MTHS Blog

The Direct path to South Mountain
Prepared for the Mountain Top Historical Society hike of June 8, 2019

The history of trails near the Catskill Mountain House is complex. The trails grew and changed over time, and over time some were forgotten. . Paths to new destinations were developed, and as tastes changed, some paths were abandoned. During the romantic era on the mid to late 19th century the quest for the picturesque made certain sites popular. Among the most liked were the second ledge on South Mountain, Puddingstone Hall, Druid Rocks, Fairy Spring and Elvin Pass all evocative of the myths and legends so popular in the literature of the day

None of those sites are now on marked trails, yet they are reasonably easy to get to, though not necessarily easy to find. Our goal is to go off-trail to some, perhaps all, of these sites as well as sites like The Sphinx, Eagle Rock, and Boulder Rock along the existing trail. At times we may experience a sense of the picturesque and perhaps the sublime. (see: https://artmuseum.arizona.edu/events/event/19th-century-landscape-the-pastoral-the-picturesque-and-the-sublime)

From Pine Orchard, the site of the Catskill Mountain House, we will ascend through the woods, itself picturesque, to three picturesque highlights.

Right click on images enlarge them.

The Second Ledge which was called “The Lemon Squeezer” by stereographer J. Loeffler. We don’t know for sure whether the trail approached from the west requiring hikers to pass through one of two narrow passages, or from the east to a view emphasizing the path up the ledge they were about to climb. Most views are from the east. The 200 year history of the Kaaterskill region as a vacation destination has generated many names for area locations. The same location in different guidebooks, stereographs, souvenir booklets, and worse of all, postcards can have different names, and the same name can be given to different locations. The name Lemon Squeezer was used in guidebooks by Walton Van Loan and Samuel Rusk for a crevice near Fairy Spring at the top of South Mountain which they also called Elvin Pass.  Whatever it was called, the site is virtually unchanged. The imaginative hike can seem to be accompanied by 19th century Mountain House guests.

The foggy conditions on the day of this photograph taken in late May of 2019 may give us a sense of the picturesque. Climbing up what seems to be a natural route, we will have to exert a bit of effort to reach the top of the second ledge. From here, after fighting our way through a tangle of branches we will see what certainly was the original 19th century to the next ledge.

Here in front of us is Puddingstone Hall. Puddingstone is a colloquial name for conglomerate, a rock made of pebbles held together in a sandy matrix. The rock, and the others on South Mountain, are sedimentary this one formed in flowing water able to carry the larger pebbles which ultimately mixed with sand and minerals cementing them into rock.

This photo pf Puddingstone Hall, taken on the same day as the previous one is another reason to not let rain or fog keep you out of the woods. Before we come back and climb through this crevice,we will walk along the bottom of the ledge and explore our next stop.

Druid Rocks are a short distance west of Puddingstone Hall. An 1863 “Guide to Rambles from the Catskill Mountain House” makes no mention of this site, but by 1879 they are prominently mentioned in Van Loan’s Catskill Mountain Guide. Here Walton Van Loan tells us we will see “several detached rocks of conglomerate, one of which resembles a gigantic toad or rabbit, according to the position from which you observe it. The Harry Fenn illustration depicts the area.

The remainder of our hike will be on the state trail. We will see The Sphinx, a ledge on South Mountain, "Bowlder Rock" and imagine a time when there were steps that made climbing it easier, perhaps descend through Fat Man's Delight to The Natural Bridge, and consider the traces of a glacier that helped shape the area over 20,000 years ago.  Options to see Fairy Spring, Elvin Pass and Star Rock at the top of South Mountain are also possible.

 

By Bob Gildersleeve

In 1883, Hotel Kaaterskill builder, owner and well-known Philadelphia lawyer, George Harding, commissioned Hexamer and Sons of Philadelphia, to conduct a fire safety survey of his then 3-year old hotel. This stunningly precise and detailed survey has escaped the view of the many historians and collectors who are avid about the Hotel's history, but was discovered this past winter by MTHS member Scott Koster in The Philadelphia Free Library. Scott shared his finding with us and it has proved to be a gold mine of data about the Hotel. The on-line images of the survey from the Philadelphia library only hinted at the precision of the document so we contacted the Free Library of Philadelphia’s map department. We thank them for providing the Mountain Top Historical Society a beautiful high resolution scan of the document. It joins the nearly 50 photographs taken in about 1920 just prior to the Harding family’s sale of the property given to us by George M. Harding, great great grandson of the Hotel’s builder.

