TheLand of Rip Van Winkle

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Catskills and the Birth of the American Vacation
By Thomas J. Illari

The Silver Brook House, The Dellwood, Eva’s Farm, The Grant House, The Prospect Park Hotel, The Saulpaugh, The Cold Spring Hotel, The Lox Hurst, The Grand View Hotel, The Maple Grove and The Central House. What do these names all have in common? They are just a few of the countless hotels and boarding houses that were commonplace throughout the Catskills. There was a time when the region was the summer vacation destination for thousands of city dwellers.  This era of tourism lasted an astounding 140 years from 1824 well into the 1970’s.

The need to feel that one needs to escape the city profoundly influenced the Catskills as a vacation destination. As the cities grew crowded and unsanitary in the 19th century, fresh air and clean water increasingly seemed like a good idea. By the middle of the 19th century doctors were beginning to state that it's important to get away for your health  - so much in fact that doctors prescribed it. Nature was the ultimate health tonic for city dwellers whose bodies were weakened by the demands of civilized life. One of the horrors of the American summers was malaria. The Catskills advertised as being free from malaria and to some extent that was true. The mosquito associated with the disease cannot, among other things, thrive were there a few people or cattle and it is rare to appear above two thousand feet above sea level.

In 1824 there is a little known turning point in the history of American tourism. This is when the Catskill Mountain House, America’s first grand hotel, was constructed on the lofty heights of Pine Orchard on a challenging but accessible rocky ledge of the American wilderness one hundred and ten miles from the fastest growing city in the West.  Not long after this event another significant one took place. The young Thomas Cole, later to be acknowledged as founder of the Hudson River School, travelled to the Catskills for artistic inspiration. While there he painted landscapes that aroused the attention of the New York City art scene. His paintings were displayed in a shop’s window for all to see. It was this significant event that spurred a legion of artists to follow on Cole’s footsteps and popularize the Catskill region through art. These events marked a milestone in the cultural development of the newly formed Country. From the Mountain House and the Catskills Mountains that enfolded it, there was recognition of the sublimity and beauty of the American wilderness. This new romanticized view of the landscape would soon help to bring throngs of tourists to the mountains.

It is also worthy to note the significance of writers who were influential in drawing the public’s attention to the Catskill region. First and foremost was Washington Irving when, in 1819, he published Rip Van Winkle to amazing success. This classic story takes place in the soon to be emerging Catskill region. After Irving was James Fenimore Cooper who described in great detail the region of Pine Orchard, the future site of the Catskill Mountain House, in his book The Pioneers which was published in 1823.  Descriptions of the Catskill region’s scenic beauty abounded in nineteenth century letters, literature and travel guides further enhancing the public’s recognition of the region as a tourist destination.

In the early and mid nineteenth century, a few scenic destinations became hot spots for tourism, most notably the Catskills and Niagara Falls. The Catskill Mountain House had great fame, but despite the popularity of the hotel few other hotels were built in the first 50 years of its existence; perhaps in fear that they could not compete with the majestic Mountain House. What did grow in the first 50 years were the more affordable boarding houses as an increasing number of tourists flocked the Catskill region.  Winter Clove in Round Top, New York began operations in 1838 (it is in still in operation to this day) and the Laurel House in Haines Falls in 1852. The first big competitor of the Catskill Mountain House was the Overlook Mountain House, which opened in 1871 on Overlook Mountain outside of Woodstock, NY.

Tourism started to become even more popular after the Civil War, thanks largely to the development of railroads and infrastructure improvements.  By 1879 the economic prosperity of the Catskills as a vacation destination spurred the growth of both the quantity and quality of boarding houses and the grand hotel boom of the region began.  In 1881 The Kaaterskill Hotel was opened with capacity for 1,100 guests, the Laurel House above Kaaterskill Falls was greatly enlarged, the Grand Hotel at Highmount was completed and the Catskill Mountain House enlarged with many additions. Depending upon the degree of luxury desired summer tourists had a large selection of options from basic boarding houses, cottages to grand hotels.

For the Catskill’s and Hudson Valley to gain recognition as the first vacationland in America one cannot discount the strategic importance of the region’s location and the river that runs through the valley below. The Hudson River played a vital role in allowing access to the Catskills; first by steamboats and later by rail along both of its shores. In the early 1850’s the Hudson River Railroad was established on the East shore of the river. By the early 1880’s six trains a day left New York City for the mountains.

The Catskills themselves became dotted with train stations from the Catskill Mountain Railway, the Ulster and Delaware Railroad and later The Otis Incline Railway. Prior to the railroads one could leave New York City in the early morning and arrive at Catskill late in the evening, a trip of eleven hours. Once the railroads were built the time was reduced to three hours. The results were immeasurable.

