Sittin’ on top of the world

Free screening of Tobe Carey’s new doc, The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around, this Sunday in Woodstock

by Frances Marion Platt
Photo of Catskill Mountain House courtesy of John M. Ham Hotel Kaaterskill, 1882
For a hiker who is mainly interested in spectacular views, the rolling, heavily wooded Catskills don’t always offer a payoff proportional to the amount of vertical effort required to get to an overlook. But a short walk from the campground at North and South Lakes, near Palenville, lies a ledge where the ground drops out from under one’s feet so precipitously as to induce a serious case of vertigo. In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, frontiersman hero Natty Bumppo claims that from this place he can see “all creation.”

That may be a bit of romantic hyperbole, and this may not be (as once advertised) the highest point in the Catskills. But the view from this dramatic eastern escarpment does extend some 50 miles – up and down the Hudson Valley, across the River to Dutchess County and beyond into Connecticut and Massachusetts. And in the waning years of the 19th century, Frederic Church was gazing back at this same spot atop the cliff known as the Wall of Manitou from his artist’s eyrie at Olana.

After sufficient time spent drinking in that view, look around at the grassy area behind the rocky ledge, once known as the Pine Orchard. There’s not much debris left to tell the story of the grand structure that once lured tourists from as far away as Europe to enjoy this prospect of the American wilderness as part of the New World version of the Grand Tour, and that provided privileged New Yorkers a healthful, airy escape from the coal smog, deadly heat waves and cholera epidemics of urban summers. For over 125 years, from 1824 to 1941, the Catskill Mountain House entertained visitors on this very spot; Hudson River School painters including Thomas Cole and Jasper Cropsey depicted its glories on canvas; and veteran filmmaker Tobe Carey of Willow Mixed Media, Inc. has now taken it upon himself to remind us all of the site’s remarkable history.

Carey is well-known in these parts and held in high esteem by the independent filmmaking community for his long list of documentaries about artists, health and environmental issues and local history, among them Deep Water: Building the Catskill Water System, Love Is the Reason, Stanley’s House, School Board Blues, The Hudson River PCB Story: A Toxic Heritage, Indian Point: Nowhere to Run and Cancer: Just a Word…Not a Sentence. His newest film, The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around, will be screened free of charge at Upstate Films’ Woodstock venue this Sunday, December 19 at 2 p.m.

Guests of America’s first great mountaintop hotel typically arrived by steamboat at Catskill Landing, then had to endure a grueling five-hour trip up the mountain by stagecoach. On the steepest stretches, they had to get out and walk just to spare the horses. Two railroads later brought visitors closer to the site, their construction inspired by the so-called Fried Chicken War between two rival businessmen: the Catskill Mountain House’s second owner/expander Charles Beach and his longtime customer George Harding. Visiting with his daughter, who was on a restricted diet, Harding felt snubbed when Beach refused to substitute a chicken dinner for the red meat that was on the menu and decided to build a much larger competing resort, the Kaaterskill hotel, atop neighboring South Mountain. When Harding introduced the Kaaterskill Railroad to make his new establishment more accessible, Beach fired back by hiring the Otis Elevator Company in 1892 to build a funicular railway that would haul his visitors straight up the precipitous incline by cable.

There’s much more to the story, of course, as well as more to tell about the Catskill Mountain House’s immediate environs, including fabled Kaaterskill Falls: the day hike that was de rigueur for the resort’s visitors. You can dig deeper into this intriguing vein of local history by attending the screening at Upstate Films in Woodstock – the former Tinker Street Cinema – at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 19. The film runs 80 minutes and admission is free at this event sponsored by The Historical Society of Woodstock, Willow Mixed Media, and Upstate Films. DVDs will be available for purchase at the screening with a portion of sales going to support Upstate Films. For more information, email video@hvc.rr.com.

© 2010