The Catskills Mountains “Borscht Belt”: Here and Gone, Part II

 

Rodney Dangerfield: In my house I can’t relax. I told my kid, “Someday you’ll have children of your own.” He said, “So will you.”

Like Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, George Burns, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, and a host of others, Rodney Dangerfield was a regular performer throughout the Catskills “Borscht Belt” circuit. Now the resorts are closed and the stages are in ruins. But there is beauty, even in yesterday’s forgotten and deteriorating places, not to mention the mountains, lakes, and rivers for which this area is famous. It was a perfect destination for an extended BMW tour—and a great opportunity to put my 335i’s many talents to work.

Picking up where we left off in Part I, we’ll go in search of Otto Hillig—and his castle. Mr. Hillig was born in Germany in 1874 and immigrated to the U.S. when he was just 16. Penniless, he worked at a series of menial jobs in New York City and later moved to the town of Liberty in Sullivan County. Otto soon developed a fascination with the still-nascent field of photography, and he went on to become one of the best-known photographers in New York. I located his studio in Liberty quite easily. The building still carries his name and is now home to a printing business and a bakery.

Otto was also quite an adventurer. He purchased one of the first automobiles in Sullivan County and drove it across the U.S. in 1916. He tried his hand at aerial photography and became obsessed with the idea of flying across the Atlantic to his home country in his own airplane. By June 1931, Otto was ready to depart, with Danish pilot Holger Hoiriis at the tiller of his specially made Bellanca airplane with a 300 horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine. Initially, they flew from the Liberty golf course to Newfoundland, crossing New York City in the process. (Historical photos below are courtesy of the Boston Public Library. Unless otherwise identified, old photos are courtesy of To the Mountains by Rail by Manville B. Wakefield.)

Their flight across the Atlantic began in Newfoundland, with the intention of touching down in Copenhagen, Denmark. While a huge crowd gathered there to greet their arrival, fog prevented Otto and Holger from even seeing the coast. They ended up flying across Spain, and then France, before finally being able to land in Germany—with approximately 5 gallons of fuel left from the 600 they started with! They made it to Copenhagen the following day—being greeted by Holger Hoiriis’ mother, not to mention Denmark’s King Christian X—and then onto Otto’s birthplace in Steinbruechen. Holger had done almost all of the flying, and Otto Hillig was ever-after known as “the first trans-Atlantic backseat driver.”

Otto Hillig lived to be 80 years old, leaving a legacy of many thousands of photographs documenting the history of Sullivan County. He also left his home on top of Washington Mountain, known locally as the Hillig Castle. Vandalism has caused great damage over the years, and the castle’s location is a carefully guarded secret. Nonetheless, I was hoping to get a distant photo of the place, and I was able to identify its whereabouts after a lengthy search on Google Maps. (Aerial view courtesy of bing maps.)

After trying several possible vantage spots, I concluded that it wasn’t possible to see the mountaintop castle behind all the trees. In desperation, I drove to the beginning of the castle’s very long driveway—where I found there to be neither gate nor No Trespassing sign. Throwing better judgment to the winds, I set off up the steep, rocky, and rutted dirt driveway.

Before long, I started noticing periodic “No Hunting” and “No Trespassing” signs tacked onto the trees. Nonetheless, with summer Bridgestones protesting I skittered up the steep drive for nearly 2½ miles before reaching a fork in the road, with both paths being impassable without a major 4X4. As I debated walking the final 1,000 feet, I noticed two things: First, a fresh-looking power line continuing up the hill, and second a terse little sign from the New York State Police, advising visitors that the property was under video surveillance…

Okay, even I have my limits. Despite being so close, I reluctantly turned the BMW around and crept back down the mountain with my tail between my legs. Dang!

As I returned to civilization, I wondered whether this remarkably stationary deer was actually a cleverly disguised State Police video camera.

