Hotel Kaaterskill, Hunter, New York

The front entrance of the Hotel Kaaterskill on South Mountain, around 1900-1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The second half of the 19th century was the heyday of mountaintop hotels in the northeastern United States. The Romanticism movement, particularly the paintings of artists like Thomas Cole, had helped to generate interest in the region’s various mountain ranges, which had previously been viewed merely as unimprovable land or as hostile wilderness. At first, these hotels were generally located in accessible and relatively low-elevation mountains, including here in the Catskills and on Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. However, by the post-Civil War era, they could be found on many of the higher mountains, including New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast. The quality of these hotels also varied significantly, from small, spartan bunkhouses to grand Gilded Age resorts.

Here in the Catskills, there were several establishments that would have fit in the latter category, but by far the largest of these was the Hotel Kaaterskill, shown here in the first photo around the turn of the 20th century. Opened in 1881, the Kaaterskill was not one of the early mountaintop hotels, nor was it at a particularly high elevation at 2,500 feet. However, it was certainly one of the grandest, and with 1,200 guest rooms it is said to have been the largest mountaintop hotel, not just in the northeast but in the entire world, in addition to supposedly being the largest wood-frame hotel of any kind in the world.

Despite its size and opulence, perhaps the most famous attribute of the Hotel Kaaterskill is the story surrounding its construction. The exact details tend to be muddled in the different versions of this oft-repeated story, but it centers on George Harding, a wealthy Philadelphia parent lawyer who was vacationing at the Catskill Mountain House during the summer of 1880. His daughter (or by some accounts, his wife) was in poor health and had dietary restrictions, so at one meal (some say breakfast, others say dinner) he asked for broiled chicken (or chicken broth, or fried chicken) for her. The kitchen refused to accommodate the request since it was not on the menu, and Harding subsequently had an argument with the hotel owner, Charles Beach, who suggested something to the effect that, if he wanted chicken so badly, he could build his own hotel and serve chicken there.

Regardless of the exact details of this confrontation, the result was that Harding almost immediately set out to build a hotel that would rival the Mountain House in every way. By September he had selected the site here on South Mountain, and workers broke ground for the new building. He employed some 700 workers throughout the winter, not only building the hotel but also laying out a road up the steep Catskill Escarpment, connecting the village of Palenville to the hotel. The hotel was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button, and it was four stories in height, with a long piazza here on the southeast side. As shown in the first photo, the front entrance featured a massive portico, and the hotel also had towers on the corners of the main façade. It would take several years to complete the hotel, but it was finished enough that Harding was able to open about 600 guest rooms in time for the 1881 summer season.

Building this hotel, especially in such a short time, required a vast amount of money. Contemporary newspapers had differing estimates but it appears to have cost around $1 million, or nearly $30 million today. However, this was no issue for Harding, who had earned a considerable fortune as one of the nation’s leading patent attorneys of his era. Among his early clients was Samuel F. B. Morse, whom he successfully represented in a patent infringement case. Then, in the late 1850s he worked on a case alongside future Attorney General and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, defending against a lawsuit from mechanical reaper inventor Cyrus McCormick. This powerful legal team was also joined by a relatively obscure Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln, who acted as local counsel on the case. However Harding and Stanton both looked down upon the provincial Lincoln, and he played little role in the trial, leaving him somewhat embittered by the experience, although Lincoln would ultimately appoint Stanton as his Secretary of War.

Aside from this experience with Lincoln, George Harding had many other political connections, and the Hotel Kaaterskill saw a number of prominent guests, including at least two presidents. Ulysses S. Grant visited the hotel during the summer of 1883, and he was planning on making another visit in August 1885, despite his declining health. However, he died of throat cancer at a cottage in the Adirondacks on July 23, a little over a week before he was supposed to arrive here at the Hotel Kaaterskill.

The other president who visited the hotel during this period was Chester A. Arthur. For a week in August 1884, it became the summer White House, with the president spending a vacation here accompanied by his daughter Nellie, his niece and de facto First Lady Mary McIlroy, and political ally General George H. Sharpe. The president and Harding took daily drives together, and Harding showed him many of the area’s scenic views and other points of interest. He also held a banquet for Arthur, which Harding and his family attended along with a variety of other distinguished guests, including Chief Justice Morrison Waite of the United States Supreme Court. Over the course of the week, other prominent visitors came here to meet with Arthur, including Secretary of State Frederick T. Frelinghuysen and former Supreme Court Justice William Strong.

