Catherine is an Australian woman in New York City who fell in love with the Catskills. This month, she gives us a brief history of the Catskills – a fascinating story of how the New York City zeitgeist and immigration patterns shaped this glorious region…and how the Catskills shaped New York.
Native Americans: The Original Inhabitants
Native Americans lived throughout the Catskills area with numerous trade routes, some of which still exist today as modern roads, eg. Route 209. The Lenni-Lenape, Mahican and Iroquois tribes were part of the Algonquian Confederacy, which included the Delaware and Wappinger tribes. These groups used the region for trade and war for thousands of years until the Europeans arrived.
Dutch and British Settlement
As with New York City, the first Europeans in the Catskills were the Dutch in the 1600s. The Dutch didn’t settle the region in large numbers but their heritage is evident in place names still using the Dutch word “kill” for “stream”. The British gained ownership from the Dutch in 1667 and in the early 1700s most of the land in the region was “purchased” by Johannes Hardenbergh from the chiefs of the Esopus Indians (for a sum of 60 pounds). This transaction, which was not without controversy, became the Hardenbergh Patent, and if you purchase property today in the area, it most likely traces back to this land grant.
The Source of “The Champagne of Drinking Water”
As NYC grew, the need for freshwater ended up protecting the Catskills. In 1905, NYC developed the Catskills Watershed. A network of pipes and aqueducts were built, resulting in 95% of NYC tap water coming from Upstate rain and snow melt. The mountains were placed in reserves to protect the water supply, now providing the outdoor space we all love.
A Home for New Americans
Immigration to the region reflected immigration to NYC, with ethnic segments moving Upstate, primarily to farm. Names in the region, like “Germantown”, “Scotchtown” and “Irishtown”, reflect the origins of the early settlers.
A Haven for Jewish Families
Jewish immigrants originally moved to the Catskills to farm. In the 1900s, they started building summer boarding houses for Jewish families from NYC who were barred from many existing country clubs and holiday resort communities. These early entrepreneurs were more successful running accommodation services than farming. The boarding houses turned into large resorts with lakes, cottages, golf courses, all-inclusive meals and nightly entertainment. Well-known resorts including Kutsher’s, The Concord and Grossinger’s. The area was nicknamed the “Borscht Belt” or the “Jewish Alps”. Many famous New York comedians started their careers and honed their skills at the resorts, including Joan Rivers, Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld. And Kellerman’s, the Catskills resort setting for iconic 1987 film Dirty Dancing, is indeed a real resort, but is located in Virginia and called Mountain Lake Lodge.
The Rise and Fall of the Summer Resorts
In the early days, families would catch the train up at the start of the summer, remaining in the Catskills over summer, with only the men returning to NYC for work during the week. As cars became common, train travel declined and airfares become more affordable, the business model of “all-inclusive family holidays” was no longer viable.
Today, you can drive past the abandoned buildings of these once famous properties and see an occasional sign on the side of the road directing you to a relic of the past. Although numerous attempts to revive them have so far been unsuccessful, New Yorkers continue to appreciate the region for hiking, kayaking, and as an escape from city life. There are numerous places to stay, whether you want to camp under the stars or live it up in a boutique hotel or at the $1.2 billion Resorts World Catskills hotel and casino, opened in early 2018.
The history of the Catskills will no doubt continue to reflect the magical atrraction of the area.
Catherine hails from Hobart and Perth, and previously lived in Indiana, Canberra, and San Diego. Five and a half years ago, she moved to New York for work and, having met her American husband, plans to stay! She works in international affairs with the United Nations. In her free time, Catherine is passionate about her volunteer work with the New York Junior League and she enjoys spending time outdoors running, hiking and traveling.