Back in town, I got this photo of the Liberty Baptist Church to keep Cathy and Kim happy, and also a shot of the bell tower from the nearby United Methodist Church. All the while, I was seething inside about my failure to photograph Hillig’s Castle. Dirty Rotten Double Dog Dang!

Okay, got that out of my system… Ferndale is just outside of Liberty, and this used to be its one-room schoolhouse:

The Ferndale Depot was a little harder to recognize, but this is definitely it. Doubtful? Check out the timbers on the gable. As with most of the surviving O&W Railway stations, this one has been adapted to other use—in this case the office for the County Petroleum Products Company.

I moved on in search of Grossinger’s Resort, arguably the most famous in all of the Catskills. Selig and Malke Grossinger had immigrated to New York City from their native Austria in 1910. Selig’s poor health prompted them to move to Sullivan County in 1914 to try their hand at farming. They soon discovered, however, that it was much more profitable to rent out rooms in their farmhouse. Before long, they established the first Grossinger’s Hotel.

Their daughter Jennie was the driving force behind the resort, and she went on to create the Grossinger’s empire, in the process becoming the best-known innkeeper in the country. Here she is with (from left to right) Eddie Fisher and Duke Ellington, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Leonard Bernstein. (Photos courtesy of Google Images.)

Speaking of Eddie Fisher, he got his start at Grossinger’s—as a busboy—and went on to be “discovered” here as a teen singing sensation. He married Debbie Reynolds at Grossinger’s in 1955…

… and later dumped her for Elizabeth Taylor, bringing Liz to Grossinger’s on many occasions. Before she dumped him for Richard Burton, anyway.

Grossinger’s always had celebrity vacationers and the best performers. Jennie continued to expand the resort, and eventually it included 35 buildings on 1,200 acres, with its own theatre, golf course, airfield, ski slope, toboggan run, ice-skating rink, and post office. The latter feature was important, since it allowed Grossinger’s to have its own “town identity” rather than being part of Liberty—when Liberty was becoming known as a place for treating people with tuberculosis. The resort could handle 1,200 guests at a time and 150,000 in the course of a single season.

Comparing the older and recent aerial views of Grossinger’s reveals many similarities and many differences. A number of the buildings have been torn down for safety reasons. Others are still standing but indicate some of the changes that were made to the resort over the years.

Grossinger’s financial director, Bernie Roth, lived in this cottage (which is visible in the upper right of the current aerial view).

One of the resort’s showcase buildings was named the “Jennie G.” (visible in the lower right corner of both aerial views). Today, its interior is trashed, many of the windows have been broken, and even the road leading to it has largely disappeared.

Now, if only I’d paid more attention to the aerial view of the resort before I visited. This walkway connected the Paul G. building with the indoor swimming pool. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that the ruins of the indoor swimming pool were in the building immediately behind me or that they constitute one of the most extraordinary sights in all of the Catskills, as shown in the photo below by Walter Arnold (“The Art of Abandonment”).

Oh well… The rooms in the Paul G. building are in better shape than many others, but you sure wouldn’t want to spend the night here now.

The Harry G. building was named for Jennie’s husband. (Paul G. was their son.) To its right is one of the outdoor entrances to the resort’s dining room. This room was predictably spectacular in its day. Jennie used to greet every diner each evening as they left. (Interior photo courtesy of Joe Lehman’s exceptional website Grossinger’s 1919-1986.)

In this photo, the doors in the background lead into the dining room. The section in the foreground is not in terrible shape, but the floor of the dining room has collapsed into the basement in places, and the roof has fallen in as well.

While missing the indoor pool altogether, not to mention the new lobby and other worthwhile spots, I managed to achieve this photo of the back of the pool wing and the loading dock into the old kitchen. At the time, of course, I had no idea what any of the buildings were. I was just walking around in the rain, astonished at the decline and fall of one of the greatest resorts ever.