In 1886, the New York Times published a lengthy article on the Hotel Kaaterskill, which included the following description:

The Hotel Kaaterskill is a city in itself. It has a fine broad front with a tower on each side, and an ample veranda with tall columns running clear to the roof. Two years ago the hotel was found to be too small, and an addition was put up a little to the north of the main building. This is as big as an ordinary hotel. The house as it now stands will accommodate about 1,200 people. This seems to be an exceedingly large number, but in August last year there were nearly 1,100 persons in the house for two weeks. They were not crowded, however, for the hotel has 648 sleeping rooms, and every one of them is surprisingly large and deliciously airy. No hotel can offer more cool, comfortable, and roomy sleeping apartments than this one, and they are furnished excellently. Mountain climbing is apt to tire people, but if they cannot rest on the beds of the Hotel Kaaterskill they cannot rest anywhere in this world. The mattresses are so soft and elastic that people are tempted to lie down during the day just for the sake of the comfort offered by the beds.

In a wing of the house running back there are a large number of unusually well appointed rooms, which are rented to families that come up for the season. There are people who have occupied the same rooms in this part of the house for five consecutive years. The corridors that lead to the rooms are remarkably wide and commodious all through the house. They run all the way around the building on every floor and act as conduits for the cool mountain air, keeping the sleeping apartments at a delightful temperature. The dining room is on the ground floor, immediately behind the office. It is a large and handsome room and has seated 712 people. It will accommodate as the tables are now arranged, with plenty of space to spare, 650 persons. . . .

The servants of the house have their own kitchen and their own dining rooms. Each department of servants has a separate dining room. There are five of these in all. By keeping the different departments separate the excellent system of the house is preserved. The servants’ apartments are near their dining rooms. There is also a separate eating apartment for nurses and children, and a very pretty and well attended place it is. There is a good billiard room in the hotel. There are also four bowling alleys and a bar. The house has its own theater, too; that is, it has what is called the Opera Hall, where concerts and entertainments are given, and where church services are held on Sunday. The hotel has also its own printing office, which looks not unlike the home of some promising country paper. Here the menus and such other printing as the hotel requires are prepared.

The Hotel Kaaterskill remained a popular destination over the next few decades, and Harding owned the hotel until his death in 1902. Harding continued to develop the property over the years, and by the mid-1890s the grounds around the hotel featured a variety of recreational facilities, including a gymnasium, a golf course, tennis courts, and baseball and cricket fields. In addition, the hotel hosted events such as concerts and balls that drew hundreds of attendees to the mountaintop. As was the case for the other major Catskill resorts, the operating season was relatively short, usually running from the end of June until the beginning of September. Room rates during the 1890s started at $21 per week, equivalent to about $700 today, and the hotel also offered special weekend packages that included round trip rail fare from New York City and a three-night stay at the Kaaterskill for $15.

The first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century. The hotel was still drawing plenty of visitors by this point, but its demographics were starting to change. Around this time, the Catskills were starting to become popular among Jewish residents of New York City. The region had long been the domain of affluent Protestants, but by the turn of the century there were several Jewish-owned hotels in what would come to be known as the “Borscht Belt.” The more established hotels like the Mountain House and the Kaaterskill also saw a number of Jewish guests, a change that is evident in guest lists that were published in newspapers of the period. In the 1880s and 1890s, these lists were primarily comprised of Anglo-Saxon surnames, but by 1910 the vast majority of the guests here had Jewish names.

In 1922, the Hotel Kaaterskill came under Jewish ownership when Harry Tannenbaum of Lakewood, New Jersey purchased the property. It sold for $100,000, a mere fraction of what George Harding had spent to construct it some 40 years earlier, but by this point the Kaaterskill was showing its age. At the time of the purchase, Tannenbaum estimated that it would cost an additional $200,000 to renovate the hotel, which would include modern amenities such as electricity and running water. He worked on these improvements throughout the spring of 1922, and in the fall the journal New York Hotel Review published an article about the Kaaterskill, which included a description of the extensive work that occurred here:

Tons of paint were carted atop the Kaaterskill peak. Equally as much glass soon followed. An army of mechanics: painters, plumbers, glaziers, electricians and linemen, swarmed the old hotel buildings and grounds from early in April until late in May. Marvelous transformation! Electric lights, telephones, hot and cold running water, modern baths, newly carpeted halls, modern, sanitary bedding, furniture and interior room decorations, began to appear where none existed before in the old, cob-webbed corridors and rooms. A magnificent lobby, with broad, inviting stair cases, a beautiful ladies’ parlor, lounge rooms, card rooms, bowling alleys, moving picture hall, and a grand ball-room, capable of accommodating comfortably over 800 persons, and one of the finest, most brilliantly appointed dining-rooms, seating 1,000 diners, presented an aggregation of comforts of which few hotels in the northern part of the state could boast.

