Drives: 2013 BMW 335i cabriolet
Join Date: Jun 2009
Location: Baltimore, MD
The Catskills Mountains “Borscht Belt”: Here and Gone, Part I
A man is hit by a car while crossing a Beverly Hills street. A woman rushes to him and cradles his head in her lap, asking, “Are you comfortable?” The man answers, “I make a decent living.”
Milton Berle got laughs from that joke on stages throughout the Catskills Mountains in Sullivan County, New York. In 1952, the prime of the “Borscht Belt” Golden Era, Sullivan County had 538 resort hotels, 1,000 rooming houses, and 50,000 vacation bungalows. By the late 1960s, the great majority of these buildings were abandoned, burned, and/or bankrupt. A few struggled on, but even the world-famous Grossingers and Concord Resorts closed in the late 1980s and 1990s, respectively. Kutshers folded in the recent Great Recession. But the land, the walls, and their stories remain—making for an extraordinary modern-day tour.
Accordingly, I fired up my ever-willing 2013 BMW 335i hardtop convertible and motored briskly to the Catskills. New York greeted me with dark skies and a steady light rain, but the 335i shrugged it off and never complained when I clambered back in with wet clothes and muddy shoes.
The Lenape Indians had lived in this area for over 10,000 years. Largely free of comedians, I might add… By the mid-1600s, Dutch settlers were mining copper ore, and by the 1750s timber and flagstone businesses were prospering. (The Dutch “Old Mine Road” became the first road in America.) Tanneries sprang up starting in the 1830s, and by the Civil War they were tanning over 80 percent of the leather goods for the entire Union Army. When the county’s “inexhaustible” hemlock forests ran out in the 1880s, these industries collapsed—just in time for tourism to rescue the economy. People came from New York City in droves to enjoy the fresh, cool air in the mountains, and the New York, Ontario, & Western (O&W) Railway was instrumental in bringing them to their destinations. This was the O&W Sullivan County Express, about to begin a trip to the Catskills in about 1900 with legendary engineer DeForest Diver shown at left.
German, Irish, and Jewish immigrants sought relief here from the blistering New York City summers beginning in the 1890s, and many local farmers expanded their homes and set up tents to accommodate the influx. Over time, large wooden resort hotels were built, such as the Columbia House in Hurleyville.
The frame hotels expanded to huge stone and masonry resorts with hundreds of rooms, offering professional entertainment, swimming, tennis, bowling—and skiing and ice-skating in the winters. These mega-resorts hosted hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. By the mid-1950s, automobiles had largely supplanted the need for railroads, and the O&W closed its doors in 1957. This photo shows the ties and rails being taken up.
The resort businesses prospered during the “Silver Age” of 1890-1915 but began to fail during the tuberculosis epidemic in the early 1900s. A number of “consumption” sanitariums opened in the county, offering the only known treatment at the time: fresh air, clean water, and wholesome food. Vacationers became increasingly uncomfortable taking the same trains used by the patients and staying at nearby facilities, and tourism began to wane. Matters were not helped by the Great Depression. Fire was a constant danger, and many of the hotels and resorts succumbed in a last blaze of glory—accidental or otherwise. This was the Welworth Hotel, years after it had been abandoned.
Property values collapsed during the Depression, allowing many New Yorkers to buy homes and hotels in Sullivan County at dirt-cheap prices, paving the way for a rebirth and the “Golden Era” of 1940-1965. Moreover, the development of modern antibiotics in the early 1940s ended the TB epidemic. The Catskills became the preferred vacation spot for Jewish families and many others, and competition ensured reasonable prices and ever-better amenities and activities. Then the tide turned again. The advent of air conditioning made city life bearable in the summer. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 meant that Jewish vacationers were no longer “excluded” in other areas and could travel to destinations across the U.S. and much of the world, helped by the burgeoning airline industry. A few of the classic Catskills resorts continued, but the great majority simply closed. Today, it’s hard to drive even 5 miles in this area without passing an abandoned building, such as this once-popular rooming house.
