You don’t have to live in New York State to have heard of the Catskill Mountains—such classic American authors as Washington Irving have made sure of that—but the village of Catskill? Well, its reputation doesn’t spread quite so far—at least, not now and not yet.
It wasn’t always the case.
Despite its name, Catskill isn’t a mountain town—it’s a river town, a very old river town, and therein lie its history and its claim to fame. Native Americans were on hand to greet Henry Hudson when he reached what is now Catskill on his voyage up the river that bears his name. The first Dutch settler, one Killiaen van Rensselaer, likely came to Catskill in 1630. Catskill was incorporated as a village in 1806. Even before this, it had established its importance as a crossroads for commercial and leisure travel. The Susquehanna Turnpike, completed in 1801, had Catskill as its terminus. Thus Catskill became a major point for travel to the American West. Travelers coming up the river from New York—before decent roads were built, steamboats were the method of transportation—would change at Catskill for Albany or Montreal to the north, or the Berkshires or Boston to the east.
One of Catskill’s most renowned residents, as is well known, was Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting. But did you know that Samuel Wilson, the original prototype of the popular “Uncle Sam” figure, was also based in Catskill? Wilson was a government meat inspector who was responsible for stamping “U.S.” onto shipments of meat bound for West Points and other destinations to the south during the war of 1812—hence “Uncle Sam.”
The 19th and early 20th centuries were prosperous times for Catskill. In addition to tourism—in Main Street alone several nice hotels welcomed longer-term vacationers as well as tourists wanting to spend a night here either before or after a sojourn in the Catskill Mountains to the west—the shipbuilding, tanning, and other industries flourished here. By the mid-20th century Catskill entered a period of decline, but its bicentennial, celebrated in 2006, provided impetus for a revitalization, as residents and owners of buildings were encouraged to breathe new life into the classic architecture. Local historian Richard Philp, author of Catskill Village in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, credits the restoration of Thomas Cole’s house Cedar Grove, now a National Historic Site, as a major factor in Catskill’s rebirth.
Here are some photos I took last Sunday on a walk through Catskill, along with one I took earlier of the Catskill Country Store. I stopped in for an enjoyable chat with proprietor Carol Wilkinson and can highly recommend her coffee and other tasty products. The Thomas Cole House was having its annual Open House, so some of the photos are from that unfailingly enjoyable event.
Drinks, snacks and lots of fun abounded at the Thomas Cole site’s Open House! This was also a great opportunity to see the current art exhibition on 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt for free.
Thomas Cole himself was on hand to greet visitors.
Last but not least: Our book Historic Hudson Valley was for sale at the Visitor Center!