Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Feb. 4, 2020

Grand Hotels and Railroad Travel

Grand Hotels and Railroad Travel
Apple Podcasts podcast player badge
Spotify podcast player badge
Google Podcasts podcast player badge
Amazon Music podcast player badge
Castro podcast player badge
RSS Feed podcast player badge

In this episode, hear from Jon Ham and Bob Gildersleeve about the grand hotels that attracted visitors at the turn of the century, and the trains that got them there. Also... "mutton?!" How one hotel's refusal to serve chicken led to the construction of a famous competitor. 

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support


Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai

This episode is sponsored by Mama's Boy Burgers. Every Mama's Boy burger is made from local humanely raised grass fed beef right here on the mountaintop. Stop in for a burger, fries, and a milkshake or for a cone of creamy frozen custard. Mama's Boy Burgers is located at the only traffic light in Tannersville. Open daily at 11:30. Great food in the great outdoors. Mama's Boy.

Brett Barry  0:03  
Welcome to Kaatscast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture, and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. In this episode, we hear from Bob Gildersleeve and John Ham about the great hotels that attracted visitors to the northern Catskills at the turn of the century, and the railroads that got them there. We met at a 1913 railroad station on the campus of the Mountain Top Historical Society in Haines Falls, New York.

Bob Gildersleeve  0:31  
Hi, I'm Bob Gildersleeve. Nice to meet you. I'm the archivist at the Historical Society. This is our 1913 train station and I'd like to show you inside. The station was turned into a home in the 1940s; returning soldiers parents purchased it for them and turned it into a home. When he hadn't, he lowered the ceilings. He lowered the windows, benches were gone, partitions were put in the building, turned into a nice little home. Eventually, at one of our board meetings, someone said the train station is up for sale, we got it, we got the money to...to restore it; a new roof reconstruction on the inside to return it to as best we could to the way it was in 1913 when it was...when it was built. Fortunately, when we pulled the sheet rock off, we saw that the original wainscoting was still here. So the building's been restored. We've been told that it's the gold standard of rail stations along the U&D Line. U&D is Ulster and Delaware...and eventually that mine became part of the New York Central System. We try to have it open...couple of times a month during the tourist season during the summer, when people will walk the Kauterskill Rail Trail. You can walk along the rail trail takes you out to the parking lot at Laurel House Road. From there, it's about a short walk down to a viewing platform that was put in by the state; a couple of years ago giving, you know, very nice views of the falls. But also there's a bridge that was just put in that will take you to the trails around North South Lake looking down into Kauterskill Clove for looking out over the Hudson Valley incredible views from there. I've been told by local; I'm an old timer. It's the best views for the least effort of anywhere in the Catskills. Hi, John.

John Ham  2:31  
How are you?

Bob Gildersleeve  2:32  
This is John Ham.

John Ham  2:35  
My name is John Ham. I was born in Hunter in 1935 and I've lived here all my life. I was a village historian of Hunter for about 8 years till I decided that someone else should do it. But I've been involved in the history of this area for...as long as I can remember. The railroads up here with what brought about this entire area. There were two hotels up here really two possibly three (The Catskill Mountain House, The Laurel House) and until a railroad came there really wasn't much else. But the railroad came here when George Harding built the Hotel Kauterskill in 1880 and opened it in 1882, and he convinced the railroad; the Ulster and Delaware to build a branch line from Phoenicia to Hunter and to Haines Falls and Kauterskill for the new hotel and that opened the doors. By 1913, there were 30,000 bedrooms within a 20 mile radius of Hunter and Tannersville; and in 1913, the Ulster and Delaware Railroad transported nearly three quarters of a million passengers from Kingston into the mountains. So that'll give you an idea how the railroads and the hotels were conjunction because one spawned the other. In 1912, in the town of Hunter, there are 135 different hotels and boarding houses will give you an idea; the Granger or the area and it lasted until World War I came around and the automobile put pretty much the end to it. People wanted to travel further and they wanted to do things and not come and sit on a porch as they had done in the past. The hotels themselves were works of art. If you take a look at some of the architecture of the photographs that you see, the Catskill Mountain Houses; the oldest hotel in the Catskill Mountains that was built in the 1820s.

Bob Gildersleeve  4:22  
The Catskill Mountain House brought in a lot of people including the Harding family from Philadelphia. Harding's daughter, according to legend, had graves disease and was unable to eat fat or head to limit the fat content of a food. They were serving mutton; according to one story that I heard. Harding went to the kitchen and said, "Can you get chicken for my...for my daughter?" They said, "Well, no, we don't have chickens on the menu." So he went to Beach, the owner of the Mountain House and asked him to have chicken prepared for his daughter. He said, "We don't have that menu was fixed." They got into a bit of a fight. Beach told Harding, "If you don't like the way we run things here, build your own hotel...and he did." A few years later, he opened a bigger hotel higher.

John Ham  5:12  
The Hotel Kauterskill was the largest frame hotel in the world after the annex was built on it in 1903. It can house 1,200 people. That's guests and staff and it was a huge, huge operation.

