The Catskills

The Catskills


Harper’s New Monthly Magazine No: CCCXCVII—June 1883- Vol. LXVII, original author's name unknown, retyped by Arlene Goodwin

In a faded letter lying before me, and which is dated from Greenwich Street, in New York, fifty years ago, the writer says:

"I could wish the Hudson were in better condition for my trip to Catskill. I shall be four or five days in going, but I will start well prepared for the journey."I wonder what the anxious gentleman of that day would say were he to sit in his own library on this morning, and listen to and observe the changes in this beloved Catskill since that period of green fields and wide-spreading orchards, fine old country estates and farms that stretched down to the very water’s edge? Where the Indians grew their corn, and the Duboises and Van Vechtens built their homes, a great arena of summer traffic has developed. Boats and trains are coming and going, the bustle of arrival and departure stirs all the "Point," animating the village in the way peculiar to American towns near a "resort," and the whole community to a new-comer seems to be on the alert for signs of travel.

But to the right of this provincial crowd and clatter one sees, directly on landing, a vista of very fair and quiet country. The river curves about the greenest of banks, the sky shines above a rim of close dark foliage, and the flight of the bird is across a peaceful stretch of land and water. But this is not the Catskill of Indian romance and one’s imagination. One longs to leave the concentration of the village life, the bustle of the wharves and station behind one, and be up and away to the hills, whose everlasting beauty is the back-ground for this picture of activity, thrift, and speculative lounging.

I recall my first visit twenty years ago to these grand old mountains. It seems only the other day, yet such trips were then matters of much more calculation as well as duration. We took the night boat, and though it was a rather poor affair, I am afraid, to my childish eyes it seemed a floating palace, and the ladies’ cabin a mingling of the fascination of the theatre with the luxuries of real life. The cabin was presided over by a colored woman, portly and affable, and full of a rather weird sort of anecdote which charmed me greatly. She impressed me as being about as old as people ever were, but I presume she was not over fifty. And she told me stories of slave times in the Northern States, which seemed to me ghastly traditions, I remember, for that peaceful moon-lit country.

She had been brought up in the mountains, and loved the suggestions of old Rip and of the Indian period with a fervor worthy of a larger intelligence that she owned, and from her I first heard any of the romance of the region about which I am writing.

When our boat landed we took a large lumbering old coach, which stopped at all the public houses and various private ones, deposited and took up letters, packages, and messages. Our driver was a man of amiable though meager physiognomy, and he idled over his employment in a way that gave the child beside him ample opportunity to fill her eyes and heart—indeed, perhaps, to touch some glimmerings of her soul—with the majesty, the gigantic wonders, of the scene before her. High upon every side rose the mountains, their pathways cleft with gorge and ravine, their indomitable silence broken only by the rushing of their many waters, or the quiet summer wind moving through the pines. God’s grace and bounty spoke through it all, in the green splendor of their height and depth, their width and vastness.

Those old days have passed away. Progress has come sweeping over the country, setting much at defiance, but it can never destroy what nature has reared there. To this hour the message of the Catskills may be read as reverently and as awfully as when their depths echoed Indian voices, or their waters carried the Indian’s canoe.

And herein I find the greatest charm of this country. Nothing seems to take away the fearless beauty of the hill. No intrusion seems to disturb the solemnity of the peaks and gorges, the sweetness of the mountain streams, the innumerable brooks and torrents.

The Catskill of to-day is a large, active place, characterized by the usual appearance of the American village. A long main street with shops and hotels and idly speculative loungers, and almost nothing to indicate what the place once was, unless it be in the names which have descended through many generations since Dutch and colonial and provincial times. Around about, in a sort of stately indifference to the activity of the place as a "resort," are the houses of olden time, belonging to families who have authorized Americans in their feeling that pride of race may be consisted with the most simply republican sentiment. And these old places give a dignity to the town. He who runs may read their story, since in few instances have the original forms been altered. They preserve their Dutch symbols, the heavy cross-beams, the generous fire-places, or the English architecture of the last century so perfectly that their tale is assuredly written in stone and wood work, and I will be pardoned, I am sure, for returning to some mention of these later.

