Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 12

Mountain Scenery - Cooper's "Pioneers" - "Rip Van Winkle"

From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
Catskill Creek.-Hudson and the Indians.-Road to the Mountains.-Onti Ora.-Cole, the Artist.-His Paintings.-Sketch of the Road.-Rip Van Winkle's Cabin.-The Mountain House.-View from it.-Cloud Mirror.North and South Mountains.-The Lakes.-The Falls.-Cauterskill Clove.-The Fawn's Leap.-Palensville.-Cooper's " Pioneers."-The Mountains and Falls.-Rip Van Winkle.-Sketch of Him.-His Trip tip the Mountains.-His Companion.-Playing at Ninepins.-Hard Drinking.-A Long Nap.-Waking Up.-Return Home.-Changes there.

An able author and artist, after speaking of Catskill as lying at the month of Catskill Creek, a clear and beautiful stream that flows down from the hill-country of Schoharie County for nearly forty miles, thus writes : "It was near Catskill that the Half Moon, Hendrick Hudson's vessel, anchored September 20, 1609, and was detained all the next day on account of the great number of natives who came on board and had a merry time." Master Juet, one of Hudson's companions, says, in his journal, "Our master and his mate determined to trie some of the chefe men of the country, whether they had any treacherie in them. So they tooke them down into the cabbin and gave them so much wine and aqua vitae that they were all merrie; and one of them had his wife with him, which sate so modestly as any of our countrywomen would doe in a strange place. In the ende, one of them was drunke, which had been aboord our ship all the time that we had beene there ; and that was strange to them, for they could not tell how to take it. The canoes and folks all went on shore; but some of them came again, and brought stropes of beades (wampum made of the clam shell); some had six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and gave him (that is, Hudson). So he (the Indian) slept all night quietly. The savages did not venture on board until noon the next day, when they were glad to find their old companion that was so drunk quite well again. They then brought on board tobacco and more beads, which they gave to Hudson, and made an oration; and afterwards sent for venison, which was brought on board."

From Catskill, at the distance of eight miles in an air line, the Mountain House may be seen. The river is crossed on a steam ferry-boat, and omnibuses convey travellers to the pleasant village of Catskill, half a mile from the landing. From thence conveyances take the tourist to the Mountain House, twelve miles distant, through a picturesque and highly cultivated country, to the foot of the mountains. From the banks of the Hudson, a few miles into the country, may be seen from different points of view some of the most charming scenery in the world. Every turn in the road, every bend in the stream, presents new and attractive pictures, remarkable for beauty and diversity in outline, color, and aerial perspective. The solemn Katzbergs, sublime in form, and mysterious in their dim, incomprehensible, and everchanging aspect, almost always form a prominent feature in the landscape. The Indians called these mountains "Onti Ora," or "Mountains of the Sky; " for, in some conditions of the atmosphere, they are said to appear like a heavy cumulose cloud above the horizon. In the midst of this scenery, Cole, the eminent painter, delighted to linger when the shadows of the early morning were projected towards the mountains, then bathed in purple mists; or at evening, when these lofty heights, then dark and awful, cast their deep shadows over more than half of the country below between their bases and the river. Charmed with Catskill and its vicinity, Cole made it at first a summer retreat, and finally his permanent residence; and there, in a fine old family mansion, delightfully situated to command a full view of the mountains and the intervening country, his spirit passed from earth; while a sacred poem, created by his wealthy imagination and deep religious sentiment, was finding expression upon his easel in a series of fine pictures like those of "The Course of Empire" and the "Voyage of Life." He entitled the series "The Cross and the World." Two of them were unfinished. One had found form in a "study" only, while the other was half finished upon the large canvas, with some figures sketched in white chalk. So they remain, just as the master left them; and so remains his studio. It is regarded by his devoted widow as a place too sacred for the common gaze. The stranger never enters it.

The mountains rise abruptly from the plain on their eastern side, where the road that leads to the Mountain House enters them, and follows the margin of a deep, dark glen, through which flows a clear mountain stream, seldom seen by the traveller, but heard continually for nearly a mile, as in swift rapids or in little cascades it hurries to the plain below. The road is winding and in its ascent along the side of the glen, or, more properly, magnificent gorge, it is so inclosed by the towering heights on one side, and the lofty trees that shoot up on the other, that little can be seen beyond a few rods except the sky above or glimpses of some distant summit, until the pleasant nook in the mountain is reached wherein the Rip Van Winkle cabin is nestled. After that the course of the road is more nearly parallel with the river and the plain, and through frequent vistas glimpses may be caught of the country below that charm the eye, excite the fancy and imagination, and make the heart throb quicker and stronger with pleasurable emotions. Rip's cabin is a small, white building, with two rooms, where travellers formerly obtained refreshments ; and is at the head of the gorge along whose margin the traveller has ascended. It is so called because it stands within the amphitheatre, inclosed by lofty heights, reputed to be the place where the ghostly ninepin players held their revel; and where Rip Van Winkle lay down to his long repose. From a rude spout by the cabin there pour cooling draughts from a mountain spring, more delicious than ever came from the juice of the grape.