Taken together, the Hexamer survey and the Harding photos, provide us with a key to deciphering the the layout and many of the operations of the enormous hotel. They also have become the spring board for new questions. The spectacular fire of September 8, 1924 destroyed the hotel leaving a jumble of footings and other remains now largely hidden among the trees that have grown in the 95 years since the hotel’s destruction.

On April 25th, in preparation for the upcoming May 11th MTHS hike to the Hotel Kaaterskill site, Pete Senterman, Bob Titus, Mike Kudish, John O'Grady, Jonathan Palmer and I with the Hexamer Survey, copies of the Harding photos, and tape measures in hand, walked around the Hotel site to make more precise determinations about many aspects of the Hotel's layout. The Hotel came into view more clearly than ever. The details of what we saw and learned follow, but I invite you to join us on Saturday May 11 to explore the site of the Hotel with us and to share in the excitement of this new find." Registration information can be found at: http://mths.org/events.html for information about registering.

The survey features accurate measurements of each part of the building allowing us to locate with certainty the footings of the ice house, and the helps’ quarters and water closet (toilets) – locations we’ve only speculated about before. We stood among the stone footings facing what had been the cartway to the courtyard and held up a Harding photo – they fit together perfectly. But, despite the accuracy of the document there are discrepancies with the Harding photos or the current condition of the site. Some of the discrepancies are clearly minor oversights and some cause confusion or raise questions that and need to be resolved. What can we make of the 6 ft. high stone ledge running through the courtyard? It doesn’t show on the plan or appear in the Harding photos and it certainly didn’t result from a major geological upheaval in the past 95 years. Such discrepancies lead to discoveries and the document promises to open many new discoveries.

There are significant hints about the infrastructure for electric and gas lighting used at the hotel. The electric lighting was powered by “Arnoux’s and Hotchhausen’s electric arc lights.” The firm was a competitor of Edison. The electric dynamo was a mile from the hotel. [An 1890 Windham Journal article about the fire at the Laundry mentions that "...the force pumps that supply the hotel with water, and the electric light plant..." were located there] The gas for gas lighting was manufactured by a “Maxim Gasoline Machine...housed in a stone building 119’ from the nearest building.” The gasoline was vaporized and mixed with air – like a giant Coleman lantern and piped to the hotel. Our research indicates that Maxim was Hiram Maxim, best known as inventor of the first fully automatic machine gun. Our challenge is to use these hints to discover more about the Hotel and its operation.

 KRT Rail Trail Is Open

In 2005 I wrote about trails and sites on Prospect Mountain in the afterword for Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide:


A path across this mountain that lies west of South Mountain between the Laurel House and the Hamlet of Haines Falls was among the earliest trails in the region.  It became the route of the two railways that served the hotels. Three important locations once accessible from that path deserve special mention.  One, the Sphinx, well known to post card collectors, stands guard over the upper clove above Molly Smith’s parking area.  As best I can determine, it is on state land.  Access to it, however, is either an extremely difficult climb, or a relatively easy approach that requires crossing private property.  Very near the Sphinx, is a clearing that takes in the upper portion of Kaaterskill Falls, a beautiful view of the Clove, and the peaks of Round Top and High Peak.  No other spot allows all three to be seen at the same time.  Also formerly accessible from this path is viewpoint named (like the ledge on North Mountain) Prospect Rock.  This Prospect Rock is perhaps the best place from which to see, in a single view, both upper and lower portions of Kaaterskill Falls, but it too is virtually inaccessible except by crossing private land.