But what would the writer of the letter before me say were he to arrive at the "Point" in Catskill on a summer’s morning of 1882? Everything bespeaks not only bustle and enterprise, but the exhilaration of something very new, since a railroad has been established from the Landing up to Laurenceville, just at the mountain’s foot. Surely this is something to awaken the Van Vechtens and Van Dusens and Livingstons and Fieros from their slumbers, but, as is sure to be the case in all American enterprises, it have been received with the most matter-of-course thankfulness and patronage. Is it, we question, possible to overcome the American tourist with any contrivance for his comfort or luxury? I believe he is not to be moved to surprise in any such direction, and certainly the manner in which the travelers leave the boat and step on to the brand-new little train awaiting them is worthy of study.

The train rushes down into the placid loveliness of the shore where the boat lands, with little shrieks and starts and various signs of its being new to this existence, and I think it is disappointing to most people to be met with so much bustle and crudity when their destination is such an old and grand region. But once away from the bank and you will find that the trip can include the romance of the hills, for the route is well chosen, and leads you away over a country full of richness and peace, of idly growing things, great fields of corn, stretches of buckwheat with the bloom of August on it; into ravines where the water rushes with an ancient melody in its movement, and out and over a plain beyond which the mountains rise, relegating all smaller things to insignificance.

I think nothing can be more perfect than the slow evolution of the dusk and change to moonlight over this country; then arises some understanding of the lore which all old Catskillians cling to, and which, let us hope, no strength of enterprise, no congregation of the "summer boarder," can ever take away.

The train takes us up around Catskill proper and into Leeds, and Leeds was really old Catskill—in very truth the place which gave this part of the country a name. Whence comes the name, I believe the most faithful chronicler can not say. It is found in various old records. In a letter dated over one hundred years ago, and which the present owner kindly allowed me to read, "Catskill Village" is mentioned, but the place now known by that name was then referred to as the "Strand," or the "Landing," for, as I have said, the village of Leeds was then Catskill proper.

I think it nurtured in men a curious feeling of permanence, proprietorship, of desire to keep Nature unchanged, glorious and true to her first, best impulses, for there at Leeds one finds so few marks of the impress of destroying man, so little which could jar the student of form and color as God has laid it upon His earth. Whether this has come from jealousy, listlessness, or perhaps the appreciation of vastness, one can not say. All that can be reduced to fact is that Leeds village, the old Catskill, lies simply embosomed by the hills and vales which the Indians and Dutch must have known, and it seemed to me a most perfect relic of the past, which is fast becoming too traditional to seem our own.

In 1678, a solemn company of Dutch gentlemen, at the Stadt Huis in Albany, effected the purchase of Catskill. They bought the "plain and land" for four miles around.

I think the picture of that morning an intensely significant and American one. There was the old room in that quaint Dutch town, and there were his Majesty’s humble though enterprising and shrewd servants, Robert Livingston and Marten Gerritsen Van Bergen and Sylvester Salisbury, Esquires, and with them the magistrates of the jurisdiction, and those strongly pathetic figures of the time, Mahak-Neminaw and his six head-men, representatives of an Indian tribe who were, as they had been for years, in possession of the solemnly beautiful Catskills, where their corn grew, and their camp fires burned.

The Dutch and English gentlemen bought the Indian country; the deed was executed with writing and hieroglyphics. If the Indians were stoical, the purchasers cared but little for tradition, since we can find no records of the original occupants of old Catskill valuable enough to give them a place. They disappeared, wandering we know not where, and the only tradition worth preserving is of a handful of the tribe who sometimes came quite peacefully to the new settlement, simply from a desire to visit their forefathers’ ground. They never lingered long; finally they disappeared entirely; and then descendants of that 8th of July, 1678, woke up to the fact that the Indians’ idea of the hills must have been picturesque and colored strongly enough by romance to bear comparison with the print and canvas of their own more varied, progressive period.

