There isn't much left of the once-grand Catskill Mountain House. The lavish resort hotel was perched on a precarious ledge in Greene County for over a century. During its 19th-century heyday, the hotel embodied the peak of luxury for a generation of the rich and famous. But like many resort hotels of the Catskills' glittering past, the Mountain House fell into disuse in the 20th centry and was finally destroyed by the state of New York in 1963 to return its scenic overlook to wilderness.
Tobe Carey, a profilic Catskills-area documentary filmmaker, has painstakingly resurrected the Catskill Mountain House's glory in a documentary, The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around. The film has been winning accolades, including a Gold award at the WorldFest Houston International Film Festival in April. Just in time for Memorial Day weekend -- the official start of the Catskills' summer tourist season -- we chatted with Carey over email about the Catskill Mountain House and its bygone era of romantic tourism.
Q: What got you interested in studying the Catskill Mountain House and the other grand resort houses of the 19th-century Catskills?
A: I was searching for my next project after the continued success of our documentary, Deep Water: Building the Catskill Water System. My wife, Meg, and I were at a lecture at the Thomas Cole House when I spoke with Debbie Allen ofBlack Dome Press, and she suggested doing something on the Catskill Mountain House, since there had never been a film about that historic building. I liked the idea and began researching. One thing led to another and although all the threads pointed back to the Mountain House, they spread near and far and pulled in the other grand hotels as well as railroads, steamboats, personalities, and more. It took about three years to complete the film.
Q: Why did efforts to restore the Catskill Mountain House fail? Was there any backlash to the state's decision to burn down the Catskill Mountain House in the 1960s?
A: By the time the Mountain House was burned, it was too late to revive it. After World War II, easy transportation by airplane and car allowed tourists to go far beyond the Catskills. And the building was hit by a hurricane in the 1950s, and then was vandalized. The last owner sold off parts in an attempt to keep it going, to no avail. Who would want to stay in a wooden “fire trap” like those old hotels? I think most people were sad to see the Mountain House destroyed after 140 years sitting on top of the escarpment, but they realized that razing it was better than leaving a dangerous hulk in place. Besides, New York State regulations required the removal of most structures on “forever wild” land.
Q: Of all the 19th-century resorts in the Catskills, which was the most grandiose? Why?
A: I think the Kaaterskill Hotel was the most grandiose. It was built as a ”spite hotel” by George Harding after he was denied fried chicken for his ill daughter (or, as some say, his daughter and wife) when he was staying at the Catskill Mountain House. The Kaaterskill boasted over 1,000 rooms, fresco ceilings, “modern” plumbing, and closets, which were unheard of in hotels of that era. It was opened in 1881 and accidentally burned in 1924. The perimeter of the hotel was a mile around, and extensive carriage roads wound through the forests around it.
Q: Do you think there will be a revival of the era of romantic tourism that helped the Catskill Mountain House and the Kaaterskill Hotel boom?
A: No. Times have changed, and although there are spectacular wilderness areas and great hikes, there are no comparable romantic hotels and no artists extolling their virtues the way the painters, poets and writers of the 19th century did for popular magazines of that time.
Q: Do you have any advice for hikers who trek to the site of the Catskill Mountain House? What should they look for when they arrive?
A: Except for the concrete remains of Overlook Mountain House, there are no ruins to see, although there a few artifacts still to be found at the sites of the various old hotels. Great hikes are offered by the Mountain Top Historical Society and theHudson River School Art Trail is a great offering of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill.
The Video Librarian Review in its March-April 2011 edition gave
"The Catskill Mountain House and The World Around"
a 3+ rating and called it "Highly Recommended"
Grass Valley's Edius was instrumental in shaping the feature documentary “The Catskill Mountain House and The World Around” which recently won a Gold Remi at the 44th Annual WorldFest Houston International Film Festival. The prestigious Remi Award is named after famed sculptor Frederick Remington and was garnered by Tobe Carey producer/director at Willow Mixed Media, a not-for-profit arts group located near Woodstock, NY.
“The Catskill Mountain House and The World Around” is the fascinating story of America's first great mountain top hotel, romantic tourism, and cut-throat competition in New York's Northern Catskills. For 140 years, from 1823 to 1963, the Catskill Mountain House stood atop the Catskill High Peaks as a symbol of the Gilded Age. Beginning in the 1850's, The Laurel House, The Hotel Kaaterskill, The Overlook Mountain House and The Grand Hotel also became world famous vacation spots that attracted business tycoons, artists and Presidents.
The story of the rise and fall of the Catskill Mountain House is a compelling tale of steamboat and railroad empires, bitter rivalries, exclusive private preserves, fabulous art and picturesque landmarks that celebrated the Catskills as part of the American "Grand Tour” and as America's "First Wilderness."
