THE origin of Catskill is obscure, veiled in the shadows of the larger-than-life personalities that called this small corner of New Netherland home under the ancient Dutch dominion that first brought Europeans to the Hudson Valley. Inscribed in records of Catskill’s earliest days are the names of the Dutchmen who cleared and expanded farmland on former lands of the native Mohican tribes that had resided here for millennia. Hans Vosen, a German trapper whose home stood on a stream which still bears his name; Claes Uylen Spiegel, a farmer on the South bank of the creek; Jan Andriessen the Irish adventurer; and Jan Jansen van Bremen, who in 1650 leased land from Pewasck “Chief of the Katskils” that would later become the ancestral lands of the Van Vechten family. These men, possessed of occasionally dubious proclivities,1 would all fall victim to the harshness of life at the edge of the known world by the end of the 17th century - just in time for a new generation of Dutch and English settlers to arrive and firmly establish Catskill as a peaceful, small, and sparsely populated agrarian district at the Southern edge of old Albany County.
Catskill Village resides on a site known to its first settlers as “The Landing,” quite literally a deep area close to shore on the creek near the Hudson River where boats could be loaded with agricultural products for distant markets. Catskill’s agrarian community was scattered in an area of about ten miles around the landing - their church and meeting place were in what is now the hamlet of Leeds. Indeed, at the close of the Revolutionary War, Catskill Landing claimed only five houses and a store which stood roughly around the intersection of Main and Greene Streets. The Landing was barely a community when the Town of Catskill was founded in 1788. By that time outside forces were already well at work, destined to forever upend the farming community that had claimed Catskill for over a century.
At the close of the Revolution the frontier was really only a mere twelve miles west of Catskill just beyond the nearest peaks of the Catskill Mountains. Settlement in the mountains and beyond had been made nearly impossible by the activities of British and American forces and their native allies before and during the Revolution.2 With the war’s end, young families and soldiers granted lands as payment for service found themselves making the trek west from New England towards this recently opened region. By 1800 a road, soon to be made a State turnpike, was funneling travelers from Massachusetts and Connecticut to a ferry landing on the east bank of the Hudson River directly opposite Catskill Landing. On the western bank the road resumed at Catskill Landing and progressed westward towards the headwaters of the Susquehanna and beyond. This road, the Susquehanna Turnpike, inadvertently transformed Catskill into one of America’s first
1 It would seem that Hans Vosen, aside from threatening to drown whomever informed authorities of his illegal dealing of spirits to the local natives, might be described more appropriately as a poacher rather than trapper. Jan Andriessen speculated in land and after years moving place to place was found murdered in the burned shell of his home in Stockport in November of 1664 - his wife and slave nowhere to be found. Jan van Bremen was unable to avoid cursing during his sermons as a lay clergyman on the Sabbath. Jacob Loockerman, who settled the Embought south of the Village, once cut a man’s face in half with a knife and was forced by the court to pay medical bills. Claes Uylen Spiegel associated with all these gentlemen, which suffices either as evidence of his character or extreme misfortune. Henry Brace, lawyer and historian of Old Catskill, summarizes it thus in 1877: “the colonists and first inhabitants of Catskill seem to have been little better than boors.”
2 One of the Founding Fathers of the Village of Catskill, a man named Garret Abeel, had watched as a child from the bushes near his home in 1781 as his father and older brother were captured by a British and Mohawk raiding party and taken away into the mountains bound for British Canada. Garret had been in Leeds visiting his friend, son of the preacher there, and had arrived home late to the family farm about four miles west of Leeds along modern Route 23A.
western gateways, and in Catskill this storied highway is called Main Street.
In a matter of ten years around the dawn of the 19th century the Village of Catskill underwent a titanic transformation because of the turnpike. Mackay and Thomas Croswell, two of the earliest arrivals from Connecticut in this new wave of migration, described Catskill as a quiet place of no more than ten or so dwellings along lower modern Main Street in 1792. By 1802 the number of buildings had grown to something around one hundred and eighty - with twelve warehouses and thirty-one stores of various sorts catering to 2,000 citizens. A village had sprung up where thirty years before there had been nothing but the silence of the forest. Commerce flowed from the North, East, South, and West to the Village of Catskill, finally incorporated in 1806 and no longer called the Landing. Agricultural produce flowed from western frontier farms down the mountains to Catskill, and from there a small fleet of ships carried goods up and down the Hudson to New York and Albany. Travelers arrived daily at the bottom of Main Street at a new man-made landing called the Long Dock - what we call Catskill Point today. People read a newspaper printed by Mackay Croswell, and the Board of Supervisors for Greene County held their meetings in a hotel on Main Street where the Courthouse now stands. Medicines, hardware, food, and products of cottage industries were in abundance - all made locally or imported by local shippers. Catskill was on the map, a fine example of the best that the fledgling United States was capable of in commerce, culture, and tenacity of spirit.
