THE KAATERSKILL: CLIPPINGS FROM THE PAST
By Francis Overbaugh
REPUTED TO BE THE LARGEST FRAME HOTEL IN THE WORLD
The following are a series of clippings on the Kaaterskill Mountain House which have been collected by me over the years. I have arranged them as sort of a story about this fabulous summer hotel which stood on the south east side of the Palenville Mountain.
This hotel has always been a fascinating part of my life and I have made many trips to its old foundations trying to visualize such an enormous undertaking. Built in 1881 when transportation was by horse and wagon it seems almost impossible that the amount of material to build such a large place could be hauled up a sheer side of a mountain.
Many is the story I have heard tell about the old hotel. Oliver Palmer, my wife,s grandfather, who was a farmer near Palenville, told me that he arose early in the morning and took truck loads of vegatables to the hotel arriving by breakfast time, breakfast was always served free to the drivers and delivery men.
He told of the waste that went on when the garbage was hauled off to feed hogs and many times a lazy waiter or waitress would scrape knife, fork, and plate with the garbage and the farmers below the mountain collected a nice lot of silverware and dishes from their feeders.
Having received permission from the N.Y.S. Conservation Department to dig there, we started an excavation of the ruins. I was assisted by Mr. Tony Zinnanti and part of Troop 44 Catskill Boys Scouts of which Mr. Zinnanti was leader and I was assistant.
Having acquired a floor plan of the hotel (in back of booklet) we proceeded to take measurements and dug in what was the kitchen. After about 4 feet of ash we came upon broken and burned crockery of all sort, out of it we got a day's pleasure and a dozen demi-tas coffee cups to show for our work.
I plan again some day soon to make the journey and try again for more adventure at this once famous spot.
Bart McQueen, who was one of the McQueen brothers, four-horse drivers carting merchandise from the Hudson River to
the old Kaaterskill Hotel, was best remembered for his prowess with a four-horse whip. He was reputedly able to knock a fly off the car of the lead horse—and never disturb a hair on the ear of the horse.
This is just one of the tales contained in a letter written to the Daily mail regarding our story of the burning of the old Kaaterskill Hotel. Mrs. James Wiltse, of Tannersville wrote us that her late father-in-law, Addison Wiltse, worked for the famous landmark one summer and drove the Westinghouse family around in a two-horse rig.
Her grandfather, George Showers, helped in building the hotel, and her husband, Jim Wiltse, delivered coal to the famous old hotel from which was then near South
According to Mrs. Wiltse, they commenced building the hotel in wintertime which was, of course, the most difficult time to build in the mountains then, because of the continuous cold, deep frost and heavy snows. However George W. Harding, the wealthy Philadelphia lawyer, who• was building the hotel was so anxious and eager to build his "spite house" in competition with the Mountain House, that he never let anything, even the elements, stand in his way.
The new mountain house near Sunset Rock, being built for Mr. Harding, and the accompanying improvements, give employment to a large force of men. At the site, near Sunset Rock, a large force of masons and carpenters, in charge of Elias L. Dutcher, have already finished the heavy foundation walls, and much of the frame is ready to be put together. The timber on the ground includes the largest sticks ever used in framing in this section. The plans for the building, furnished by the architect, Mr. S. D. Button of Philadelphia, are now at E. Lampman's steam carpenter shop, where a great portion of the carpenter work is already well progressed. Mr. Lampman received a telegram on the 16th of October. giving him the contract for the doors and trimming, window frames, including sash blinds, weights and cords, and already two hundred of the window frames and fittings are finished. and the remaining three hundred and fifty are ready to nut together as soon as they can he carried away. Mr. Lampman has also the contract for all thebase-boards and mouldings, the elaborate brackets and cornice, the dormer windows and caps, the painting of the windows, doors and blinds, etc., and much of this work is also well advanced. Mr. Charles Beardsley, of Lampman's shop, has charge of the architect's specifications and prepares the patterns and charts for the work, which is no light task, as there are 22 workmen employed in the shop, added to the machnes employed, some of which can alone do the work of 20 men. Everything goes ahead like clock-work, however, and the finshed work is highly complimented by the architect, who rates it with the best he has. None but extra-seasoned lumber is used.