Carey exclusively used Edius in shaping the product, and preparing for output to DVD and final distribution. Carey said, “Edius was my bedrock in dealing with many hours of interviews with historians as well as organizing the hundreds of images, vintage art and 19th century music as well as period film from the Library of Congress. Edius' strong and reliable workflow made it easy to shape the program and deal with the many changes that editing a documentary always requires.”
Carey has used Edius since it's introduction and his documentary output, which has included numerous festival showings and awards reflects his attention to detail that Edius supports. Carey specializes in documentaries and art projects.
His films have played at international and US film festivals on PBS affiliates and his work has appeared on 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning, ABC 20/20, and he has won multiple festival awards. Carey's documentaries include “Giving Birth”, “The Hudson River PCB Story”, “Indian Point – Nowhere to Run”, “Deep Water: Building the Catskill Water System”, “Stanley's House”, “School Board Blues” and “Love is the Reason”.
“The Catskill Mountain House and The World Around” premiered in October 2010 and is in wide distribution on DVD. An online trailer is available at
Sittin’ on top of the world
Free screening of Tobe Carey’s new doc,
The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around , this Sunday in Woodstock
Photo of Catskill Mountain House courtesy of John M. Ham
For a hiker who is mainly interested in spectacular views, the rolling, heavily wooded Catskills don’t always offer a payoff proportional to the amount of vertical effort required to get to an overlook. But a short walk from the campground at North and South Lakes, near Palenville, lies a ledge where the ground drops out from under one’s feet so precipitously as to induce a serious case of vertigo. In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, frontiersman hero Natty Bumppo claims that from this place he can see “all creation.”
That may be a bit of romantic hyperbole, and this may not be (as once advertised) the highest point in the Catskills. But the view from this dramatic eastern escarpment does extend some 50 miles – up and down the Hudson Valley, across the River to Dutchess County and beyond into Connecticut and Massachusetts. And in the waning years of the 19th century, Frederic Church was gazing back at this same spot atop the cliff known as the Wall of Manitou from his artist’s eyrie at Olana.
After sufficient time spent drinking in that view, look around at the grassy area behind the rocky ledge, once known as the Pine Orchard. There’s not much debris left to tell the story of the grand structure that once lured tourists from as far away as Europe to enjoy this prospect of the American wilderness as part of the New World version of the Grand Tour, and that provided privileged New Yorkers a healthful, airy escape from the coal smog, deadly heat waves and cholera epidemics of urban summers. For over 125 years, from 1824 to 1941, the Catskill Mountain House entertained visitors on this very spot; Hudson River School painters including Thomas Cole and Jasper Cropsey depicted its glories on canvas; and veteran filmmaker Tobe Carey of Willow Mixed Media, Inc. has now taken it upon himself to remind us all of the site’s remarkable history.
Carey is well-known in these parts and held in high esteem by the independent filmmaking community for his long list of documentaries about artists, health and environmental issues and local history, among them Deep Water: Building the Catskill Water System, Love Is the Reason, Stanley’s House, School Board Blues, The Hudson River PCB Story: A Toxic Heritage, Indian Point: Nowhere to Run and Cancer: Just a Word…Not a Sentence. His newest film, The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around, will be screened free of charge at Upstate Films’ Woodstock venue this Sunday, December 19 at 2 p.m.
Guests of America’s first great mountaintop hotel typically arrived by steamboat at Catskill Landing, then had to endure a grueling five-hour trip up the mountain by stagecoach. On the steepest stretches, they had to get out and walk just to spare the horses. Two railroads later brought visitors closer to the site, their construction inspired by the so-called Fried Chicken War between two rival businessmen: the Catskill Mountain House’s second owner/expander Charles Beach and his longtime customer George Harding. Visiting with his daughter, who was on a restricted diet, Harding felt snubbed when Beach refused to substitute a chicken dinner for the red meat that was on the menu and decided to build a much larger competing resort, the Kaaterskill hotel, atop neighboring South Mountain. When Harding introduced the Kaaterskill Railroad to make his new establishment more accessible, Beach fired back by hiring the Otis Elevator Company in 1892 to build a funicular railway that would haul his visitors straight up the precipitous incline by cable.
There’s much more to the story, of course, as well as more to tell about the Catskill Mountain House’s immediate environs, including fabled Kaaterskill Falls: the day hike that was de rigueur for the resort’s visitors. You can dig deeper into this intriguing vein of local history by attending the screening at Upstate Films in Woodstock – the former Tinker Street Cinema – at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 19. The film runs 80 minutes and admission is free at this event sponsored by The Historical Society of Woodstock, Willow Mixed Media, and Upstate Films. DVDs will be available for purchase at the screening with a portion of sales going to support Upstate Films. For more information, email email@example.com.