The newly-renovated hotel opened for business on Memorial Day weekend, and the article indicated that Tannenbaum’s first season was a success, despite unfavorable weather throughout much of the summer. The future seemed promising for the Kaaterskill, and it opened again during the summers of 1923 and 1924. As it turned out, however, 1924 would prove to be its final season. The hotel closed after Labor Day weekend, but many of the employees were still here a week later, including some who were making soap in the kitchen on the evening of September 8.

During this soap-making process, a fire broke out, and it soon spread from the kitchen to the rest of the hotel. The building’s wood-frame construction, combined with its isolated mountaintop location, allowed the fire to spread throughout the hotel, and by the time firefighters arrived there was little that they could do. The fire burned throughout the night, where it could reportedly be seen from as far away as Massachusetts, and by the next morning there was nothing left but smoldering ruins.

The fire caused an estimated $250,000 in damage, only half of which was insured. The hotel was never rebuilt, in part because by this point the era of grand mountaintop hotels had passed. With widespread car ownership, tourists were no longer limited to places that were accessible by rail, and vacation trends shifted away from the once-popular Gilded Age resorts. The Great Depression, which started only a few years after the Kaaterskill burned, did not help matters, and most of the mountaintop hotels in the northeast had closed by the start of World War II. Among these was the Kaaterskill’s former rival, the Catskill Mountain House, which experienced a steady decline before closing for the last time in 1941. It was likewise destroyed by a fire, in 1963, although this was deliberately started by the state in order to dispose of the badly-deteriorated structure.

Today, the former Hotel Kaaterskill property is now owned by the state of New York as part of the Catskill Park. This site here has been largely undisturbed since the fire, although as the second photo shows there is surprisingly little left from what had once been the world’s largest mountain hotel. The row of stones near the foreground appears to mark the site of the retaining wall from the first photo, and further in the distance is the foundation of the hotel itself, which is mostly hidden from this angle. When seen in person, the foundation gives some indication of the size of the building’s footprint, but it is otherwise unimpressive, looking more like a typical stone wall than the ruins of a grand hotel. Within and around the foundation, there is an assortment of rusted metal and shards of broken glass and pottery, but otherwise there are few visible remnants of the massive building that stood here in the first photo.

Boulder Rock, Catskill, New York (2)

The view of Boulder Rock along the Catskill Escarpment, around 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in the previous post, Boulder Rock is a glacial erratic that was brought here during the last ice age and deposited at the top of the cliff about 14,000 years ago when the glacier receded. It has remained here ever since, and during the 19th century it became a point of interest for guests at the nearby Catskill Mountain House and Hotel Kaaterskill. Some of these visitors left their mark on the rock, which has a variety of graffiti in the first photo. The first photo also shows the Hotel Kaaterskill in the distance to the right of the rock, a little over a half mile away at the summit of South Mountain.

Today, the grand 19th century resort hotels of the Catskills are long gone, including the Hotel Kaaterskill, which was destroyed in a massive fire in 1924. Boulder Rock still sees plenty of visitors, as it is located along the Escarpment Trail, a major hiking trail along the eastern edge of the Catskills. Modern visitors have generally been more careful to follow “leave no trace” principles, and there are no longer any names or other graffiti painted on the rock. However, there is at least one old inscription still on the rock from the first photo. Toward the right side of the rock was a painted name that ended in “RICK,” and just to the right of that someone carved the initials “BK.” The painted name is long gone, but those carved initials are still there, although barely visible from this distance.

Boulder Rock, Catskill, New York

Boulder Rock on the edge of the Catskill Escarpment, around 1900-1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show Boulder Rock, a large glacial erratic that is perched atop the Catskill Escarpment, at the northeastern edge of Kaaterskill Clove. As with other glacial erratics, the rock was brought here by glaciers during the last ice age, and it was deposited here when the ice melted some 14,000 years ago. It has remained here ever since, despite its seemingly-precarious position at the top of a 1,500-foot drop. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, this area was the epicenter of tourism in the Catskills, with two major resort hotels nearby, and there was a network of trails leading to different points of interest, including this rock. From here, visitors could marvel at the size and position of the rock, while also admiring expansive views to the east and south.