I was encouraged to visit Sullivan County by my friend Ron Polimeni, who is an artist and vintage automobile racer. (He is also Nick’s father, in case you read my Vintage Cars, Vintage Memories tour). Ron graciously lent me the classic book about Sullivan County railroads and resorts, To the Mountains by Rail, written by Manville B. Wakefield. Unless noted otherwise, all of the historical photos are drawn from this exceptional book. (Painting by Manville B. Wakefield.)
I started my tour in Middletown, NY, just outside of Sullivan County on the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains. I found the 40-room Web Horton Mansion on the first try and marveled at its marble walls and green ceramic roof tiles. Web Horton had made his fortune in the tanning industry in Sullivan County, and he reportedly spent today’s equivalent of $26 million building the mansion—and died at age 82 without having stayed a single night in the house. Today, his masterpiece houses the administrative offices for SUNY Orange.
My primary reason for visiting Middletown was to find its classic railroad station. I succeeded—sort of; this turned out to be the station for the Erie Railroad, not the O&W station that I meant to see! It’s now the Middletown Library.
Leaving Middletown, I spotted this mid-1920s Ford Model T coupe—often referred to as a “Doctor’s Coupe.” This one appeared to have been driven here under its own power.
A quick zip up Highway 211 brought me to Bloomingburg and the start of the Catskills. Like many Sullivan County towns, Bloomingburg has a large Hassidic Jewish population. I saw many of the men walking or bicycling about in their formal dark suits and hats, despite the warm temperatures. Their wives and children were also in evidence, and I received many friendly nods as I walked around. There is a certain vindication in this story, since some of Bloomingburg’s early resort hotels included an all-too-common phrase in their advertising: “No Hebrews or Consumptives Allowed.” (Photo courtesy of the Jewish Daily Forward
The Bloomingburg Dutch Reformed Church dates back to 1821 and has survived despite a period of abandonment and vandalism. It is now a local community museum.
One of the most popular stops on the O&W Railroad was the High View Station. The fresh air and views near the top of the Shawangunk Mountains were a welcome break from the 4-hour train ride from the City. This photo shows the High View station in the distance, together with some support buildings and businesses that have since disappeared. The station sat vacant for many years following the railway’s demise, but it has since been renovated and is a private residence—for sale at the moment, in case anyone is interested.
It’s easy to see why this area was named “High View.” Fortunately, the clouds lifted just enough to show the valley below as I passed through.
The Sha-wan-ga Lodge was the largest of the Bloomingburg resorts. It started in 1895 as a “refined Christian house,” with its own lake and accommodations for 70 guests. Jewish hotel owner Abraham Dan bought the lodge in 1921 and rebuilt the resort after a disastrous fire in November 1926. The much-expanded result is shown in the aerial photo below (courtesy of the excellent Sha-wan-ga Lodge website, maintained by Abraham’s granddaughter Abby. Sadly, the resort closed in 1972 and burned to the ground a year later.
I found the entrance to the lodge property—but no sign of its iconic stone gate. In fact, I was surprised to see that there was no sign whatsoever of the huge resort. It had been completely bulldozed and every brick carted off. Even the swimming pool had been filled in. In February this year, the town board voted unanimously to approve the building of a casino on the 345-acre site of the Sha-wan-ga Lodge. To the best of my knowledge, however, all such ventures in Sullivan County are still awaiting approval by the State of New York.
For years, the O&W railroad had to deposit passengers at the High View Station and then take them by stagecoach across the Shawangunk Mountains to the Mamakating Station, where they could continue their train journey. The crossing was uncomfortable and, in bad weather, even perilous. Building a tunnel through the mountain became a high priority for the O&W. The resulting High View Tunnel took 3 years to build and went into service in February 1872. I’d had a glimpse of the southern entrance near the High View Station, but I was hoping to see the northern end as well. This Manville Wakefield painting shows the O&W “Mountaineer” passenger train leaving the north tunnel entrance and descending past the WX Tower toward Mamakating.
I managed to find the Mamakating Station mostly by luck. After the O&W ended operations, the local VFW adopted the station as its headquarters, and the members have kept it in excellent condition ever since.
As I was photographing the station, a large, orange-ish, and rather disheveled sheep dog appeared. He was quite friendly, and a VFW volunteer told me that his name was “Chewie”—short, naturally, for Chewbaca!
I also learned from the volunteer that it was possible to walk the old train right of way clear up to the northern entrance of High View Tunnel! Although my schedule was tight, I immediately vowed to find the tunnel. The first section of the right of way proved to be easy going.
Later, as the grade steepened, the terrain became a lot rougher and a lot wetter, with all the rainwater finding its way to the path. I was hoping to discover the old control tower as I hiked up the mountain, but I later learned that it had been dismantled and removed. However, I did find this curious little windowless stone building. I believe it is the same one shown in the old photo below (closest to the camera). Subsequent research identified it as an explosives magazine. The stone walls, steel door, and flimsy roof were designed to contain any accidental blast and direct it skyward. It was used during the tunnel’s construction, and possibly in later years to help clear the frequent cave-ins that occurred.
Eventually I reached the tunnel entrance—or, at least, within 100 feet or so of it. Water was pouring out of the entrance, complicating any attempt at a closer look.
The portal originally looked like this (photo courtesy of the Ontario & Western Railway Historical Association). After the demise of the O&W, the stone entranceway collapsed and was later partially excavated. The original tunnel extended roughly 20 feet past the present opening. In my photo below, note the brick lining inside the tunnel, which was intended to help prevent cave-ins.
Speaking of cave-ins, the current Route 17 “Quickway” runs right across the old tunnel. The highway is in the process of being upgraded to Interstate 86, and substantial consideration has been given to whether the tunnel poses a problem for the expected heavier traffic flow. If you want to see this tunnel for yourself, sooner would be better than later.
Back at the VFW post/station, Chewie sniffed my soaked sneakers, shook his head, and wandered away! The friendly volunteer gave me a nice cold bottle of water, and I resumed my tour. Next up was the little town of Wurtsboro, O&W station and all. The Delaware & Hudson Canal was envisioned by Maurice Wurts and his two brothers, and construction began in the center of the town in 1825, with New York City Mayor Philip Hone conducting the groundbreaking with a golden shovel.
This Catskills survivor started out in 1814 as the Gumaer House, which could handle 80 guests. By 1891 it was Ye Clarendon Inn, and later Ye Olde Inn. Today, it’s the home of Danny’s Restaurant. Its main competitor, the Olcott House, no longer exists—but in its prime, it featured a collection of live rattlesnakes. (I hope they counted the snakes each evening before bedtime…)
Not surprisingly, the Lenapi were not altogether happy with hoards of European settlers arriving in the 1700s and either buying or just confiscating their lands. The ensuing hostilities led to the construction of several forts along the Old Mine Road. Fort Roosa still stands and now serves as a private residence. Built in 1731, it is the oldest surviving building in Sullivan County. An elderly passer-by recalled that there used to be a stone guardhouse on the other side of the road, with a tunnel leading back to the fort.
The Sullivan County Club was formed by wealthy sportsmen from New York City and was “restricted”—that is, no Jewish members were allowed. The club attracted numerous investors, but it foundered on hard economic times at the end of the 1800s. Their hotel subsequently became the Mamakating Park Inn and did well enough until going out of business in the 1930s. The property then became Camp Lakota. I was hoping to see if the old hotel building was still standing—but promptly encountered this gate across the main entrance.
