Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 13

Sketches Continued

From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
Willis Gaylord Clark.-His Sketch of the Mountains, the Road to them and Views from them.-Similar Sketches by Tyrone Power, N. P. Willis, Park Benjamin, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Ellett, Dr. Murdoch, Bayard Taylor, and Rev. Dr. Cuyler.




"Have you been at the Catskill Mountain House?" asked a friend, incidentally "our party is going to-morrow " -- and the important question was decided. The morning of the third we set off in the Empire steamer. After dinner we landed at Catskill, at three in the afternoon. Stages were ready to receive the passengers, and bestowing ourselves therein, we turned from the village, crossed a fine wide stream called the Catskill, and entered upon a country enchanting enough to fill with rapture one long unaccustomed to such varieties of scenery. Here were rich valleys sprinkled with cottages and watered by winding streams, whose course could be traced far off by the luxuriance of the shrubbery on their banks; there were cultivated fields, and green meadows, and impervious woods; and land now gently undulating, now broken into steep ascents and startling declivities. Occasionally the road wound along a precipice, just steep and high enough to be perilous and pleasant. The vivid green of the foliage everywhere, and the verdure of the meadows, was most refreshing to an eye accustomed of late to the barren wastes of southern pine-lands. Here and there you pass a picturesque dell -- one of them is filled with the sound of a distant waterfall, doubtless worth a pilgrimage to see; and frequently you are arrested by the tiny voice of some adventurous rill, flinging itself impetuously down the hillside, and hastening to its burial in the valley's depths. The range of mountains now rises high and misty before you; anon you skirt a gloomy and fathomless valley, perfectly dark with verdure. This is the Sleepy Hollow, commemorated by Irving. I looked to see a Rip Van Winkle emerge from its shades. It is said that one of the oldest settlers in the region actually remembers a strange person of that name; doubtless an inveterate sleeper, whose habits suggested a legend. Rolling on with the merciless velocity of stage-coaches, we came to the spot where the steep ascent commences; and here I was fain, with many others, to alight and walk, dreading that in the climbing process No. 1 might chance to fall back on No. 2, No. 2 on No. 3, and so on. However, none but an habitual coward like myself need fear such a catastrophe, as the vehicles are strongly built, and provided each with a pointed bar of iron that would effectually prevent any retrograde motion. The winding road, closely embowered with foliage, is here picturesque in the extreme. Almost every turn brings some new beauty to view, and the woods are white with the blossoms of the mountain laurel, of which our party bore away numerous trophies. The precipice on the right overhangs the road, but the rocks are concealed by a bright mantle of green. The mountain towers into still grander elevation as you ascend it, and is fast darkening with the shadows of evening, though the plain still lies in sunshine. Suddenly a turn places you in sight of the house, which is the termination of your journey. It is seen directly overhead, perched on the very brink of the frowning precipice, like the eagle's or the lammergeyer's nest, or some feudal castle on its foe-defying height. This, indeed, it would resemble, were it of gray stone, instead of being built of wood and painted white. Nevertheless, its snowy whiteness contrasts perhaps the more beautifully with the green woods from the bosom of which it seems to rise, and with the mountainous background. The road by which that elevation is gained is very tortuous, so that a considerable space must be passed over before you come to the plateau on which the house stands. This plain lies in an amphitheatre between two mountains. It is called Pine Orchard, because it was formerly covered with a growth of small pines, which are now removed, having been sacrificed to enhance the beauty of the spot, and encourage the growth of clover and grass, that fills the open space between the beds of solid rock. The "Mountain House" is a large and irregular building, having been built in different parts at different times. The more recent portion was erected in 1824. It is spacious enough to accommodate a very large number of guests, having double and triple rows of goodly dormitories, all of a better size, and more comfortably furnished, than the sleeping-rooms usually appropriated to travelers at the fashionable watering-places. The drawing-rooms are spacious ; the principal one consisting of three large saloons opening into each other, or rather forming one. The dining-room is large enough for a feudal banqueting hall, its effect being increased by a range of pillars for the whole length down the centre; and these pillars are wreathed with evergreens, while between the numerous windows stand hemlock or cedar trees during the season, quite in baronial taste. As far as I know, this style of embellishment is unique ; it is certainly very picturesque.

The evening shadows now stretch over the entire plain, and the quiet of the scene, after the day's bustle, invites to sweet repose, which the guests are fain to seek, after the good appetites created by the drive of twelve miles, and the fresh mountain air, have been satisfied by the excellent supper provided by Mr. Beach, the enterprising landlord. Here is an almost wasteful profusion of strawberries, and the other fruits of the season, freshly picked by the mountaineers, with cream and butter that does ample justice to the rich pasturage of this region.

