A Catskill Catalog: June 13, 2012

When the dam rose at Downsville, and Delaware River waters backed-up to flood the entire upper East Branch valley (more than 20-miles of prime, productive riverfront land) it seemed that every farm on the river was owned by a family descended from a soldier of the Revolutionary War.
That’s how long those folks had been there. Since the founding of the Republic. No wonder that taking still rankles among displaced survivors of a certain age.

For the rest of us, long land-tenure on the upper Delaware reminds us just how fertile and sustaining those bottom lands were. Pioneers made their way to the Delaware Valley in the years surrounding Independence, settled those riverfront parcels first, and hung on to them. Took a city of millions to wash them away.

By the time of the Revolution, colonial New York had outgrown its Dutch roots, boasting a population of “a mixed and enterprising people.” In 1749, in Ulster County, people of African descent made up 20 percent of the population. Increased European and New England migration into up-colony New York reduced that figure to 14 percent by 1771.

Scots Highlanders, Ulster Scots, Palatine Germans, Walloons from the Netherlands, Huguenots from France, landless sons of Connecticut farmers poured into New York, doubling the population, over a mere 20 years, to 169,000 people, in 1771.

Those people settled along rivers. New York settlement grew along the Hudson, along the Delaware, and along the Susquehanna. As the frontier moved west, it moved across the mountains to the next river west.

The earliest roads made connections, between river valleys or along them. In 1703, the New York Provincial Assembly ordered the construction of a road connecting New York with the Connecticut River Valley and beyond: the Boston Post Road. On either side of the Hudson a King’s Highway, completed in the 1740s, connected communities along the river. The Old Mine Road, today’s Route 209, connected the Hudson, at the Rondout harbor, with the Delaware River copper mines, below Port Jervis.

The Catskill Turnpike was built as a profit-making venture at the beginning of the 1800s. It connected the Hudson River port at Catskill with the Susquehanna River ferry crossing at Unadilla.
So, I may think of myself as living in the Catskills, with the Vly Creek and Emory Brook, streams that flow nearby, my mountain streams. Maybe Melvin, the man who lived here a generation ago, thought of himself as living in the Upper Delaware, his valley shaped by those feeder streams that merged, just below here, to form a most impressive river.

Where I see mountains, perhaps he saw river valley. Maybe it all depends on perspective.
Around the turn to the 20th century, Margaretville had paddleboats on the Binnekill. A few years later, entrepreneurs in Fleischmanns dammed the Vly Creek to create Lake Switzerland, a picturesque mountain lake where couples wooed in rowboats at twilight.

Am I overly optimistic to think that recreational boating on our Pepacton Reservoir might be (dare I say it) a game-changer? Kayaks and canoes might return the Delaware River, and the Delaware River’s impounded-lake, to their rightful place in our conceptual landscape.
From the air, the Pepacton Reservoir and Belleayre Ski Center are both visually stunning. They are both now open for public recreation. Who sits between the two?
Would Lake Placid be Lake Placid without Mirror Lake right there? Mount Placid just doesn’t offer as much.

The original Catskills resort region was limited to the mountain ridge overlooking the Hudson: the “Pine Orchard, a high plateau-like area between two peaks that included two lakes and large rock platforms that protruded beyond the edge of the mountain and provided the foundations of the Catskill Mountain House.”

Founded in 1823 on the site of today’s North-South Lake state campground, the Catskill Mountain House was the original resort hotel, the one that set the pattern for mountain vacations for, literally, a century-and-a-half.

Peaks and lakes. Mountains and water. Hiking trails and rowboats. That was the old Catskill Mountain House formula. In 2012, we got the water back.
billbirns@gmail.com