A Catskill Catalog: June 4, 2008

I discovered the Catskill Turnpike quite by accident. I had passed it countless times on the way to Oneonta, making a straight crossroad junction with Route 28 about eight miles north of Delhi at the top of Meredith Hill. For years, of course, there were no road signs, so when that seemingly anonymous crossroad finally did get identified with a green sign, and it turned out to be named Catskill Turnpike, it took a while for it to register.
“Catskill Turnpike,” I remember thinking, when I finally did notice. “That can’t possibly go all the way to Catskill.”
It can. And does, and goes all the way past Franklin in the other direction, and it turns out the Catskill Turnpike has quite a history. Called the Susquehanna Turnpike at the other end, the road was built by a private company in 1800, and for the first 25 years of the 19th century was the major way west for New Englanders seeking land in central New York, western Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Valley.
Turn right at Meredith off Route 28 onto the old turnpike and be transported to an earlier day. The first thing you notice is how remarkably straight the road is, more like a road in Indiana or Iowa, rolling up and down with the contour of the land while traveling dead-ahead straight from point A to point B. The mountains don’t allow for such precise direction for more than a half-mile or so before a turn is required, but the old road is remarkably straight for those of us used to driving curving mountain roads.
Early road building in the new American republic was heavily influenced by the Roman system of road construction. Americans looked to the historical Roman Republic as the model for the new American Republic to emulate, and road building was one of the great accomplishments of ancient Rome. Roman roads are still in use, I’m told, and the Roman way was as-the-crow-flies, straight ahead, fit-road-to-terrain not a consideration.
The New York stockholders of the 1800 Susquehanna Turnpike Corporation wanted their road built quickly, taking the most direct route to the Susquehanna River. Think of early roads in America as long portage routes between rivers, the major avenues of travel through the wilderness. Wattles Ferry, in present-day Unadilla, was the port on the Susquehanna, from which travelers could either cross to the lands of central New York, or float down into Pennsylvania, perhaps to another portage to the Alleghany River to float into Ohio.
From Meredith, the road travels east through some beautiful farmland, with farms still in production, as well as time-capsule ruins of farms, prosperous a century or two ago on a major through-route. The road passes in front of the West Kortright Center, the country church turned performing arts center whose middle-of-nowhere location now makes sense to me on the old turnpike. Turnpike Road soon merges for a bit with Elk Creek Road, separates, then merges with county Route 33, the Bloomville-West Harpersfield Road, before it joins state Route 23 at Harpersfield, following the state road through Stamford.
The Catskill Turnpike served 19th-century Catskill Mountain farmers as a major thoroughfare for the transport of their goods to market. The corporation that built and operated the turnpike charged tolls for “every score of sheep, or, hogs, cattle, horses, or mules” in the early years. Farmers would use it to drive livestock to the Hudson and to cart butter, grain, and other produce. The New York market was merely a river sloop journey from Catskill.
Dorothy Kubik has written a comprehensive history of the turnpike, West Through the Catskills: The Story of the Susquehanna Turnpike (Purple Mountain Press, 2001). In it, she quotes from the diary of New Kingston farmer James Thompson, who wrote of his 1839 selling trip to New York City, a twice-yearly event in the lives of many early Catskill Mountain farmers. The entire trip took 10 days. Thompson might have traveled over Bovina and Warren mountains to pick up the turnpike at Stamford.
From Stamford, the old turnpike leaves state Route 23, bearing left onto South Gilboa Road, county Route 14. You’ll climb the ridge north of 23, and once again find yourself traveling at an elevation, rather than along the river valleys -the easier, more favored routes for road building once the state got into the act.
You’ll gradually come down off the hill to Route 30, the other side of Grand Gorge up toward Mine Kill Falls.
There, the turnpike once went straight, but now is cut off by the Schoharie Reservoir. Turn left onto Route 30, right onto state Route 990V, drive by the Gilboa school and Gilboa dam, through West Conesville and Conesville to Manorkill, where you take a right onto Durham Road which takes you over Durham Mountain to state Route 145.
Route145 is a straight shot along the old turnpike route, then take a left onto the modern four lane highway that is Route 23 approaching Catskill, bear left onto 23B, and follow that through South Cairo, and Leeds, into Catskill village. If you keep yourself on the old road snug along the Catskill Creek, you’ll reach the restored 19th century freight terminal on the Hudson that was the beginning of the Susquehanna Turnpike, and the end of the Catskill Turnpike that I first came upon 60-something miles away up in Meredith.