A Catskill Catalog: Dec. 17, 2008

Mention the Catskills to someone from somewhere else and, often, they think first of the Sullivan County Borscht Belt. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the big hotels down by Monticello and Liberty seemed to be the epicenter of the mountains. Yet, the Sullivan County Catskills seem downright “hilly” to residents of the high peaks. One of my sons came home, one time, from college complaining of a classmate from Monticello who claimed the Catskills as home. “That’s not the Catskills,” he sneered, defensive of his home turf.
Yet, just a couple of generations before, my son’s own claim to Catskill Mountain residence would have been challenged and denied by conventional geographic thinking. For the first hundred years of American independence, the Catskills Mountains were understood to be only that range of high peaks extending back from the escarpment that rises from the Hudson at North and South Lake, the Mountaintop of Haines Falls, Hunter, Windham, and Tannersville.
The Catskills were limited to the Mountaintop for economic as well as geographic reasons. Charles L. Beach was the proprietor of the first great resort hotel in America, the Catskill Mountain House, built on the escarpment in the 1820s. From its Pine Orchard location a couple thousand feet above the Hudson River, the Mountain House commanded a magnificent view. “If you want to see the sights of America, go to see Niagara Falls, Lake George and the Catskill Mountain House,” the writer James Fenimore Cooper told his European audiences on a mid-19th century speaking tour.
Beach did not want to share his Catskills with any possible competitors. He jealously guarded his franchise, claiming an extra 750 feet or so in elevation for his hotel and insisting that the highest peaks in the mountains, the authentic Catskills, were those mountains that surrounded his hotel.
He got away with it for half a century. The mountains south and west of the Esopus Creek were called the Shandakens, a separate, and, by inference, inferior region that lacked the cachet of the Catskills, and so remained an unexplored, unheralded backwater.
Enter Arnold Henry Guyot, professor of Physical Geography and Geology at Princeton. Guyot had been surveying the southern Appalachians when the Civil War broke out. Research impossible in the south, Guyot came to New York’s mountains in the summer of 1862 with a team of surveyors. He and his team spent the next 17 summers measuring, plotting and mapping every peak, every hill.
Goyet’s 1879 “Map of the Catskill Mountains” and ensuing article in the American Journal of Science disclosed significant geologic truths. The Catskills are part of the Appalachians, although they run in the opposite direction. The Catskills extend further than previously thought, comprising the traditional northern section, and, south and west of the Esopus Creek, the southern Catskills. Most significantly, the highest peak in the Catskills was not Charles Beach’s Round Top, but Slide Mountain, formerly of the now-defunct Shandakens.
Bob Steuding tells this story and more in his new book The Heart of the Catskills (Fleischmanns, Purple Mountain Press, 2008). Bob is, perhaps, our leading Catskill Mountain writer, the heir to the late Alf Evers. An accomplished poet and historian, Bob has been the Poet Laureate of Ulster County, and is the chronicler of the Catskills south and west of the Esopus Creek.
His 1985 book The Last of the Homemede Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir (Fleischmanns, Purple Mountian Press) tells the story of the 1906 drowning of the way of life that had animated the broad Esopus Valley for a hundred years before. In this new book, Bob explores that way of life.
This is a social history of that part of the Catskills that still contains great expanses of wilderness, an area that still presents residents with everyday-living challenges. Beginning with first settlers, William and Ann Denman, Steuding traces the history by telling the stories of the people who lived that history. Tanners and bark-peelers, farmers and hunters, Steuding’s people are a fascinating lot. I’m saving Shandaken’s Jim Dutcher for a future column
A good friend of mine lives down on the Hudson near the estate of Judge Alton B. Parker, the Democratic candidate for President who ran against Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. Turns out, Judge Parker was one of the founders of the Winnisook Club, located on the little lake of the same name at the top of the divide between the Esopus and Neversink valleys, up above Oliverea.
That club was founded by a group of prominent New York Democrats. (Who knew?) Seems that William Jennings Bryan, the populist 1896 Democratic candidate for President, made an arduous and out-of-the-way journey to Winnisook shortly after he won the nomination in Chicago. Conservative New York party leaders were cool to Bryan’s candidacy, so they weren’t making this peace-making meeting easy for him, perhaps hoping he wouldn’t come. Bryan went to Winnisook, party leaders remained cool, and he never became President.
It’s all in Bob Steuding’s new book.