I think no one is quite certain what was at first done with the new purchase, yet this last example of enterprise, the mountain railroad, leads past the very houses which were built by the sons and grandsons of the earliest Dutch and English owners. In those days Albany was a thriving town, and certain smaller settlements had gained reputation as being habitable, sociable, and "worthy of domicile"; but this new settlement in the country of the Indians must have had its origin in the merest speculation, since the few who gathered there seem to have made almost no effort to found or encourage a community.

Francis Salisbury built in 1705 the fine house still standing. One of the Van Vechtens had a dwelling deeper in the hills, and we are told that here and there houses were built, but there could scarcely have been anything like the feeling of an active community in a region that was all wilderness, silence, and the impenetrable grandeur of mountain, clove, and forest.

Gerritsen Van Bergen’s house is still upright, and one can not but wonder what was the story of those early buildings. Tiles and bricks imported from Holland, wood-work put in with slow and patient hands—what a picture one can conjure up as the train goes rushing by, past Leeds, into the dim silence of the real mountain country, where one waits for the stages up the grand old hills!

Of all the old landmarks just at this point, the Salisbury house is, I think, most interesting. We drove to it one sunshiny day when the mountains were like great purpling monuments ahead of us, the greener country looking strangely fresh and young for that old country; and as we went past corn fields and buckwheat meadows we talked to the Indian and Dutch traditions of the land almost as though we had all of us the associations with them to which one of our party could lay hereditary claim, and the story of the Salisbury house was told as I faithfully give it here.

Francis Salisbury built it, on his share of the land purchased from Makak-Neminaw, in 1705, when it must have been a very stately dwelling. After his occupancy there lived in it a man whose life included a romance which Hawthorne would have illumined with his weirdest fancies. He was a person of strange and arbitrary temper, and so ill-used a slave or bound girl in his service that she fled from the old house, aided, it was supposed, by her lover, a young Dutch settler. Infuriated by her escape, her master rode up the mountains in search of her, discovering the girl at night-fall. He tied her to the tail of his horse, and started furiously back to Catskill. As might be expected, the horse dashed the unfortunate girl to pieces on the rocks; and slight as was the law of the land, it found means to arrest the murderer and put him on public trial. His family united political power with great wealth, and when the man was brought to trial, and justly condemned to death, they obtained a respite of the sentence. But herein lies the curious part of the story. The decree of the magistrates was that he should be publicly hung in his ninety-ninth year, and meanwhile he was condemned to wear about his neck a halter, that all might know him to be a murderer doomed to death.

From this time forth the criminal lived in a strange and gloomy seclusion, rarely coming into the village of Catskill, isolating himself from his fellow-creatures, but doggedly wearing his halter, which on certain occasions had to be shown in public. Until quite recently there lived in Catskill aged people who could remember having seen this strange recluse wearing his halter, and singular as it seems, he actually lived to complete his hundredth year! But times had changed, King George’s rule gone, the new order of things seems to have swept into oblivion the curious decree of that colonial magistrate, and the unhappy owner of Salisbury house was left to die in his bed; but his singular story affected the neighborhood, as might be expected, with a belief that the house was haunted, and strange tales used to be told of a spectral horse and rider, with the shrieking figure of a girl flung from it. One old lady told me that when a child she used to live in terror of the peaceful spot where the Salisbury house stand, firmly believing that its ghostly occupant, with a halter about his shriveled neck, could at any moment appear.