In the morning, go to the front, and what a scene presents itself! The "House" stands on the table rock, a few yards from the sheer verge -- an elevation of eighteen hundred feet above the apparent plain, and twenty-seven hundred above the level of the river. There is a narrow strip of green just in front, under the long and capacious piazza, beautifully ornamented with young fir and cedar trees, and a variety of shrubs. Then comes a strip of bare rock, overlooking the awful abyss.

A sea of woods is at your feet, but so far below, that the large hills seem but slight heavings of the green billowy mass; before you lies a vast landscape, stretching far as the eye can take in the picture; a map of earth with its fields, its meadows, its forests, and its villages and cities scattered in the distance ; its streams and lakes diminished, like the dwellings of man, into insignificance. Through the midst winds the sweeping river, the mighty Hudson, lessened to a rill; or it might be likened to a riband laid over a ground of green. Still further on are the swelling uplands, and then far along the horizon, mountains piled on mountains, melting into the distance, rising range above range, till the last and loftiest fades into the blue of the sky. Over this magnificent panorama the morning sun pours a misty radiance, half veiling, yet adding to its beauty, and tinting the Hudson with silver. Here and there the bright river is dotted with sails, and sometimes a steamboat could be seen winding its apparently slow way along. The clouds that fling their fitful shadows over the country below are on a level with us dwellers of the air; the golden patches that occupy the higher regions of atmosphere seem but a few feet above us, and we beyond their sphere, standing in mid-air, looking down on so unrivalled a picture, to thank Heaven for the glory and beauty of earth-even the birds seldom soar higher than our feet; the resting-place of the songster, whose flight can no longer be traced from the plain, is still far below us. We seem like the bell immortalized by Schiller :--

    "In Heaven's pavilion hung on high,
    The neighbors of the rolling thunder,
    The limits of the star-world nigh."

After contemplating this gorgeous scene, this still-life of the busy world, till lost in admiration, and listening to the ceaseless but faint roar sent up from the forest, like the chime of the eternal ocean, the next thing you will do will be to take a carriage to the Catskill Falls, distant about three miles. The road is rough, wild and rocky, but beautifully picturesque. The mountains forming the back-ground of this scene are half-covered with shadows from the clouds, which present the appearance of gorges on their sides, and are continually changing their form, and shifting as the breezes blow. They are distinguished by various names, such as Round Top, Indian's Head, &c. On the road, which is winding, and embowered by close woods, you cross a small mountain stream that soon expands into a perfect gem of a lake, quite embosomed in the circling hills, covered with a growth of straight, giant-like pines, rising range above range to the summits, where the tallest stand in relief against the sky. At a distance of more than a quarter of a mile from the Falls, you alight from the carriages, and walk along the romantic road, admiring at every step, or stopping to gather the abundant variety of wild flowers. The beauty of this woodland path baffles all description. It conducts to the Pavilion, situated at the top of the fall, and directly over hanging the abyss. On the end of the platform you are close upon the water, hastening to precipitate itself over the rock on which you stand, and tumbling into the wildest ravine ever poet dreamed of. The height of this fall is one hundred and eighty feet; a second just below is eighty feet, but from the height it seems a mere step the playful stream is taking, to dash itself in rapids a little further on, and then be lost to sight in the thick foliage overgrowing the bottom of the gorge. Three mountains here intersect eac other ; and the overlapping of their sides conceals the bed of the stream, so buried that a sea of woods alone is visible. You descend by a path in the woods, and by staircases fixed in the "precipitous, black, jagged rocks." The view from different points of the ravine, and the perpendicular wall forming its sides, is both splendid and sublime. When about half-way from the bottom of the first fall, the path turns aside, and enters a spacious cavern, wholly behind the falling sheet. The sides and roof are of solid gray rock, and the roof projects seventy feet, though in some places it is so low that it cannot be passed under without stooping. The path is consequently sheltered, though but a foot in width -- a mere shelf on the verge of a precipice, so narrow as to be quite invisible to those without. It is somewhat "on the plan " of that to Termination Rock behind the falling ocean at Niagara, and really gives an idea of that stupendous place, barring the thunders and the world of waters. A fine view is here obtained of the falling sheet, which appears much larger and broader; while the sides of the ravine, and the dense forest seen through the showery curtain, present a scene beautiful beyond description. Having emerged on the other side, you descend quite to the bottom, and cross the chafed stream by stepping on fragments of rock. Here is a noble view; and the quantity of water is suddenly increased by opening the dam above, so that its roar fills the gorge. Again you descend by the steep path, and a succession of staircases, fifty feet below the foot of fall second, and cross near a small but furious rapid. From the large flat rock here you obtain the finest view of all. It is three hundred and ten feet below the Pavilion. The whole castellated amphitheatre is before you; and a succession of falls, with a wall of foliage and rocks on either side, ascending far upward, so as to shut out all but a narrow strip of blue sky, seen overhead, and just above the top of fall first. Over this opening golden patches of clouds are sailing, and seem almost to rest upon it. Once more the quantity of water is increased; the falls swell to larger volume, and the clouds of sunny spray rise and fill the amphitheatre; then melt away as before, while the fall assumes its former thread-like appearance. The people walking within the cavern, just visible through the spray, look spectral enough, especially as they seem to have some secret of their own for clinging to the rocky wall, no path being apparent. It would require but little stretch of imagination to suppose them children of the mist, or genii of the waterfall. particularly that light fragile figure whose floating white robe contrasts so wildly with the dark mass behind her. What a scene for deeds of romance and heroism! I warrant me many a declaration has been made in that thrilling spot; and would advise any fair lady who would bring a hesitating lover to confession, to lead him hither for the inspiration he needs. Some instances of success on both sides, I could mention; and could relate one or two romantic tales, but they must be postponed to another occasion. Below, for a little way, the eye can follow the stream ; and our guide told us that a quarter of a mile further were other small falls. The path is wild and rough along the stream, but would doubtless well reward the exploration. You ascend by the same way, winding through the cavern to the Pavilion, where the American flag, and the reports of a gun or two reverberating among the mountains, somewhat startlingly reminded us of the Fourth ; not so keenly, however, as to destroy the enchantment of this "spirit-stirring nook." The sound of a bugle in the distant forest restored the poetry of the scene at once, notwithstanding the presence of numbers of country people in their holiday attire -- shirt-sleeves -- the costume of the American peasantry. To add a little incident in character, one of our party hooked up with an umbrella from the bushes a manuscript, illustrating the beauties of the scene in very blank verse.

