The Catskill Mountain House

By Kat Rosemond

A warm and welcoming field greeted us as we approached the site of the historical Catskill Mountain House. Although it was a temperate spring day and the sun was out, I am certain that the scenery would have been equally impressive on a dreary winter afternoon.  As it was, our eyes feasted upon the expansive view that allowed us to see across five different states, while we enjoyed a discussion and the sun warmed our backs. Although the extensive panorama commands most visitors’ attention at the site of the Mountain House, small details such as engravings in the rocks and remnants of the front gates remind visitors of what once stood in its place and was responsible for the attention to the area. Almost two hundred years earlier, the site of the Mountain House would have been quite different. The Catskill Mountain House was built during 1823, and withstood at least one hundred and thirty-three years as a travel destination of many purposes, and for a variety of people.[1]

The geography of the Hudson River valley was essential to the success of the mountain house. As Van Zandt states, “The Hudson valley provided a natural highway from the developing cities of the Atlantic seaboard to the nation’s first mountain resort,” and New York City had become the largest and most affluent in America by 1830, which provided a large population of potential visitors who had the ability to travel.[2] The Hudson Valley was seen as a region of trade and prosperity, aided by its convenient location, exceptional beauty and the Hudson River. Railroads and steamboats eventually led to commercial trading and transportation in the area, and bridged the distance between the city and the Catskill Mountains. As cities became more developed throughout the nineteenth century, many people were motivated to travel due to health concerns, and tourism was no longer solely a demonstration of social status.[3] Industries became developed in the Catskill region as more sightseers were attracted to the area, and the land was subsequently perceived as a true American “vacationland.” By catering to people from the city, the Catskills began to urbanize. This movement is particularly exemplified by the tanning industry, which required roads and trails to be built far into the mountains, in addition to removing most of the hemlocks.[4]

The Catskill Mountain Association, founded in the 1820s and composed of local businessmen, became involved around this time and decided to buy a large amount of land in Pine Orchard, in addition to building the now-famous Mountain House.[5] The building officially opened in 1824, with an iconic ‘large, columned piazza’ at the front, ten rooms, and a gleaming white finish.[6] Three thousand five hundred acres composed the land surrounding and belonging to the Mountain House. The many tourists who couldn’t afford to stay in the luxurious Mountain House chose to stay in boarding houses and thrifty bed and breakfasts located within Pine Orchard, which was the center of this scenic region.[7] The Mountain House also influenced the expansion of this part of the Catskill Mountains in that many other hotels were built around the area, the most notable of which was the Kaaterskill Hotel, and numerous trails were built.[8]

The House seemed to exist in geographical harmony with the Pine Orchard area, and was a symbol of luxury-meets-nature, which was an appealing concept for the romantics of the time.[9] It was said “the atmosphere in which American romanticism developed [was] the scenic mountains of New York.”[10] The Catskill Mountain House certainly provided access to the picturesque mountains, and was one of the most important buildings associated with the Hudson River School of Painting. The Hudson River School refers to a group of painters who were devoted to depicting the American landscape. Thomas Cole was a leader of the movement and drew great attention to the Catskill Mountains. Many other artists took up residence in the Catskill Mountains and in areas proximal to the Mountain House, in addition to staying as guests at the house in order to paint the iconic view.[11] Alexander H. Wyant, Jaspar F. Cropsey and Winslow Homer are all notable artists who stayed in the Catskills and painted at the House, including paintings of the Kaaterskill Falls.[12]

Powerful scenery and impressive landscapes demanded the attention of visitors and artists, with Kaaterskill Falls being a major attraction. Of course, with natural ecological beauty and large groups of people comes the idea to capitalize the attraction. Stands with fizzy lemonade, postcards and creamy ice creams were erected around the falls, and a particularly exploitative or, depending on the way you see it, genius man named Peter Schutt built dams farther upstream from the Falls, and required a fee in order to release the water for the Falls to flow like ‘Termination Rock at Niagara.’[13] It is important to note that women visited the Mountain House and surrounding sites as often, or even more often, than men. This was been significant given the context of the ‘delicate Victorian woman’ typecast, which conflicted with the more adventurous spirits.[14]

A clear community formed in Pine Orchard around the Catskill Mountain House during the early twentieth century, but, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. The time between the First and Second World Wars was particularly troubling for the history of the Mountain House as well as the other hotels in the Catskill region. Economic problems in addition to the death of Charles L. Beach, the owner of the Mountain House and ‘pioneer of the Catskills,’ each contributed to the gradual decline of the House.[15] After World War One, a granddaughter of Charles Beach and her husband became the owners of the Mountain House, and although they maintained its facilities, the tone of the once-rich, full and legendary house was changed. Eventually the House became an ‘embattled ruin’ and between the years 1942-1962, people still travelled to the ruin to explore the area and see the view, while the Mountain House lived its final days with the visitors’’ “incantations of sacrificial love and martyrdom.”[16]

Ultimately, the property was acquired by the State of New York, and the conservation department had to burn the Mountain House down in 1963 due to potential dangers of the House according to the Forest Preserve.[17] Today, the popular Escarpment trail goes by the site where the Mountain House once stood, and tourists and visitors can camp in the North and South Lake campgrounds, near the historic site.[18] Hundreds of visitors can be found at the site of the Mountain House in the summer, and although the expansive views have perhaps lost their symbolism as America’s frontier, some of the magic and history that the Catskill Mountain House exemplified still hangs in the air. It is worth a trip to the historic site and to Kaaterskill Falls in order to experience and image the sense of grandeur and awe-inspiring sights that once were, but which can still be enjoyed today.

 

Refer to these websites for more information, and pictures of the Catskill Mountain House:

http://www.catskillmountaineer.com/history-CMH.html

http://www.catskillarchive.com/mtnhouse/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uEiqq_0WDc (A documentary of the Mountain House and Surrounding area)

http://www.catskillmountaineer.com/hiking-escarpment.html

 

Bibliography:

“The scenery of the Catskill Mountains.” New-York, (1860). Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning: 1-51.

Gildersleeve, Robert A. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005). Black Dome Press Corp.: 1-220.

Stradling, David. “Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills.” University of Washington Press, 2007, 1-80.

Van Zandt, Roland. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rutgers University Press, 1966, 1-399.

Visitor. “Guide to rambles from the Catskill mountain house.” Catskill [N.Y.], (1863). Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning: 1-10.

Footnotes:

[1]Robert A Gildersleeve. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005). 2.

[2]Roland Van Zandt. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966). 12.

[3] David Stradling. “Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills.” 78.

[4] Roland Van Zandt. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966) 53.

[5] Roland Van Zandt. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966) 28.

[6] Roland  Van Zandt. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966) 49.

[7] Visitor. “Guide to rambles from the Catskill mountain house.” Catskill [N.Y.], (1863).6.

[8] Robert A. Gildersleeve. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005) 5.

[9] Roland Van Zandt. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966) 13.

[10] Roland Van Zandt.  “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966) 127.

[11] Robert A. Gildersleeve. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005). 34.

[12] Robert A. Gildersleeve. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005). 27.

[13]Roland Van Zandt. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966) 115.

[14] Visitor. “Guide to rambles from the Catskill mountain house.” Catskill [N.Y.], (1863). 8.

[15]Robert A. Gildersleeve. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005). 118.

[16] Van Zandt, Roland. “The Catskill Mountain House.” Rahway, New Jersey (1966) 310.

[17] Robert A. Gildersleeve. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005). 22.

[18]Robert A. Gildersleeve. “Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School.” Hendersonville, New York (2005). 31.

This entry was posted in Tourism. Bookmark the permalink.