Three late 19th-century Catskills hostelries vied with each other to provide the most scenic — and luxurious — hideaway for the nation’s well-to-do
High and mighty: The Catskill Mountain House, long a grand retreat for the region’s wealthiest vacationers, boasted extraordinary views — and a 3,000-foot drop
Photographs from Kaaterskill Clove: Where Nature Met Art by Raymond Beecher (Black Dome Press, 2004)
It was all about the view. The stuff of Indian legend and early American folklore, the mountaintop spot that came to be known as the Pine Orchard near the town of Palenville in Greene County had been drawing sightseers eager to experience the panorama for years. What better place, reasoned a group of early 19th-century investors known as the Catskill Mountain Association, to build a hotel? Not just a hotel: a “house of entertainment,” as they envisioned it.
Even as construction of the Catskill Mountain House was under way in 1823, the popular novelist James Fenimore Cooper wrote about the spot in his Leatherstocking Tales, describing it as a place to view “all creation.” Apparently, the idea of building a hotel on this hallowed ground didn’t bother him in the least: Years later, while on a speaking tour in Europe, Cooper allegedly told his audience that the three must-see spots in the American East were Lake George, Niagara Falls, and the Mountain House (as it came to be known). Adding to the buzz, the Federal-style hotel received glowing reviews in the press, guidebooks, and gazetteers. And when Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole completed an oil painting of the hotel in 1828 — four years after it opened — its reputation was sealed.
As its fame spread, visitors from New York City and Europe made the long trip to the site by taking a combination of steamboat, train, and stagecoach rides. One year after it opened, the hotel expanded from 10 rooms to 50. In 1839, it was leased by Charles Beach, son of local stagecoach line owner Erastus Beach. After purchasing it in 1845, the younger Beach remodeled the place in the more-fashionable neoclassic style and added a wing, eventually increasing the number of rooms to 300 and offering accommodations for some 400 paying guests.
But not just any guests. “The working class didn’t go to this hotel,” says David Stradling, author of Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills (University of Washington Press). “You had to be fairly well off, in part because you had to have the time to do this. A much smaller percentage of Americans in the 19th century had weeks at a time where they were off from work.”
And to ensure that the clientele was well-to-do, prices were kept high (up to $4.50 a day, as opposed to $2 weekly for rooms in small inns). Among notable guests were Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and Oscar Wilde, who mingled with guests in the white-and-gold ballroom.
Aside from being surrounded by the rich and famous, guests with east-facing rooms had an additional perk: They could watch the sunrise from the comfort of their own quarters, then slip lazily back into bed to arise at a more civilized hour. And even though they were getting away from stifling city heat by heading into nature, guests didn’t have to give up creature comforts. Mountain House amenities included a beauty parlor, an in-house physician, a book and stationery shop, a bakery, a bowling alley, a billiard room, a resident orchestra, a solarium, a casino, and a full post office. In 1873 the hotel introduced telegraph service; Alexander Graham Bell himself attended opening ceremonies for telephone service in 1881. And when electricity came to the Mountain House soon after, a giant searchlight swept the skies to advertise this modern miracle.
But for those who couldn’t afford million-dollar sunrises, there was the Laurel House. Built in 1852 by Peter Schutt, this modest boarding house with 50 rooms charged a fraction of Mountain House rates and attracted middle-class patrons and artists. But perhaps its biggest draw was the fact that it was perched at the top of Kaaterskill Falls, which — at 260 feet — is the tallest double-tiered waterfall in New York, and among the tallest in the eastern United States.
Schutt wasted no time “improving” the falls. “Back in those days, before the Catskill Mountain Park, there were no restrictions at all on what people could acquire and build,” notes Greene County historian David Dorpfeld. Accordingly, Schutt converted a preexisting refreshment stand at the top of the falls into a café serving brandy, ice cream, and lemonade. Next he added an observation deck and a zigzagging series of staircases around the falls, as well as a pulley system to lower champagne and other refreshments to picnickers below. But his biggest feat was damming the water. “This gave Schutt control over the amount of water going over the falls and, for a small fee, the quantity would be increased to make a big splash,” says Dorpfeld. If all that wasn’t enough, the hotel would set rafts on fire at night and send them over the falls in a cascade of flames.