Disaster loomed on the horizon with the commencement of construction along the Erie Canal. The new waterway, with its terminus thirty miles north of Catskill near Albany, stretched its watery tendrils westward hundreds of miles far beyond the reaches of the turnpike that had guaranteed Catskill its early prosperity. By 1825, with the Canal open for business, Catskill merchants found themselves in something of a panic as they watched their business slip away - farmers lured to the canal by the guarantee of fast and efficient shipment of vast quantities of good and produce to far-flung markets they had only dreamed of previously. By the 1830s prospects were so poor that Catskill merchants had banded together to publish a booklet advertising the business potential of Catskill - they even built a railroad and surveyed a canal that would bypass the city of Albany and link Catskill directly to the Erie Canal in an effort to attract commerce.
It was in 1825, in the midst of this period of local crisis that the young English-born painter Thomas Cole travelled up the Hudson River lured by tales of the romantic beauty of the Catskill Mountains and the old dutch hamlets scattered in its shadowed foothills. Cole and his acquaintance William Guy Wall sketched and painted the landscape here with a fresh eye - famously completing masterpieces portraying places soon to become famous tourist attractions. Cole and his friends, perhaps inadvertently, touched fire to the local tourism industry that had only recently commenced on a small scale in 1824 with the opening of a hotel on the edge of the mountains at a place called Pine Orchard. This new industry, with Cole’s art playing an integral role, would end up saving Catskill and the American Wilderness as a whole from ruin.
Before the start of the American Civil War Catskill had been reborn yet again; not as a transportation hub and center of commerce, but as gateway to the grand resorts of the Catskill Mountains. Supreme among these hotels was the famed Catskill Mountain House, now under the
care of legendary proprietor Charles L. Beach.3 The tourism industry brought prestige, money, and personalities to the village; and Catskill’s seasonal hay, brick, and ice industries were ballasted by the steady and formidable stream of money made by every business from the influx of Summer visitors.
By the 1890s the influx of seasonal boarders coming to Catskill was so great that on any given day in the Summer months business owners could count on a Catskill Evening Line steamer, two Day Line steamers, trains of the West Shore Railroad and New York Central, two ferries, and visitors from the Stony Clove and Catskill Mountain branch of the Ulster and Delaware via the Catskill Mountain Railway. Catskill sported a Trolley line to Leeds, freight lines with state-of-the- art steamships, brickyards, quarries, foundries, three banks, carriage shops, several different houses of worship, innumerable hotels, and every service one could conceive that visitors and residents might call on regularly.
All things must pass of course, and pass these things did by the 1960s. The opening of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge eliminated the ferry boats, the Route 23 bypass took traffic off the old road to Leeds and the foot of the mountains, and the NYS Thruway shuttled tourists past Catskill at seventy miles an hour on their way from New York City to the Adirondacks. Catskill became a backwater, only visited by those who recalled its charm from their childhood or needed to make a pit stop on their way elsewhere. Only recently have we been rediscovered as the destination we’ve always been. Today, much like in 1825, visitors here can glimpse the same beauty and the same potential that Thomas Cole, Charles Beach, and all the ancient Dutchmen before them knew this place to possess. Welcome to Catskill.
- Jonathan Palmer, Greene County Historical Society
3 Beach and his brothers were quintessential 19th century entrepreneurs and Catskill natives, and had a stake in just about every important business venture in the village from 1840 onwards. This included ownership of the ferry across the river and several freight companies, board positions in the local banks and partial ownership of a railroad they spent an inordinate amount of money to built in 1880. Charles Beach lived in Catskill his whole live, but had been born in a log cabin in the town of Lexington, the son of one of the families that found Catskill via the Susquehanna Turnpike after the Revolution.