Temporarily abandoning the faithful 335i, I walked around the gate and hiked up the hill to the grounds of the former club. Along the way, I realized that Camp Lakota is still alive and well. Almost no one was there on the day of my visit, but I got a friendly wave from one of the camp counselors as she drove by. Apparently I’d used the back entrance to the camp, and no one seemed to mind a gawky, picture-takin’ tourist wandering around. I found the original “mansion house” for the resort without difficulty, but it seems that the hotel building had burned many years ago.
This part of New York is filled with natural ponds. When the tourist industry started up in Sullivan County, most of the ponds were promptly renamed as “lakes.” This is Lake Louise Marie, which is situated almost immediately next to Davis Lake, Treasure Lake, Wanasink Lake, Yankee Lake, Wolf Lake, and Beaver Lake.
After the restricted Sullivan County Club opened, Herman Knenke built the Glenwood Hotel to compete with the private club. It was located west of Wurtsboro on Lord’s Pond (later Foulwood Lake and now Wanasink Lake). It was very popular and prospered until the main building burned in 1933. Two of its beautiful mansions have survived, however, and are now part of Camp Iroquois Springs—which, ironically, competes with Camp Lakota. This one serves as the office for the camp.
Comparing these two photos, the Glen Wild Methodist Church looks completely unchanged from its original appearance in 1867. But the current photo reveals mischief of some sort.
If the space alien totem pole wasn’t enough to convince you, then check out this photo, taken immediately next to the church. It took me a moment before I realized the purpose of the crucifix… And consider that the place is now officially named “The Church of the Little Green Man.” It offers baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and “all are welcome.” I’m as open-minded as the next fellow, but I have to say that this place kind of creeped me out.
This bridge carried traffic over the Neversink River starting in 1887. It’s been replaced by a modern concrete crossing, but the county thoughtfully left the original in place for historical tourists such as Yr Fthfl Srvnt.
As I continued driving through Sullivan County, I became progressively more aware that a large proportion of the houses, motels, camps, and resorts that I passed were either abandoned or for sale. The total collapse of the tourism economy in the county was all too apparent. The door to this old place was wide open, but I defy anyone heavier than a cocker spaniel to make it across the front porch!
The Concord Resort was the largest and most prosperous in the Catskills. It started when Russian immigrant and hair tonic mogul Arthur Winarick bought the Ideal Hotel on Lake Kiamesha, where he had vacationed for several years. He immediately built the Concord Plaza, which featured “sumptuous kosher dining,” comedians, big band music, and room for 500 vacationers. It prospered, growing to 2,000 acres and 1,500 rooms before facing the late 1960s decline in business. Still, the Concord carried on, surviving until February 1997—one month after the State of New York rejected a referendum for casinos in Sullivan County.
This was the entrance to the Concord not so many years ago. Now, the dilapidated entrance booth is the only recognizable part of the once-proud resort. The rest has been bulldozed to the last concrete block.
In its heyday, the Concord could seat 3,000 guests for dinner. The demolition ended all that, and a legend is gone. Perhaps not forever: the current property owners are still hoping to build a new casino and resort here. Everywhere I went, in fact, the county residents are pinning their hopes on casinos. (Photos courtesy of William Bird and Richard Cunningham on Flickr.)
Lake Kiamesha lives on, with or without the Concord. It serves as a reservoir for Monticello and other nearby towns, and “bathing, wading, and spitting” have been prohibited since 1913. Oddly, a rash of suicides took place in this area, beginning in 1913 and continuing through 1919. The preferred means was by drowning—in the waters of Lake Kiamesha. A footnote in To the Mountains by Rail quietly adds that “Kiamesha Lake has also been a traditional dumping ground for gangland killings and hotel employee murders.” In fact, the decline of tourism and the rise of crime in Sullivan County were mutually reinforcing factors.
