The Shawangunk Ridge loomed just over their shoulders as Ron Knapp and Michael Neil O’Donnell sat discussing their new book at the back balcony of the Mudd Puddle Café in New Paltz last week.
The Ridge had never looked better – not, at least, in the last 150 years or so. Knapp’s and O’Donnell’s book, which bears the rather unwieldy title The Gunks (Shawangunk Mountains) Ridge and Valley Towns through Time, offers plenty of proof of how much sweeter and greener the landscape is now than it was back when.
“People assume this was the primeval forest,” Knapp said, indicating with a nod of his head the Ridge and the farmland that lies at its base behind him. “But much of it was an ‘industrial’ landscape one hundred years ago.”
Indeed. As their book makes clear, until 1977, the Rail Trail just below the Mudd Puddle’s balcony was a passenger and finally a freight line that threw cinders and ash and noise into the ever-changing Village of New Paltz.
Change is The Gunks’ great subject: an illustrated history of the Ridge and most of the communities that have grown up in its shadow. It’s also what Knapp calls a tribute to the work of a single man whose impact on the Ridge and its surrounding towns and villages would be hard to overestimate: Albert Smiley, one of the visionary Quaker twins who transformed and preserved the Ridge with the creation of the Mohonk Mountain House.
Knapp is an expert on Chinese vernacular architecture and distinguished professor at SUNY-New Paltz, with more than 20 books to his credit. He and his friend, the late Dennis O’Keefe, began discussing the idea of creating a “then-and-now” book about the region that would draw on O’Keefe’s extensive postcard collection. The idea was to reshoot scenes from the past from the identical point of view, to see what had changed between back then and the present. But when O’Keefe died in 2006, Knapp “pretty much put it on the back burner.”
Knapp relit that burner about three years ago when he and O’Donnell began talking about the possibilities. O’Donnell, a self-described “data guy” by profession, is a landscape photographer of some repute and a member of the Mohonk Preserve’s corps of 50-some photography volunteers. O’Donnell and six other members of that cadre set about the sometimes-daunting task of matching archival photographs, not only of the Ridge, but also of New Paltz, Gardiner, Rosendale, High Falls and Marbletown.
It wasn’t always difficult to find a relevant point of view at places where structures still stood, O’Donnell said. But some locations had changed so drastically with the years that the group spent hours debating the accuracy of some of the presumed sites.
Discoveries were made and questions posed that remain unanswered: What explains the dramatic loss of lichens on the vertical surfaces of rock around Lake Mohonk? When and why were the eye-catching Italianate wraparound balconies of the New Paltz Hotel (née the Palmer House) at Main Street and Wurts Avenue removed? More generally, what were people thinking when they allowed the Phillies Covered Bridge to fall into disrepair and, ultimately, into the Wallkill River?
Out of all the exploration and research emerges a picture – multiple pictures – of a forgotten, long-ago landscape: one of bustling train depots gone silent; of trolley cars brimming with passengers whose tracks now lie buried beneath car-friendly asphalt; of indestructible-seeming steel bridges gone to rot; and, perhaps most poignantly, of the two great mountain houses at Lake Minnewaska that survived changing fashion, only to burn to the ground under mysterious circumstances in 1978 and 1986.
The Gunks documents the never-ending change that the region has encountered, craved and survived since the mid-19th century: the D & H Canal, the Catskill Aqueduct and, perhaps most importantly, the Mohonk Mountain House, out of which has grown not only a world-class resort, but also a way of seeing and being with nature through the Mohonk Preserve unlike almost anyplace on Earth.
Knapp credits Albert Smiley, who began creating Mohonk Mountain House in 1869 with his brother Alfred, who subsequently developed the Lake Minnewaska properties, with having the vision to find a way to “manipulate” the natural surroundings without exploiting or destroying them. When, for example, farming was losing favor and people going broke in the lands surrounding the Lake Mohonk hotel at the turn of the 20th century, Albert Smiley had the foresight to buy up the properties that ultimately became part of the Preserve.
The Gunks is both a reference work and one that allows the reader to make informed inferences. Between the often-stunning photography and Knapp’s clean, clear and concise descriptions, anyone with the slightest interest in local history will find the book as irresistible as the dynamic countryside that it so memorably documents.
The Gunks (Shawangunk Mountains) Ridge and Valley Towns through Time retails for $22.99 and is available at the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center, the Town of Gardiner Library, Barner Books, the Treehouse, Rock & Snow, Shapers, Handmade & More, Dedricks Pharmacy and Gifts, Mohonk Mountain House Gift Shop and Inquiring Minds Bookstore. All proceeds from the book’s sale will benefit the Mohonk Preserve.