Jennie Grossinger retired from active operation of her resort in 1964 and moved into the Joy Cottage. She passed away here from a stroke in 1972, when she was 80 years old.

By now, I was tired, wet, and horribly behind schedule (especially considering my expected arrival in Cape Cod, 300 miles away). And I was ecstatic! But the thought crossed my mind that I should head north to where I knew the road to the golf course would be. As I walked in that direction, I went right by the entrance to the highly scenic outdoor swimming pool without realizing it and instead encountered the ordinary old outdoor tennis courts. The tennis lodge was still in place, however. The massive fireplace was recognizable, despite the graffiti sprayed all over it. And, if you look carefully, you’ll see that the green couch is the same one partially visible at the very left of the old photo.

When I got beyond the tennis courts, I was surprised to discover that the road was not there. At that point, I realized that I was hopelessly lost! I retraced my steps to the buildings, learned that there was no apparent way through them, given the deterioration of the dining room, tried going around the new kitchen without success (thanks to a significant ravine), and generally milled about in confusion and growing ineptitude. Eventually I resorted to the Google Maps satellite view on my iPhone and ended up walking around the north end to the far side of the golf course and across the golf course back to where I had stealthily parked. Along the way, I got this last photo of the Lyman Building, which shows the Tudor style of most of the original resort.

I found the patient 335i right where I’d left it—thank goodness—and congratulated myself on a truly exciting adventure. For the record, I went by zero No Trespassing signs and climbed over zero fences. And no gawky, picture-takin’ tourists were harmed in the filming of this extraordinary place. Nothing will ever bring Grossinger’s back, as a number of owners and investors have discovered over the last 28 years since the place closed. But the happy memories of the Catskills’ best resort will live on.

Not all memories of Sullivan County are happy, of course. A few miles south of Grossinger’s, the O&W Railway’s Locomotive No. 70 was chugging along when its boiler exploded. Two engineers and the fireman died instantly, but, miraculously, no passengers were killed. In the second photo below, the hand-drawn arrow indicates where a section of boiler plate landed, hundreds of yards away. Photographer L.G. Laidlaw made a small fortune printing and selling copies of his picture of the wreck—but all the darkroom hours nearly ruined his eyesight.

The Appel brothers in Sullivan County were nicknamed “Red” and “Black,” based on their hair color. Red Appel started the “Red Apple Rest,” which continued as a very popular restaurant for decades, closing only 2006. Brother Black built the Black Apple Inn near Lake Sheldrake, which he later sold to Charles and Lillian Brown. They improved and expanded the place and named it Brown’s Hotel. A writer named Eleanor Bergstein had vacationed here as a girl, and she went on to write the script for the movie Dirty Dancing, with the character “Baby” (Jennifer Grey) drawn heavily from her own experience.

After many years of prosperity, Brown’s Hotel began to decline following the death of Charles Brown in 1978, and it went out of business altogether in 1988. New owners converted the resort to condominiums in 1997, with access to the pools and other sports facilities. The largest fire in Sullivan County history destroyed seven of the nine buildings in 2012, including the hundred-year-old main hotel, and set off a chain of lawsuits regarding insurance coverage versus the extensive fire code violations that existed before the fire. Today, it would be easy to wander around the grounds, but there isn’t much left (see “before and after” aerial views below). Rather than using an expensive fence to keep people out, a sign warns of the hazards of asbestos and possible building collapse. A sad ending to one of the three most popular resorts in the Catskills.


As for Dirty Dancing, most of it was filmed in Virginia—not surprisingly, given the demise of the Catskills’ resorts. (See my report on Mineral Springs, Sanatoriums, & Dirty Dancing for more on the film’s location.) Interestingly, the movies’ dance instructors Johnny (played by Patrick Swayze) and Penny (actress Cynthia Rhodes) were based on actual Grossinger’s staff members Michael Terrace and Jackie Horner.

As noted elsewhere, “Sometimes They Come Back To Life….” The Karmel Hotel in Loch Sheldrake was one of the smaller ones, and its owners the Jacobs and Katzes went broke in the early 1970s. However, it reopened a few years later as the Stagedoor Manor and has been a popular dramatic arts summer camp ever since. Robert Downey, Jr. and Natalie Portman are notable alumni of the camp.

The LeRoy family was one of the first to expand their farmhouse and accommodate vacationers from New York City, starting in the 1880s. The LeRoy Hotel included the first bowling alley in Sullivan County (predating the Old North Branch Inn’s 2-lane alley by at least a few years). It featured a stucco design that became very popular in the Catskills. Like most other resorts, it declined and by the time of the historical photo had been abandoned for a number of years. It was purposely burned to clear ground for the Sullivan County Community College. The old buildings in the background of the photo are all that’s left of the hotel.

The old photo below shows the Brickman House near Fallsburg in about 1935, with its bluestone terraces adjoining the larger of its two outdoor swimming pools. It was founded in about 1900 by Jehiel Brickman, and somewhere along the way the original hotel building was replaced with a more modern (and much less interesting) concrete structure. The hotel went out of business, as with all the others, and it sat vacant and abandoned for many years.

In 1978, Swami Muktananda traveled from India to the United States and bought several of the abandoned resorts in the Fallsburg area of Sullivan County. Most of the Brickman buildings remain, many just barely better than ruins. A new façade was added to the front of the Brickman’s main hotel, the interior was extensively renovated, and the property became the Atma Nidhi (“treasure of the soul”) ashram, dedicated to the philosophy and practice of Siddha Yoga. The former Brickman, Gilbert, and Windsor resorts now form the worldwide headquarters for SYDA conglomerate, overseen by Swami Muktananda’s successor, the mysterious and beautiful Swami Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. All of the ashrams appear to have benefited from depressed property values, zero property taxes for religious organizations, mostly volunteer labor, generous contributions from devoted followers, and voluminous sales in their bookstores and gift shops. A fair amount of controversy has surrounded some of these outfits over the years—including the ostensibly celibate Swami Muktananda’s alleged activities with very young teenaged acolytes—but at least there is one industry in the county that is still doing well.

The town of Fallsburg was named after a series of waterfalls on the Neversink River. The river used to have a large dam across it, providing water power for tanneries and saw mills, but they are all gone now. (Old photo courtesy of the Sullivan County Historical Society.)

Fallsburg is also home to the old Rivoli Theatre, which Israel Kaplan and his son Arch opened in 1923. It featured both movies and live productions, and a fledgling band called “Wicked Lester” played here in 1971. (The founders of the group, Gene Klein and Stanley Eisen, later changed their names to Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley—and went on to form the mega-group KISS.) Eventually, like all the other vacation-oriented businesses in the county, the Rivoli faded out. After a period of serving as a fruit stand, a local theatre group bought and renovated the place, and it is now once again entertaining the residents of the town. As we have seen before, every place has a story.

The old O&W Railway Station still stands and now serves as the Fallsburg Police Department.

In Part I of my “Borscht Belt” tour, I said that the resorts may have closed, but the lakes live on. Well, not always… Silver Lake was initially created to serve as a water source for the Delaware & Hudson Canal. Later, it became a popular attraction for the Catskills vacationers in nearby Woodridge. By 1999, however, the original stone dam partially gave way, and the lower water level reduced the size of Silver Lake to only one-fourth of its prior size. Efforts to restore the dam have been tied up in regulatory and financing circles ever since. Here’s the stone dam:

If you walk out onto the dam itself, the view looks something like this. The dam may yet be restored; for now, I’m glad that I don’t live downstream.

Nearby Mountaindale remains a very small, rural town, just like it’s been for the last 120 years. Mountaindale High School was apparently abandoned in the late 1940s, and it’s been untouched ever since. Virgelio Carpio got an inside look at the school in 2012 and posted some stunning HDR photos at Abandoned High School in Mountaindale, NY. Well worth a look! The grounds of the school are now used for a music park.

Yet another former boarding house sits across Main Street from the high school. This one is in pretty good shape and appears to be a private residence.

Despite its small size, Mountaindale had been a popular tourist destination, and its O&W Depot was often filled to capacity. The station, along with 14 other businesses in the town, was destroyed by fire in 1931. Owing to the Depression, only an “abbreviated facility” was built to replace it—and it, too, disappeared after the railway’s demise in 1957. A new station was built in 2009 in commemoration; although it is modeled on typical vintage O&W stations, it looks nothing like Mountaindale’s original depot.

As the day grew later and later, my expected arrival in Cape Cod was delayed correspondingly. By this time, I was pleasantly surprised that no one had chastised me for my various inquisitive forays into Sullivan County history (which some might loosely characterize as, uh, “trespassing”). My next-to-last stop for the day was at the old Nevele Resort, which started in 1903 and was famous for its cylindrical high-rise hotel. The resort—whose name is “eleven” spelled backwards for some reason—has been closed since 2009, but the entrance gate was open, and I drove through too quickly to read any of the signs…

After an expeditious photo of the tower, I was headed for the exit when another car appeared in my rear-view mirror, with its high beams on. It quickly closed the distance to my 335i, and the driver pulled alongside, honking his horn. Expecting a lecture, I dutifully stopped and rolled down my window—whereupon a nice Jewish fellow said that he had just been paid and asked if I might have change for a $100 bill… Hah, my record was intact!

My final stop before launching the BMW in the direction of Cape Cod was to find the old O&W Naponach Depot. Following the GPS directions, I soon saw a huge, fortress-like building appearing out of the mist, and I marveled at the scope of the station. Then I remembered that the station is on the grounds of the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. (D’oh…) I drove discreetly through the prison’s parking lot and found the depot at the southwest corner of the property. I took this shot from inside the BMW and was about to get out into the rain for a better one when the SUV behind the station roared out, turned the corner, and stopped in front of me. You guessed it: the uniformed guard informed me that no photos were allowed on the prison property! Not even ones of the historic old station. After questioning this ridiculous policy to no avail, I apologized and moved on—without offering to delete my picture. Or the one I took earlier of the prison itself!

I could have saved some time if I’d just remembered Mort Sahl’s comedy line: “People are standing in front of a German firing squad. One says, ‘Long live the Homeland!’ ‘Shhh,’ says another. ‘Don’t make trouble.’”

Imagine now, if you will, an enjoyable 2-week interlude in Cape Cod with family and friends—during which time it occurred to me that I had missed a few things in the Catskills that I had really wanted to see. Accordingly, I started making plans to drive back through Sullivan County on my way home. (The joy of being retired!)

Less joyous was this all-too-familiar situation of driving through Massachusetts on an interstate highway, posted at 65 mph, with the truck in the slow lane going 46, being passed by the one in the middle lane going 48, which in turn was being passed by the one in the fast lane going 48½.

By late afternoon, following stops at the Thompson Motor Speedway and F40 Motorsports in Connecticut, I arrived back in Middletown, NY, hell-bent on finding the abandoned O&W Railway station. It had been designed by noted architect Bradford Lee Gilbert in 1892, and it was one of the largest and most elaborate of the railway’s facilities.  (Architectural drawing courtesy of the Bradford Lee Gilbert website.)

The station is still there, although it suffered a fire at the north end in 2004, and its best days were long ago. But it was still a very impressive place. Note that, in contrast to my rainy tour 2 weeks earlier, the sun was now out, and the top was down.

While planning my return trip, I was taken with the heart-shaped swimming pool at the Pines Resort, with its concrete walkway over the water. I wondered what it might look like today, if it even still existed 16 years after the Pines closed down.

I found the abandoned resort easily enough and surreptitiously parked the 335i among some construction vans at a nearby Hassidic townhouse community. After my experience at Grossinger’s, I was a little leery of getting lost again, but I was encouraged by this wide-open gate onto the property. And someone had even left the light on for me! Moreover, no one seems to know who actually even owns the property any more, so the odds of anyone checking for uninvited visitors seemed small. (On the other hand, local police had arrested numerous illicit scrappers here in recent years, caught in the act of stealing copper wires and pipes.)

The Pines resort encompassed 364 acres, but this time I’d wisely woken up the iPhone ahead of time so that I could follow my progress on the Google Maps satellite view. Heading toward the heart-shaped pool required walking the full length of the front of the resort. This was the Essex Building.

Eventually I came to the outdoor pool—except it wasn’t the heart-shaped one I was looking for. Later research identified this as the indoor pool! The roof and walls have all been taken down. The ruined structure at the far end in this photo was the corridor connecting the indoor pool to the main hotel building. The postcard below (courtesy of Colleen Kane), shows the indoor pool in better days.

A disadvantage of navigating by a 2-dimensional satellite map is that elevation differences are not apparent. In this photo, my destination is actually hiding behind the trees at the right-hand side of the elevated corridor, but I didn’t know that. I continued along the drive and under the walkway, coming to an open field of rubble that used to be the Wedgewood and Viceroy Buildings.

On the other side of the wreckage, however, I spotted the distinctive walkway across the outdoor pool. I was there in a flash, only to find that the glamour and romance of the pool had been replaced with qualities of sadness and deterioration. But I had found it! After a thorough look at the pool, I located an old resort path in the weeds and followed it back to the front of the resort. The long-suffering 335i was right where I left it, and my faithful partner in adventure even looked eager to carry me to the next forgotten destination.

Remember the Neversink River, which meanders through much of Sullivan County? The village of Neversink was founded in 1798, predating Sullivan County by 11 years. It appears to have been a peaceful little place. (Historical photos courtesy of Old Neversink.)

By the late 1930s, New York City’s increasingly voracious appetite for water necessitated a new reservoir, with the Neversink River tapped for its supply. By 1941, the village of Neversink lay at the bottom of the new lake. In this photo, the village shown above is approximately halfway between my vantage point and the higher ground at opposite right. There may be a lesson here about the selection of town names… (The former village of Bittersweet also lies beneath these waters, farther north.)

The weather continued to be glorious. If you’ve ever wondered about the benefits of owning a luxurious, high-performance convertible, this next photo should help answer that question!

At the end of the day, I checked into the comfy and quaint Catskill Motel, got some dinner at the nearby Liberty Diner, and enjoyed the sunset. The E93 had performed all of its duties without breaking a sweat, whether it was crawling up a rough dirt road, cruising on the interstate, or making time along back roads. Even the gas mileage was fairly impressive, although not helped by the occasional trips to redline!

My room at the classic old motel was great, by the way, and extremely tidy. Of course, I subscribe to the theory underlying Joan Rivers’ old Catskills joke: “I hate housework. You make the beds, you do the dishes, and six months later you have to start all over again.”

I was up early the next morning for a hearty breakfast in the bakery located in Otto Hillig’s old building. As I left, I encountered another Model T Ford, this one a 1921 or 1922 Touring model, I believe. It arrived just as I stopped for a photo of St. Peters Church in the background, and I had an enjoyable conversation with its owner—who uses it for his weekly grocery shopping. I’ve always wanted to drive a Model T, primarily because the controls are entirely different from later automobiles. I think I remember all the operations: the spark advance, manual throttle, low-speed / high-speed transmission pedal, reverse gear pedal, and brake pedal. (There is no gas pedal.) My bucket list includes such a drive, but today was not the day.

This old building may be for sale, but for now it makes a handy VStar-Port.