Opening these areas could be a real benefit to visitors, and to the Mountain Top community.  Recently, there has been renewed interest in a rail trail between the hamlet of Haines Falls and Laurel House Road following the rail corridor and near the trail that was discussed by both Van Loan and Rusk [authors of 19th century trail guides].  Reopening that trail would provide a link between the local community and the beautiful facilities at North-South Lake. -- [Note that at this time, the area of Sphinx Rock is not accessible from the KRT.]

Now, twelve years after I wrote these words and thanks to the efforts of many people and organizations, the KRT is open and NYSDEC has placed a trail sign at the junction of the state trail to the Kaaterskill Falls viewing platform and the Kaaterskill Rail Trail pointing the way to the Historical Society's campus and station. I am very pleased that this has been accomplished and, based on the large attendance at the opening ceremony on May 20, the community is too. Thanks again to all. - RG

The Mountain Top Historical presents Hikefest as part of the Catskills Lark in the Park


On Saturday, October 6, 2018 the Mountain Top Historical Society’s Haines Falls campus will be the place to begin your Columbus Day week-end. Starting in the KRT parking lot at 9:00 a.m. There will be a choice of three hikes spreading out to various trail heads around the area with popular experienced hike leaders.

Hike #1: Historic Highlights of North-South Lake

Before it was a campground, the area around North-South Lake was the home of many important business and recreational sites. On this hike, led by Bob Gildersleeve, we will see as many of those sites as we can fit into an easy three hour tour. From our first stop near the South Lake dam we’ll tour the remnants of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad’s turntable, the foundations of the South Lake Ice harvesting camp, and a still standing water tower. The tower and camp will require a short bushwhack which can be avoided by anyone who would rather wait the 10 minutes or so that it will take. From there we will take our cars to other spots within the park to see the sites of Thomas Cole’s Lake with Dead Trees, the location of the Otis Summit Station, and a Catskill and Tannersville Railroad engine shed by North Lake, traces of Rip’s Retreat, The Catskill Mountain House site (including the foundations of one or more out-buildings, and the original location of Artist’s Rock which was a short flat walk from the North Lake Beach.

Hike #2: A Walking Tour of Elka Park

This group will accompany Nancy Allen on a 3-4 mile hike to Katerina Tower and The Colosseum (reservoir) to enjoy the views from this historic community. This is an easy tour. Additional sites may be added depending on the group and the timing.

Hike # 3: Hike to the Hotel Kaaterskill Site

Paul LaPierre and Moe Lemire will lead an exploration of the grounds of the Hotel Kaaterskill. Starting from the South Lake dam they will climb the carriage road to the site. This hike is a repeat of our July hike giving people who were unable to attend in July the opportunity to identify areas seen in the MTHS collection of newly acquired photographs. This is a moderate hike with enough time to take in the remnants of the largest hotel in the area.

All of the hikers will meet at the MTHS campus at 9:00 a.m. and car pool to the different trail heads. The hikes are designed to last about three hours and return to the MTHS for lunch.

Lunch will be hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill with all the fixings including salads, cold drinks and dessert. The cost per person for lunch is $10 and will be served beginning at noon.

At around 1:00 p.m. or as soon as all hikers have returned and had their lunch, we will have a presentation by Bob Gildersleeve featuring the photographs of the Hotel Kaaterskill that were generously donated by the great great grandson of the original owner, George Harding. We have about 50 photos that were apparently taken in 1921 in preparation for the sale of the property. Bob has been making a careful study of the images which include interior views of the billiard room, bowling alley, kitchen, theater, a guest room and other surprises.  We are asking for a $5 donation for this program.

We welcome hikers and those interested in hiking or just in the beauty of the Catskill Park to join us for a hike, lunch, a presentation, good company and interesting information.  We expect to finish up by 3:00 p.m.

MTHS does not require membership for hike participation however, we encourage you to join as a member or make a donation to the MTHS to support our work. We do request that you register for each hike. Participants can register on our contacts page or by calling (518) 589-6657. Please leave your name, phone number, and # in your party. Schedule subject to change. The latest information is available on our web site http://www.mths.org. Notification of changes, including cancellations due to weather will be made on the web site up to the day of any given hike.

Please make reservations for the hikes, lunch and presentation by Wednesday, October 3rd.