Returning by the carriages over the same road, the gorgeous still-life view from the table-rock awaited us; the ocean landscape; the distant river silvered by the sunshine; the mountains melting into ether.

Visitors at Catskill mountain do not usually give themselves time to see even what they do see to the best advantage. Many of them remain but a single day, paying only a hurried visit to the falls, and neglecting many other scenes almost equal in interest. There are numerous lovely walks in the vicinity, chief among which are those upon the South and North mountain; and the beautiful lake in the immediate neighborhood of the House is said to abound in fish, affording amusement to those fond of the sport, with boats for rowing or sailing parties. There is said also to be an ice-glen some miles distant, into the depths of which the sun never penetrates, and where ice may be found deposited by all the winters since the creation.

The walk upon North mountain I found particularly interesting. For some distance you follow the winding road, through woods certainly richer than ever grew on such a height before, with a great deal of impervious underwood, embellished with wild flowers. The moss grows here in such abundance as everywhere to attract attention. At the falls it partially covers the rock beside the cavern, and is of the most vivid green. Near the foot of the lake is a mass of rock, twelve or fifteen feet in height, perfectly covered with gray lichen. The boulders on the mountain are almost hidden by the ancient-looking shroud; and the various growths might form a study for the naturalist. Leaving the road for the mountain path, you begin the ascent, and skirt the frowning precipice, where a single false step would be destruction. Far, far below is the same extensive, billowy verdure -- the primitive forest. Now you climb a rude staircase of piled stones, then wind through the deep woods, where wanderers would infallibly be lost without a guide, and where the guide himself finds it hard to thread the tangled maze. Several points where a fine view may be seen claim your attention, as now and then you come forth on the rocky verge ; but the cry is still "onward," and, like all others of the human race who never weary of pursuing a promised good, you persevere till the actual summit, by toil and trouble, is reached at last. And splendid is the reward! So vast is the height on which you stand, that the "Mountain House," with its lakes, itself appears upon a plain. In clear weather the view is almost boundless, including Albany on one hand, the Highlands on the other ; but just then I witnessed a still grander phenomenon, realizing the beauty of Halleck's lines descriptive of Weehawken:

    "Clouds slumbering at his feet, and the clear blue
    Of summer's sky in beauty bending o'er him."

The clouds were not exactly slumbering, but rolling in heavy masses below us, shrouding completely the more distant portions of the landscape, while a thick mist rendered indistinct the scene immediately beneath. I cannot say we were altogether in the enjoyment of "the clear blue of summer's sky," for the top of the mountain just behind us was enveloped in clouds, and only here and there narrow strips of the sky could be discerned; but we were "mickle better aff" than the seeming plain, on which a fierce rain was evidently pouring. Ere long, however, and while storm and darkness yet brooded on the regions below, the mists rolled away from the summit and melted at the presence of the sun, the heavens looked forth blue and clear as ever, and the rain-drops on the trees glanced in the pure sunshine. Then the vapory veil beneath us was rent and rolled back; part of the landscape rejoiced once more in the living light! The sun pierced the dark curtain beyond; it was lifted, and gradually withdrawn; the glancing river and the distant mountains came into bright view once more; and ere long no trace of the storm could be found, save in the dense masses of cloud that mingled with the mountains on the farthest verge of the horizon.

