The Catskills: Its His­to­ry and How It Changed America

  • Review
By – May 20, 2015

Men­tion the Catskills and most Jews imme­di­ate­ly call to mind the Borscht Belt. But as Stephen Sil­ver­man, a Time Inc. vet­er­an, and Raphael Sil­ver, a real estate devel­op­er and film pro­duc­er, demon­strate in this rich­ly illus­trat­ed vol­ume, the Catskills have far more sto­ries to tell than a Grossinger’s tummler.

The sto­ry begins with Hen­ry Hud­son, who sailed up the riv­er now named for him — he called it the Great Riv­er of the Moun­tains” — in 1609, seek­ing the north­west pas­sage to Asia. The search was futile, but Hud­son claimed the ter­ri­to­ry for the Nether­lands. A trad­ing post was estab­lished a few years lat­er and set­tle­ment fol­lowed, with the Eng­lish tak­ing over in 1664. Soon after, the Catskills became an active cen­ter of Amer­i­can social, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al his­to­ry, per­haps influ­enc­ing if not, as sug­gest­ed in the sub­ti­tle, chang­ing it.

The Catskills saw mil­i­tary action in the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War: Kingston, New York’s first cap­i­tal, was burned to the ground by the British, but short­ly became known as the set­ting for the works of both Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing and James Fen­i­more Coop­er, the first Amer­i­can writ­ers to win inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion. The artists of the Hud­son Riv­er School — Thomas Cole, Ash­er Durand, Fred­er­ic Church — dra­ma­tized the moun­tains, which were also home to a series of exploita­tive and short-lived indus­tries — tan­ner­ies that denud­ed the hem­lock forests; blue­stone quar­ries whose stones paved New York City and drew Irish labor­ers. Boy­hood friends Jay Gould the rob­ber baron and ear­ly con­ser­va­tion­ist John Bur­roughs grew up in the Catskills, as did Sojourn­er Truth.

The steam­boat and rail­roads turned the Catskills into a resort area, start­ing with the grand Catskill Moun­tain House and its com­mand­ing view of the Hud­son and proud exclu­sion of Jews. In fact, Jews do not enter the Catskills until the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, halfway through the book, as fail­ing farm­ers whose sim­ple homes became board­ing hous­es for work­ing-class city Jews and were pre­cur­sors of the grandiose Jew­ish resorts of the post­war years. As with many oth­er Catskills enter­pris­es, these resorts had their day in the sun until, fac­ing a decline in pop­u­lar­i­ty, they added one attrac­tion after the next and out­did them­selves into extinction.

These are a few of the sto­ries in the up-and-down his­to­ry of the Catskills. Bro­ken by fre­quent side­bars and quo­ta­tions from oth­er his­to­ries, The Catskills recounts them in frag­ment­ed episodes rather than relat­ing them in a con­tin­u­ing nar­ra­tive. Col­or­ful and live­ly as many of the sto­ries and char­ac­ters are, read­ers may some­times find it dif­fi­cult to grasp an over­all pic­ture of the region and its part in the larg­er sto­ry of the Unit­ed States. But the cast of char­ac­ters is irre­sistible and the illus­tra­tions extreme­ly well-cho­sen, an album of Catskill lore.

Includes index, notes, select­ed bibliography.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions