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 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

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.