A Wassaic Story: Jurassic Architecture

By Julia Sedlock
Resident, December ’12 – Feburary’13

We are both architects, but I studied geology in college so whenever I start a new project I like to look at the history of a site — not just one or two hundred years, but hundreds of millions of years of history. Take Wassaic, for instance, if you look at the geologic history of this area you will see that the hills and small mountains that we live amongst are the roots of a range of mountains that were once the size of the Himalaya. They were created approximately 350 million years ago during the middle Devonian period, by the Acadian orogeny, the last major period of collision and deformation to effect New England and eastern New York.

Fast forward 200 million years to the Jurassic period (when dinosaurs were alive): the continents are spreading and the current Atlantic Ocean is opening up, producing rift valleys and bringing the ocean right up against the base of this great mountain range. These changes in the configuration of continents, coupled with a general warming of the earth’s temperature caused a series of major northward migrations among the plant eating dinosaur species. At around the same time, the meat eating dinosaurs were evolving to become terribly ferocious predators, and had shifted their diet from smaller mammals and reptiles to prey on the larger plant eating dinosaurs.

Meat eaters pursued their plant eating prey to the north, following open pathways along the great rift valleys. But when they reached this north east corner of our continent they were taken by surprise. At one particular point along the valley, the base of the mountains and the coastline came together to meet at a narrow ocean pass. And at this very spot, right here in Wassaic, the plant eating dinosaurs confronted their predators and attempted to block their passage to the northern lands. An epic battle ensued and there fell a great number of dinosaurs from both sides of the fight.

Nobody knows the outcome of the battle, as evidence is sorely lacking. We were able to piece together some knowledge of the event from various sources – a combination of the circumstantial evidence of geologic and paleontological records and the narrative histories in letters, journals and newspapers that we can find in local archives. According to these records, the Lenape and Algonquin tribes that inhabited this area uncovered dinosaur remains in a wide radius of territory [from Westchester to Columbia Counties, Litchfield to Ulster Counties] with the pattern of discoveries intensifying in the area immediately around Wassaic. Little attention was paid to these remains until the most complete set of fossils was discovered right here in Wassaic

The Lenape rarely travelled in this area, as water was difficult to access. Yet according to oral histories recorded by a local librarian in the 18th century there was a group of Lenape hunters who had lost their way and in their search for a water source came across a configuration of dinosaur bones, the likes of which had never been seen before. The men had heard stories told by their elders of the ancestors’ battles with great beasts, and it was clear that this was the site of one of these events. Once tribal elders were brought back to examine the site, three more complete fossils sets had been identified and the profile of the fallen beasts outlined in pieces of stone. The elders consecrated each stone marking as the site of a ritual ceremony – one for fertility, one for the hunt, one for grain and the last for war.

The sacred grounds became a pilgrimage site for the tribe. This tradition was maintained for many generations, yet its meaning gradually distorted over time. Some told stories of miracles that took place here – visions of great ancestral warriors, instances of healing the sick and elderly, the hunt of creatures rarely seen in this part of the country or of fantastical creatures much like dragons and gryphons  – while others believed that it contained a great and sacred energy, and was portal to another realm. By the time European settlers had arrived, there were only a few Lenape who could explain why these stone outlines were considered to be sacred sites of pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the power of the profiles outlined in stone held sway over the new colonists, and the superstitions of the Lenape were translated to the Dutch and English in terms that they could understand – that these sacred grounds were blessed by the gods and were known to bring good luck and prosperity. The Lenape had set up trading posts around the sacred sites as a means of controlling European access to them, and the settlers took this strategy as evidence that these grounds brought good luck in commerce.  When the last of the Lenape left the area for Oklahoma in the mid 1800’s, Noah Gridley saw an opportunity to develop the once sacred grounds as sites of major commercial enterprise – barns, factories, mills, rail depots and metal forges.

This is how we encounter these sites today, as the buildings that surround us – Maxon Mill, Luther Barn, the Borden Factory –architecturally significant in their own right, yet also connected to this epic legacy that can be traced all the way back to the Jurassic period when dinosaurs roamed the earth. When you leave the bar to walk home tonight you might keep this in mind, that this is not just a sleepy old mill town past its prime, but is in fact a monument to one of the greatest battles this earth has ever known, and a tribute to the great beasts that came before us many, many millions of years ago.


This story was first read out loud on December 16 during Hazy in the Hamlet, a monthly series of storytelling evenings hosted by former resident, Giada Crispiels, and Wassaic friend, Ryan Frank.