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.

I have been so often asked, " Where are YOU going to next ? " and have so often answered, " I am going to travel at home," that what was at first intended for a joke, has naturally resolved itself into a reality. The genuine traveler has a chronic dislike of railways, and if he be in addition a lecturer, who is obliged to sit in a cramped position and breathe bad air for five months of the year, he is the less likely to prolong his winter tortures through the summer. Hence, it is scarcely a wonder that, although I have seen so much of our country, I have traveled so little in it. I knew the Himalayas before I had seen the Green Mountains, the Cataracts of the Nile before Niagara, and the Libyan Desert before the Illinois prairies. I have never yet (let me make the disgraceful confession at the outset) beheld the White Mountains, or Quebec, or the Saguenay, or Lake George, or Trenton Falls!

In all probability I should now be at home, enjoying summer indolence under the shade of my oaks, were it not for the visit of some European friends, who have come over to see the land which all their kindness could not make their friend forget. The latter, in fact, possesses a fair share of the national sensitiveness, and defended his country with so much zeal and magnificent assertions, that his present visitors were not a little curious to see whether their own impressions would correspond with his pictures. He, On the other hand, being anxious to maintain his own as well as his country's credit, offered his services as guide and showman to our mountains, rivers, lakes, and cataracts; and this is how he (I, you understand) came to start upon the present journey. On the whole, I think it a good plan not to see all your own country until after you have seen other lands. It is easy to say, with the school-girls, " I adore Nature ! " -- but he who adores never criticizes. "What a beautiful view!" everyone may cry: "Why is it beautiful?" would puzzle many to an swer. Long study, careful observation, and various standards of comparison are necessary-as much so as in art -- to enable one to pronounce upon the relative excellence of scenery. I shall have, on this tour, the assistance of a pair of experienced, appreciative foreign eyes, in addition to my own, and you may therefore rely upon my giving you a tolerably impartial report upon American life and landscapes.

When one has a point to carry, the beginning is everything. I therefore embarked with my friends on a North River day-boat, at the Harrison street pier. The calliope, or steam-organ attached to the machine, was playing "Jordan's a bard road to travel," with astonishing shrillness and power. "There's an American invention!" I exclaimed, in triumph ; "the waste steam, instead of being blown off, is turned into an immense hand-organ, and made to grind out this delightful music."

Several years had passed since I had seen the Hudson from the deck of a steamer. I found great changes, and for the better. The elegant summer residences of New Yorkers, peeping out from groves nestled in warm dells, or, most usually, crowning the highest points of the hills, now extend more than half-way to Albany.

The trees have been judiciously spared, straggling woods carved into shape, stony slopes converted into turf, and, in fact, the long landscape of the eastern bank gardened into more perfect beauty. Those Gothic, Tuscan, and Norman villas, with their air of comfort and home, give an attractive, human sentiment to the scenery; and I would not exchange them for the castles of the Rhine.

The Highlands, of course, impressed my friends as much as I could have wished. It is customary among our tourists to deplore the absence of ruins on those heights -- a very unnecessary regret, in my opinion. To show that we have associations fully as inspiring as those connected with feudal warfare, I related the story of Stony Point, and Andre's capture; and pointed out, successively, Kosciusko's Monument, old Fort Putnam, and Washing ton's Headquarters. Sunnyside was also a classic spot to my friends, nor was Idlewild forgotten.

In due time we reached Catskill, and made all haste to get off for the Mountain House. There are few summits so easy of access -- certainly no other mountain resort in our country where the facilities of getting up and down are so complete and satisfactory. The journey would be tame, however, were it not for the superb view of the mountains, rising higher, and putting on a deeper blue, with every mile of approach.

Cascade At High Rocks

Cascade At High Rocks

On reaching the foot of the mountain, the character of the scenery entirely changes. The trees in Rip Van Winkle's dell are large and luxuriant-leaved, while the backward views, enframed with foliage and softly painted by the blue pencil of the air, grow more charming as you ascend. Ere long the shadow of the towering North Mountain was flung over us, as we walked up in advance of the laboring horses. The road was bathed in sylvan coolness; the noise of an invisible stream beguiled the steepness of the way; emerald ferns sprang from the rocks, and the red blossoms of the showy rubus and the pale blush of the laurel brightened the gloom of the undergrowth. It is fortunate that the wood has not been cut away, and but rare glimpses of the scenes below are allowed to the traveler. Landing in the rear of the Mountain House, the huge white mass of which completely shuts out the view, thirty paces bring you to the brink of the rock, and you hang suspended, as if by magic, over the world.

It was a quarter of an hour before sunset -- perhaps the best moment of the day for the Catskill panorama. The shadows of the mountain-tops reached nearly to the Hudson, while the sun, shining directly down the Clove, interposed a thin wedge of golden lustre between. The farmhouses on a thousand bills beyond the river sparkled in the glow, and the Berkshire mountains swam in a luminous, rosy mist. The shadows strode eastward at the rate of a league a minute as we gazed; the forests darkened, the wheat-fields became brown, and the houses glimmered like extinguished stars. Then the cold north wind blew, roaring in the pines, the last lurid purple faded away from the distant hills, and in half an hour the world below was as dark, and strange, and spectral, as if it were an unknown planet we were passing on our journey through space.

