In this episode, you’ll hear from historian Cyndi LaPierre on the history of the word "Catskills," and if you’re wondering why Kaatscast starts with a “K,” instead of a “C,” this segment should help clear things up. In the second half of the show, we’ll travel to Kaaterskill falls with geologist Bob Titus, who takes us back even further, to when the Catskills felt more like … the Bahamas!
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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai
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, you'll hear from historian Cyndi LaPierre on the history of the word "Catskills," and if you're wondering why Kaatscast starts with a "K," instead of a "C," this segment will help clear things up. In the second half of the show, we'll travel to Kaaterskill Falls with geologist Bob Titus, who takes us back even further, to when the Catskills felt more like...the Bahamas! But for now, back to the present, on a blustery January day. When I met up with Cyndi LaPierre at the beautiful Mountain Top Library in Tannersville, New York.
Hey, Cyndi, great to see you again. Happy New Year.
Cyndi LaPierre 0:55
Hey, Brett, Happy New Year to you. It's good to see you.
Brett Barry 0:58
So we're here at the Mountain Top Library in Tannersville, New York, and if there's anyone who can explain where the word "Catskills" came from both with the "C" and with the "K," it would be you. So if you could tell us, first of all, why it would be you what is your role here on the mountain top from a historical perspective?
Cyndi LaPierre 1:19
From a historical perspective, I am a board member of the Mountain Top Historical Society. I've been in that position and have been president of that organization. I'm no longer president, but I'm still on the board. I've been on the board since about 2000. So it's been a while. I've lived on...on the mountain top for 50 years now, even though I didn't come from here and I've been learning a lot in all those years. Fortunately, I don't have to come up with this information all by myself. There are the experts like Alf Evers, and his most important book was "The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock," and one of the other board members of the Historical Society, a while back, did a collection of old articles about the Catskills and about Kauterskill Falls.
Brett Barry 2:17
What's that book called?
Cyndi LaPierre 2:18
This is the Falls of Kauterskill; artists, writers, poets and tourists. This was published by the Mountain Top Historical Society. The gentleman's name is Ron Decker. Ron is no longer with us, but this is a great compilation of information. The Mountain Top Historical Society, which has been in existence since about 1972. It is a very dedicated group of volunteers who run programs. Throughout the summer, we're usually open from May until the end of October, we have a visitor center on Route 23A, just as you reach the top of Kauterskill Clove. We have information about the Hudson River School Art Trail, we have information about the Kauterskill Rail Trail, and all the hiking trails in North South Lake State Park. Plenty of things to do connections to businesses along 23A in Tannersville and the village of Hunter, and certainly, you know directions on how to find all kinds of wonderful things to do. The visitor center itself is open during the spring, summer, fall...Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons and Saturdays and Sundays from ten to four. On our website: mths.org, you can find all kinds of information about us, including programs we have coming up, we always have a speaker at least once a month and we do guided hikes, and anyone is welcome to join us. Look us up. mths.org.
Brett Barry 3:58
So how are the Catskills discovered and/or does that have any relationship timewise to when they were named?
Cyndi LaPierre 4:06
While they were seen in the distance by people traveling up the Hudson River, explorers originally traveling up the Hudson River. Later, they were seen by artists, writers, traveling up the Hudson River. Interestingly, Washington Irving, whose writings about Rip Van Winkle helped to popularize the Catskills. He never set foot in the Catskills, but looked at them from the distance from being on the...on the Hudson River. The Dutch started settlements along the river down in the valley where the village of Catskill in the town of Catskill are now. But it wasn't until after the American Revolution that people started settling up on the mountain. Okay, it was seen as too harsh. It was. There's very little arable land, tough winters, short growing season. Alfalfa is even describes how you know, you're in the Catskills and he says, it's because you're in a spot where there's one dirt to every three rocks. So not...not a lot of good farming. He had to be hardy to live up here. Even the Native Americans who lived in the Hudson Valley didn't come up and stay in the mountains. They would go through on their way to hunting grounds or spend some time doing hunting, but they did not live up here in the mountains. The area was inhabited not by people, but by the big cats, catamounts, panthers, or mountain lions, okay, which you could hear screaming at night, and sort of...focus the imagination. I think it may have focused Washington Irving's imagination when he thought about it, but those are the big cats that the area was named after.
