The solemn beauty of the Catskills inspired America’s first great landscape artists.
Thomas Cole made his first trip to Catskill in 1825. The resulting paintings created a sensation and launched the Hudson River School of Art.
Cole believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation and he sought to warn America not to do to nature what industrial England had done. He warned about the perils that unchecked industry posed to the natural world. Born in Bolton, Cole knew all about the polluted and overcrowded world of factories belching smoke. To Cole, the greed that precipitated the American land grab heralded environmental ruin.
Fellow artists did not all agree with his warnings and the Catskills became a popular tourist destination, particularly The Mountain House Hotel.
As a keen fan of psycho-geography, I just had to follow in their footsteps! Spot the lady in pink, standing on the precipice of the former site of the Mountain House Hotel!
From Poughkeepsie, unsure of its identity, we continued up the Hudson to the Catskill Mountains – a region resonant with many identities.
The Native Americans that were there in 1609 when Henry Hudson arrived were robbed in 100 years of their homeland, their religion and their river.
Their world was overrun by explorers, trappers, settlers, missionaries, militia and travellers. The lush timbered land was grabbed by the likes of speculators, Johannes Hardenbergh and Robert Livingstone. Forty ‘Livingstone’ mansions still stand along the banks of the Hudson.
Our base in the Catskills was a log cabin near the hamlet of Phoenicia.
Although lying deep in the forested foothills, the shabby-chic, little town of Phoenicia had played its part in America’s economic development – and the desecration of natural resources that seemed to go hand in hand. We discovered the Bluestone history quite by accident taking a walk in the forest where the terrain was unusual to say the least.
An information board states: “In the mid-19th-century the streets of America’s growing cities needed good solid paving materials. To meet this need, enterprising local residents began about 1852 to quarry the region’s single most abundant mineral resource; a high quality, unusually hard sandstone, known locally as Bluestone. In New York City, Bluestone quickly became the building material of choice for sidewalks and curbs, as well as decoratively for use in window and door sills. The arrival of the railroad in 1870 provided a viable means of getting the stone to market, and commercial quarrying in the Phoenicia area began in earnest.”
For a period of about 30 years, Phoenicia was a centre of the bluestone trade. Stonecutters came from Europe bringing their expertise and adapting old world techniques to the challenges they encountered. This helped explain why this isolated hamlet has a beautiful Catholic stone church – many of the quarry workers came from Italy.
Another important economic activity for Phoenicia was the Tanbark industry. In the mid-1700s the first non-native settlers to the region were farmers from the Hudson Valley. The settlements were small and dependent on subsistence farming. The first major industry to develop was the harvesting of hemlock trees. At that time hemlock was the predominant species. It wasn’t the wood from these trees but rather their bark that was commercially valuable. In the early 1800s it was discovered that hemlock bark with its high concentration of tannic acid was an effective tanning agent. Tanneries were established throughout the region to facilitate the trade. The Delaware Plank Road was opened in 1851, built entirely of hemlock planking milled from the barked trees. The local forests soon felt the effect of the tan bark rush. Hemlock stands were cleared, bark stripped, and the wood left to rot. Bob Steuding, in his book, The Heart of the Catskills, estimates that in its 20-year history, the Pratt Tannery alone used 100,000 cords of hemlock bark from an estimated 400,000 trees.
The train going north from Grand Central Station runs through the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ landscape of the Hudson Riverway to Poughkeepsie. The town appears somewhat unprepossessing, given its proximity to West Point Academy and Vassar College. Nonetheless, it revealed the first glimpse of the themes and artefacts which would underpin our entire journey to Minnesota. We saw the relics and remnants of a grand industrial era repurposed for the modern tourist eco-industry. At 212 feet above the Hudson River, we took the 1.28-mile linear park Walkway sited on the former Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge.
The next theme was climate change. Weather warning messages, bulletins and ‘surprises’ became an everyday event.
The third holiday theme that began to seep into our consciousness was water – or rather the role rivers played as arteries of American development.
The people followed water, like veins across the landscape, to build new lives, businesses and communities. These natural highways knitted together the American nation as it developed. In early days, the entire journey from New York to Minnesota was by water and we were able to journey by rail and road because modern transportation had adopted the routes!
An important part of Paul’s pre-travel planning was the location of speciality American Diners. The one in Poughkeepsie did not disappoint!