Stevensville was founded by brothers Alfred and Fletcher Stevens, who built a large tannery here in the mid-1800s and dammed the Mongaup River to provide water power. The dam is still here, and the foundations of their tannery are still visible below the spillway. The town is now named Swan Lake—not because there are beautiful waterfowl hanging about, but rather because the Stevens family sold the property (lake and all) to Alden Swan.

From across Swan Lake, the Stevensville Resort looked in pretty good shape. Closer up, however, it was clearly abandoned—again. It had gone broke in the late 1970s but came back to life (briefly) as the Swan Lake Resort in the 1990s. The place was once owned by the Friehling family; David Friehling was well-liked in Sullivan County, until investigators discovered that his fraudulent accounting practices helped support Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion pyramid scheme.   

I noticed some fellows standing around the resort’s main entrance and decided to see what they knew about the place. As I pulled up in an expensive convertible, I felt their stares (one or two of which might have been considered menacing)—so I hopped out, walked over to them, and asked “Where do I check in?” Well, we all had a good laugh. It turned out that they are local volunteer firemen, and they help keep an eye on the place and occasionally do some rehab work here for the owners. They told me about growing up in this area and how all of them had gotten their first jobs at the Stevensville Resort—either parking cars, being busboys, or performing any of the other myriad jobs that every resort offered. Hundreds of people would be driving in and out at 2:00 and 3:00 AM, every night. And the Stevensville was only one of the thirty or so resort hotels around Swan Lake. These fellows, like everyone else I met in the county, emphasized the need for casinos to bring Sullivan County back from economic ruin.

As I was about to leave, one of them named Todd told me about another castle in the area, near Roscoe. He had been there as a kid and said he remembered seeing a complete dungeon in the basement. Todd didn’t remember the road it was on, but one of the others helpfully called a friend for me and reported back on how to find the place. They were a great bunch of guys, and they deserve a better opportunity.

Although it was not on my planned route, I promptly set off in the direction of the rumored castle. I had actually been this way 2 weeks earlier, to see the Beaverkill Covered Bridge. As I rounded a corner and recognized this elaborate gate, I realized that I must be close. This was a gate to a castle if there ever was one. Later, back home, I found a historical photo to match (courtesy of historian Dr. Joyce Conroy and the Bradford Lee Gilbert website).

Todd had suggested that I touch base with the caretaker for the castle, and with some trepidation I walked up his driveway and knocked on the door of his modest cottage. No one answered, although I could hear a TV on inside. After two more tries, I reluctantly moved on. A little further alongside Beaver Kill, I found a good spot to pull off the very narrow road, hopped across a small ditch, and edged my way through some dense underbrush into the woods. At first I saw nothing of interest in the shade from all the trees. Looking up the steep bank, I suddenly realized that there was, in fact, a castle up there!

I debated trying to scramble up the 40-foot-high cliff for a better look, but I decided against it. I’m not as spry as I used to be, and it didn’t look like there was much up there other than a couple of intriguing stone towers. Little did I know!

Remember Bradford Lee Gilbert, the fellow who designed the Middletown O&W Railway Depot? As I later learned, he was a well-known and prolific architect (1853-1922), working with 18 major U.S. railroads and designing numerous churches, hospitals, hotels, houses, and office buildings. He invented the steel-skeleton frame (or curtain-wall) method of construction, and the resulting 1888 Tower Building in New York City was considered the first skyscraper in America. His 1897 Flatiron Building in Atlanta is the oldest skyscraper in the city, and it predated NYC’s Flatiron by several years.

In the late 1880s, Gilbert decided to build a modest summer home on a steep hillside overlooking the Beaver Kill in Sullivan County. Over time, he expanded it to an impressive hunting lodge. His wife named it Craig-E-Claire (“beautiful mountainside”) after her hometown in Ireland. It was a beautiful location, but his work schedule kept him very busy and he only visited here a few times a year. This photo shows the early stages of construction, with much more to be added to the lodge. By 1903, his lodge featured heat and electric lights in every room, along with running water and a telephone.