Brett Barry 5:49
Bobcats, which we still have, right?
Cyndi LaPierre 6:12
And bobcats, we still have and if you talk to locals, there are some who have absolutely...absolutely documented sightings of mountain lions, even though if you talk to New York State DEC, they will tell you there are no more mountain lions in Syria.
Brett Barry 6:31
Have heard a lot of back and forth on that one.
Cyndi LaPierre 6:34
It does go back and forth.
Brett Barry 6:36
So the Dutch are responsible for naming it the Catskill Mountains are the Katsbergs. Can you tell me what that means?
Cyndi LaPierre 6:43
Okay, Katsberg. The cats is pretty obvious. Okay, that's the big cats. In fact, it's a he-cat or a tomcat of the species. Kill is a stream. Oh, I'm sorry, we were on Berg. Berg is a mountain. In fact, there's a new restaurant in the village of Hunter called Jagersberg, which is Hunter Mountain. So, the Katsbergs were the mountains. The streams that came down through and from the mountains were the Kills...also, Dutch. According to Alf Evers, in 1655, there was a map called the Visscher Map (V-I-S-S-C-H-E-R) of New Netherlands, which was a Dutch name for New York, that designated what were plainly meant for the Catskills. The Hooge Landt van Esopus...okay, H-O-O-G-E, the Huge Land of the Esopus. To the north of the Hooge Landt lies what seems to be valley called Landt van Kats Kill, two separate words. Above this, more mountains are sketched in, but are not given name. They are evidently meant for the Northern Catskills, which were apparently confused with the Helderbergs. So, the Visscher Map has decided value in clearing up the mystery of how the Catskills got their name. It illustrates one stage in a process by which many American river names came through given to other geographic features including mountains. The early explorers, the rivers they traveled were the very first importance and so were given the names while the landscape features continued nameless. For example, the Allegheny River lends its name to the Allegheny Mountains, the Mississippi River eventually gave name to a state. The word "Esopus" is a Europeanized form of an Algonquian word for a broker or small stream. So the Dutch settlers applied it to the stream that rises in the Catskills and enters the Hudson and what becomes Saugerties. So that's south from where we are here in the Northern Catskills, but it's like right on the edge of it. If you go...if you go down to Phoenicia and follow the Esopus going east to Saugerties. You're in the same...in that same spot.
Brett Barry 9:01
I guess at a certain point. Everything in the whole region became known as just the Catskills.
Cyndi LaPierre 9:05
Yes, there's another interesting book that was written by a gentleman from Ohio. He traces the use of the word "Catskills" for the mountains, I think first up here, but then it sort of traveled down toward New York City. Because the area that a lot of New York City people are used to calling the Catskills is the Southern Catskills or the Sullivan County Catskills, the area that everybody knows from "Dirty Dancing," places where the famous comedians always went. So, the closer to the city, Catskills became a resort area became known later than the Northern Catskills. That's us. The Great Northern Catskills.
Brett Barry 9:58
Which is mainly Greene County?
Cyndi LaPierre 9:59
Mainly Greene County. That's correct. Skirts on Northern Ulster County.
Brett Barry 10:05
And one of the biggest spots here for tourism is Kaaterskill Falls, which is the most famous waterfall or waterfalls in the region. So Kaaterskill or as you say, Kauterskill. I guess that's a variation of Catskill. Can you talk about that?
Cyndi LaPierre 10:20
If you look at the list of names that were used in 1795, we see Kaats (K-A-A-T-S) and then a space with the Kill, separate with a capital K, and then by 1824, which is about...about the time that we're talking about the Catskill Mountain House having been built. It's one word, then it's Kauterskill (with K-A-U-T-E-R), there's Kaaterskill, you'll hear all kinds of different pronunciations. There are some who are absolutely set that it's Kauterskill there are those who've always said Kaaterskill or Kaaterskill.