As a too-strange-to-ignore sidebar, let’s consider crime in Sullivan County a bit further. Many people have heard of “Murder, Inc.”—the gang of hit men in the 1930s who carried out contract killings for the New York City mobs. But few realize that many of the gangsters of the time were actually Jewish Americans, not Italian. The first head of Murder, Inc. was Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. Gang members included Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, Martin “Bugsy” Goldstein, and Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro. A number of their victims ended up in Sullivan County, some at the bottom of Lake Kiamesha. Before Thomas E. Dewey became governor of New York and a Presidential candidate, he was a New York Special Prosecutor. His fierce crackdown on organized crime is legendary. Ironically, when mobster Dutch Schultz wanted to kill Dewey, the syndicate feared the public outcry that would result—and Lepke Buchalter had Schultz killed instead. Dewey went on to prosecute Buchalter, who was put to death in Sing Sing Penitentiary in 1944. An interesting account of the last Murder, Inc. victim to be found in Sullivan County is available in The Body in the Swimming Pool Drain, by Sullivan County Historian John Conway. This site has a treasure trove of other articles about Sullivan County. (Fair warning: Once you start reading them, it’s awfully hard to stop!)
Whew. We now return to our regularly scheduled tour report.
Following the Great Depression, many of the major resorts began to cater primarily to Jewish families from New York City. The “Borscht Belt” nickname was a play on the “Bible Belt,” referring to the Ukrainian beet soup that remains popular to this day, particularly with Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe. Among these resorts, Kutsher’s was one of the most popular. Max and Lois Kutsher started the resort with an addition to their farmhouse in 1907. Their nephew Milton continued the tradition and introduced major expansions in the 1950s through the 1980s. Kutsher’s grew to 1,500 acres and included two bungalow communities and two summer camps in addition to the 400-room main hotel.
In 1954, a 17-year-old high school student got a summer job here as a bellhop and joined the resort’s evening basketball team. He benefited substantially from the excellent coaching and became the team’s star player. The student? Wilt Chamberlain. The coach? Red Auerbach. They both went on to NBA fame and fortune, on opposite sides of the country.
Kutsher’s was the last of the mighty Borscht Belt resorts—but even it closed in 2008, reopening only briefly before its final shutdown in 2013. The current owners are planning to demolish the resort and build a new health and wellness center. We’ll see.
By the way, if you want to go nosing around abandoned resorts, it’s best to park someplace inconspicuous!
Monticello, NY is famous for its horse racing and “racino.” I was more interested in its historic downtown “Broadway” section, which is little changed (if you don’t count the significant number of vacant stores).
Naturally Monticello had its own O&W Railway station, which still seems to be holding up fairly well.
One of the newest additions to this area is the Monticello Motor Club, a private road racing “country club” serving the needs of well-heeled automobile enthusiasts. It has 4.1 miles of racetrack, which can be configured into a number of different circuits. For a considerable upfront fee plus annual dues, you can become a Bronze, Silver, or Gold member and try out your Ferrari F40 or McLaren F1 to your heart’s content. (Or, if you prefer, your Bugeye Sprite will also be welcome.) On the day of my visit, there was a fleet of brand-new Jaguar F-Type coupes on hand, perhaps for a press introduction or similar event.
The White Lake Mansion House Hotel sits on a hillside overlooking the water. It’s practically unchanged from its 1848 origins, other than now being vacant. It is said to be the oldest surviving resort building in Sullivan County, but I think Ye Clarenden Inn has it beat. During the early Prohibition years, gangster Waxie Gordon is said to have been a part-owner of the hotel—and to have distilled bootleg whiskey in the basement.
As the day was drawing to a close, I finally reached a critical destination about 3 miles from White Lake. The field was fairly nondescript, although it was clear where the stage had been. And the surrounding hills formed a natural amphitheatre, indicating why the organizers had chosen this location (after having been rebuffed in at least two other places). Yep, this was the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. I wasn’t expecting to have such a visceral reaction to this place, but it gave me goosebumps and feelings of both sorrow and awe. I was far too broke in 1969 to entertain any thought of going to Woodstock, but I loved the music and I loved the groups. And I remembered how many of the performers were lost to drugs.
