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 1942, 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 1942, 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.

View from Sunset Rock, Catskill, New York

The painting A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole, 1844. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

The scene around 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

These three views show the scene looking south from Sunset Rock, an outcropping along the Catskill Escarpment just to the north of North-South Lake. The lake, which was originally two separate lakes, is visible in the center of the scene, and beyond it is Kaaterskill High Peak, which rises 3,652 feet above sea level. For many years, this was believed to be the tallest mountain in the Catskills, hence its name, but surveys later in the 19th century proved that it was significantly shorter than Slide Mountain, and today it is ranked as only the 22nd highest in the range. On the far left side is the edge of the escarpment, which drops dramatically in elevation and forms the dividing line between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River Valley.

The early 19th century marked the beginning of mountain tourism in the United States, and the Catskills region was one of the first areas to experience this boom. Located along the west side of the Hudson River partway between New York City and Albany, the Catskills were within easy reach, and they offered dramatic scenic views, such as this one here on Sunset Rock. In 1824, the Catskill Mountain House opened near here, on a ledge overlooking the Hudson River Valley at a site known as the Pine Orchard. This was one of the first of many mountain resorts that would be built in the northeast over the course of the 19th century, and it drew many visitors here to enjoy the scenery of the Catskills.

Among the early visitors to the Mountain House was Thomas Cole, a young English-born painter who had immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1818. He came here for the first time during the summer of 1825, and this visit would prove to have a transformative effect not only on Cole himself, but on the history of American art. He subsequently returned to his studio, where he painted five landscapes of the Catskills and Hudson River Valley, including his first major work, Lake with Dead Trees. These works helped to establish Cole as a prominent landscape painter, and they also marked the beginning of what would come to be known as the Hudson River School, a 19th century American art movement that emphasized dramatic landscapes of the country’s natural beauty.

Thomas Cole eventually relocated to the town of Catskill, where he lived and had his studio. He returned to the Mountain House area many times, but over the years he also expanded his works beyond the Hudson River area, with scenery of Europe, New England, and allegorical landscapes that did not depict a specific location. However, later in his career he painted one last grand landscape from up in the Catskills, shown here in this post. Titled A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning, it shows the scene from Sunset Rock, with the Mountain House in the distance on the left side of the painting. As was typical for Cole’s works, it highlights the grandeur of the natural environment. In contrast to the expansive scenery, the only signs of human presence are the small figure in the foreground and the distant hotel, both of which are surrounded by the wilderness.

Nearly 60 years after Thomas Cole painted this view, a photographer captured the same scene with a camera, as shown in the second image. As shown in the photo, remarkably little had changed here since Cole’s visit, and the Catskills remained a popular tourist destination. The Catskill Mountain House was still standing on the left side, although by this point it had been joined by a rival, the Hotel Kaaterskill, which is visible directly below the summit of Kaaterskill High Peak in the 1902 photo. It had been built in 1881, and it stood atop South Mountain, which was about a mile to the southwest of the Mountain House and several hundred feet higher in elevation.

The Hotel Kaaterskill was built by Philadelphia lawyer George Harding, whose motivations evidently had more to do with spite than any other considerations. As the story goes, Harding had visited the Mountain House during the summer of 1880, and during one meal he requested fried chicken for his daughter. However, the kitchen refused to prepare fried chicken since it was not on the menu, and Harding ended up in an argument with owner Charles Beach, who told him he could build his own hotel if he wanted fried chicken. Harding did exactly that, and his Hotel Kaaterskill opened less than a year later. After several expansions over the next few years, it grew to 1,200 guest rooms, and it was said to have been the largest mountain hotel in the world, along with the largest wood-frame hotel in the world.

Mountaintop resorts such as the Mountain House and the Hotel Kaaterskill had enjoyed a heyday during the 19th century, but by the early 20th century the preferences of travelers had begun to change. Part of this was because of the automobile, which opened up new travel opportunities beyond what was accessible by rail. The buildings themselves were also aging, and they were particularly susceptible to fire, given their elevated locations and wood-frame construction. Such was the case with the Hotel Kaaterskill, which was completely destroyed by a massive fire in 1924. As for the Mountain House, it had been one of the first mountaintop resorts, and it managed to outlive most of its contemporaries, but it closed in 1942 and steadily deteriorated over the next few decades. The property was eventually acquired by the state of New York in 1962, and the historic building was deliberately burned the following year.

