Incorporated in 1806, Catskill was the river port for the Susquehanna Turnpike, which linked the Hudson with the Susquehanna River in western New York’s Otsego County, and earned the village its status as “the outlet of trade from the interior of the state…making Catskill the most important place on the Hudson,” according to an early historian.
Like so many river towns, Catskill endured a past of ebbing and flowing fortunes. Ice harvested from the Hudson was shipped downriver, an industry that ended with the advent of electric refrigeration. Brick making, tanning, boatbuilding, milling, fishing, and other commercial booms flourished, then died (early, “Catskill”-inscribed bricks are prized relics). Tourism, however, was another story. From the start of the 19th century, the village was a favorite of visitors escaping New York City’s summer heat to marvel at the spectacular scenery. Traveling by coach, and later (and more speedily) by steamships making twice-weekly runs to and from the city, tourists filled the area’s guesthouses and hotels.
But for sheer splendor, nothing compared to the Catskill Mountain House. Built in 1824 by merchants from the Village of Catskill on a mountain plateau, it was acclaimed as among the grandest hotels in the world. Never mind that it was a bumpy, five-hour trip from the riverfront and up the mountain by stagecoach; those fashionable travelers were hell bent on sashaying along the hotel’s neo-classical, colonnaded porches, enjoying the views. Eventually stagecoaches gave way to a cog railroad built by The Otis Elevator Company, extending from the riverfront to the mountaintop; automobiles made the train and tracks passe, and they were sold for scrap. Long after the last visit by a president (Teddy Roosevelt) and the wealthy clientele had moved on to the Adirondacks, the Mountain House was burned to the ground. But the breathtaking views remain, as do the other natural wonders of the mountains, winter and summer sports, and other adventures, all an easy ride from Catskill.
And so, let’s descend from the mountaintop to the village, and another fascinating, local saga of major proportions. The Hudson River School of landscape painting was born in Catskill at Cedar Grove, the homestead of painter Thomas Cole. Imagine…before Olana existed as even a Moorish-inspired fantasy, the young Frederic Church was a student at Cole’s side. In the studio and on painting excursions, Cole shared his unique vision with his protege, the first in a long line of disciples. His home and studio, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, are where the story of America’s first great painting tradition begins, and your visit to Olana (and a true understanding of the Hudson River School) starts here.