Speaking of the groups, here are (i) Joe Cocker and (ii) well, “If you don’t know Jorma, you don’t know Jack.” My favorite group from the sixties was the Jefferson Airplane. Jorma Kaukonen, shown here riding a minibike, was the lead guitarist, and Jack Casady was the bass player. They continue to perform regularly as Hot Tuna (and Jorma still rides a full-size cruiser). In addition, Jorma runs the killer Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp, which I’ve been fortunate to attend several times. Rock on! (Joe Cocker photo courtesy of Woodstock Vision by Elliott Landy; Jack and Jorma photo courtesy of Bill Eppridge.)
Although I arrived too late to visit the Woodstock Museum, I returned 2 weeks later and thoroughly enjoyed the place.
The Woodstock Museum was also having a special Beatles exhibit downstairs. I particularly liked the dozens of rare photos of the Beatles at work and at play. You all know their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, so this photo won’t be a surprise. Except that it’s during rehearsal: First, the huge “Beatles” lettering was removed before the show aired, since Ed Sullivan said that everyone already knew who they were. And second, if you look carefully, you’ll see that Ringo, Paul, and John are playing with someone who isn’t George. The latter had strep throat, and the Beatles’ road manager Neil Espinall was filling in for him during practice. That “fifth Beatle” in the second shot is some passing rock wannabe who horned in on the photo.
With the sun beginning to set, I found the 1873 Stone Arch Bridge over the east branch of Callicoon Creek. You would never guess from this placid setting that, in 1892, Adam Heidt and his oldest son Joseph brutally murdered local farmer George Markert on this very bridge. The Heidts believed that Markert was a “hexenmeister” who had cast a ruinous curse on their family. To break the hex, they decided to kill the hapless farmer—in three different ways. So, on a snowy January night they ambushed Markert on the bridge, where they shot him in the head, beat him with a large wooden table leg, and dumped his body over the side of the bridge into the creek. Joseph Heidt was convicted of second-degree murder, and his father Adam spent the rest of his days in an asylum, eventually dying of “chronic melancholia.” I’m told that on snowy nights, George Markert’s shadowy ghost is often seen on the bridge.
By now I was running well and truly late. I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t make any other stops—and then promptly pulled over to view my old friend, the Delaware River…
…and again to find the 1850 Cochecton freight station for the Erie Railroad, which is the oldest surviving train station in New York.
I finally made it to the Old North Branch Inn, which was built in 1868 in response to the growing tourist trade in the county. Innkeeper Victoria Lesser greeted me warmly, showed me my room, and suggested I could get a late dinner in nearby Callicoon at Matthews On Main.
When I returned to the Inn, Victoria told me the history of the hotel and gave me a tour. It originally had six bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs but has been tastefully reconfigured to four bedrooms, each with a private bath. She renovated the bar and dining rooms downstairs to their original configurations, discovering in the process that a complete, two-lane bowling alley from the late 1800s was hiding behind a disco dance floor that someone had added! She encouraged me to give it a try, and I managed a 9 and two spares in my three attempts, clearing and resetting the pins by hand in-between rolls. I loved it. In the distance you can see a row of movie theatre seats. If the weather is bad, Victoria screens movies for her guests.
After a great night’s sleep, I came down to discover orange juice, homemade yogurt, granola, two hardboiled eggs, a homemade blueberry muffin, and grapes for breakfast. And an autographed bowling pin, to remind me of my stay! Everything was excellent.
Victoria Lesser turned out to be quite an interesting person. She grew up in New York City and vacationed in Sullivan County with her family. She went into fashion design, creating outfits for the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, and other notable performers, and she made all of Bill Cosby’s pajamas for many years. Later, she added interior decorating to her repertoire, and then tackled the renovation of a number of old houses in Key West, Florida. By the time she moved to North Branch, she didn’t think twice about buying the old hotel and renovating it from top to bottom. Actor Mark Ruffalo has used the movie theatre in the bowling alley, and Leonardo DiCaprio stayed in room no. 4 a few years ago. The old hotel, with Victoria’s help, is continuing to make history.
