital for connecting the watersheds of the Esopus and the Schoharie Creek (Mohawk River). This road was also vital as a part of the Old South Road, as mentioned previously.


In another article at a later date I will expound more upon other interesting features associated with old roads and trails. The most prominent feature found paralleling many ancient paths, and also found sometimes at passes are cairns. Natives used trail-trees, and sometimes built cairns, to mark trails themselves, as well as pointing out forks in the trail and locations of springs (very important to long-distance travelers). An interesting "feature" in our area, which intersects several important paths, is the Hammonassett Line. It is an astronomical line that marks the Winter Solstice sunrise and Summer Solstice sunset, both very important ritual dates marking the longest and shortest days of the year.


There is an increasing body of lore testifying to the ancients' application of astronomical knowledge to land features ("As above, so below."). There are local examples including the Hammonassett Line, mentioned previously, and the likelihood that the Overlook Great Cairns are an earthly reflection of the constellation Draco. Another concept for us to explore is the possibility that some roads were oriented to be able to be navigated at night (under the right conditions, obviously) using the Moon, or even the Milky Way, for light. It's easy for us to forget how difficult it was to travel at night.


One lesson we can all learn from these old ways as they wind along the valleys, coursing over high passes, is an appreciation that they are an integral part of the land. They were made in such a manner as to work with the landscape, to curve around the shoulder of a mountain or gently angle across a small valley, to work with nature, not forcing it out of the way or blasting through it. Just as the ancients learned to travel these paths for family or business, it is also safe to assume that they enjoyed the beauty of the land as they passed through it. We need to re-learn the ability to love the land as we use it.


I think it is important for us to work diligently to preserve the remaining paths, as Vermont has done in enacting a law that prohibits old town roads from being deeded to private individuals,thereby insuring rights of way. New York could learn a lot from this. A similar law in New York would go a long way towards maintaining public access to old roads. Converting unused rail-lines to rail-trails is also proving to be viable in every aspect - economically and recreationally.Considering that the original Ulster & Delaware rail-bed probably followed the ancient OnteoraTrail, it is only fitting that most of it will become a trail once again. I would like to see a Woodstock Old Roads Project (WORP?) initiated in order to finish mapping out all the old roads an archaic trails in Woodstock. Maybe someday there will be similar groups at the county- and state-level. Also, I believe we should encourage the creation of new hiking and walking trails,perhaps eventually knitting them all together into an alternative network for healthy traveling,closer to the land. By doing so, we and those in the future can continue to appreciate the incredible beauty and rich history of our region.

Dave Holden, June 2017 ; (845)594-4863; Woodstock Trails on Facebook; rangerdaveholden onInstagram;

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