Ralph Wurts-Dundas bought the property in 1915 and set about expanding the lodge and converting it to a castle. He succeeded far beyond my realization, as evidenced by the historical photo below (courtesy once again of Dr. Conroy) and the modern photos (courtesy of The Mason’s Castle). I don’t know if I could have climbed the hillside or not, but I surely wish now that I had tried!


As indicated in the aerial view of the castle, my perspective from the base of the hill had been limited to just the tower at the lower edge of the property. Considering that the stately home has stood here proudly for almost 100 years, I suspect it will still be around whenever I’m next in the area.

If you’d like a better idea of the place, check out Christina Matthews’ wonderful video The Cryptic Keep, with its hauntingly beautiful music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

There is a lot of conflicting information about the Dundas Castle. Most sources indicate that when Ralph Wurts-Dundas died in 1921, the castle was not yet finished and no one has never lived in it. Further, his wife Josephine is said to have entered a mental institution soon after her husband’s death. Other reports describe both Josephine and their one child, Muriel, as being locked away in the castle, insane and unable to live public lives. Multiple accounts by fishermen describe seeing a golden-haired and strikingly attractive woman in the upper windows of the tower, beckoning to them to come to her. Still other accounts say that Muriel never visited the castle after her mother’s death, moved to Europe, was placed in an asylum, and sold the castle in 1949 to an African-American Masons’ Lodge, which still owns the property. Muriel was born in 1903, died in 1970, and is buried at Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore—4.5 miles from my home in Maryland.

I don’t know which of these stories might be accurate, but I did manage to find this photo of Muriel. Her haunted appearance lends credence to some of the wilder legends. Perhaps the answers can be found in the basement dungeon that Todd told me about! (Photo courtesy of Dundas of Philadelphia.)

After finding the castle, it was time to head home. My remaining stops seemed pretty pedestrian by comparison. Nonetheless, driving through Liberty one last time I managed to find the old O&W station (which is now unrecognizable as a feed and pet supply store). Right across the street, however, I was pleased to discover the 1869 Lennon House hotel, which is now a hospice. Well, I guess it’s always good for businesses to evolve as circumstances change. However, as Woody Allen said on stages across the Catskills, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die… I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

As I neared the western end of Sullivan County, I passed by the tiny Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue. Shortly thereafter, on the other side of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, I found the Seelyville Union Chapel. Together, they reminded me of the long history of both Jewish and Christian life in this part of the country.

Finally, as I motored the back roads towards Scranton, PA, I realized that the large black cloud in the sky was not a gathering thunderstorm. And it was getting steadily larger and darker. I stopped about one-half mile from the fire and learned that it had broken out in a factory that recycles plastic barrels and other products. Local police were busily evacuating families living in the adjacent housing projects. One woman said that the water runoff from fighting the fire was purple in color. At that point, I decided that a slight rerouting was advisable.

About 260 miles later, at 8:20 PM, I rolled into my driveway. Thinking back on my tour, I realize that the collapsed economy of Sullivan County is all too emblematic of the U.S. at large. Many of the opportunities for a comfortable, middle-class life that used to predominate in this country have dried up, along with the resort industry, the steel mills, the automobile assembly plants, and numerous other once-proud American businesses. There are plenty of low-paying jobs requiring relatively little education and experience, and a pretty good number of high-paying ones for people with advanced skills, but precious few in-between. As a country, we haven’t made the transition at all effectively—not unlike Sullivan County’s failure to recognize the decline of the resorts and take advantage of its still-formidable natural beauty and resources in other ways.

I remain optimistic that Sullivan County, and the U.S. at large, will pull out of its economic difficulties and become stronger and better than ever. As the old Borscht Belt joke goes, “Then why am I frowning? It’s because I don’t feel my optimism is justified.”

Rick F.

Rick

Written by Rick

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