Like the Pine Orchard site of the Mountain House, Kaaterskill Falls came preapproved with its own reputation. Washington Irving mentions the falls in “Rip Van Winkle.” Poet William Cullen Bryant wrote about it, too. And when Thomas Cole painted the falls in the 1820s, he inspired a slew of depictions by other Hudson River School artists. It’s not surprising that the Laurel House, standing at the head of this well-known site, prospered. In the early 1800s, the hotel doubled in size, adding a new wing crowned with a cupola and more than 600 feet of piazzas.
While the Mountain House had the view and the Laurel House had the falls, the Hotel Kaaterskill, located on nearby South Mountain and erected by George Harding, had the sheer size to make it a contender.
Folklore tells us that the genesis of the hotel was the so-called “Fried Chicken War” between Mountain House owner Beach and George Harding, a Mountain House patron and leading patent attorney of his day (his clients included inventors Samuel F.B. Morse). As the story goes, while dining at the Mountain House, Harding requested some fried chicken (others say boiled) in lieu of red meat for his daughter (others say it was his wife), but was refused. Harding made a fuss, Beach was called onto the scene, and the argument ended with Beach suggesting that Harding build his own hotel.
“Rather than being upset about the meal selection, it’s more likely that Harding saw a business opportunity,” says Dorpfeld. After an eight-month building frenzy, the Hotel Kaaterskill opened in 1881, advertising that it could accommodate 612 guests. Two years later, the addition of an annex allowed the number of patrons to swell to 1,100, making it three times the size of the Mountain House. Harding spared no expense on his hotel, hiring French chefs and decorating the place with modern Eastlake furniture. The Hotel Kaaterskill quickly developed a stellar reputation. “If you wanted to be noticed and commented upon in the newspaper, you’d go there or to the Mountain House,” says Stradling.
By the early 20th century, the entire Catskill region had begun to lose much of its cache. Beach and Harding both died in 1902. Neighboring hotels offered cheaper lodging, which attracted the middle class — but drove away the wealthy. The Adirondacks — which, by the 1920s, were readily accessible by car — became more popular. “In general, people were not parking themselves for weeks at a destination, but driving around and seeing sights in a variety of places,” says Stradling. As the hotels’ fortunes declined, they changed hands several times. The land was eventually made part of the Catskill Park. The DEC burned the Mountain House, which had become a hazard, in 1963. It later razed the Laurel House — after a stint as an Italian restaurant, according to Greene County Historical Society trustee Harvey Durham — in 1967. And the Hotel Kaaterskill had put itself out of its misery in 1924, when a soap-making accident turned it into a bonfire that could be seen as far south as Newburgh.
Visiting the sites today, you might never suspect that these grand hostelries ever existed. But Durham, a lifelong area resident, remembers when the Mountain House stood vacant before the burn, and admits to sneaking inside to see its famous grand piano covered in dust. He also remembers the vast foundation of the Hotel Kaaterskill and sifting through shard after shard of broken china. “You got an idea of how big it was by seeing what remained,” he recalls. (It’s said that it was a mile around the perimeter.) And, for the longest time, Durham could still see the rotting pulley apparatus at Kaaterskill Falls.
“Today, people coming up here to camp are surprised that there was something here before,” says Durham. “They think they’re out in the wilderness. But at one time this was a very busy place, with carriages and railroads running all the time. The population of Greene County used to double in the summertime. It’s quite the story.”
For more information:
90 County Rte. 42, Coxsackie
Artifacts from the Catskill Mountain House on view, including part of the columns; 10-foot-wide scale model of the hotel
Cedar Grove/The Thomas Cole National Historic Site
218 Spring St., Catskill
Take an art tour of famous sites depicted by the Hudson River School painters, including Sunset Rock (where Cole painted the Mountain House) and Kaaterskill Falls