The legend of Catskill Mountain House

Above: The Catskill Mountain House in a photo contributed by Tobe Carey and excerpts from "The Catskill Mountain House and the World Around."

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 of Black 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 the Hudson River School Art Trail is a great offering of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill.