A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 13, 2010
In the Roxbury Public Library hangs a photograph of that village taken in the early years of the last century. When I first saw it, a couple years ago, I couldn’t figure it out: it looked backwards to me, or, more specifically, it looked inside out. Where was the tree-lined street? Where were the stately front porches along the main drag?
Aha! I got it, after a few minutes of careful study and winding-my-way-out-of-confusion thought: the entrance to Roxbury in them-there days was not the street but the railroad. The photo confused me because the hundred years, or so, between my time and the time the photograph was taken, had changed the perspective, the frame of reference, through which we view the village.
In the photograph, Roxbury was a lovely, stately village on the Ulster and Delaware Railroad. Today, Roxbury is a beautiful, tree-lined village on Route 30. Perspective changed.
The automobile did that.
In my lifetime, there have always been cars. I remember, from childhood, my father’s Pontiacs, traded-in every three years. Oh, sure, I’m old enough to have marked the change between one car per family to our more current one car per family member over 16, but cars, as far as my experience goes, have always been around.
Of course, that’s not true. Go back a hundred years and the automobile was something new, and rare. Clarke Sanford was the first to own a car in Margaretville. The longtime publisher of the Catskill Mountain News later became the local agent for Chevrolet.
“The automobile craze hit me hard.” Clarke Sanford wrote in the 1963 Centennial edition of this paper. “I dreamed, talked, thought automobile. I read in the New York Herald of a Pope-Toledo car for sale in New York for $300.
I gathered that amount of cash in 1907 and bought the car. The man who sold it told me it would not run faster than 12 miles per hour. This was more than double horse time. I bought the car, had it sent to Kingston by boat, then driven here.”
Old-timers, years ago, told me how they remembered Clarke driving that first car into town.
Selling automobiles was a growth industry in the first half of the 20th Century, with automotive agencies popping up in many of the small towns of the Catskills.
When I arrived in the Mountains, Bernie and Harold Ladenheim sold Chevies on Main Street in Margaretville. Sam Craft had the Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealership across the street. Andre Buick had closed down just a few years earlier.
Jim Todd was the Ford dealer in Fleischmanns. Over in Delhi, you could buy a Pontiac – just like Dad – at Wickham’s, a Buick at R.H. Lewis, or a Chrysler at Hamilton’s. There were new car dealers in Walton and Grand Gorge, plenty nearby to pick from.
Automobiles weren’t merely for transportation in their early years. Motoring was a new and exciting pastime, something of a participant sport. The American Automobile Association was founded by motoring enthusiasts in 1903. The AAA lobbied for the construction and maintenance of good roads, for legislation favorable to motorists, and for “sportsmanlike contests and reliable records.”
Motoring was fun! And competitive.
The 1907 Automobile Blue Book provided motorists with directions for numerous auto trips throughout the northeastern United States and Canada.
One was from Kingston to Binghamton, “a complete thoroughfare across the Catskill Mountains, via Phoenicia, Arkville, and Delhi. Roads on this run vary from new state macadam to narrow and rough mountain highways; in good weather the trip is not difficult, and the scenery is superb.”
One started out in Kingston, following Washington Avenue across two railroad grade crossings, then a bridge over the Esopus, to a five-mile-long flagstone road “(deep-worn ruts; very bad)” through Stony Clove, the narrow hollow dominated, today, by the Kings Town Stone Quarry. Seven miles out of Kingston at West Hurley, the road improves, carrying the motorist on “unexcelled state road” to Beechford, just west of today’s Boiceville, and The Corners, Mount Tremper today.
Macadam roads, in those days, were compacted layers of small stones cemented into a hard surface by means of stone dust and water. They were smoother than flagstone or cobblestone, but kicked up a lot of dust. Motorists wore goggles, gloves and duster-coats to protect themselves from that dust. One dressed for motoring, like any sport.
That same good road carried the motorist through Phoenicia and Allaben and Shandaken to Pine Hill. A curving right upgrade took the motorist past Summit, Highmount today, with the Grand Hotel on the right, down through Griffin Corners and Fleischmanns, separated from each other by less than a mile, to Arkville.
Beyond Arkville, the road west toward Binghamton became “hilly and rough. Many prefer to turn north through Roxbury and Grand Gorge, joining there the Catskill-Oneonta-Binghamton route.” The speed limit in New York State in 1907 was 15 mph, so going on to Binghamton meant another six or seven hours of dusty driving.
Better to get a room in one of the many hotels, boarding houses, and tourist homes around Arkville. A good ending to a nice drive.