Until the post civil war period, the “Catskills” was restricted to the vicinity of general area of the Catskill Mountain House. It was not until the coming of the railroads in that the vacation region expanded South and West. The Borscht Belt, or Jewish Alps, is a nickname for the summer resorts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties. These counties are Southwest of the Catskill Region of Greene and Ulster Counties.   

The Jewish resorts were a popular vacation spot for many New Yorkers between the 1920s and the 1970s.  Although they ware associated with the Catskills, none of these resorts were within the Catskill Mountains. The term “Catskills” was used broadly at that time to describe a much larger region than the region geographically defined by the Catskill Mountains of Greene and Ulster Counties.
As New York City expanded and changed demographically, t
he Catskills were largely divided up into ethnic regions. There was the Irish Alps, the Italian Alps, the German Alps and the Jewish Alps and they became tremendously popular for the city’s expanding middle classes. By the 1950s, there were more than 500 hotels and 2,500 bungalow colonies and small resorts.

But as ethnicities assimilated the getaways catering to specific ethnic groups were no longer needed. Financial troubles started to plague some of the resorts, some of the old hotels became white elephants unable to upgrade and adhere to more stringent safety laws. Cheaper airfare travel allowed travelers to venture elsewhere. By the 1970s, sadly many of the Catskills resorts were closed, abandoned and left to decay. The area entered a long period of decline.

There is now a sense of rediscovery in the Catskills. The Catskills are experiencing an incredible renaissance in the travel and tourism market. It could be the result of an improving economy, people looking for a quick get away, or merely getting back in touch with nature. Whatever the reasons, there is currently promise, energy and momentum advancing the Catskill region into a resurgence long overdue.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Visit to the Mountain House

From the Boston Recorder and Telegraph

October 6, 1826

The town of Catskill is not visible at landing. It is built beyond the ridge which rises from Hudson, upon the declivity to a small creek whose banks are western boundary of the village. The principal street is about half a mile in length, nearly parallel to the river. The buildings are neat, and the town wears an appearance of cleanliness, far beyond most towns upon Hudson. The banks of the creek opposite the town are very picturesque, rising at the entrance abruptly, and farther in with every variety of slope, studded with clumps of trees, and in a high state of cultivation. They afford fine sites for building, and will probably with the growth of the place become its chief beauty.

We started for the mountain at 4 o'clock. The distance to the House is 12 miles, and the ascent occupies about 5 hours. The road for the first 8 miles is highly interesting -- passing over elevations, mountains in themselves, and crossing a broad valley whose fine cultivation, graceful outline and woodland, combine to make a picture like a creation of poetry. What is called the ascent commences about 3 miles from the summit. There is a good carriage Road; but it is uncomfortably steep for a ride, we got out to pursue our way on foot. This you know is classic ground; and you are very gravely assured by the inhabitants of the valley, who have been questioned about Rip Van Winkle till they believed it to be a veritable tradition from their ancestors, that it is the identical path up which Rip toiled with the contents of the oblivious flag.

Two miles from the summit is a small hut, or shantey as they are called here, whose occupant by universal consent bears the name of the immortal sleeper. Whether a genuine descendant or not is the point upon which I will not state my veracity. His hut is in a singularly romantic situation; built in a deep angle of the rock with a perpendicular ascent fifty feet directly above him. He keeps refreshment for travelers, and is supplied with water by spout which is laid from his window to the spring in a rock behind him. It was just dark when we arrived there, and probably the deep shadows of the woods and rocks added to the effect - but I have seldom been so struck as by the sudden turn which brought me upon the wild eyrie of this modern Rip Van Winkle.

We toiled on at the rate of a mile and a half an hour, keeping at that pace far in advance of the carriage, and growing more vigorous as we came into the bracing atmosphere of the summit. Perspiration became very free, as the tenuity of the air increased, and I felt as if every trace of bodily infirmity oozed with it from my pores. I could have shouted with the exhilaration and elasticity which grew upon me. Command me to mountain air and free limbs, if ever I am hyp-ridden.

I forgot to speak of the sun-set, and perhaps it was better. But I will merely assert that the local advantages of a bold horizon, high atmosphere and interposed water combine to render the "gloamings" of Catskill valleys beyond conception beautiful.

We reached the house about 9 o'clock buttoned to the throat, and breasting a chill November blast. Fifty feet below we had stood at a turning in the road, peering through the darkness to get a glimpse of the House, which we at last discovered perched on a perpendicular rock, rising almost from our feet. The road which pursues a zig zag course all the way up the mountain, here made several abrupt turns and brought us very suddenly to the broad tabular rock upon which the House is set. We could hardly realize it. After threading in the dark for two or three hours a perfect wilderness, without a trace save our narrow road, to burst thus suddenly upon a splendid hotel and, glittering with lights, and noisy with the sound of the piano and the hum of gaiety - it was like enchantment.