Certainly any such ideas were dispelled by the sunny look of things about it the day we spent at the old house. It is a large two-story building, with walls of sandstone and regular windows, and the date 1705 in iron letters along the upper ledge of stone. There is not much shade about it, yet enough to shut out all glare, and the garden and orchards are a pretty tangle of growing things, which give it an air of homely comfort rather than any ghostly dread. Within, on entering, is a hallway running the length of the house, with a quaint staircase to the left, and on either side doors open into living-rooms which are treasures for the antiquarian. The ceilings are supported by heavy beams, the windows are deep, and the panes of glass small and old, while the fire-places are the deep caverns of the early eighteenth century. At present these rooms, the scene of much festivity in the early Salisbury days, are furnished quietly, but in quaint enough style to suggest the origin of the house; a suggestion of lavender and dried roses lingers in the drawing-room as of summers long gone by; and the low footed chairs, the old brass and Chippendale book-cases, might have been there when the Salisbury house was very young, and the orchards without mere striplings. Our hospitable hostess showed us a genuine old Dutch Bible, which stood on a table near one of the fire-places, and there was nothing in the house to my mind more pathetically suggestive that book—the queer characters, the bits of faded writing interspersed, the pages thinned by use and age, and the heavy binding, all conjured up pictures of by-gone Van Dusen, or Van Bergens, or perhaps Salisburys, who sat in the long low room with the book held open before them, dreaming, let us wonder of what, as they read, or perhaps looking out across the rich and silent country which they had just entered upon, foreseeing so little --oh, let us hope so very little—of what the aesthetic development of the present hour were to demand of this lovely uncultured region.

When we had wandered about the house, and in its many suggestions of calmer lives forgotten its period of horror, we went out around the sleepy garden to the rear, where we looked at the little loopholes pierced in the walls in days when the tribes of Iroquois were considered dangerous. From these quite a stout resistance could be maintained, and the Catskill region abounds in Indian stories which show that such fears as our ancestors entertained of certain tribes were not groundless. Not far from Salisbury there is a house where a most daring capture was once made by the Indians, and nearer to the present village of Catskill is a small stone cottage which was the scene of a cruel invasion one moonlight night by a party of Indians who crossed the river for the purpose.

Yet how all this has been changed! The only recent traditions of fear are of wolves found not so many years ago in the bosom of the hills, and some tales of hunters thirty years ago are fresh in the minds of many. But now, "Trains for Laurenceville to connect with the stages," etc., are the announcements eagerly scanned by the new arrival. Pater familias with his wife and daughters, and perhaps (how often, alas! it is perhaps) sons, who intend to sojourn for a time in the mountains before resuming their customary occupations. The summer boarder has descended upon the fair tract of country so solemnly sold and purchased in 1678, and we have only to watch the arrival and departure of the stages to understand what to expert on reaching the mountain’s summit.

A curious scene presents itself at the railway terminus. Although nothing is finished yet, the traveler demands swift locomotion, and so things have been put in working order in advance of their actual completion. With High Peak rising grandly at his back, with the rush of a mountain torrent in his ears, with a stretch of richly rolling country to right and left, silent with the silence of majestic supremacy, the ticket agent of the railroad sits out-of-doors, with a little pine table before him whence he distributes tickets. And round about are the travelers; young ladies in the latest styles of summer costume, young men with alpenstock and Knickerbockers, elderly people in search of health or quiet, or amusement for their younger ones—all either waiting for the mountain stages or the train down to Catskill Landing; and the fragments of conversation at this point in the journey are keenly interesting. I wonder if the day will ever come when the American summer boarder in all of his and her phases will have been entirely written out! Here is one party, consisting of an easy-going, good-looking man, with a mixture of the soldier and the merchant in his bearing; not distinctly bourgeois, and yet decidedly not patrician; rich, one may judge by his wife’s apparel and his own contented air, but in no special way ambitious. His wife is handsome, and thin, and if not exactly cross, yet habitually complaining, and superbly dressed, and fine in her manner; and with them is "Georgie," the inevitable small boy, who ought to be bottled, or casked, or buried, while the family are at summer resorts.

In the stage there are, of course, the dumb, awe-struck people new to the journey, and who seem to wonder what they came for; the people who have been so often before that at every point they are able to give accurate information about everything to every one else with endless repetitions of the pronoun "I"; and the gay young people who are wondering whether the hotel band is good, and who there will be up there to dance the racquet and play at tennis.