Aside from the rock itself, the first photo also shows the Hotel Kaaterskill, which is visible in the distance near the center of the scene, a little over a half mile away at the summit of South Mountain. This was the second of the two major hotels here, and it opened in 1881 as a competitor to the older, more established Catskill Mountain House. It was built largely out of spite by George Harding, who had visited the Catskill Mountain House in 1880. While there, he had requested a meal of fried chicken for his daughter, but the kitchen refused to cook it because it wasn’t on the menu, and the owner suggested that he open his own hotel if he wanted fried chicken. Harding accepted the challenge, constructing a massive 600-room hotel that, only a few years after it opened, would be expanded to 1,200 rooms. It was larger and newer than the Catskill Mountain House, and it was also higher in elevation, allowing Harding and his guests to literally look down upon the rival hotel.

The caption of the first photo identifies the people here as “Mr. H.E. Eder and family.” Eder, whose first name was Harry, was the manager of the Hotel Kaaterskill. A native of New Jersey, Eder had previously been the manager of the Sierra Madre Villa near Los Angeles, and in 1899 he came to the Catskills as manager of the Haines Falls House. In 1900 he became the manager of the Hotel Kaaterskill, and he appears to have held this position through the 1902 season, although by 1903 he was the manager of the Grand Hotel, located a little to the west of here in the village of Highmount.

As a result, the first photo was likely taken sometime between 1900 and 1902, when he would have been in his mid-40s. He is obviously the person standing furthest to the left in the scene, but the identities of the three women are less certain. His wife Mary was likewise in her mid-40s at the time, and they had one daughter, Marion, who was a teenager. Based on the apparent ages of the women in the photo, Mary is probably the one furthest to the right, with Marion standing next to Harry. The identity of the woman in between them is unclear, although she may have been a cousin or another member of the extended family.

The Hotel Kaaterskill was said to have been the largest mountaintop hotel in the world when it was built, along with being the world’s largest wood-frame hotel. However, the combination of timber framing and isolated mountaintop location contributed to its destruction. On September 8, 1924, about a week after the hotel closed for the season, a fire started in the kitchen. It soon spread throughout the building, and by the time firefighters arrived there was little that they could do to save it. The fire started in the evening and it burned throughout the night, creating a spectacle that could be seen from miles around, reportedly even as far away as Massachusetts.

The hotel was a total loss, and it was never rebuilt. Today, all that remains from the sprawling hotel are the remnants of its foundation, which are mostly overgrown by trees. In the meantime, here at Boulder Rock, not much has changed since the Eder family posed in front of it some 120 years ago. The graffiti on the rock is long gone, and there are more trees here now than at the turn of the 20th century, but otherwise this scene is still easily recognizable from the first photo. Boulder Rock continues to be a noted geological feature here in this area, and it is located along the Escarpment Trail, which runs for more than 20 miles along the eastern edge of the Catskills range.

View South from Catskill Mountain House, Catskill, New York

The view looking south from the edge of the Catskill Escarpment in front of the Catskill Mountain House, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The Catskill Mountain House opened in 1824, on a ledge along the Catskill Escarpment overlooking the Hudson River Valley. This site soon became renowned for its scenery, and the hotel was a popular summer resort throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. These two photos show the scene looking south from the hotel, along the edge of the escarpment. The elevation here is about 2,200 feet above sea level, but the terrain drops dramatically on the left side of the scene, to about 600 feet at the base of the cliff a mile from here.

The grounds of the Mountain House were crossed by a network of trails that led to scenic overlooks, unusual rock formations, and other natural features. Many of these trails are marked on an 1884 map of the area, including one that passed directly along the edge of the cliff in this scene, as shown on the far right side of the first photo. The map shows a point of interest that is labeled only as “Rock,” which is presumably the overhanging rock. Beyond here, the trail continued along the edge of the cliff for another quarter mile or so, before ending at a location labeled as “Lovers’ Retreat.”

The Catskill Mountain House ultimately closed in 1941, and was deliberately burned in 1963 after the state took control of the property. The site of the hotel is now open space, but not much has changed in the surrounding area. Here in this scene, the present-day views are limited from this angle because of the increased tree growth, but otherwise this scene is still easily recognizable, including the overhanging rock on the right. As for the trail to Lovers’ Retreat, there is still a vaguely-defined path beyond the rock, although it seems unlikely to have been used by any lovers in many decades, as it quickly fades away in the woods along the edge of the cliff.