 I seated myself in the drawing room, and was for a moment bewildered. It was in keeping with the place; for so was Rip Van Winkle when he woke upon that very spot. But to find myself in an elegant room, fashionably furnished, and thronged with people promenading to the sound the piano - in such a place! - a long beard and a rusty gun were trifles to it. To return to tangible impressions, however - my supper convinced me that it was not fairy land, and a view of the promises satisfied me of their substantiality. The house is a large wooden building, capable of accommodating two or three hundred people. It makes a fine appearance, is well-painted, and has a noble piazza running the whole length of the front. The host is uncommonly polite and gentlemanly, and his table and rooms afford all the comforts and most of the luxuries of the city. I went to bed, and having added my cloak to a winter provision of covering, I was sensible of the single impression of comfort as I heard the wind whistling at the window, and slept as a well man sleeps.

I rose the next morning at day break to see the prospect. It was a clear cold morning, and the minute points of a view with a radius of 50 miles were distinctly visible. The magnificent prospect from this mountain has been often described, and is too familiar to be repeated. It is indeed magnificent - and he who could look upon such a scene and not turn from it a better man, must truly have forgotten his better elements. An area wide enough for the territory of a nation lies beneath you like a picture, with the Hudson winding through like an inlaid vein of silver. The steamboats were just visible, and I cannot give you a better idea of them than is given in the ludicrous remark of someone, that "they looked like shoes with cigar's stuck in them". The sun rose, and excuse me if I say much to my comfort; for although wrapped in my cloak, I was chilled through. The first beams which streamed across the landscape, looked like sprinklings of white; for at my elevation the hills all sunk to a level, and I puzzled myself to account for the long shadows. They soon diminished however, as the sun rose higher, and the beauty of the scene became transcendent. The rich colours of the "garniture of the earth" stole out and the hundred towns within the range of the eye glittered like studded gems over the scene. It looked like a distant Eden flooded with light.

The Cauterskill Falls, (I do not know the etymology) are a mile and half from the hotel, by the foot path; by the carriage road it is farther. We pursued the gradual descent through woods which seem to have suffered only from the hand of ages. The way was exceedingly rough, and the huge trees were knit together in every position as decay or storm had left them. Is really a noble forest; fit for the company it keeps, of glen and waterfall; and if I were disposed to moralize as I sometimes do over the prostration of these kings of inanimate nature, I know of no place where the text would be more forcible. We pursued our way for about an hour, till without being aware of its neighborhood, we stood nearly upon the brow of the precipice; I cannot describe the effect. It makes a man feel like the poor worm, or elevates him to sublimity in keeping with its own, as his humility or his pride is uppermost. I felt both; for my temperament is chameleon.

The glen of Cauterskill is probably half a stone's throw in width, and two or three hundred feet in depth. It looks like, I scarce know what - a huge well - a fearful chasm - a sinking of the earth to its center - any thing that will give you an idea of depth made by violence. There is no slope - but abrupt ragged perpendicular of sides, appearing as if they had been rent asunder by an earthquake. The rock over which the water pours projects far out of from its base, somewhat in the shape of an umbrella; leaving a very considerable area between it and the sheet of the fall. There is a ledge about halfway up from the base, of the width of a mantelpiece around which you can get, for it is neither walking nor creeping, but a very ugly kind of hitch, not all comfortable, when coupled of the danger of mingling with the "mighty waters" at the bottom. Here, however, we perched ourselves, and clung long enough to get our four shillings worth of the sublime; for this is the price the Miller received for opening his sluice, that supplies the water for the fall; though I must do myself justice to say that I forgot my four shillings till the roar subsided.

The quantity of water is very small, and in falling a hundred feet it divides: into drops, and has a beautiful effect when seen from behind. It pours immediately from the basin which receives it, over a second fall about 80 ft., where, breaking repeatedly upon projecting rocks before it reaches the bottom it assumes an appearance of most wonderful sublimity and beauty. We went to the bottom, and looked up both the falls. This is the perfection of the scene. You gaze up from such depth along two sheets of water - one just above you, pouring down its fearful path with the noise of a thunder peal, and another beyond leaping from a projecting shelf which seems to you more like an outlet of the clouds than an earthly level, - to look up and see only a piece of the blue sky, and be walled in apparently by rocks reaching up to it, it is awful. It is a place for man to fall down and confess himself a worm.