Bob Gildersleeve  5:28  
The Catskill Mountain House was burned in early 1960s; controlled fire by the state after had quarters; it was in very bad shape at the time. There's not much at all left of the Catskill Mountain House except the view. The Hotel Kauterskill, on the other hand, people go there and think there's nothing. If you know where to look, you can find foundations; remnants of where the barns were where the annex was. It's an interesting hike from the Catskill Mountain House site; a couple miles to the side of Hotel Kauterskill.

John Ham  6:02  
The Catskill Mountain Railroad System was a narrow gauge railroad that was built in conjunction more or less with the coming of the hotels. Charles Beach owned the Catskill Mountain House. He also was a major investor in the Catskill Mountain Railroad System, which was built from Catskill to Palennville, and that was built in 1882, in conjunction with the opening of the Hotel Kauterskill, and of course, to serve the Mountain House, with that railroad ran to the bottom of the mountain. There was still about a four mile trek up the mountain by stagecoach, which is just nerve racking for people who were taking it, and finally in 1892, Beach says, "I got to do something." So we made a contract with the Otis Elevator Company in Yonkers to design and build a funicular railroad right up the face of the mountain, which was 1,700 feet in elevation up it came, and they built that in a period of a year and a half and it was a marvelous thing was supposedly called the engineering feat of the 19th century and I do believe he may be right on that. The railroad itself could go from the bottom of the mountain to the top of the mountain in 10 minutes, whereas it used to take approximately two and a half to three hours by stagecoach up the Old Mountain Turnpike.

Bob Gildersleeve  7:18  
We have a picture postcard of the Otis Elevating Railway. On the back, a woman has written...it's like a trip to the moon to sit in a chair, looking down the tracks, traveling for nine minutes to get to the top of the mountain. There is an existing trestle about halfway up, that's still there. I was hiking that a number of years ago with a friend of mine. We've got to trust that we thought maybe we'd walk across it, but at least we just said. No, we don't. We did no way. We want to walk across that trestle. So we decided to go around it and we ran into a bear. So there's still remnants of the...of the Otis there.

John Ham  7:56  
Well, the automobile was demise definite caused the demise of the railroad who no question about it. Because the automobile gave people range that they did not have and they could go where they wanted to by themselves and as the state built the roads made them better and better. The need for the railroad passenger service went into decline and it just went on for years...and (then) finally, the state started building airports and all this stuff and the railroads are paying taxes on all the property. Airports and highways that were being built. We're all free. So it's just putting in absolute difficult financial problem on the railroads...and finally, they just gave it all up and said...alright, that's what they want to do, will no longer run the trains, and the last train came up here on the mountaintop on a night to September in 1939...and the station served it. The hotels made this area; the railroad made the hotel without one, the other would not exist...and that's gospel. I was young, very young, five years old, wrote a steam locomotive in the cab of a steam locomotive on a train through the notch. That's where route 214 goes through between Plateau Mountain and Hunter Mountain. Now, rail service ended here in 1940. But I remember that like it was yesterday and I ride up through there today and I can still see where the road bed is. You don't see it when there's foliage on the trees. But to walk during the wintertime or in the early spring, you can see it and you know right where these places are in the memories come back. That place is pretty much unchanged. Some of the buildings around are still fairly much as they were. I think the one that impresses me the most of looking the same as it was when I was young (is a) Washington Irving in down between Tannersville and Hunter. They've done a marvelous job of restoring that building. It's beautiful inside to great place to stay older. My children have stayed over when they visit is the woodwork in there is exactly the same as it was back in probably 1915. The stairs creak the same, the floors creak the same, the chairs are more comfortable. But the food is fabulous in there, and it's like everything else around. Everyone is trying to bring back something of what was at one time and that I commend people for. You're starting to see a rebirth up here because this area right here is opening up, really, I think back to an era similar to what it was years ago.

Bob Gildersleeve  10:34  
More recently, with the opening of the Kauterskill Rail Trail, rather unique rail trail in that it has a lot of history. The ties are still in place to the chagrin of some of the mountain bikers who ride on it. But to me, to people interested in history, it's very unique to start at a train station to walk along a trail that still has signs of the original construction, passing beautiful stone culverts and ending up at one of the highest waterfalls in New York State. Kauterskill Falls and on to a whole network of trails on South Mountain and the whole eastern escarpment of the Catskills to a large extent. If you look at drawings or paintings that were done in the 1800s, and go to that same place today, there's gonna be more trees, there's gonna be less open fields. But it's essentially the same today as it was 150 years ago. Any place that is great as this one is brings people for a number of different reasons whether they're mountain biking, whether they're hiking, whether they're fishing, whether they're walking the trails, they come for a number of different reasons, people still setting up their easels and painting the scenery around here; that aspect of it. The nature aspect of it hasn't changed. It's what brought people to the mountain house 'turies in the mountain house was built. It's the reason people came through the 19th century, and it's the reason people are coming back, and North South Lake is one of the best campsites in New York State. The trails are as beautiful now as they ever were, and the reason for coming is to see those kinds of things, and North South Lake is a great campground to do it.

Brett Barry  0:00  
Thanks to Bob Gildersleeve and John Ham and to Tony Coretto for the piano ragtime music and to our sponsor, the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce. Providing services to businesses, community organizations, and local governments in the Central Catskills region. Follow the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook, and sign up for a weekly email of local events at centralcatskills.com. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please don't forget to subscribe and we'll see you again in two weeks. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.