A Catskill Catalog: September 14, 2011

The Catskills, geologically, are an upland plateau, cut up, by erosion, into peaks and valleys. A plateau rises steeply on one side, maintains high elevation, and slopes gradually into the lands that surround it.

That’s our mountains, which rise dramatically from the Hudson River Valley, reach full height in western Greene and Ulster counties, and slope elegantly downhill from the heights of the Delaware River feeder streams in the west.

It’s easy to see where the mountains begin. Driving in from Kingston or Catskill, we see the mountain heights arrayed before us, the Catskill Mural Front, an iconic image, “swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country,” as Washington Irving wrote.

The rise in elevation is dramatic, quickly rising, west of the Hudson, to 2,000 feet, with peaks reaching over 3,500 feet above sea level. But, on the west slope, where Delaware waters begin, the mountains extend westward into the high ground beyond, melting into the Allegheny southern tier of New York, the Poconos of Pennsylvania.

The mountains have a slippery western boundary. The West Branch of the Delaware seems a sensible choice, but the change in terrain is so subtle west of Walton and Delhi and Stamford, that the whole thing is open to interpretation.

In fact, the very identity and extent of the Catskills has always been open to interpretation. Forty years ago, many folks west of Highmount thought of themselves as living in the Upper Delaware Valley, rather than in the Catskills. The construction of the Pepacton Reservoir, in the ’50s, destroyed the most picturesque portions of that valley. Maybe, then, west-slope identification with the Catskills began to make sense.

When Washington Irving described the Catskills in Rip Van Winkle, he had in mind the mountains as they rise from the Hudson, the high ridge that extends north and south above the river port at Catskill. For decades, Charles Beach jealously guarded the Catskills’ name as a kind of extra-legal trademark for the Mountaintop Region around his Catskill Mountain House, today’s North-South Lake State Park. Mountains to the west were the Shandakens.

The Ulster and Delaware Railroad’s 1881 construction of the Grand Hotel at Highmount extended the Catskills’ brand west. Nobody wanted to spend Catskill-Mountain-House rates to stay in the Shandakens!

In 1886, Princeton geologist Arnold Henry Guyot confirmed that Slide Mountain rises higher than any peak in the eastern Catskills. The Catskills had successfully moved westward.
In the ’40s and ’50s, the heyday of the Sullivan County borscht belt extended the Catskills south into Sullivan County, some of it quite flat.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty wanted no part of the Catskills as a region. In 1964, the Appalachian Regional Commission was established to aid impoverished mountain people. There were plenty in the Catskills, but the commission was organized on a county-by-county basis, and not all counties in the Catskill Region qualified.
Significant parts of Ulster and Greene counties are in the Hudson Valley, more suburban and prosperous than their back-county mountain towns. Hudson River access, historically, has provided those counties ready commercial and cultural intercourse with the rest of the state.

Delaware and Schoharie counties don’t benefit from that riverfront access. Folks here tended, historically, to be more isolated and self-sufficient, with less opportunity to connect to the larger economy and culture.

Thus, Delaware and Schoharie counties were included in the federally defined Appalachian Region, along with Carbon County, Pennsylvania; Lincoln County, West Virginia; Jackson County, Kentucky; Clay County, Tennessee; and, literally, hundreds of other counties in 13 states, up and down the Appalachian Mountain chain.

The idea of the Catskills as a region is important to my thinking, but, maybe, sometimes, it gets in the way of a more subtle understanding of where I live. Delaware and Schoharie counties are in Appalachia. By law. We can each look around for observable fact.

The Appalachian Regional Commission is still in business. Among its specific purposes are these: “Increase job opportunities and per capita income in Appalachia to reach parity with the nation.
Strengthen the capacity of the people of Appalachia to compete in the global economy.”
“Reach parity with the nation,” clearly means we’re not there yet. “Strengthen capacity to compete,” needed a shot-in-the-arm before any natural disaster.
The Appalachian Regional Commission lists the economies of Delaware and Schoharie counties as, “Transitional… transitioning between strong and weak economies.” Doesn’t make it clear which way the transition is moving.

But, perhaps, we’re fortunate. The economies of those three counties I named in southern Appalachia are “distressed,” among the poorest 10 percent of counties nationwide.
Still, it’s sobering to be reminded that our part of the Catskills is part of that same Appalachia.
© William Birns