All too soon it was time to move on from North Branch. I had a full day of touring ahead of me, and I needed to be in Cape Cod that same night (300 miles away). Naturally, I only stopped for the most essential of photos, such as this derelict (but surprisingly beautiful) 1934½ Dodge sedan.
And, of course, I had to get a photo of this mystery car, which I’m almost positive is a mid-1960s Triumph TR-4 roadster. Anyone need a good restoration project?
I made a lengthy side trip to Cooks Falls, in Delaware County, NY, in hopes of getting some scenic waterfall photos. Once there, I learned that the falls are long gone, having been dynamited into oblivion in the 1800s to facilitate rafting timber down Beaver Kill. Regardless, the river, with its low-hanging mist and distant abandoned O&W railroad bridge, was plenty scenic even without falls.
Beaver Kill is considered one of the best rivers for fly-fishing in the entire state. Despite the crummy weather, this fellow was having a fine time.
On the other hand… Cooks Falls figured in a couple of notable O&W Railway disasters. One was in March 1888, when the river became completely jammed with ice, backing up water and ice flows until the O&W tracks were covered 10 feet deep. A repair team decided to dynamite the ice jam. This activity involved warming the dynamite and fuses near an open fire, with predictably catastrophic results. In 1902, two O&W trains collided head-on a couple miles north of Cooks Falls, when one of the engineers forgot that he was not running his usual No. 9 train, which had the right of way, but No. 12 instead. When the southbound No. 12 ran into the northbound No. 11, the force was so great that it caused the boilers of both steam locomotives to telescope back into the cabs in one of the worst wrecks in O&W history.
I sensibly decided it was time to return to Sullivan County before any other disasters struck. The low mist continued for quite some time, accompanied by a light rain. My poor 335i was looking like it had just finished a tour of Tobacco Road.
As I drove through the town of Roscoe, I suddenly realized that I had been there before, 2 years earlier (see Revolutionary War Murder, Mayhem, and Massacres). A mile or so north of town, I stopped to photograph this 1949 Plymouth taxi. I’m quite partial to these cars, having torn up the road in a nearly identical 1951 Dodge when I first got my driver’s license.
As I sat in the 335i, taking the picture out the window, my rear parking sensor thoughtfully alerted me to someone approaching immediately behind the car. It turned out to be the owner of the Plymouth. He explained that the car had been used in a number of scenes from the 2003 movie Mona Lisa Smile, being repainted between scenes so as to look like four different cars. After its last iteration as a taxi, it was left that way. In the photo below, from the Internet Movie Database, Julia Roberts is just arriving in the taxi and is being greeted by Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles.
No tour would be complete without a covered bridge, of course, and the Beaverkill Bridge met this need quite nicely. It’s not far from Clear Lake, in the Catskill Forest Preserve. Once there was a prosperous tanning business here, but it died out as the hemlock forests disappeared. The bridge remains, virtually unchanged from its construction in 1865. A quiet pool is situated just past the bridge, and it was one of Theodore Gordon’s favorite fishing spots. Gordon (1854-1915) is considered the “father of American dry fly-fishing.”
Like most of the towns in Sullivan County, at one time Livingston Manor had as many as 37 hotels and boarding houses catering to summer vacationers. Danny Kaye got his showbiz start here in 1933, entertaining resort guests at breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as in a new variety show every night. To keep up with this schedule, he had to rehearse all night on many occasions, but he eventually became “the King of the Catskills.” This 1933 photo (courtesy of the Library of Congress) shows him on the right, performing in Livingston Manor with dancers Cathleen Young and Dave Harvey as “The Three Terpsichoreans.”
