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GATEWAY BETWEEN RIVER AND MOUNTAINS: HISTORIC CATSKILL POINT

 

Exhibit Text for Historic Catskill Point Visitorsí Center, Catskill, NY

Exhibit opened May 2000

Major text writer, David Seamon

Assistant text writers, Betty Larsen and Helene Tieger

[images not included because of  Web copyright issues]

 

INTRODUCTION [BOARD 1]

From the time of the first Native-Americans, the juncture of the Hudson River and Catskill Creek was an important geographical inroad westward.

 

In the 19th century, Catskill businessmen used this juncture for great economic advantage by developing Catskill Point, a transportation and shipping terminal that became the major gateway to the northern Catskills. The Point was integral to Greene County agriculture and industry. At various times in the 1800s, such products as wheat, hay, honey, apples, boats, ice, tanned hides, clay bricks, and furniture were shipped from Catskill Point to New York City and other destinations.

 

In the summer of 1825, the young artist Thomas Cole passed through Catskill on his way to sketch and paint locales in the northern Catskills. Cole's growing success as a landscape painter attracted, in the next fifty years, many other prominent artists to the Catskill region. By the 1880s, thousands of tourists traveled through Catskill Point on their way to experience the mountains' breathtaking scenery and to stay at the world-renowned Catskill Mountain House or one of the many other resort hotels and boarding houses throughout Greene County.

 

This exhibit presents Catskill Point's remarkable history as an economic, artistic, and recreational gateway.

 

EARLY INHABITANTS AND SETTLERS [BOARD 2]

For many generations before Henry Hudsonís exploration in 1609, the Hudson River provided amply for the Native people living along its banks. Catskill Creek formed a natural boundary between the Esopus and Mahican Indians. Both groups spoke Eastern Algonquian dialects and probably shared similar cultures distinct from the Iroquois people of the north and west.

 

These people built pallisaded villages along steep hillsides, with several related families occupying individual longhouses. One such village existed along Catskill Creek until 1682, when the land was sold to William Loveridge. By this time, tribal life had been irrevocably altered by contact with European culture.

 

Dutch settlement of the Hudson River Valley began in 1624. Around 1650, the first Dutch settlers of Old Katskill (now Leeds, four miles inland) established a port at Catskill Creek to ship farm products on the river. The present Catskill was called the "Landing" and its commerce grew with the settlement of the region, especially after the American Revolutionary War when "Yankee" emigrants from New England settled in Catskill.

 

THE BEGINNINGS OF CATSKILL POINT [BOARD 3]

In 1807, inventor Robert Fulton tested the first steamboat on the Hudson and began commercial operation up and down the river a few months later. The following year, Fulton's steamboat stopped at Catskill on Wednesdays going south and Sundays going north.

 

A few years earlier in 1803, a group of Catskill entrepreneurs had formed the Susquehanna Turnpike Company and built a turnpike road. Partly following earlier Indian trails, this turnpike ran east to Salisbury, Connecticut, and west through East Durham to Unadilla on the Susquehanna River. A ferry across the Hudson at Catskill connected the east and west branches of this turnpike, which attracted the business of New England emigrants heading west, Greene County farmers shipping agricultural products east, and New York City merchants shipping finished goods inland to western settlements.

 

Catskill Point, however, did not exist as a transportation and shipping terminal until about 1820 when Catskill businessmen constructed the "Long Dock," a half-mile-long causeway that connected an island the Dutch called Bomptjes Hoeck to the north bank of Catskill Creek.

 

At various times in its history, the Point included slaughter houses, ice houses, taverns, hotels, the day liner docks, the wharf for a ferry between the Point and Greendale train station across the Hudson, and the eastern terminus of the Catskill Mountain Railroad.

 

COMING OF THE STEAMBOATS [BOARD 4]

In 1814, the Hudson had only three steamboats, which each took some thirty-two hours to travel from New York to Albany. By the 1840s, some 100 steamboats plied the river, and their New York-Albany travel time had been cut to ten hours or less, which meant a single trip could be made in a day or night. The result was "night line" boats, which included sleeping accommodations and carried freight; and "day line" boats, which were smaller, faster, and did not always carry freight.

 

Many travellers to Catskill Point arrived on the Hudson River Day Line, which began in 1861 as a passenger service between Albany and New York with regular stops in Catskill. The dock for the day liners was on Catskill Point.

 

Two other companies operated night liners with stops in Catskill: the Peoples' Line and the Catskill Evening Line, the latter controlled by the influential Beach family, who owned the Catskill Mountain House. To facilitate the loading and unloading of freight, these boats sailed up Catskill Creek to docks along its north bank just below what is today "Uncle Sam's Bridge."

 

Also plying the Hudson were smaller steamboats called "water taxis," which traveled shorter routes between Catskill and other nearby communities. For example, the Isabella ran between Catskill and Hudson, while the Herman Livingston made round trips between Catskill and Saugerties. These smaller boats stopped at both the Point and Catskill Creek.

 

Shortly after the Hudson River Railroad began service on the east bank of the Hudson in 1851, the horse-powered ferry between Catskill and Oak Hill was converted to steam. Operated by the Beach family, this ferry was the A.F. Beach. Its western terminus was next to the Hudson River Day Line landing and, later, also next to the Catskill Point station of the Catskill Mountain Railroad. The A. F. Beach ran until shortly after the Rip Van Winkle Bridge was completed in 1935, when ferry ridership plummeted.

 

INDUSTRY AND CATSKILL POINT [BOARD 5]

The first major commercial enterprise to use Catskill for shipping was the tanning industry. By the late 1820s, Kaaterskill Clove, the largest of the gaps providing access to the Catskills, was a center of an international leather trade. Uncured hides were shipped, through Catskill, to the Clove from as far away as South America and California, cured with tannin made from local hemlock trees, and shipped back through Catskill to New York or Boston, where they were made into finished leather goods.

 

By the 1860s, tannery operators like Colonel William Edwards and Zadock Pratt had cut much of the Catskills' hemlock forests, and the tanning industry moved west. In its place, other industries such as boat building, herring and sturgeon fishing, brick factories, bluestone quarries, iron foundries, and furniture factories shipped their products from Catskill as did farmers who grew, among other produce, hay, apples, pears, plums, peaches, cherries, quinces, and tomatoes.

 

One of Catskill Point's most important commercial activities was a thriving ice industry, which harvested ice from the Hudson during the winter and then shipped it from the Point to New York City during spring and summer. Using scrapers, choppers, and saws, men would cut the river ice into large blocks lifted by chain elevators into huge ice houses and then packed in sawdust to slow thawing. The development of artificial refrigeration, coupled with the release of raw sewage into the Hudson at Albany and Troy, led to the rapid decline of the ice industry in the first two decades of the 20th century.

 

TOURISM, RESORTS, AND CATSKILL POINT [BOARD 6]

By the 1830s, a growing interest in landscape scenery and the easier travel offered by steamboats led to the growth of resort hotels and boarding houses in the Catskill region. Publications like Washington Irving's short story, "Rip Van Winkle" (1819), and James Fenimore Cooper's novel, The Pioneers (1823), introduced New Yorkers and other urban Americans to the natural beauty of the mountains.

 

In 1823, a group of Catskill businessmen formed the Catskill Mountain Association to build accommodations at Pine Orchard, an area of unique scenery and vistas on the Catskills' South Mountain. On July 4, 1924, the men opened a primitive, ten-room hotel that would eventually become the famous Catskill Mountain House.

 

By 1845, this hotel was owned by the influential Catskill businessman Charles L. Beach, who made many improvements and eventually expanded the hotel to 400 rooms. From the time it opened until the 1920s, the Mountain House attracted the foremost figures of American and European society.

 

Throughout Greene County, there were many other hotels and boarding houses, including Palenville's Winchelsea Hotel, Cairo's Hotel Walters, and Catskill's Prospect Park Hotel. Built high on a hill just north of Catskill Point, the upscale Prospect opened in the 1860s and had a 400-foot-long piazza with Corinthian columns twenty-five feet high.