I would not have missed this spectacle, new and surpassingly glorious as it was, for the world. But one even more striking can be seen, I am told, during a sudden thunder-shower. The clouds then fill the lower regions of the atmosphere, and roll dense and dark beneath, like ocean-waves tossed by the blast; the lightning leaps from space to space, and the thunder peals wildly around, while "the dweller in air " sees naught above him but a blue sun-bright sky. The clearing up of a storm seen under these circumstances must be sublime beyond imagination, and well worth a journey to the Mountain House expressly to see. Some of our party regretted that the house had not been built on the table-rock of North mountain; but the difficulty of access, and the impossibility of coming up with stages, would, in such a case, have limited the number of visitors to a few. The present location is the most eligible in every respect.

After the descent our guide directed us to a rocky footpath, instead of the winding road to the house. It required some toil and climbing, but well repaid the exertion.

The ascent to the South mountain is equally beautiful. The path leads from the plateau to the left up the steep acclivity, through a wild forest, less tangled, however, than the other, where huge boulders, gray with moss, are piled fantastically around; some poised on a single edge, and looking as if the slightest force would precipitate them downward to crush the woods in their path; some without apparent foundation, resting on points unseen, and presenting shallow but extensive caverns, the probable abode of reptiles, and green with rank moisture. Trees grow on their sides and in the clefts, and you wonder whence their nourishment is derived; they seem, in truth, to have a partiality for the rugged soil, and frequently send their roots far down the rock to seek the humid earth. The fir, the cedar, and silver pine, so much more beautiful than the southern pine, abound here, with a vast variety of deciduous trees. The innumerable crevices are filled with green moss. The ascent becomes yet more steep, and presently you enter a narrow rift, from which the party, one by one, emerge above, and seem as if ascending out of the earth. The shadow of the overhanging cliffs renders this spot ever cool and fresh, even in the hottest part of the summer-day. On the summit are three points usually visited by travelers, from which a gorgeous view may be obtained. On one the huge fragment of rock is, to all appearance., entirely separated from the mountain ; it is really, however, fast united below, or it would, long ere this, have plunged from its place into the abyss. I must not forget to mention that there is a plateau on both these mountains, covered with short pines, which has obtained the name of Pine Orchard. The pioneer who erected the first building on the mountain pointed out to us the spot where he slept, wrapt in his greatcoat, under a rocky shelter, the first night he passed in this neighborhood.

From the third and highest point the view is the best. Here, besides the dark ridge of forest and the ocean landscape, a new range of mountains can be discerned far southward, and several towns on the Hudson.

There is a beautiful drive in the vicinity, enjoyed by few among the visitors to the Mountain House, which, however, should be neglected by none. It is on what is called the Clove road, leading through a cleft in the mountain southward. Descending by the traveled road three or four miles, passing the weird valley of Sleepy Hollow, where, in a dreamy nook, under the towering mountains, you will find the picture of old Rip at his waking, hung up as a sign to a rude-looking house of refreshment; and pursuing the road a little beyond the toll-gate, you turn aside to the right and follow the road along the foot of the precipice on which the house stands. Ere long you turn again to the right, and presently find yourself in a mountain defile, where surprise and delight at the wondrous scene accompany you on every step onward. The mountains rise abruptly on either side almost to the clouds; the primeval forest is around you; and the depth of the gorge, which is sometimes narrow and cavernous, is filled by a brawling mountain stream, the same Cauterskill that takes the leap down the falls above. For two or three miles this scene of beauty and grandeur, varying every moment, meets your eye ; now the stream runs over its bed of rocks, now dashes wildly in rapids, now runs smoothly for space ; while the road winds on its verge, sometimes far above it, sometimes descending nearly to its level. After passing through the cleft you ascend the mountain and return to the house, having made a circuit of twelve miles.

To those who have leisure for enjoyment of country air and scenery, and for exploring the wild and numerous beauties of this region, I would recommend a residence of weeks at Pine Orchard. The mountain is fresh and invigorating, and always cool in the sultriest season. The rapid succession of visitors, presenting new faces every day, is rather an objection to those who have a taste for the society of watering-places; but I see no reason why the Catskill Mountain House should not, when its resources are better known, be a place of fashionable resort, during all the hot season, for summer travelers.




Chapter 13 SKETCHES

Willis Gaylord Clark.-His Sketch of the Mountains, the Road to them and Views from them.-Similar Sketches by Tyrone Power, N. P. Willis, Park Benjamin, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Ellett, Dr. Murdoch, Bayard Taylor, and Rev. Dr. Cuyler.

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