A Catskill Catalog: Aug. 4, 2010

The American economy boomed in the years after 1865, the end of the Civil War. A brief financial panic in 1873 was followed by 20 years of sustained growth of, like, six percent a year. Railroad building and railroad buying and selling was the driving force of the economy, the west was opening, and some folks made a whole lot of money.

All of us who grew up playing Monopoly (t) know what to do when times are flush – build a hotel!
In 1881, the Catskills saw the building and opening of two great hotels: The Hotel Katterskill, up on the Mountaintop at South Mountain, and The Grand Hotel, at the summit above Pine Hill and Fleischmanns.

The Catskill Mountain House had been a must-see destination hotel for years, a must-spend-a-night-or-two, must-see-a-sunrise showplace since 1824, when, at the escarpment 2,000 feet above the Hudson Valley, Charles Beach practically invented the whole idea of a resort hotel. In the 1830s and ’40s, an American Grand Tour tradition had arisen for privileged young men, and chaperoned young women, from New York and Philadelphia.

One sailed up the Hudson from the city, disembarking at Catskill for the 12-mile carriage ride up to North Lake and the carefully groomed, wild lands of the hotel’s romantic, natural landscape. Spend a couple days at the Catskill Mountain House, take a hike or two, carve a name into tree or rock, and it was back downhill, to embark again from Catskill, north to the Eire Canal, where a slow-moving barge would, eventually, meet connections to Niagara Falls.

For over 50 years, real mountain competition for upscale clientele did not exist. The Catskill Mountain House, and its park-like grounds, were the Catskills for sophisticated Americans.
Perhaps wealthy Philadelphia lawyer, George Harding, sensed opportunity when he accepted the suggestion from an aging Charles Beach that he “could start his own hotel,” if he didn’t like the rules at The Catskill Mountain House. The kitchen staff would only prepare food on the menu. All guests were treated alike. The staff would not make fried chicken for Mr. Harding’s daughter.
So, Harding bought land on South Mountain, just a couple miles away, and built The Hotel Kaaterskill, bigger and more elegant than Beach’s place, imitating the Mountain House’s ridge-edge placement and view. Within a couple years, the Hotel Kaatterskill could accommodate 800 guests, becoming, when an extensive addition increased capacity to 1,200, the self-proclaimed “largest mountain hotel in the world.”

In that same year, 1881, The Grand Hotel opened an entire new region of the Catskills to luxury travel. This was the brainchild of Thomas Cornell, owner of Hudson River steamships and the Ulster and Delaware Rail Road. The railroad traveled along the Esopus Creek, over the summit above Pine Hill, reaching as far as Stamford by 1873.

Cornell reasoned that a hotel just above a rail siding could be literally hours away from Grand Central Station. And the last 40 miles of rail belonged to him! Increased passenger traffic is good, he thought; wealthy passengers as his clientele, even better.

He built the grandest hotel in the Catskills, hiring Kingston architect J.A. Wood to design a long and elegant cake-like confection of a three-story hotel, with turrets and a wide, elevated, covered-piazza that ran the entire 350-foot length of the building. Wood based his design on the Oriental Hotel in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach.

J. A. Wood’s design of The Grand was such a success that he used it to springboard a career that made him one of the foremost hotel architects of turn-of-the-century America. Historian Anson Adams, of Poughkeepsie, is currently working on a John A. Wood biography. Wood designed Plant Hall, signature building at The University of Tampa, and Kingston’s Mid-Town Neighborhood Center, as well as that city’s First Baptist Church at the intersection of Chandler Drive and Broadway.

The Grand Hotel was indeed grand. It had five dining rooms, a bar, billiard room, barbershop, bowling alley, and stables. There was a sewing room for women and a smoking and card room for men, a music hall and a breakfast room. Soon a nine-hole golf course was added to the lawn, tennis was already available.

Most importantly, there was a post office and telegraph office on site – the most modern communications available. Equally important, a newsstand supplied all the city papers and magazines that contained so much information that was simply crucial for on-going success in that age of print. The Grand maintained close ties to the city.

The weekday guests at The Grand Hotel were predominantly women and children who escaped the stifling heat and humidity of pre-air-conditioned New York by spending several weeks in the mountains.

Friday afternoons, men caught the 3:30 train out of Grand Central, arriving at the Summit Mountain rail siding at 8 p.m., in time for a fashionably-late dinner.

Monday morning, Thomas Cornell’s railroad ran a special 5 a.m. train to transport Thomas Cornell’s male guests back to Grand Central in time to get to work.

Oscar Wilde stayed at The Grand Hotel during that celebrated British writer’s 1882 American tour. Wall Street tycoons Jay Gould and Lewis Stern were guests.

The Grand never got a president. In August 1884, President Chester A. Arthur, with his daughter and niece, stayed a few days at the Hotel Kaaterskill.
© William Birns