Conservation at the Mohonk Mountain House

By Kim Kogler

Europeans first arriving in the United States brought not only their bodies and personal belongings, but also thousands of new plants and animals. The European customs, plants, and animals dissipated throughout the surrounding country leaving changes in their wake (Snyder 1981, 17). The Shawangunk Mountains in New York transformed from feared wilderness to an industrial profit. From 1677 to 1869, humans directly exploited the Shawangunk Mountains through “industries yielding wood, charcoal, tanbark, barrel hoops, building stone, millstones, blueberries, huckleberries, and water” (Snyder 1981, 40; Kiviat 1991, xiii). Since the time humans arrived in the United States, we directly or indirectly influenced the ecosystems in which we lived. While for most of our history we labeled wilderness as “dangerous” and “unproductive,” by the end of 19th century, a change in the attitude towards nature arose.  Once feared, manipulated, and exploited, the land became revered as “beautiful,” spiritually and physically refreshing, and a place for recreation (Snyder 1981, 26-27). From this attitude, people began building mountain houses throughout the eastern United States’ landscape. In the Shawangunk Mountains, the Mohonk Mountain House emerged and became a frontrunner for environmental conservation and observation. To this day, it is the only Mountain House still operating and continues, through the Mohonk Preservation, as a leading organization to protect the landscape and track changes in ecosystems.

Around the decline of direct industrial exploitation of the Shawangunk Mountains, Albert and Alfred Smiley bought a plot of land to develop an inn. A year later, in the summer 1870, the Mohonk Mountain House, placed at the edge of Mohonk Lake, opened for business (Snyder 1981, 27). What started as a ten room inn has grown to the current Mohonk Mountain House, which holds 600 guests (“About Us”). The Mountain House served as a vacation spot for the higher social classes—“scholars, doctors, lawyers, bankers, merchants, executives, and ‘eminent divines’”—to enjoy the landscape away from their usual urban environment (Snyder 1981, 27). Albert and Alfred Smiley, following the changing attitude, believed the mountains should be admired and enjoyed in the forms of recreation, rather than used industrially (Snyder 1981, 38). Due to their Quaker background, the Smileys abstained from selling alcohol at their inn and were also dedicated to peace (Snyder 1981, 27). By 1895, conferences held at the Mohonk Mountain House discussed world problems and searched for alternatives to war (“About Us”). Also, partially due to their Quaker background, nature fascinated the Smileys. In 1896, a brass rain gauge and iron bar bolted to the ground in the lake were implemented (DePalma 2008). It marked the beginning of a century long record keeping of the weather and lake water levels at Mohonk Mountain House.

In the 20th century the environmental exploitation shifted from direct degradation to indirect degradation. Humans unintentionally affected the Shawangunk ecosystems causing initially imperceptible changes (Snyder 1981, 40). For instance, the disappearance of trout and acidity of rain, from use of DDT, originally went unnoticed and when finally recognized, could not immediately be explained (Snyder 1981, 40-41). The sometimes disastrous effects of humanity’s influence on the environment once again shifted the attitude towards nature. A growing feeling of conservation and preservation challenged humanity’s indirect exploitation of the land. The science of ecology grew in congruence with “the growing desire of wildlife biologists to reconstruct natural ecosystems with all their checks and balances” (Snyder 1981, 35). A few generations down the road from Albert and Alfred Smiley, Daniel Smiley, similarly to his ancestors, found passion in observing nature. He slowly incorporated his ecological values into the Mohonk Mountain House. Both Daniel Smiley and his brother, Keith Smiley, began taking phenological records of the surrounding areas around the mid-1920s and Daniel Smiley, starting in 1930, collected specimen from the land (“History”). Eventually, Daniel Smiley formally established The Mohonk Trust.

In 1966, Daniel Smiley transferred the deeds of two-thirds of the Mohonk Mountain House land to The Mohonk Trust. This non-profit organization, later known as the Mohonk Preserve, worked to conserve and protect its land from indirect human exploitation (Snyder 1981, 39). The Mohonk Trust originated from Daniel Smiley’s interest in the natural world. He traveled throughout the United States observing different environments and conservationists associated with land protection. He studied how these conservationists worked to protect local lands, ensuring the preservation of the country’s “natural” landscape (“History”). Daniel Smiley’s love for nature, the responsibility he felt for protecting the landscape and increasing the awareness of its importance, and his appreciation for humans and lands contributed to the formation of The Mohonk Trust. Daniel Smiley initiated the transition of the Mohonk Mountain House from merely a hotel under the management of a Quaker naturalist to a National Weather Service station.