 

STAGE COACHES AND TRAINS [BOARD 7]

From 1823 until 1882, travelers disembarking from steamboats and ferries at Catskill Point continued their travel on stage coaches to the Catskill Mountain House and other points west, north, and south.

 

New York-to-Albany train service on the east side of the Hudson began in 1851, but not until 1883 was there passenger and freight service on the west side, provided by the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railroad. In 1882, Mountain House owner Charles L. Beach, who also held controlling interests in stage lines and steamboats, opened the Catskill Mountain Railroad, a narrow-bed railway that ran from Catskill Point to Palenville.

 

Ten years later, Beach connected Palenville with the Mountain House by completing the Otis Elevating Railway, which lifted travelers 1,600 feet up the eastern escarpment of the Catskills. The Mountain House was now linked directly to a railway system that extended from Catskill to Kingston and New York City.

 

This rail network made day excursions from New York City possible, and tourism to Greene County soared. Until 1882, it had taken three to four hours by stage from Catskill Point to the Mountain House, a distance of twelve miles. Once the Otis Elevating Railroad began operation, travel from New York to the Mountain House, a 125-mile trip, took approximately equal time.

 

ARTISTS AND THE NORTHERN CATSKILLS [BOARD 8]

The beauty of the Catskill Mountains beckoned artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848) as he first journeyed up the Hudson to Catskill in the summer of 1825. That fall, Cole returned to New York City with pencil sketches of scenic Greene County locations and transformed them into landscape paintings that quickly drew praise from art critics and collectors. Eventually, Cole moved to Catskill, married local resident Maria Bartow, and raised a family on Spring Street, where his house, Cedar Grove, still stands.

 

In 1844-1845, the 18-year-old Frederic Church studied under Cole in Catskill. Church eventually became a major American landscape painter in his own right and built Olana, his Persian-style home directly across the river from Cedar Grove. Because of Cole's significance, many other prominent artists also came to sketch and paint the northern Catskills, including Sanford Gifford, Jervis McEntee, Asher B. Durand, John Kensett, G.G.B. Stone, Albertus Browere, and Charles Herbert Moore.

 

After an unexpected illness in 1848, Cole died in Catskill at the age of forty-seven. During his short life, he produced more than 200 paintings and was also a musician, architect, poet, and essayist. In time, Cole was credited as the father of the "Hudson River School" of landscape painting‑-a group of artists working from the 1830s to the 1870s who provided the American people with a recognizable image of their nation and landscape in art.

 

CATSKILL POINT IN THE 20TH CENTURY [BOARD 9]

Tourism in the Catskill Mountains reached its peak in the years 1882 to 1915 when as many as 400,000 visitors came to the region each year. During the summer season, two day liners per day arrived at Catskill Point, one in the early morning sailing south and one in the mid-afternoon sailing north.

 

By the end of World War I, local train service lost riders, partly because of the growing popularity of the automobile. In 1918, the Catskill Mountain Railroad and Otis Elevating Railway ended service, to be sold as scrap metal for the war effort.

 

Though many Greene County hotels and boarding houses continue to operate today, the Catskill Mountain House became unprofitable in the 1930s and opened its doors for the last time in the summer of 1942. At 6 a.m. on January 25, 1963, the New York State Department of Conservation burned the Mountain House, now called a "fire and safety hazard."

 

By the late 1920s, steamboat patronage on the Hudson declined, a trend that accelerated during the Depression. The Night Line ended service in 1941, but the Day Line continued, eliminating deficits briefly in 1942-43 due to increased passenger traffic during war rationing.

 

On September 13, 1948, the last regular steamship service between New York City and Albany ended. Catskill Point lost its last remaining link with the big boats that had helped make it such a vital, 19th-century place.

 

Today, the day liners and night liners of the past have been replaced by recreational boats and the liveliness of Dutchmanís Landing, the village park on the river just north of Catskill Point. Catskillís waterfront retains its vitality but in a way much different from its 19th-century use as a transportation and shipping terminal.

 

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