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.

Rip Van Winkle House, Catskill, New York

The Rip Van Winkle House on Mountain House Road in Catskill, around 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The northeastern United States is home to a number of different mountain ranges that form the northern portion of the Appalachians. Colonial-era settlers knew of these mountains, but generally did not place much emphasis on them. Instead, these mountains were often seen through purely practical terms, as poor farmland, barriers to transportation, and places of refuge for wild animals. However, these attitudes began to change by the early 19th century, and many Americans began to appreciate mountains for their untamed natural beauty, in contrast to the rapidly-growing industrial cities of the northeast.

Writers and artists of the period also drew inspiration from the mountains, particularly the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Catskills here in New York. One of these early works was “Rip Van Winkle,” an 1819 short story by Washington Irving. Set in the pre-revolutionary period, it tells the story of Rip, who goes for a hike in the Catskills to escape his nagging wife. While in the mountains, he encounters the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew, who offer him liquor. He drinks and falls into a deep sleep, only to awaken 20 years later. Upon returning home, he finds that his wife is dead and society has been transformed by the American Revolution.

In the story, the narrator describes the place where Rip falls asleep as being “a hollow, like a small amphitheatre, surrounded by perpendicular precipices, over the brinks of which impending trees shot their branches, so that you only caught glimpses of the azure sky and the bright evening cloud.” Irving had never actually been to the Catskills when he wrote the story, so the setting was not based on any specific location, but it did not take long for at least one enterprising individual to capitalize on the story’s fame.

In 1824, the Catskill Mountain House was built on a ledge along the Catskill Escarpment, overlooking the Hudson River Valley. Travelers reached it by way of a carriage road that connected it to the town of Catskill. Along the way, the road passed through this ravine, where it made a U-shaped turn and crossed this brook before heading further up the slope toward the Mountain House. The geography of this ravine resembles the one described in the story, so at some point someone opened a small cabin here, which was styled as the Rip Van Winkle House. Here, travelers could obtain refreshments for themselves and their horses on their way up the escarpment.

It seems unclear as to exactly when the Rip Van Winkle House opened here, and some sources  cite dates in the 1830s or 1840s. However, there was some sort of a structure here as early as 1826, according to a description published in the New-York Mirror in that year:

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 a point upon which I will not stake my veracity. His hut is in a singularly romantic situation; built in a deep angle of the rock, with a perpendicular ascent of fifty feet directly above him. He keeps refreshment or travellers, and is supplied with water by a spout which is laid from his window to a spring in the rock behind him.

This original “shantey” was still standing when the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, but by this point it had been joined by a second building, which had been constructed in the late 1860s. This new building was a boarding house, with rates of $10 per week in 1869. It was hardly an opulent hotel, especially when compared to the much larger Catskill Mountain House two miles away, but the intent seems to have been to generate business based on this site’s purported connection to the story. At some point, the owner painted “Rip’s Rock” on a nearby boulder, claiming it to be the spot where Rip slept for 20 years, and this ravine took on the name of Sleepy Hollow, further connecting it to Washington Irving’s literature.

The Rip Van Winkle House remained in business throughout the rest of the 19th century, but it began to decline after 1892, with the opening of the Otis Elevating Railway. This funicular railway provided a direct connection to the Mountain House, eliminating the need for a long stagecoach ride up winding mountain roads. This meant far less business for the Rip Van Winkle House, which ultimately closed shortly after the first photo was taken. The buildings remained vacant for many years afterwards, before finally burning around 1918.

Today, some 120 years after the first photo was taken, the old stagecoach road is still here. Now primarily used by hikers and snowmobilers, it still follows the same route that 19th century visitors to the Mountain House would have taken up the mountain. Here at the site of the Rip Van Winkle House, the buildings have been gone for over a century, but there are still some remnants, including the stone foundations. Aside from the loss of the buildings, though, this scene is not significantly different from the first photo. This remains a quiet, secluded spot partway up the escarpment, and it is an ideal place to stop and rest alongside the stream, although perhaps not for as long as 20 years.