Today, nearly two centuries after Thomas Cole first visited this area and launched an artistic movement, this scene from Sunset Rock has remained essentially unchanged. In fact, there are actually fewer signs of human activity now than in either the painting or the 1902 photograph, since both hotels are now long gone. The two lakes are now united as one, but otherwise the only hint of modernity in the 2021 photo is a power line that runs along the shoreline of the lake in the center of the photo. This area remains a popular among summer visitors, although they spend their time here in very different types of accommodations. Rather than large, opulent 19th century resort hotels, visitors instead camp at the North-South Lake Campground, which has over 200 campsites, mostly on the north side of the lake.

Mount Tom Railroad, Holyoke, Mass (3)

The trolley Elizur Holyoke approaching the summit on the Mount Tom Railroad, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The first photo shows the trolley Elizur Holyoke, one of two that operated on the Mount Tom Railroad. Together with the Rowland Thomas, these two cars formed a funicular railway; they were connected by a cable that allowed the descending car to use its weight to help pull the other one up the mountain. This cable, which is seen in the foreground in the middle of the tracks in the first photo, was not powered by a motor at the summit, but instead each car had its own motors, which drew power from overhead wires by way of a trolley pole, as shown atop the Elizur Holyoke in the photo.

The Mount Tom Railroad opened in 1897, allowing visitors to reach the newly-constructed Summit House atop the 1,200-foot Mount Tom. It was just under a mile in length, and it rose 700 feet in elevation, with an average grade of 14 percent and a maximum of 21.5 percent. Most of the route was straight, with the exception of a curve near the summit, which is shown here in this scene. The cars typically ran once every half hour, although they could be operated more frequently depending on demand. Each car could seat 84 passengers, and over the course of an average season the railroad typically carried about 75,000 people to and from the summit.

Aside from the railroad itself, this scene also offers a view of the northernmost portion of the Mount Tom Range, along with part of the Holyoke Range. Appropriately enough, the first photo shows the Elizur Holyoke directly below Mount Holyoke. Both the mountain and the trolley share the same namesake, and the mountain also lent its name to the city of Holyoke, where Mount Tom is located. Further to the left of Mount Holyoke is Mount Nonotuck, which is visible near the upper left corner of the first photo.

When the railroad and Summit House here on Mount Tom opened in 1897, both of these mountains already had long-established hotels at their summits, with the Prospect House on Mount Holyoke and the Eyrie House on Mount Nonotuck. Unlike those businesses, though, the Summit House did not offer overnight accommodations, and instead catered entirely to day visitors. In any case, the aging Eyrie House was never a major competitor to the Summit House, and it ultimately burned in 1901. As for the Prospect House, its 20th century history would largely mirror that of the Summit House, and both ultimately closed in the late 1930s amid declining business during the Great Depression.

The Summit House was demolished around 1938, and the railroad tracks were removed around the same time. Then, in 1944 the property was sold to the radio station WHYN, which built towers and buildings at the summit and converted the railroad right-of-way into a paved access road. Overall, though, this scene has not changed much, aside from the loss of the railroad tracks. The slopes of Mount Tom still look much the same as they did when the first photo was taken, as do the mountains in the distance, although some are obscured by tree growth in the present-day photo. Even the Prospect House on Mount Holyoke is still standing, and it is barely visible as a tiny white speck just to the left of the summit in both photos. Now preserved as a museum, this historic building is one of the few surviving 19th century mountaintop resorts in the northeast, having long outlived its newer competitors on Mount Nonotuck and here on Mount Tom.

Mount Tom Railroad, Holyoke, Mass

The trolley Rowland Thomas on the Mount Tom Railroad in Holyoke, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The early 20th century was the heyday of electric trolleys in the United States. In the years prior to widespread car ownership, most cities and even many small towns were served by networks of trolley lines that were generally run by private companies. In order to maximize profits, these companies often built picnic groves, amusement parks, and other recreational facilities along their lines. Known as trolley parks, these generated revenue not only through admission fees, but also through increased trolley ridership on otherwise-slow weekends.

