A Catskill Catalog: Feb. 3, 2010
In 1888, Mr. Hill, proprietor of the Ackerly House in Margaretville, bought a full-page advertisement in Thompson & Breed’s Ulster & Delaware Railroad Directory. The ad featured a good photograph of his hotel, a substantial four-story frame building, fronted by three tiers of long wrap-around balconies, topped by a dormer-constructed fifth story tucked into the mansard roof.
The Ackerly House of 1888 was the enlarged and refurbished version of the original hotel, built in 1854 by David Ackerly and Dr. Orson Allaben, whose own house, medical office, and store were down the street. Dr. Allaben owned the riverfront sawmill that provided the timber for the construction. House, store, doctor’s office, sawmill, hotel: a village is born!
Between that initial construction and the 1888 photo, the Ackerly House had been extended and enlarged three times, occupying the corner of Margaretville’s Main Street and the road up Margaretville Mountain, today’s Walnut Street. The Gottfried Municipal Building, the Parson’s Building, and a parking lot occupy, today, the space once inhabited by the hotel.
The photograph shows a village remarkably recognizable today. The Methodist Church appears behind and to the right of the hotel. The Bussy Building stands on the opposite street corner, the back of the Masonic Building visible in the lower left foreground of the photo.
The Ackerly House was open year-round, accommodated 200 guests, and bragged of being “1,356 feet above tide-water,” an escape from the humid and disease-infected lowlands. “The rooms throughout the house are lighted with gas, and the halls and many of the rooms are supplied with pure Spring Water from the Mountain; Closets on each floor, with sanitary arrangements perfect in every respect.”
I can’t tell you why Mr. Hill capitalized the way he did, but I can tell you, now that we’re safe in the 21st century, rather than oh-so-correct in the 19th, that Hill’s “Closets” are toilets.
The advertisement goes on to describe the “Park-Like Grounds” bordering the hotel property, park-like grounds that were pictured in a somewhat earlier incarnation in a finely detailed drawing, published in W.W. Munsell’s 1880 History of Delaware County.
In this 1870ish view, the Ackerly House had yet to get its mansard roof or fifth-floor dormer extension. Guests are pictured walking on the balconies and promenading on the street. Things look prosperous: the hotel, its street-level Western Union office, Thomas Winter’s store on the opposite corner, A.P. Carpenter’s law office on its second floor.
Across the street, along the Binnekill, is a kind of river walk, an open, narrow strip of park, enclosed in low brick walls, street carriages on one side, row boats on the other. A walk bridge carries pedestrians over the Binnekill to a croquet ground, swings, walkways, arbors and lawn tennis courts. “The east branch of the Delaware River passes the grounds,” I’m quoting again from Mr. Hill’s 1888 advertisement, “affording excellent facilities for Boating and Bathing.”
Is it solely water supply regulations that keep us from featuring our waterways so prominently today? Or, have our notions of boating and bathing changed so much over the last 120 years – as have, evidently, our rules of capitalization – that such recreational use of our waterways is today untenable?
The kayaks and canoes at Susan’s Pleasant Pheasant Farm in Halcottsville have brought some river recreation back to this part of the mountains. In the 1880s, it was the river that seemed to be the major attraction for the many boarders who’d spend $10 per week to share a room in the Ackerly House, $15 for a single. The mountain was the source of pure spring water. The river was the daily draw.
In 1903, the Ackerly House burned down. The fire alarm went off at 6 o’clock Saturday morning, November 28. It started in a defective chimney in the servants’ quarters in the east end of the building. I’m not sure if “servants’ quarters” refers to employee rooms, or to those inferior rooms where personal servants of guests staying at the hotel were lodged.
“An alarm of fire was immediately turned in, but when the firemen arrived the flames had reached the upper floor of the building and were burning fiercely,” reported the Catskill Mountain News. Once it was clear that the Ackerly House was engulfed, firemen turned their attention to saving neighboring stores: Halpern Brothers, Swart & Hitt, and Osborn & Bussy.
Neil Munn played piano at the hotel. He was one of the first ones awakened by the fire, in his room in the building. Munn quickly gathered help to save two pianos from the blaze. The News reported that, “Most of the furniture and bedding on the office floor were also removed. The bar was quickly dismantled and willing hands carried the wet goods out where they were safe from fire and water, at least.”