The main building fronts southeast, is 324 ft. long, 4 stories high, towers on each end 34 ft. face, centre projection of middle towers 80 ft. The main piazza is 256 ft. long; the middle section under central tower is 22 ft. wide, and on either hand to the end towers 17ft. wide—giving an area of about 4800 sq. ft. to the main piazza. The balcony on the second floor, under central section, is 80x18 ft.-1440 sq. ft. Height of the different stories from floor to floor; first, 13 ft. 31/2 in.; second, 12 ft. lin.; third, 11 ft. 5% in.; fourth, 10 ft. The two towers on the end of the main building are each 34 ft. front, with observatories at the roof level, 48 ft. high. The main central tower is 108 ft. in height to the summit. The main hall, front entrance, 1st floor, is 50x41 ft., with Offices in the two front corners and main stairways at the opposite corners. From this rotunda stretch the main halls through the building and to the mian dining-room. The elevator is at the side of the main stairs. In the east end are grouped the barber-shop, smoking-room, reading-room, barroom, etc.; in the east tower a billard-room 34x34 ft. and a bowling alley 26x80 ft. in the wing attached. On the floor of the west end tower are private parlors. The rooms on each floor are all 16 ft. one way, and range from 9 ft. 1 in. to 12 ft. the other way. The projection under the main tower is supported by 12 large pillars, and the section of piazza on each side by 16 other pillars, the height of three stories. The brackets and cornice for the pillars are elaborate and striking in effect.
From the west end of the main building a wing 250 ft. by 42 ft. has been added, 4 stories high, filled out with private rooms. The dining-room wing, at right angles with the main building, projects from the centre tower, and is 214x42 ft., with a wing for servants' and children's room 20x30 ft. The kitchen, 60x30 ft. is to be floored with rubbed stone, from the Malden works. The dining-room section is 4 stories high; 1st floor is 15 ft. 31/2 ins.; 2d floor, main parlor (66x 42 ft.), with music room annexed (39x42 ft.), has 16 ft. ceilings. The 2nd floor above the north end of the dining-room is to be finished as a hall, with stage, for tableaux, theatrical representations, etc. The 3d floor is 11 ft. 53/4 in., and the fourth 10 ft., divided into private rooms. The entire building will be lighted by gas. The arrangements provide for a complete water supply, and the latest sanitary requirements for ventilation, sewerage, etc. Mr. Lampman is also at work on the stairs, of which there are 13 fights. The main staircases will be the finest in pattern and construction in the country. The completion of Harding's hotel will inaugerate and era of improved and larger buildings on the mountains. Many sites, for instance that on North Mountain, will probably be utilized within a few years. The new road up the north side of the Clove to Harding's hotel, is destined to be a favorite drive, and commands a splendid view of the scenery of the Clove and the country westward. The round trip hereafter will probably include the drive up the Mountain House road and back by Harding's road to Palenville. With the completion of the Catskill Mountain R. R. the people of the cities will discern that the top of the Catskill Mountains can be reached in about 41/2 hours, easy ride and little expense. This will cause a great increase in the number of summer visitors.—Catskill Recorder.
On Rock Bed
"The hotel was built on rock," Mrs. Wiltse wrote, "since South Mountain was composed mostly of a solid mass of flat, stony texture. It was securely anchored against the force of the powerful winds that blew over and against it, in stormy weather, in this unique fashion." Instead of a foundation, bolts were evidently secured in holes which had been drilled into the solid rock. Long rods, each about ten feet long, coupled to prevent snapping, were then secured to the structure of the building, the Tannersville woman said.
Elias Dutcher was the foreman. He engaged many local men as helpers, a mutual business arrangement," Mrs. Wiltse said. "The men were paid top wages but, believe me, they earned their wages in this project. My grandfather, George Showers, was one of the workers.
"It took over four years to complete the hotel, which is understandable when one considers that the building was over one-half mile long, in addition to being several stories high," Mrs. Wiltse stated. "There were one thousand bedrooms. Later, one thousand telephones were installed, one for each bedroom.
"The whole affair constituted one of the biggest projects ever attempted in the history of the mountains. Mr. Harding brought a surveyor from Philadelphia to build a private road up the mountain, but after a thorough study, the surveyor declared it could not be done, so wild and steep was the mountainside. Also, he was unfamiliar with the terrain. Then, so say local historians, Mr. Harding put the matter into the hands of Edward Dibble and Collins Hyser of Platte Clove, who proceeded to build one of the safest and finest roads, from an engineer's point of veiw, ever build, on any mountains in the world," Mrs. Wiltse continued.
