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 1941 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.

Crawford Notch, Carroll, New Hampshire (2)

The view looking south toward Crawford Notch in New Hampshire, as painted by Thomas Cole in 1839. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The scene in 1841, photographed by Dr. Samuel A. Bemis. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The scene around 1890-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2020:

This view is similar to the one in the previous post, although this one is a little further to the south, showing a closer view of the dramatic gap in the mountains at Crawford Notch. It is a view that has long captivated artists and photographers, as shown by the many different images here. This particular angle looks south through what are known as the gates of Crawford Notch, the narrowest point in the mountain pass. Barely 20 feet wide when discovered by European colonists in 1771, it has subsequently been widened to accommodate road and rail traffic, but it still retains much of the same appearance, with the steep cliffs on either side and the slopes of Mount Webster looming in the background. On the left side of the notch is an exposed rock formation known as Elephant Head, due to its somewhat vague resemblance to the head and upper trunk of an elephant.

The first image here is a painting of Crawford Notch by prominent landscape artist Thomas Cole. He is generally regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an artistic movement that emphasized the natural beauty of the American landscape. Cole typically used his artwork to convey the power of nature, and this painting features several of his common motifs, including gnarled trees, ominous storm clouds, and a small human figure that is barely noticeable amid the surrounding landscape. Perhaps the most foreboding element is the dense fog in the valley beyond the notch, giving a sense that the notch is a sort of passage to another world.

Thomas Cole made several visits to the White Mountains, including one in the summer of 1839, accompanied by fellow artist Asher Durand. While here, he sketched this view of Crawford Notch, and he painted this painting after returning to his home in Catskill, New York. Titled A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch), it was commissioned by Rufus L. Lord, who paid Cole $500 for the finished work. It is now regarded as one of Cole’s finest American landscapes, and it is currently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The second image here is a daguerreotype taken in 1841, just two years after Cole’s visit. It is the oldest photograph that I have featured on this blog, and among the earliest photographs to be taken in the United States, just a few years after Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype process. The photographer was Dr. Samuel A. Bemis, a Boston dentist who became one of the first photographer in the country. He began taking photographs in 1840, but evidently abandoned the hobby around 1843, leaving behind a relatively small number of photographs, most of which are poorly exposed. However, his works include the earliest photographic images of the White Mountains, many of which were taken in and around Crawford Notch.

This particular photograph shows nearly the same scene that Thomas Cole had painted two years earlier, although Bemis was a little closer to the notch than Cole was when he sketched the view. On the left side is the Notch House, which appears to be the same building shown in the distance on the left side of the painting. This inn was built in 1828 by Ethan Allen Crawford, and it was operated by his brother Thomas. From here, visitors could ascend to the summit of Mount Washington by way of the 8.5-mile Crawford Path, which Ethan Allen Crawford and his father Abel had cut in 1819.

In 1845, a few years after the photo was taken, the Notch House was expanded with a new addition. The attic was also converted into rooms, giving the inn a capacity of 75 guests. Then, around 1850 Thomas Crawford decided to build a new hotel nearby, just a little to the north of here. However, he ran into financial trouble and ended up having to sell the partially-completed hotel in December 1850. The hotel was finished under the new ownership, and it was named the Crawford House, with Joseph L. Gibbs as its manager. With this new, modern hotel nearby, the old Notch House quickly faded into obscurity. It was used occasionally for overflow accommodations, but it was ultimately destroyed by a fire in June 1854.

The Crawford House ultimately suffered a similar fate when it burned in 1859, but it was quickly rebuilt on the same site and stood there for well over a century, until it too was destroyed by fire in 1977. By the time the third image was taken of Crawford Notch in the 1890s, it was a popular resort destination. The hotel was located about a quarter mile behind where this photo was taken, so it is not visible in this scene, but there are other signs of changes here in the 1890s photo, particularly the railroad. In the 1841 image, the Notch House would have been accessible only by stagecoach, but in 1875 the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad opened through the notch, making it much easier for tourists to visit the area.

Today, nearly two centuries after Thomas Cole painted Crawford Notch, the foreground of this scene has undergone substantial changes. Cole himself hinted at some of these impending changes with the cleared ground and tree stumps, but he probably did not anticipate that a railroad would one day be built through here, or that the rough stagecoach road would eventually become the modern US Route 302. However, despite these changes, the surrounding landscape has remained nearly unchanged. Cole did embellish parts of the scene, including the prominence of Mount Webster and the narrowness of the notch, but overall the landscape is still instantly recognizable from the painting, and Crawford Notch remains one of the most impressive natural features in the White Mountains.

The Oxbow from Mount Holyoke, Hadley Mass

The view looking southwest from the Mount Holyoke Summit House around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2015:

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This scene from the summit of Mount Holyoke was made famous in 1836 when artist Thomas Cole painted “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm,” a work also known as “The Oxbow” because of the prominent meander in the river.  Cole’s depiction of the scene is below:

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The top of Mount Holyoke has long been a sightseeing destination, starting even before Cole’s 1830s visit.  In 1821, a small cabin was built at the summit, which was replaced in 1851 by a much larger hotel, which still stands today.  The 2015 photo, and presumably the 1900 photo, were both taken from the porch that surrounds the building, and they reveal some of the changes that have occurred in the landscape over the past 115 years.  However, probably the most obvious change here occurred long before the first photo was taken, and not long after Thomas Cole painted his famous work.  In 1840, a flood broke through the narrow neck, giving the Connecticut River a more direct route downstream and turning the former riverbed into a lake.  It also made travel easier; traffic no longer had to follow the meandering river, and the 1900 scene shows the railroad tracks that had been built across what was once the river.  Today, Route 5 parallels the railroad tracks, and Interstate 91 crosses the Oxbow just a little further to the west.

When the 1900 photo was taken, the Oxbow played an important role in river commerce as a holding place for logs that were floated downstream.  Each spring in the late 1800s and early 1900s, logs from upstream in Vermont and New Hampshire would be floated down the river to the paper mills in Holyoke.  Since it is just a short distance upstream of Holyoke, the Oxbow made for a convenient holding place away from the main channel of the river.  The last such log drive occurred in 1915, and since then it has been used primarily for pleasure boats, with the Oxbow Marina located on the inside of the curve.  There are no dams between Holyoke to the south and Turners Falls to the north, so this section is one of the busiest on the Connecticut River for recreational boating.