Despite anti-Semitism and even a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in this area, Jewish residents generally prospered here, and in 1924 they built the Agudas Achim (“a gathering of brothers and sisters”) synagogue. The temple faded in the 1960s, as many of the younger Jews moved elsewhere, but it revived in the 1980s and has had strong congregations ever since.
The Waldemere Hotel on Lake Shandelee was the largest and best-known of the Livingston Manor resorts. I knew that the main hotel had burned in June 1963 and that the Waldemere had closed not long afterward, but I went looking for the ruins anyway. To my surprise, I found this pair of relatively new buildings, right next to the abandoned resort. As best I can tell, an attempt was made to bring back the Waldemere, but it foundered with the Great Recession.
Liberty has one of the highest elevations in Sullivan County. As I climbed Revonah Mountain outside of town, I soon found myself back in the misty clouds. I was looking for whatever was left of the old Revonah Mountain House. What I found was a summer camp, with no one around this early in the season. Incidentally, the mountain was named by German immigrant A.J.D. Wedemeyer. Everyone thinks it’s based on an Indian name, but Wedemeyer was born in Hanover, Germany—and “Revonah” is Hanover spelled backwards.
Part I of my report concludes in the mountains outside of Liberty. In 1867, a 36-year-old New York City doctor contracted tuberculosis. He had become a specialist in treating “consumption” after watching all but one of his family die from TB. Dr. Alfred Loomis moved to the Adirondack Mountains of New York for 6 months and slowly regained his health. Convinced that the mountain air, water, and climate were the best cure, he began sending his TB patients to Sullivan County and later raised money to buy property here to build a sanitarium. In the process, he revolutionized the treatment of tuberculosis, with further progress only made through the arrival of antibiotics in the 1940s. Although Dr. Loomis passed away from pneumonia before his sanitarium was built, his sister-in-law Mary Irvin saw the project through. The Loomis Memorial Sanitarium for Consumptives opened less than a year later, in 1896, becoming the second such sanitarium in the U.S. Through the early 1940s, it attended to thousands of tuberculosis patients and was regarded as the model facility in the U.S. for such treatment.
The historical photo shows the Loomis Sanitarium administration office (closest to the camera). One of Dr. Loomis’ patients, the wealthy financier J.P. Morgan, donated the money for its construction. The building burned only 3 years later, but Morgan financed its replacement. The second structure in the old photo was the casino. Today, it’s a private residence.
The Loomis Hospital still stands, and plans are being made to renovate it as part of a Loomis Village historical district. (Historical photo courtesy of the Classic Catskills documentary series.)
A few weeks after my visit to Loomis, I corresponded with Sullivan County Historian John Conway, and he very kindly sent me this old photo of the sanitarium when it was still operating. He identified the domed building on the left as the library, which is apparently now a private residence. (It had looked deserted on the day of my visit.)
John further told me that the building on the right was the Babbitt Memorial Laboratory. During my visit, I had pulled up for a quick photo of the building and was enthusiastically greeted by its current owner, George Cavet. He was busy continuing his renovation of the historic laboratory, but, as he said, “If I’m talking to you, then I don’t have to work!” George emigrated from the former Yugoslavia as a young man, worked two fulltime jobs, raised $4,000, and started a sewing mill near New York City. Through much hard work and a dedicated entrepreneurial spirit, he built the company into a major business. He now divides his time between the City and his project mansion in Loomis.
Before I knew it, George had invited me inside, showing me the family room, kitchen, and an extraordinarily complicated furnace in the basement. He was very generous with his time, and it was a real pleasure talking with him.
And I’m thrilled that George, John, Victoria, and many others are working hard to keep the history of Sullivan County alive. If you’ve read this far, you might be pleased to learn that Part II of my tour will be available before long. After all, I wanted a closer look at the grandest of all the resorts—Grossinger’s—and I had another castle to track down…