The scene from Catskill is unlike any other mountain view that I know. It is imposing through the very simplicity of its features. A line drawn from north to south through the sphere of vision divides it into two equal parts. The western half is mountain, falling off in a line of rock parapet; the eastern is a vast semicircle of blue landscape, half a mile lower. Owing to the abrupt rise of the mountain, the nearest farms at the base seem to be almost under one's feet; and the country, as far as the Hudson, presents almost the same appearance as if seen from a balloon. Its undulations have vanished; it is as flat as a pancake; and even the bold line of hills stretching toward Saugerties, can only be distinguished by the color of the forests upon them. Beyond the river, although the markings of the hills are lost, the rapid rise of the country from the water-level is very distinctly seen ; the whole region appears to be lifted on a sloping plane, so as to expose the greatest possible surface to the eye. On the horizon the Hudson Highlands, the Berkshire and Green mountains unite their chains, forming a continuous line of misty blue. At noonday, under a cloudless sky, the picture is rather monotonous. After the eye is accustomed to its grand, aerial depth, one seeks relief in spying out the characteristics of the separate farms, or in watching specks (of the size of fleas) crawling along the highways. Yonder man and horse, going up and down between the rows of corn, resemble a little black bug on a bit of striped calico. When the sky is full of moving clouds, however, nothing can be more beautiful than the shifting masses of light and shade, traversing such an immense field. There are, also, brief moments when the sun or moon is reflected in the Hudson; when rainbows bend slantingly beneath you, striking bars of seven-hued flame across the landscape; when, even, the thunders march below, and the fountains of the rain are under your feet.

What most impressed my friends was the originality of the view. Familiar with the best mountain scenery of Europe, they could find nothing with which to compare it. As my movements during this journey are guided entirely by their wishes, I was glad when they said, "Let us stay here 'another day.'"

We have front rooms at the Mountain House; have you ever had one? Through the white, Corinthian pillars of the portico -- pillars, which, I must say, are very well proportioned -- you get much the same effects as through those of the Propylaeca of the Athenian Acropolis. You can open your window, breathing the delicious rnountain air in sleep (under a blanket), and, without lifting your head from the pillow, see the sun come up a hundred miles away.

Those, I find, who visit Catskill, come again. This is my fourth ascent, and I trust it is far from being my last. More to-morrow.


At the foot of the Catskill Mountain, the laurel showed its dark-red seed vessels; half-way up, the last faded blossoms were dropping off; but, as we approached the top, the dense thickets were covered with a glory of blossoms. Far and near, in the caverns of shade under the pines and oaks and maples, flashed whole mounds of flowers, white and blush-color, dotted with the vivid pink of the crimped buds. The finest cape azaleas and ericas are scarcely more beautiful than our laurel. Between those mounds bloomed the flame-colored lily, scarcely to be distinguished, at a little distance, from the breast of an oriole. The forest scenery was a curious amalgamation of Norway and the tropics. "What a land, what a climate," exclaimed one of my friends, " that can support such inconsistencies ! " "After this," I replied, "it will perhaps be easier for you to comprehend the apparent inconsistencies, the opposing elements, which you will find in the American character''

The next morning we walked to the Katterskill Falls. Since my last visit (in 1851), a handsome hotel -- the Laurel House -- has been erected here by Mr. Schutt. The road into the Clove has also been improved, and the guests at the Mountain House make frequent excursions into the wild heart of the Catskill region, especially to Stony Clove, fourteen miles distant, at the foot of the blue mountain which faces you as you look down the Katterskill glen. The falls are very lovely (I think that is the proper word) -- they will bear seeing many times-but don't believe those who tell you that they surpass Niagara. Some people have a habit of pronouncing every last view they see "the finest thing in the world !"

The damming up of the water, so much deprecated by the romantic, strikes me as an admirable arrangement. When the dam is full the stream overruns it, and you have as much water as if there were no dam. Then, as you stand at the head of the lower fall, watching the slender scarf of silver fluttering down the black gulf, comes a sudden, dazzling rush from the summit ; the fall leaps away, from the half-way ledge where it lingered, bursting in rockets and shooting stars of spray on the rocks, and you have the full effect of the stream when swollen by spring thaws. Really, this temporary increase of volume is the finest feature of the fall.

No visitor to Catskill should neglect a visit to the North and South mountains. The views from these points, although almost identical with that from the House, have yet different foregrounds, and embrace additional segments of the horizon. The North Peak, I fancy, must have been in Bryant's mind when he wrote his poem of "The Hunter." Those beautiful features, which hovered before the hunter's eyes, in the blue gulf of air, as he dreamed on the rock, are they not those of the same maiden who, rising from the still stream, enticed Goethe's "Fisher" into its waves? -- the poetic embodiment of that fascination which lurks in height and depth ? Opposite the North Rock there is a weather-beaten pine, which, springing from the mountain-side below, lifts its head just to the level of the rock, and not more than twelve feet in front of it. I never see it without feeling a keen desire tospring from the rock and lodge in its top. The Hanlon Brothers or Blondin, I presume, would not have the least objection to perform such a feat. In certain conditions of the atmosphere the air between you and the lower world seems to become a visible fluid, an ocean of pale, crystalline blue, at the bottom of which the landscape lies. Peering down into its depths, you at last experience a numbness of the senses, a delicious wandering of the imagination, such as follows the fifth pipe of opium. Or, in the words of Walt Whitman, you loaf, and invite your soul."

The guests we found at the Mountain House were rather a quiet company. Several entire families were quartered there for the season, but it was perhaps too early for the evening hops and sunrise flirtations which I noticed ten years ago. Parties formed and strolled off quietly into the woods ; elderly gentlemen sank into armchairs on the rocks, and watched the steamers on the Hudson; nurses pulled venturous children away from the precipice, and young gentlemen from afar sat on the verandah and wrote in their note-books. You would not have guessed the number of guests if you had not seen them at table. I found this quiet, this nonchalance, this "take care of yourself and let other people alone " characteristic very agreeable, and the difference, in this respect, since my last visit, leads me to hope that there has been a general improvement (which was highly needed) in the public manners of the Americans.


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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