The stage is well enough now and again, but for a genuinely happy journey up the eternal hills I think one should have one’s own conveyance, starting from Catskill village itself, and taking the journey slowly enough to know the country at least by sight, and appreciate in some fashion its sublimity.

There are many roads up to the mountain’s summit, and all are worthy of experience. The Clove Road shuts in the more delicate variations of tree and shadow, of brook and ravine, and its history is full of romantic interest. Twenty-five years ago few pedestrians really knew anything of this country, and a story is related of an ardent New-Yorker who visited the region with an old Catskillian, and who was thoroughly enchanted by all he saw. The guide, though loving his rugged, beautiful native land, was rather bored by the visitor’s enthusiasm, especially when he was forced to wait while nobly sounding verses rose to the tourist’s lips. Finally he turned upon him with, "Come from New York, don’t you, sir?" "Yes," was the answer. "wa’al, I’d like t’ know what you’d say if I went down thar and gawked around like you do up yere."

The Cloves are many, and I think that known as the Platterkill is the wildest and most picturesque, but only hardly walkers should attempt its ascent. Eighteen water-falls may be counted in a walk up this Clove, and the wild grandeur of the scene had defied almost every pen and pencil. The Kaaterskill and Stony Cloves are more frequented and less hazardous than the grand old Platterkill, and almost as beautiful, yet with the latter we must feel the sympathy that one gives a defiant conqueror. It rests—captive if you like by the present day in one sense, but boldly suggestive of the days when its first inhabitants lived in it without touching one stone or curve, one stream or angle, that nature had set there, and the steady stream of progress, or perhaps I should say tourist, may go on another fifty years before the Platterkill will succumb to the imperious claims of man.

The Kaaterskill Clove still carries with it the fascination of Indian story and tradition, and I think the legend which dear old Diedrich Knickerbocker give of the stream bearing its name is sufficient to make one feel that the great depths of the mountains, the ravines and gorges, belong to the region of fable and Indian lore. In olden times he tells us there existed a spirit, or, as the Indians called it, Manitou, who inhabited the very wildest recesses of the mountains. What he was like none knew, yet the charm of his life or existence seemed to be in playing endless pranks upon the red man. An Indian patiently ascending the mountain in search of game would find him moving as a bear, or panther, or wolf. A chase would ensue, and suddenly the wild beast would disappear, leaving the hunter wearied and torn in some most forlorn part of the hills.

Now in the mountains there is shown at this time a great rock, high in air, and with its base softened by the growth of vines and wild flowers, (This is now called the "Gurden Rock.") And this is those days was known as the place where the Manitou dwelt. It is even now looked upon as lonely and inaccessible, and before Mahak-Neminaw sold the ground to the white man the Indians of his tribe feared to approach this place. It is said that the most venturesome hunter never pursued his game so far as this lonely, defiant, flower-grown height.

There is, however, always a break in such persistency. We always find in such traditions one lonely figure uprising against a background of doubt and dread, of superstition and perhaps romance. So in this story comes the pictures of a young hunter who penetrated the Kaaterskill Clove beyond this awful point, and there to his amazement he beheld ranged in the trees a number of gourds. They seemed to him to indicate some special, subtle meaning and, impressed only by the spirit of his enterprise, he pressed forward and grasped one of them, turning to make his retreat quickly. But the fatal moment had come. The gourd burst open; from its orange source rushed a stream which beat upon the rocks and carried him headlong, and speedily dead, with it, and leaping and falling, turning the still ravine into movement and the poetry of dropping water, it goes onto this day, known as the Kaaterskill.

I have taken no liberties with this curious old story but to put the simple legend into my own language, and, I think as one leans over the bridge above the eddying torrent, one feels assured that somewhere or somehow a romance must lie within its depths, perhaps in the great solemn heights of mountain that form ins horizon.

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