"While it was thought that the Kaaterskill Hotel never paid for itself, being referred to as 'Harding's Folly,' nevertheless the hotel was run on a highly elaborate scale with the men's wages paid in gold pieces. Persumably chicken was served `round the clock."
According to Mrs. Wiltse, there were one hundred and forty horses owned by the hotel and extra wagons and carriages were hired from the area natives. Many wealthy notables came to the mountains to bask in the luxurious splendor of this magnificent hotel and its glamorous surroundings. "Mr. Harding seemingly had an inexhaustible fund of money," the Tannersville woman said. "He was referred to as the 'international lawyer' and if he lost money on the hotel he presumably made it up by impressions made on prospective and properous clients."
"It is true money seemed to flow like water from him. Nevertheless, he apparently was an astute man as far as gaining his purpose was concerned, "Mrs. Wiltse said, "and making certain that his prospective objectives were completed in a satisfactory manner, regardless of cost. Once he invited a local lady, of some fifty hardworking years, on a trip to the city of Philadelphia, where he gave her a deligtful time, showing her the sights and introducing her to city life.
"My late father-in-law, Addison Wiltse hired out at the Kaaterskill one summer. Among the guests were the Westinghouse family of Westinghouse air-brake fame.
The family took a fancy to Mr. Wiltse and he worked personally for them all summer, driving the swing wagon (two-horse rig).
"During the construction, Cornelius Logg and Joseph Haines drew sand in the winter from Haines Falls to the Kaaterskill with a
four-horse team hitched to each sleigh.
"Because there was not enough hay on the place to feed the horses," Mrs. W iltse said, "Mr. Harding brought up innumerable small farms in and about the mountains. As he could not get enough milk to supply his guests locally, he bought the Charlie Haines property (now owned by Oliver Haines) and built a big barn. Then he hired fifty cows from Hank Ballard, who drove them in from Delaware County every spring with the aid of two or three men on horseback and several trained cow dogs. Hank followed behind in his supply wagon. In the fall, Hank drove them out again, after overseeing the barn activities during the summer.
"The Kaaterskill boasted a deep-driven well and its own steam laundry. The last named was fired with four-foot wood, and some of the natives for years were employed during the winter to cut and saw the wood necessary for the following summer's operations. Chet Winnie," Mrs. Wiltse said, "a late neighbor of ours, was one of those who came into the mountains to draw out wood with the ox-team."
Romance also blossomed at the Kaaterskill Hotel, according to Mrs. Wiltse, because many girls who came from the city, of the surrounding areas to work in the laundry, as waitresses, or in other services in the hotel, married local men and remained in our mountains.
Some settled in East Jewett and others in Tannersville, Platte Clove and areas further west.
In 1922, Harry Tannenbaum, with Mr. and Mrs. Perry as agents, bought the million dollar place, Mrs. Wiltse said, from the heirs of George Harding. The price was $100,000. They immediately erected a tremendous water tower.
Mrs. Wiltse's husband, Jim, worked then for 0. H. Perry, a local lumberman, drawing coal on trucks to the hotel when carloads of coal came in at the Kaaterskill station at nearby South Lake. It was that fall on Sept. 8, 1924, Mrs. Wiltse said, that the Kaaterskill Hotel burned down. The fire started about 6:30 p.m.
"As far as we know, Elias Dutcher, the foreman, came from around Round Top, near Purling. At that time there was a road running past Holdridge Mill (Colgate Estate) in East Jewett and over and down the mountain to Cairo. Mr. Dutcher was referred to as a mortice and pin carpenter. He had earlier helped build a wing on the Mountain House and was accustomed to building on a large scale. Later, when he attempted to build a small cottage in East Jewett, he had to call on native carpenters for advice as to how to proceed when building on such a small scale. That cottage was later the Mose Woodworth property, now owned by W. Speenburg."
The hotel, which passed through three generations of Hardings, was owned at the time of its destructon by Harry Tannenbaum of Lakewood, N.J., who purchased it sometime around 1921. Tannenbaum had incorporated the business, renovated the hotel, and established it on a more businesslike basis; so much so, that the hotel had just completed its most profitable season since it had been built. They had entertained 700 guests during the summer, the clientele coming from every part of the United States and Europe.