Brett Barry 11:02
And that goes back to the Dutch. What are you talking about the Tomcat being K-A-A-T?
Cyndi LaPierre 11:07
That's correct, goes back to the Dutch. This is from "A Gazetteer of the State of New York," written by Horatio Gates Spafford. In 1824, he says "Kauterskill" or (he) "Cats Creek," a fine millstream from the south, coming from the Katsbergs or the Catskill Mountains, we ought to write (K-A-A-T-S-KILL) for the creek, Katsbergs for the mountains and let the people have Catskill (C-A-T-S-K-I-L-L) for the name of their township and village to which they seem so wedded. These names are purely Dutch, and nobody can object to the propriety of using them. The same author. The abundance of wild animals of the cat species in the mountains of this country was marked alike by the Aboriginals and the early white inhabitants who applied appropriate names. Tradition has it as a fact that the Indian name for the Katsbergs or Catskill Mountains express the same meaning as that given by the early Dutch inhabitants, which was Katsbergs; cats' mountains, or hills. The natural scenery of this county partakes more of the sublime and magnificent than any other portion of this state...and those of us that promote Greene County Tourism. Take that last sentence very seriously.
Brett Barry 12:33
Great. So do you approve of our podcast name? Should we have gone with a "C"? Should we have called up the COTS-cast? What's your thought on that?
Cyndi LaPierre 12:42
I think Kaatscast sounds wonderful and I think starting with the "K" going back to...you know...the Dutch history that's the K-A-A-T-S is what we use...still use for Kauterskill Falls. So it's delightful.
Brett Barry 13:00
Thank you so much, Cyndi. I appreciate it.
Cyndi LaPierre 13:03
Oh, you're very welcome, Brett. Thanks for calling on me.
Brett Barry 0:00
Kaaterskill Falls or Kauterskill Falls are one of America's oldest tourist attractions...and today they draw 100,000 visitors each year. For a striking view from the top, take North Lake Road in Haines Falls to Laurel House Road. At the end is a parking area and a trail to the Kaaterskill Falls viewing platform. For your safety, please wear sensible shoes and stay on the march trails. Coming up next...Geologist Robert Titus transports us through time from this very platform at the top of the falls.
Robert Titus 0:41
Thanks for coming to the Catskills. We're so glad to have you visit. I'd like you while you're here, to be able to transport yourself into the past to see it as it was 380 million years ago a tropical landscape and to see it as it was 20,000 years when it was encased in ice, never forgetting to see it exactly as it is today...one of nature's most beautiful locations.
Brett Barry 1:13
Robert Titus is a paleontologist (who) with his wife Johanna has explored and written about Catskills geology for decades. The Tituses are the authors of the Catskills geologic guide and the Catskills during the Ice Age. He explains that the Catskills are the petrified delta at the bottom of what was once a towering mountain range.
Robert Titus 1:35
I'd like to take you back about 380 million years in time, to a time period called the Devonian, and I'd like you to imagine that you're flying over what would someday be the Catskill Mountains. If you look down, you're going to see an enormous vast expanse of a great delta. In the modern day world, you'd have to travel to Bangladesh, and see something called the Ganges River Delta there, which is a huge Delta just barely above sea level, densely populated by jungle trees. that exact same image would apply those 380 million years ago here in the Catskills. If you look to the east, you would see something equivalent to the Himalayan mountains, a great rising mountain range called the Acadians...towering above New York State. Down below, you would be a jungle of forest, a densely foliated landscape, but the trees would be primitive. You wouldn't have to be a professional botanist to recognize that. It was evolutions first. Forest ecology. That's a remarkable thing. The Catskill Mountains are a petrified delta. We stand on the viewing platform and we look east and in our mind's eye, we can imagine those mountains rising above that horizon. The lower slopes are brick red, the middle slopes are gun metal blue, and the upper slopes are white having been covered by snow, we stand and we look 30,000 feet into the sky, and then in our mind's eye, we imagine it melting away. We imagined weathering disintegrating the rocks and erosion carrying that disintegrated material down great pounding whitewater streams, carrying sediment on to the Catskill Delta and positing that sediment as the delta. We stand and we watch as millions of years go by, and right in front of us, those mountains sort of melt away, they gradually disintegrate and disappear.