As the Director of Research at the Mohonk Mountain House, Paul Huth holds the same job as his predecessors Daniel Smiley and Keith Smiley. He continues the daily tradition at Mohonk Mountain House of collecting the weather data, measuring the lake level based on its distance from the top of the iron bar, collecting other lake water data, and recording his observations about the land (Huth 2013). In this manner, for the past 120 years, the data collection at Mohonk Mountain House has remained consistent. Between Paul Huth and Daniel Smiley, 14, 500 observational records are held at the Mohonk Research Center (DePalma 2008). Many of the records from Daniel Smiley are written on the back of old cut up menus from the dining hall at the Mountain House (Huth 2013). It was around the 1970s that data collection expanded from weather recordings and phenological observations to also include regular monitoring of the pH of precipitation, lakes, and streams (“Weather”). While these observations started as a mere naturalist watching the environment, they now hold key information that is used as scientific evidence of climate change and its influence on nature.

The detailed records from the Smiley brothers and Paul Huth, as well as the collected specimen from Daniel Smiley, reside at the Mohonk Research Center. Those working at the Research Center use these notes to compare phenology and weather in the late 1800’s with today’s phenology and weather. The Research Center’s data remains even more valuable in today’s debate about environmental change because the research was completed in the same place, with the same instruments. Plus, only five people, including Huth, have worked at the Research Center and performed the data collections, which decreases variability in the data even further (DePalma 2008). Because of its constant weather collection, the Mohonk Preserve became a National Weather Service station that shows the climate change over the century. With little interest in the cause (human’s presence versus natural changes in the environment), of climate change, the Mohonk Preserve and Research Center focus more on showing that climate change exists (Huth 2013).  According to Paul Huth, over the past 100 years, those collecting data have seen a 2.5 percent increase in average temperature, which is half as much as the 5 percent increase over the previous 10,000 years. The data collected at the Mohonk Preserve deepens human’s knowledge of climate change patterns and the influence that change has on ecosystems, both at the broad level of entire communities and the minute level of individual species.

As the Director of Research, Huth stated that you need weather information and you need local information, but you also need a good eye. He explained that you need to train your observations and record everything you see because you will never be in the same circumstances again. This makes each moment vibrant as well as a learning opportunity. Huth watches the connection between what the data shows about climate change and what this climate change does to the species on the preserve. For instance, some species are moving farther north to reach colder weather to which they are acclimated. While humans like to believe in the ability to preserve nature and keep it unchanged, nature is in a constant state of flux. Huth’s data, along with all his predecessors, shows the dynamic quality of nature, regardless of human impacts or any other external impacts. No matter the influences, the ecosystems within the Shawangunk Mountains will continue to change, as all natural systems do. However, it seems clear humanity’s presence is a major factor to this change, which insinuates an inextricable link between human actions and choices and the health of the Shawangunk Mountains over the coming years (Snyder 1981, 40, 42).

Suggested Readings:

For more on the Smiley Family:

Burgess, L. (1969). Alfred, Albert, and Daniel Smiley: a biography. Redlands, CA: Beacon Printery.

For more on the Mohonk Area:

Burgess, L. (1993). Mohonk, its people and spirit: a history of one hundred years of growth and   service. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press.

Partington, F. (1911). The Story of the Mohonk. Annandale, VA: Turnpike Press.


Works Cited

“About Us: History.” Mohonk Mountain House. Accessed 1 May 2013.

DePalma, A. (2008). “Weather History Offers Insight into Global Warming.” The New York Times. Accessed 1 May 2013.

“History of Conservation Science at Mohonk Preserve.” Mohonk Preserve. Accessed 3 May 2013.

Kiviat, E. (1991). The Northern Shawangunk: An Ecological Survey. New Paltz, NY: Mohonk Preserve.

Snyder, B. (1981). The Shawangunk Mountains: A History of Nature and Man. New Paltz, NY: Mohonk Preserve.

“Weather Data.” Mohonk Preserve. Accessed 1 May 2013.

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