A Catskill Catalog: Sept. 2, 2009

It must be that vacations became a part of the American scene in the prosperous years after the Civil War, or at least the idea of grand vacations seems to have been invented then. The American economy was growing in great leaps of railroad building, and the railroad corporations saw both market opportunity and investment security in the construction of grand hotels conveniently located at the end of their rail lines.
Market opportunity because destination hotels drew customers to the railroad. Investment security because – well, just think of playing Parker Brothers’ Monopoly. A hotel increases real estate’s value whether on Park Place or Monka Hill.
The Grand Hotel opened on the summit of Monka Hill, on what we now call Highmount, in 1881, with great fanfare and great expectations. It was a time of expansive hotel building in the Catskills. Up at North-South Lake, the new Hotel Katterskill had just opened to compete with the venerable Catskill Mountain House, then in its 60th-year in business providing gracious mountain lodging to well-heeled guests from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
Google Grand Hotel today, and the first thing that comes up is the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island, Michigan, which opened in 1886 and is still going strong. This Grand Hotel is a U.S. Department of Interior designated National Historic Landmark listed by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of the best hotels in the world. It, too, was originally built by a railroad company.
Our Grand Hotel opened for business with a Grand Opening Ball on July 1, 1881. The three-story structure featured four mansard-style turrets, and a front veranda that ran the considerable length of the building, providing panoramic views of the mountains that stretched out below.
One of the things that made the Grand Hotel grand was the view. While the Catskill Mountain House looked out from the mountain ledge over the valley below to the Hudson, the Grand Hotel looked out at mountains, miles and miles of mountains, with Slide Mountain and its brothers, Cornell and Wittenberg, central to the vision.
If one looked from the west end of the long front porch to one’s right, the cleared pastures of Delaware County farm country were visible, making the wild mountain forests that stretched east and south even more wild and primitive-looking.
The Grand Hotel stood at an elevation of 2,235 feet. It was a short carriage ride up-hill from the train stop at the Grand Hotel Station, which was at the top of Highmount, called Summit at the time. The tracks, of course, are still there, and the stop visible beside Route 28.
The Ulster & Delaware Railroad climbed the divide between the valley of the Hudson and the valley of the Delaware in a great horseshoe curve, a curve up the sidehill that was so sharp at one point, it was said that the conductor in the caboose could shake hands with the engineer in the locomotive. An exaggeration, but a colorful image that conveys the full sweep of the horseshoe.
The Grand Hotel was modeled on Coney Island’s Oriental Hotel, a favorite late 19th-century seaside retreat for Boston society types. That structure has since burned down. Interestingly, Michigan’s Grand Hotel is very similar in design, a long wooden structure with a building-length front porch, towers and pillars and turrets.
In the Catskills, fresh clean natural spring water has always been an attraction and the Grand Hotel made water one of its principal drawing cards. Its Diamond Spring was named to connote clarity and richness. A marble fountain was the focal point of the hotel Rotunda. In it, Diamond Spring water lapped and gurgled invitingly day and night. The purity of the mountain water was claimed to restore kidney function and aid digestion. Good health awaited the Grand Hotel’s guests.
As did bowling and tennis, modern plumbing and gaslights, and beverages perhaps a tad less healthful than water. The Grand Hotel was known for its rolling barroom. The building was built straddling the boundary between Ulster County’s Town of Shandaken and Delaware County’s Town of Middletown. Liquor was a controversial issue in the years heading up to Prohibition. Denial of a liquor license, then a town prerogative, might occur any year, depending on how the local political winds were blowing.
The owners of the Grand Hotel had a grand solution. When selling alcohol by the drink was disallowed by Shandaken authorities, they simply moved the bar to the other end of the building in Middletown, and vice-versa when it went the other way.
Folks who have been around here a while have told me about going up to the Grand Hotel on a Saturday night to dance or just to gawk at the elegant clientele who continued to stay there into the 1950s. At one point, the Tisch family, today part owners of the New York Giants, owned it. The Grand Hotel closed in 1966.
Today, the long-closed Owl’s Nest Restaurant stands where the Grand Hotel once stood. The stonework that terraced the landscape at the entrance to the Grand Hotel still terraces the landscape at the front of the Owl’s Nest. Its workmanship is so precise, the stonewalls look like they were built 20 years ago.
Actually, those stonewalls have been there for a hundred years. They’re still grand.
© William Birns