The Heart of the Catskills - Purple Mountain Press


by Bob Steuding

From Chapter 1:


Until late into the nineteenth century, the Southern Catskills remained something of a mystery. For the most part, they were either misnamed or unknown. Although this area had been sparsely settled by the time of the American Revolution, and although, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the general depredation of the great forest, which covered this land like a vast, green tapestry had begun, in his massive study, The Geography of New York, state geographer J. H. Mather was to refer to the Southern Catskills in 1847 as simply "the Blue Mountains." Even as late as 1853-1854, when the noted Hudson River School artist Asher B. Durand sketched and painted in the townships of Olive, Denning and Shandaken, he, too, incorrectly referred to this place as "the Shandaken Mountains."

Not until Professor Arnold Henry Guyot of Princeton University surveyed and mapped the Catskills in the 1860s and 1870s, dividing them into northern and southern sections, and proving that the lands to the southwest of the Esopus Creek were, in fact, part of the Catskill range, did interest shift from the Northern Catskills and the region of the Catskill Mountain House to these rugged and seemingly inhospitable mountains to the south.

It was the naturalist John Burroughs, however, aided by extensive promotion initiated by the Ulster and Delaware Railroad, which began to serve this area in the early 1870s and opened the Grand Hotel above Pine Hill in 1881, who was to fix in the public mind this locale of wild lands, which stretch away from today's Ashokan Reservoir to the headwaters of the Beaverkill. After noting in 1869 in his essay "Birch Browsings," that he had seen this section of the "Catskill range" on some maps of the state, with "obvious local impropriety," called the "Pine Mountains," Burroughs was to correct this error by publishing the record of his 1885 ascent of Slide Mountain in The Century magazine in August of 1888. This essay, one of his most popular and enduring, was called, significantly, "The Heart of the Southern Catskills."

Yet, before the 1780s, few people wished to live in the Catskill Mountains at all, and certainly not in the Southern Catskills. The Dutch, who had settled the Hudson River Valley during the mid-seventeenth century, looked to the west and its forbidding mountains with fear and antipathy in their hearts, we are told. To these lowland farmers, who were firmly planted in the rich, alluvial soil along the river, the rocky and heavily forested mountain fastness of the Catskills hardly seemed desirable terrain. Even in 1708, after the Dutch had been dispossessed by the English and eight affluent and well-connected individuals-among them Johannis Hardenbergh of Kingston for whom their Hardenbergh Patent was named-were granted some million and one-half acres of Catskill mountain land by Edward Hyde, Colonial Governor of New York and representative of Queen Anne, no rush to purchase or lease this land ensued. Only in locations such as Olive on the Upper Esopus Creek in 1740 and at Eureka and Lackawack on the upper Rondout Creek in 1743, for example, did sparse settlement in the Southern Catskills predate the mid-century point.

The Heart of the Catskills by the author of the popular and highly acclaimed The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir describes the early settlement of the area, its exploitation by the tanning industry, and the building of the Grand Hotel near Belleayre. He presents the stories of colorful personalities, such as Jim Dutcher, the mountain man; John Burroughs, the writer and naturalist; and others, who once peopled this wild and beautiful place.

"When young Jimmy Dutcher hiked over the mountains from Prattsville to Shandaken in 1851, he was not traveling for pleasure; he was looking for work. His father had died two years earlier; his mother had remarried, and life had become tough for Jim at home. So Jim--13 years old at the time--left his family and set out in the world on his own. Like many other folk from the Northern Catskills, where the hemlock had been depleted, Jim headed south and found work."

So begins chapter ten of Steuding's projected three-volume social history of the Catskills High Peak Region. The Heart of the Catskills serves as a prologue to his first regional history, The Last of the Handmade Dams. Containing maps, numerous photographs, and an extensive bibliography of regional sources, The Heart of the Catskills was written over the last 10 years and was drawn from a wide range of sources, including old publications and newspapers, letters and diaries, church records, legal deeds, personal interviews, and even the contents of a dusty, cardboard box found in the broom closet of a local library.

In the preface Steuding writes: "More than 30 years ago, while working on another book, I interviewed a woman who was over 100 years old. She was 'sharp as a tack' and in full possession of her faculties. She had lived in the Esopus Valley before the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir and was the descendant of Catskill Mountain pioneers. 'We've lived, and that's all,' she said, when asked about her family. 'It's a drawn-out story, and it doesn't amount to much.' Nonetheless, I was deeply interested in that story. For this place, and those who settled it, their very names often forgotten, their lives marked only by a weathered gravestone or by the rubble of an abandoned farmhouse foundation found high up on the mountainside have fascinated me since I was very young. The study of the Catskill Mountains and those who have lived in them in the past, in fact, has become my lifework." In a recent interview, Steuding has said: "We live in an area where history is a living thing." I'm "honored and gratified" to have been able "to do what I can…to celebrate this place and commemorate its history."

A writer on Catskill Mountain and Hudson Valley subjects since the 1960s, Bob Steuding has served the region as a teacher, town historian, and county poet laureate. A native of the Catskills, Steuding is the author of two collections of poetry--Ashokan and Winter Sun--as well as A Catskill Mountain Journal; a critical biography of Pulitzer Prize poet Gary Snyder; and two other regional histories--The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir, Rondout: A Hudson River Port. Bob lives with his wife Martha in Olivebridge near the Ashokan Reservoir and is a Professor of English and Philosophy at SUNY Ulster.

150 pages, illustrated, 7 x 10, index, 2008
$15.00 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

E-mail the author

Copyright © 2008 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.