Brett Barry 3:54
Let's rewind now, just 25,000 years..for a look at Kaaterskill Cloves creation.
Robert Titus 4:00
I like you to stand on the viewing platform and I'd like you to look down the canyon. In your mind's eye. I'd like you to go back about 25,000 years, and in the distance, I would like you to see the appearance of a glacier. An enormous ice sheet has developed covering all of Canada and much of the United States, and great tongues of ice have come down the Hudson Valley. Some of that ice has branched off to the west, risen up Kaaterskill Clove. And now, we're standing here it's 25,000 years ago, and we watch and we see the white appear at the bottom of our canyon. We see it turned North we see it rising towards us, and then below us, the eye swells up higher and higher and higher and reaches up above the...what is today...Kaaterskill Falls, that ice will not stop moving forward until it reaches South Lake and thousands of years ticking away, and then it gets warm again, and we hear cracking sandwiches, the ice is breaking up, and we hear trickling sounds as meltwater is making its way downwards through those fractures, and then all around us, we sense that a great volume of water at the bottom of the glacier is cascading down the canyon. There is an enormous subglacial stream right here, going down this part of Kaaterskill Clove and reaching a bigger stream in the proper part of Kaaterskill Clove itself. It is the flow of that water more than anything else that created Kaaterskill Clove and the canyon that lies immediately below Kaaterskill Falls. I'd like a casual visitor to our area to look out for two types of rock. The first is a great mass of sandstone, and that's what makes up the top of Kaaterskill Falls. I'd like you to think about that and take another look at it. Those sands were deposited in the channel of a sizable river that flows across the Catskill Delta, a river is big probably as the Hudson itself. The other type of rock that I'd like you to look for, if you get a chance to go underneath the falls, you'll see a thinly bedded, almost laminated, red shaley-type of rock, and those were the floodplain deposits. Those are the muds in the silts and the clays that were deposited on the floodplain that lay in between the channels of those streams. This was a tropical landscape back then, it was only 20 degrees south of the equator. It was a...
Brett Barry 6:55
Wait...wait...wait! Did he say the Catskills were 20 degrees south of the equator? Well, if you can jog your grade school memory, this is where plate tectonics comes in. Titus explains...
Robert Titus 7:06
We recognize that there was something called continental drift since early part of the twentieth century. The evidence is pretty convincing about this...that what we call the Catskill Mountains, the northeastern United States. 380 million years ago, had been located south of the equator. 20 degrees south of the equator is about as far away from the equator as the Bahamas are today. So our climate here in the Catskills was Bahamian, and in tropical landscapes, red soils are formed and these red soils have been petrified, as I said, into what I'm calling a petrified delta.
Brett Barry 7:48
Just up the road from Kaaterskill Falls is North and South Lake, another product of the last ice age.
Robert Titus 7:55
I'd like you to go up to the Mountain House ledge, and I'd like you to look into the Hudson Valley below. Look to the north towards Hudson towards Albany, and see in your mind's eye, a glacier coming down the Hudson Valley. Watch as it swells and rises, most of the glacier won't stop until it gets to Long Island, but the valley is going to gradually built with ice, it will come right up to the top of the ledge and then look to the north where North Lake is the ice will flow over the top of the Catskill Mountain Front and flood into what today is North Lake. When you have a glacier moving like that, it scours into the bedrock and this glacier scoured the basin that we call North Lake. Given a chance, I'd like you to walk down to the shores of North Lake and you'll see a bedrock shoreline...look carefully, you don't have to look that carefully. You will see scratches in the bedrock. Those scratches were placed there when that glacier of which I speak, drag boulders across that surface and scratched that surface. Stand there look at the striations are called glacial striations. Looking in the direction that they're going which is to the west and imagine the glacier scouring out North Lake, turn around, look to the east and imagine in your mind's eye, the ice coming towards you. North and South Lake were scoured by the advance of ice during the Ice Age. What a wonderful thing to think about how much change there can be over hundreds of millions of years.