A Catskill Catalog: Dec. 9, 2009
The Queen of the Catskills was Stamford, New York. At least that’s what her boosters proclaimed during that Delaware County village’s “Grand Hotel Era:” roughly from the arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s until World War II.
It is always difficult to define the Catskills in precise borders, but many observers consider Mount Utsayantha to be the mountains’ northwest corner. At 3,214 feet, it’s the northernmost and westernmost Catskill peak exceeding 3,000 feet in elevation. The West Branch of the Delaware runs in a lazy southwestern flow by its western slope, providing the western boundary for the old Hardenbergh Patent. The Village of Stamford sits snugly at Mount Utsayantha’s feet.
The Ulster and Delaware Railroad came to Stamford in December 1872, bringing a telegraph line along with it. Modern transportation and communication made the transformation of the sleepy agricultural village possible. Dr. Stephen E. Churchill made it happen.
What was it about 19th-Century physicians that has made them so instrumental in the development of the Catskills? In the 1840s, Dr. Orson M. Allaben envisioned a thriving commercial center on the Delaware’s East Branch, leading and guiding the establishment of Margaretville. Now, in the 1870s, Dr. Stephen E. Churchill envisioned a thriving resort community on the river’s West Branch.
Dr. Churchill’s vision was a village of splendid homes and gracious hotels, dedicated to the relaxation and pampering of wealthy summer guests who’d arrive in Stamford on the U & D, attracted by the clean air and romantic allure of the mountains, the elegance of the accommodations, and the self-reflected glow of each other’s well-turned-out prosperity.
He built Churchill Hall, first of the great hotels, opened Fourth of July 1883 on the south side of the village’s Main Street. Spacious and luxurious, Churchill Hall grew to be a complex of four buildings connected by a web of porches and piazzas.
Food has always been a major part the Catskill resort experience, and Churchill Hall was famous for the abundance of its table. A Monday dinner, served at midday in the copious dining room, began with beef soup or clam puree, then a fish course of boiled salmon in mayonnaise. Diners would then choose or combine, boiled mutton, corned beef, or ham with roast ribs of beef, roast spring chicken, turkey, or spring lamb, adding entrees like chicken curry and breast of lamb with tomato sauce. Three different preparations of potatoes were served, along with stewed tomatoes and green corn. Chicken and lobster salads were available, accompanied by a full array of relishes, followed by pastries, pies, puddings, and ice cream, topped off with fruit and nuts. Whew. I’m full just writing it!
Dr. Churchill built his second hotel, The Rexmere, for a clientele that wanted even more luxury. Opened in 1898, The Rexmere boasted the latest in ultra-modern conveniences: bathrooms, electricity, an elevator, and a view from every room. The staff, from chefs to bellhops, were hired from the best New York City hotels. Everything was designed to exude refinement and elegance: the life-sized bronze lions on either side of the front door, the Sunday evening classical concerts, the social director who catered to a guest’s every need.
The Rexmere soon became the place to be. Each season, the hotel was sold out, accommodating 350 well-heeled guests in the lap of mountain luxury. Shakespearian actress Julia Marlowe and airplane innovator Glenn Curtis were guests. Rabbi Stephen Wise, founder of American Reform Judaism, stayed at the Rexmere. Olympic gold-medalist and future movie Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, was the hotel’s swimming instructor from 1926 to 1929.
Every August, Miss Catskill Mountain was selected from contestants in an annual beauty pageant, covered in the New York papers, as were The Rexmere’s water ballets and glittering social events.
Dr. Churchill, something of a small d democrat, opened the Rexmere swimming pool to anyone who wanted to swim. There were limits, however. The daily fifty-cent charge to non-hotel guests probably kept out all but the most prosperous - and “respectable” - locals.
In the early 1890s, 12 other hotels were built in Stamford. By the mid 20th Century, 32 hotels welcomed summer boarders. The Hotel Cubana and The Perla de Cuba catered exclusively to wealthy Cubans and South Americans who summered in Stamford.
Mount Utsayantha became one of Stamford’s most important tourist attractions. In 1882, Colonel Rulif Ruliffson built a road up the side of the mountain and an observation tower at the top. Hiking to the summit – or driving up – became a Stamford thing to do. A bubbling spring provided the healthful elixir of mountain-pure water. A picnic ground with a view provided a pleasure spot to eat the lunch hotel staffs happily packed for their guests.
In 1936, a memorial was erected to mark the grave of a legendary native princess said to have died for love on the mountain peak. Princess Utsayantha was good for business, and business probably needed a boost in the late ’30s. Hotel tourism entered a terminal decline with the onset of World War II.
Dr. Churchill died in 1917. His hotels operated successfully under new owners until 1942. In the 1960s, the Rexmere housed the local BOCES and The Rural Supplementary Educational Center.
Perhaps, that grave of Princess Utsayantha marks a kind of resting place for the once proud Queen of the Catskills. Stamford had quite a run.