View from Sunset Rock, Catskill, New York (3)

The view looking south from Sunset Rock toward North and South Lakes and Kaaterskill High Peak, around 1901-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

These photos show the same scene as the one in an earlier post, just with more detail of the lakes and Kaaterskill High Peak. The first photo here was also likely taken the same time as the previous post, which shows the scene just to the left of here. Unlike the previous post, which shows the Catskill Mountain House, the first photo here shows its rival establishment, the Hotel Kaaterskill, in the upper center of the scene. Built in 1881, it was situated atop the 2,500-foot South Mountain, on the ridgeline between the lakes and Kaaterskill Clove. With 1,200 guest rooms, it was said to have been the world’s largest mountaintop hotel, along with being the largest wood-frame hotel.

Both the Hotel Kaaterskill and the older Mountain House capitalized on the popularity of the Catskills as a summer destination during the 19th century. This particular area, atop the Catskill Escarpment at the far eastern edge of the range, was the most accessible part of the Catskills during this period, as it was located just a few miles from the Hudson River and barely a hundred miles north of New York City. Authors and artists such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Thomas Cole helped to promote the region’s natural beauty, particularly the view from the escarpment, the lakes, Kaaterskill Clove, and the nearby Kaaterskill Falls.

From this area around the lakes, the most distinctive landscape feature is Kaaterskill High Peak, which rises above the lakes in the center of the scene. This mountain was featured prominently in many of Thomas Cole’s paintings of the Catskills, and it is easily recognizable for its pointed summit, with a steep southeastern slope and a more gradual western slope. As its name suggests, this mountain was once regarded as the highest in the Catskills. However, by the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, surveys had revealed that it wasn’t even close. At 3,652 feet, High Peak is significantly lower than the 4,180-foot Slide Mountain, and today is is ranked as the 22nd highest of the 35 Catskill peaks that have at least 3,500 feet of elevation.

The 19th century was the heyday of grand mountain resorts, both here in the Catskills and elsewhere in the northeast. However, these establishments entered a decline in the 20th century, in part because of the role of the automobile in expanding travel opportunities for Americans. These hotels were also vulnerable to fire, as was the case with the Hotel Kaaterskill, which was destroyed by a massive blaze in 1924. It was never rebuilt, and today its ruins atop South Mountain are mostly forested.

The state of New York eventually acquired the land here in this scene, and developed a campground on the northern side of North Lake in the late 1920s. This campground was expanded over the years, and later in the 20th century the state removed the narrow strip of land between North and South Lakes, creating a single body of water known as North-South Lake. The campground is not visible in the present-day photo, but it is still here at the foot of this hill, between here and the lake. It is far less luxurious than either of the two grand resorts here, but it very popular among campers, and it is more in keeping with the state’s current goals of maintaining the Catskills region in its natural state.

View from Sunset Rock, Catskill, New York (2)

The view looking toward the Catskill Mountain House from Sunset Rock, around 1901-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

This view is very similar to the one in the previous post, but it shows more detail of the Catskill Mountain House in the center of the first photo. The Mountain House was built in 1824, on a ledge along the Catskill Escarpment. It was the first major mountain resort in the country, capitalizing on a newfound interest in mountain tourism along with the relative accessibility of this portion of the Catskills. From there, visitors could enjoy expansive views of the Hudson River Valley from the comfort of a fashionable hotel, and the more adventurous could explore the network of trails around the hotel that were laid out by the mid-19th century. Many of these led to scenic overlooks, including this one to the north of the hotel. Known as Sunset Rock, it offers panoramic views to the south and west, including the hotel itself and the adjacent lakes.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the original Catskill Mountain House was still standing in the distance, although it had been expanded a number of times. It also faced an increasing number of competitors, most significantly the Hotel Kaaterskill, which opened on nearby South Mountain in 1881. To remain competitive, the Mountain House constructed the Otis Elevating Railway, a funicular railroad that brought guests up the escarpment, bypassing the old winding carriage road. The upper station of this railroad is visible in the center of the first photo, just down the hill from the hotel.

Today, more than a hundred years after the first photo was taken, this scene looks more like its natural state than it did in the first photo, although this came about as a result of the loss of the historic Catskill Mountain House. The hotel closed in 1941, and it deteriorated over the next few decades before being deliberately burned by the state in 1963. The site of the hotel, along with the surrounding landscape, is now part of the Catskill Park, which encompasses the entire region. As has been the case for the past two centuries, this area here remains one of the most popular spots for visitors to the Catskills. However, there are no longer any grand hotels here in the mountains. Instead, modern visitors have relatively spartan accommodations compared to their 19th century predecessors, including the North-South Lake Campground, located along the northern shore of the lake in this scene.