Here in Holyoke, the Holyoke Street Railway Company opened Mountain Park in the 1890s. It began as a small park at the base of Mount Tom, but it soon added amenities such as a dance hall, a restaurant, a roller coaster, and a carousel. Most significantly, though, the company also built a summit house at the top of the 1,200-foot mountain, allowing visitors to enjoy the expansive views of the Connecticut River valley. Mountaintop resorts were popular in the northeast during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and there were already several in the vicinity of Mount Tom, including the Prospect House on Mount Holyoke and the Eyrie House on Mount Nonotuck. However, unlike those establishments, the Summit House here on Mount Tom was not a hotel. Instead, it catered to day visitors, with a restaurant, a stage, and an observatory equipped with telescopes.

To bring visitors to the Summit House, the company constructed the Mount Tom Railroad, a nearly mile-long funicular railway that rose 700 feet in elevation from Mountain Park to a station just below the summit. It had an average grade of 14 percent, with a maximum grade of 21.5 percent at its steepest section. The lower part of the route was straight, as shown here in this view looking down from the midpoint, although there was a gentle curve right before the summit station. Like most funiculars, it consisted of two cars that were connected by a cable. As one car descended, it pulled the other car up the mountain, allowing gravity to do most of the work. The cable itself was unpowered, but the cars each had their own electric motors powered by overhead wires, in order to compensate for weight differences and energy lost to friction.

The two cars were named the Rowland Thomas and Elizur Holyoke, in honor of the early colonists who became the namesakes of Mount Tom and Mount Holyoke. Each car was 36 feet long, 9 feet wide, and could seat 84 passengers. They were connected to each other by a 5,050-foot-long, 1.25-inch steel cable, which passed over a large sheave at the summit. This sheave was mounted on an A-frame that was, in turn, bolted securely into the rock. In addition, the cars maintained constant telephone connection with each other, by way of telephone lines that ran alongside the tracks just above ground level, as shown in the lower left corner of the first photo. The cars connected to these by way of brush-like shoes that ran along the top of the wires as the car moved.

Because of the steep grade of the railroad, the cars’ braking ability was of critical importance, as an uncontrolled descent would likely have had deadly consequences. To prevent this, the cars had several independent braking systems. Each car was equipped with standard trolley brakes, but the cable itself was controlled by a centrifugal governor at the summit that automatically slowed the cable once it began moving faster than 1,400 feet per minute, or about 16 miles per hour. This second feature obviously only worked if the cable remained intact, but there was yet another braking system in the event of a catastrophic failure of the cable. As shown in the first photo, a third rail ran inside the tracks next to the cable. In an emergency, the motorman could activate a lever that would cause the car to clamp on to this rail. This could also be done automatically, by a governor that was set to engage the rail once the car exceeded 1,500 feet per minute, or 17 miles per hour.

In any funicular railway, one of the other challenges is determining how the two cars will pass each other. The simplest solution is to have two parallel tracks, with each car operating on its own track at all times. However, this requires a wider right-of-way, along with significantly more materials than a single-track railway. One alternative is a three-rail funicular, in which each car has its own outside rail and shares the middle one, diverging only at a short passing section. The other option is to have one track for both cars, with a turnout at the halfway point. This requires the least amount of land and materials, but it requires a complex track arrangement at the turnout to ensure each car takes the correct path and safely crosses over the cable.

Here on Mount Tom, the railroad engineers chose the third option, as shown in the first photo. The two cars met at a passing loop, which is visible in the lower center of the photo. At first glance it looks similar to a standard railroad switch, but the key difference is that it has no moving parts. Instead, the cars and tracks are designed so that each one can only take one path, which remains the same regardless of whether the car is heading up or down the mountain. As such, the Rowland Thomas always took the tracks on the north side (the left side when viewed from this direction), while the Elizur Holyoke always took the south side.