There are many delightful resting-places upon the road, soon after leaving Rip's cabin, as we toil wearily up the mountain, where the eye takes in a magnificent panorama of hill and valley, forest and river, hamlet and village, and thousands of broad acres, where herds graze and the farmer gathers his crops; much of it dimly defined because of distance, a beautifully colored map rather than a picture. These delight the eye and quicken the pulse; but there is one place upon the road where the ascending weary ones enjoy more exquisite pleasure, for a moment, than at any other point in all that mountain region. It is at a turn in the road where the Mountain House stands; suddenly, before and above the traveller, revealed in perfect distinctness, column, capital, window, rock, people, - all apparently only a few rods distant. There too the road is level, and the traveller rejoices in the assurance that the toilsome journey is at an end, when suddenly, like the young pilgrim in Cole's "Voyage of Life," he finds himself disappointed in his course. The road that seemed to be leading directly to that beautiful mansion upon the crag just above him turns away, like the stream that appeared to be taking the ambitious young man directly to the shadowy temple of fame in the clouds; and many a weary step must be taken over a steep, crooked road before the traveller can reach the object of his journey.

The grand rock platform on which the Mountain House stands is reached at last, and then comes the full recompense for all weariness. Bathed, immersed, in pure mountain air, almost three thousand feet above tidewater, full, positive, enduring rest is given to every muscle, after half an hour's respiration of that invigorating atmosphere, and soul and limb are ready for a longer, loftier, and more rugged ascent. There is something indescribable in the pleasure experienced during the first hour passed upon the piazza of the Mountain House, gazing upon the scene towards the east. That view has been described a thousand times. I shall not attempt it. Much rhetoric and rhyme, with sentimental platitudes, have been employed in describing it.

The aerial pictures seen from the Mountain House are sometimes marvellous, especially during a shower in the plain, when all is sunshine above, while the lightning plays and the thunder rolls far below those upon the summits; or after a storm, when mists are driving over the mountains, struggling with the wind and sun, or dissolving in the pure air. At rare intervals an apparition, like the spectre of the Brocken, may be seen. A late writer, who was there during a summer storm, was favored with the sight. The guests were in the parlor when it was announced that "the house was going past, on the outside." All rushed to the piazza; and there, sure enough, upon a moving cloud more dense than the fog that enveloped the mountains, was a perfect picture of the great building, in colossal proportions. The mass of vapor was passing slowly from north to south, directly in front, at a distance apparently of two hundred feet from the house, and reflected the noble Corinthian columns which ornament the front of the building, every window, and all the spectators. The cloud moved on, and ere long we saw one pillar disappear, and then another. We, ourselves, who were expanded into giants in size, saw the gulf into which we were to enter and be lost. I almost shuddered when my turn came; but there was no escaping my fate; one side of my face was veiled, and in a moment the whole had passed like a dream. An instant before, and we were the inhabitants of a gorgeous palace; but it was the "baseless fabric of a vision," and now there was left "not a wreck behind."

Although the Mountain House is far below the higher summits of the range, yet portions of four States of the Union and an area of about ten thousand square miles are comprised in the scope of vision from its piazza. From the top of the South Mountain, near and three hundred feet above the Mountain House, and of the North Mountain more distant and higher, a greater range of sight may be obtained, including part of a fifth State. The lakes, lying in a basin a short distance from the Mountain House, with all their grand surroundings, the house itself, the South Mountain, and the Roundtop or Liberty Cap, form the middle ground; while in the dim distance the winding Hudson, with Esopus, Shawangunk, and the Highland ranges are revealed, the borders of rivers dotted with villas and towns, appearing mere white specks on the landscape.

Two miles and a half from the Mountain House is an immense gorge scooped from the rugged hills, into which pours the gentle outlet of the Cauterskill Lakes, in a fall, first of one hundred and seventy-five feet, and close to it another of eighty feet. If the visitor would enjoy one of the wildest and most romantic rambles in the world, let him follow that little stream in its way off the mountains, down the deep, dark, mysterious gorge, until it joins the Cauterskill proper, that rushes through the Clove from the neighborhood of Hunter, among the hills above, and thence onward to the plain. The tourist, if he fails to traverse the rugged gorge, should not omit a ride from the Mountain House, down through the Clove, to Palensville and the plain, a distance of eight miles. After leaving the falls and reaching the Clove, down, down, sometimes with only a narrow space between the base of a high mountain on one side and steep precipices on the other, whose feet are washed by the rushing Cauterskill, our crooked road pursued its way, now passing a log house, now a pleasant cottage, and at length the ruins of a leather-manufacturing village, deserted because the bark upon the hills around, used for tanning, is exhausted.

Fawn's Leap

Fawn's Leap

Near this picturesque scene the Cauterskill leaps into a seething gulf between the cleft rocks and flows gently on, to make still greater plunges into darker depths a short distance below. This cleft is called the " Fawn's Leap," a young deer having there escaped a hunter and his dog, that pursued to the verge of the chasm. The fawn leaped it; but the dog, attempting to follow, fell into the gulf below and was drowned. The foiled hunter went home without dog or game. By some, less poetical than others, the place is called the "Dog Hole." A few rods below the Fawn's Leap the road crosses a rustic bridge, at the foot of a sheer precipice, and for half a mile traverses a shelf cut from the mountain side, two hundred feet above the stream that has found its way into depths so dark as to be hardly visible. Upon the opposite side of the creek, a perpendicular wall rises many hundred feet ; and then, in slight inclination, the mountain towers up at least a thousand feet higher, and forms a portion of the range known as the South Mountain. At the mouth of this cavernous gorge lies the pretty little village of Palensville, where we again cross the stream, and in a few moments find ourselves upon a beautiful and hi ghly cultivated plain. From this point, along the base of the mountains to the road by which we enter them, or more directly to Catskill, the drive is a delightful one.


Extract From Cooper's "The Pioneers"

"Rip Van Winkle" By Washington Irving


Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery