Arnold Guyot’s Catskills legacy

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

Pop quiz: what do the following have in common? Mt. Guyot in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Mt. Guyot in the Great Smoky Mountains, Mt. Guyot in the Colorado Rockies, the Guyot Glacier in southeastern Alaska, “guyots” (flat-top volcanic peaks common on the ocean floor), the Guyot crater on the Moon, Guyot Hall at Princeton University and Guyot Hill on the Mohonk Preserve?

Tough one, I know. The Swiss geologist Arnold Guyot left his mark, and his name, all over the world and beyond; but Mohonk and the Catskills held a special place in the brilliant and ambulatory scientist’s heart. He, in turn, did more to help us understand the nature and scope of the Catskills than just about anyone else in the region’s history.

Born at Bouldervilliers near Neuchatel in Switzerland, Guyot was an established academic at the Academy of Neuchatel and may never have begun his wandering ways had not the Academy closed its doors in 1848. Guyot was close friends with Louis Agassiz, and it was the eminent biologist and geologist who encouraged Guyot to seek work in the US. After giving a successful series of lectures titled “The Earth and Man” at the Lowell Institute in Boston (which became the basis for a textbook that remained in print until the 1970s), Guyot was appointed professor of Geology and Physical Geography at Princeton.


His academic achievements were formidable and many: He founded the Princeton Museum of Natural History; his meteorological work was indispensable to modern weather forecasting and led directly to the foundation of the US Weather Bureau (and is the reason why weather measurements have been done like clockwork at Mohonk since time immemorial). He published numerous books and maps. And back to the matter at hand, Arnold Guyot was an obsessive mapper and measurer of mountains, producing cutting-edge topographies of the Appalachian range and of his beloved Catskill Mountains – mostly, according to the great Catskill historian Alf Evers, by hiking an awful lot, year after year.

Guyot’s map of the Catskills radically redefined the physical and cultural understanding of the region. Before his work, the Mountain known as High Peak was unanimously considered the highest in the range, and the region of the Catskill Mountain House (where the North/South Lake campground is today) was generally thought to be the only part of the Catskills of real natural and cultural interest – a misconception that the House owners had no interest in changing.

Guyot set everyone straight, demoting High Peak, ultimately, to merely the 23rd-highest summit in the range and calling attention the natural treasures of Slide Mountain and the areas of the Catskills to the south and west, centered on what is today the Shandaken Wild Forest. Guyot’s map of the Catskills was published in the American Journal of Science in 1880, and after that, his enlarged and inclusive conception of the region gained immediate acceptance among travel and guidebook writers and thought leaders.

Guyot was also responsible for sorting out the naming of the Catskills as well, which, until his time, had been a morass of uncertainty, multiple names and general chaos. Perhaps his solution to the Round Top/High Peak mountain problem was inelegant – swapping their names because Round Top was actually higher, even though the original physical descriptions had been more apt – but Guyot’s obsessive measuring, characterizing and naming of peaks made the Catskills a more coherent, inclusive and approachable place.

Funny that the only regional spot named for the man who shaped our conception of the Catskills is Guyot Hill in New Paltz, in the Shawangunks, on the Mohonk Preserve by the golf course. Predictably, Guyot loved Mohonk and was a frequent guest. In 1884, the legendary scientist described Mohonk in a way that still nails its essence and its allure: “Few spots on our continent unite so much beauty of scenery, both grand and lovely, within so small a compass, to be enjoyed with so much ease.”