To achieve this, the two cars had different wheel arrangements. The wheels on one side of the car had a wider tread than on the other side, which caused them to be guided along deflector rails onto the correct track. For the Rowland Thomas, these wide-tread wheels were on the left side when it was headed uphill, and for the Elizur Holyoke they were on the right side. On the same side as these wheels, each car also had an extra set of wheels that were slightly raised above the others and hung out about 15 inches from the main wheels. Because the turnout required gaps in the main rail to allow the cable to pass through, there was a short section of rail next to these gaps. As the main wheels approached the gap, the auxiliary wheels would roll along this additional rail, preventing what would otherwise be a derailment.

Work on the railroad began in March 1897, and it was completed in time for the summer season, opening on May 25. It operated throughout the summer and into the fall foliage season, before closing for the winter at the end of October. Round trip fare was 25 cents, and included the trolley ride along with use of the Summit House. The trolleys were scheduled to run twice an hour, with extra trips as needed. However, by September this schedule was insufficient to keep up with demand, as indicated by a Springfield Republican article that criticized the railroad for dangerously overcrowded trolleys.

During the early years of the railroad, perhaps its most distinguished passenger was President William McKinley, who visited Mount Tom along with his wife Ida on June 19, 1899. A number of onlookers gathered at the lower station to catch a glimpse of the president, who sat in the front seat of the Elizur Holyoke trolley for the ride up the mountain. At the summit, he and Ida were likewise greeted by a large crowd, and they spent about an hour there, where they ate a light lunch at Summit House before heading back down the mountain.

As it turned out, the McKinleys would be the first of at least two presidential couples who would travel up the Mount Tom Railroad. About five years later, a young Calvin Coolidge and Grace Goodhue visited the mountain on a date. At the time, Calvin was a lawyer in Northampton and Grace was a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf. While at the Summit House, he purchased a souvenir plaque of the mountain, which became the first gift he ever gave her. They subsequently married in 1905, and he went on to become governor, vice president, and then ultimately president in 1923.

In the meantime, the original Summit House only lasted for a few years before being destroyed by a fire in 1900. Its replacement opened the following year, but this too would eventually burn, in 1929. By contrast, the Mount Tom Railroad itself appears to have avoided any major incidents throughout its history. However, there were occasional breakdowns that forced passengers to walk down the mountain, and in at least one instance causing a number of people to spend the night in makeshift accommodations at the Summit House.

On July 24, 1928, at around 9:15pm, the Rowland Thomas had to stop about 150 feet from the upper station because of a broken journal on one of its axles. This likewise caused the Elizur Holyoke to stop the same distance from the lower station. The passengers on the Elizur Holyoke were able to easily return to the station, but about 50 people were  stranded at the summit. Many chose to walk down the mountain in the dark, guided by railroad employees with lanterns, but 22 remained at the Summit House overnight. Some stayed up all night, playing bridge and dancing, and most descended the mountain after sunrise, although four guests stayed at the summit until railroad service was restored later in the day. A similar incident occurred less than a month later, when a spread rail stopped the trolleys at about 9:00pm. This time, 35 people walked down in the dark, but it does not appear that anyone spent the night at the summit.

After the 1929 fire at the Summit House, the railroad quickly constructed a temporary replacement at the summit. It had intended to then build a more permanent structure, but by the early 1930s the mountain faced declining numbers of visitors. Part of this was because of the Great Depression, which began just months after the fire here. Another factor was increased car ownership among the middle class, which meant that recreational activities were no longer limited to places that people could access by trolley.

At the base of the mountain, Mountain Park would remain a popular amusement park for decades, but both the Mount Tom Railroad and the Summit House closed in the late 1930s. The temporary Summit House was dismantled for scrap metal in 1938, and around the same time the railroad tracks were taken up and removed. The rails and other metal components were presumably reused or scrapped, but the wooden ties were discarded in piles alongside the right-of-way. More than 80 years later, many of these ties are still in remarkably good condition, and a few are visible in the lower right corner of the second photo.

The railroad ultimately sold the summit area and the right-of-way to the WHYN radio station, which constructed radio towers and transmitter buildings on the site of the old Summit House. The old railroad grade was paved over, and it became an access road for the radio station. As a result, the present-day scene looks very different from the first photo, although there are still a few remnants of the old railroad, including the ties, some discarded spikes, and metal support braces for the old utility poles that once supported the electrified trolley wire.