The Kaaterskill Hotel had always been referred to as the "spite house." Rumor has it that, in the late 19th century, a wealthy Philadelphia patent lawyer, George W. Harding, who had been staying at the Mountain House with his ailing wife, left the hotel in a rage one night because they would not serve his wife roast chicken. Before he left, however, Mr. Harding warned C. L. Beach then proprietor of the Mountain House, that he was going to build a rival hotel nearby, bigger and better, where chicken would be served upon demand.
Not too long afterward, Harding made good his threat and built his $900,000 spite house which contained 1,200 rooms and had accommodations for 900 guest. And, one presumes that one could have roast chicken any hour of the day or night!
In his haste to complete the hotel, history has it that Harding paid out money with reckless abandon. Not only did he pay more for the rush job, but unscrupulous employees hovered around him like hungry vultures, taking advantage of the inexperienced hotel man, according to reports.
Although the hotel was regarded generally as a "white elephant," it remained in the Harding family through three generations. Countless celebrities could be found at the hotel, enjoying the elaborate facilities, at almost any time during the season.
One rumor has it that the hotel was not handled by pay checks in those days. The cash came secreated in kegs of nails which arrived regularly on the Ulster and Delaware Railroad!
On the night of Sept. 8, 1924, Leonard Marquoit of Catskill, was standing in front of the old Kaaterskill Hotel talking to the caretaker, when suddenly he saw some of the employees frantically throwing their belongings out of the second and third floor windows. Then, suddenly smoke commenced pouring out of the hotel, and the fire, that completely gutted the old landmark, soon made a raging inferno of the entire 1,000-room hotel.
Leonard stayed there as long he could, and then hurriedly left before the roads became impassable. The firemen were helpless to fight the fire,he said.
Mr. Marquoit did remember that there was some looting of the hotel before it burned down. He saw a number of people running into the front entrance and carrying away many items of furniture and other articles.
As he remembered it, the fire started before dark. And, of course, it continued on through the night until the next morning when there was nothing left but blackened ruins.
People in Catskill, on the evening of Sept. 8, 1924, looked towards the mountains in horror. Flames were shooting into the air, lighting the sky for miles around. Everyone was shocked beyond belief. The famous Kaaterskill Hotel, reputedly the world's largest mountain house, was ablaze and firemen were standing by, helpless to stop the holocaust. The next morning, smouldering debris was all that remained of the once famous old hotel whch had been built at a cost of more than $900,000 in 1881. It was located two miles distant from the equally famous Mountain House, but on a somewhat higher elevation.
The fire, which is believed to have started in the kitchen where four employees were said to have been making soap from the season's grease, razed the mammoth framestructure, then closed for the season, in three-quarters of an hour, sending up volcanic spurts against the sky as the tinder-dry walls collapsed.
The night of the fire, Haines Falls received the alarm at 6:40 p.m. and the entire village responded. Apparatus from both Haines Falls and Tannersville climbed the mountain but the flames were sweeping through the building, beyond the possibilty of control, when they arrived. Catskill Hose Company No. 1 started for the mountain but saw the futility of the trip and turned back.
A complete fire fighting system had been installed in the hotel the year previous to the fire but it is said that when the fat became ignited and the woodwork caught fire, the kitchen employees became panic-stricken and rushed out of the hotel for aid.
Nothing was salvaged from the grand old hotel. The caretaker's cottage and the barns, some distance to the rear of the main group of buildings, were left untouched by the fire however.
While the terrifying glow lasted in the sky, it could be seen for many miles, in every direction. The New York World reported they had received a telephone call from Lenox, Mass., 65 miles away, where townspeople of Lenox were watching the blaze in wonderment.
Forest rangers, stationed in the vicinity, called out volunteers and flung a protective cordon through the woods in a wide circle to guard against the driving sparks and embers caught in swirls by a gale more like January than September.
When the conflagration was at its height, fears were expressed for the safety of the Mountain House, just over the summit. However, it was not touched by the fire. That would have been an ironical twist of fate!
To add to the chaos the night of the fire, more than 300 cars drove along the mountain roads to the fire in mass confusion and several came to grief when they slid into deep roadside ditches in the hysterical jam of sightseers.
Francis Overbaugh, Catskill hobbyist, who collects all sorts of things, was rummaging around the ruins of the old Kaaterskill House one day and found some old chinaware formerly used by the famous old hotel. Does anyone else have any other souvenirs? Clippings for this article were collected from old Catskill Daily Mail's, Catskill Recorder and Catskill Examiner.