The Mountain Houses: An excerpt from Stephen Blauweiss and Karen Berelowitz upcoming book

America’s first tourist trap might have been what was known as the Rip Van Winkle house. (Photos courtesy of Library of Congress)

From the 1820s to the 1920s, the Catskills region was a premier resort destination. Painter Thomas Cole and writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper helped romanticize and popularize the region as a tourist destination.

Bluestone sculpture of Rip Van Winkle at the top of Hunter Mountain Ski Resort.


Irving’s story of Rip VanWinkle sparked the imagination of city dwellers about the magic and spirit of the area. Published in 1819, it tells the tale of a Dutch colonist who fell asleep in 1769 and awakened 20 years later to a changed post-independence America.?e legend is commemorated widely today in countless namesakes including a bridge across the Hudson River in Catskill and the sculpture at the top of the Hunter Mountain Ski Resort.

Postcard of the Catskill Mountain House and front lawn where guests enjoy stunning views of the Catskills.

The Catskill Mountain House opened in 1824, the first of its kind in America. It was located just 12 miles from the town of Catskill, but the last three miles of the journey were almost straight uphill and took @ve hours.?e hotel had no plumbing or electricity, but it could still be seen from the town of Catskill, the windows lit by candlelight at night. Built in the Greek Revival style of architecture that dominated in the U.S. at the time, the hotel was expanded and renovated in the mid-1840s, adding Corinthian columns that were originally intended for a church in New Orleans.?e property had marked trails which led to great vistas, waterfalls, and two lakes.

The luxurious palace in the middle of the wilderness was a getaway restricted to wealthy, white, Christian city dwellers. Sunday church services were mandatory. More hotels popped up in the area during the mid-to late-19th century. By the turn of the century, so many hotels and boarding houses had opened that there were 30,000 bedrooms available within a 20-mile radius. In the late 19th century, the railroad transported a wide array of people to the region, some just for the day. In 1913 alone, the Ulster & Delaware (U&D) brought almost 750,000 passengers to the region.

The Otis Elevating Railway heading up to the Catskill Mountain House, visible at the top left of the photograph.

The Otis Elevating Railway was a 7,000-foot funicular railroad built in 1892 as a faster and more direct route up the 1,600-foot incline to the CatskillMountainHouse.Competition was fierce, as nearby hotels were continuously expanding and improving, and owners had to keep up. A major feat of engineering, it was the longest cable incline railway in the country and third largest in the world. It drastically reduced the hours-long stagecoach ride but cut a giant scar into the mountainside.?e 15-mile Catskill Mountain Railway traveled directly from steamships docked in the town of Catskill to theOtis Junction Station from where passengers could catch a ride up.?e elevating railway remained in operation until 1918 after whichmuch of it was sold for scrap.A portion of the concrete trestle remains and is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Haines Corners Station of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad circa 1902 that brought tourists from NYC and Kingston up to the mountains.

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