At first glance, the quiet, forested lands of the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park belie the presence of a once active community. However, traces of the Trapps mountain hamlet, a community located in the in the towns of Gardiner and Rochester in Ulster County that dates back to the late 1700s, still survive in the Shawangunk Mountains. Residents of the Trapps lived a “hardscrabble” existence, getting by through subsistence farming and mountain trades such as milling wood and grain, carving millstones, charcoal-making and shaving barrel hoops.
According to researchers Robi Josephson and Bob Larsen, most of the area that formed the Trapps hamlet is now reforested and protected by the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park Preserve, or privately owned. Hints of the former community can be found in “cellar holes (stone foundations) of former buildings, water-powered sawmills, bridge abutments, stone walls, stone quarries, charcoal pits, and burying grounds (cemeteries)” that have been identified throughout the area. Even more telling than those structures, however, are the stories of those who once made the Trapps Mountain hamlet their home. Larsen and Josephson capture the spirit of the former hamlet in their recently published book, An Unforgiving Land: Hardscrabble Life in the Trapps, a Vanished Mountain Hamlet (Black Dome Press), where they explore the community, businesses and everyday lives of those who called the mountain hamlet their home.
An Unforgiving Land was a book decades in the making. According to Josephson, Bob Larsen “found much evidence in the Shawangunks of former human occupation, such as building foundations, burying grounds, and stone walls” while working as a ranger for the Mohonk Preserve. Upon finding such unexpected hints of community life on the mountain, Larsen began researching the cultural history of the area. Josephson also notes that Larsen played an integral role in preserving remnants of the Trapps hamlet. Most notably, he was involved in the Preserve’s restoration of the Van Leuven Cabin, the last remaining structure of the Trapps on Preserve lands, and in facilitating the placement of the former hamlet on the Federal and State Registers of Historic Places. This designation marked the first time New York State officially recognized the historic importance of a vanished, hardscrabble community.
Josephson has also been actively involved with the Mohonk Preserve. She began working as the publications editor for the Preserve in the mid-1990s. In 2012, she published the book Images of America: Mohonk Mountain House and Preserve (Arcadia Publishing). In addition, she has spent years researching the history of the Hudson Valley, with a special focus on naturalist John Burroughs.
Larsen and Robison have collaborated on various projects for the Mohonk Preserve, including articles for the Preserve’s newsletters and the creation of an interpretive guide for a trail to the Eli Van Leuven Cabin that Larsen had designed and installed. As their research continued, the duo realized that they had enough information on the Trapps hamlet for a book. An Unforgiving Land, which features previously unpublished images of the hamlet as well as a detailed look at its extensive history, was released in the fall of 2013.
Larsen retired in 2013 after a 40-year career with the Mohonk Preserve. This year, he celebrated his 90th birthday and is enjoying his retirement. Josephson is currently researching the life of John F. Stokes, who established the mountain tradition at Lake Mohonk more than 150 years ago, and volunteers for the history collection at Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz. She and Larsen continue to be guest speakers at many area historical sites, where they present a digital slide show and virtual walk through the Trapps.
For those wishing to explore the former Trapps hamlet, Josephson recommends starting with two places that she and Larsen list among their favorites: the West Trapps Trailhead and the Coxing Trailhead. From the West Trapps Trailhead, a moderate trail (not handicapped accessible) leads 1.5 miles past an abandoned millstone quarry and burying ground to the Van Leuven Cabin. Visitors can pick up the interpretive brochure (described above) at the trailhead or at the Preserve Visitor Center and explore the area on their own, but Larsen and Josephson encourage guests to “take a walk back in time” by contacting the Mohonk Preserve to sign up for an interpretive walk and/or tour of the Van Leuven Cabin. From the Coxing Trailhead, the former farm and sawmill site of the Enderly family can be viewed. (Today, this area is popularly known as Split Rock.) The Enderly family burying ground is located a few steps behind the trailhead. (Contact the Mohonk Preserve for directions and parking. Day passes or annual memberships are available.)
An Unforgiving Land: Hardscrabble Life in the Trapps, a Vanished Mountain Hamlet is available for purchase at the Mohonk Preserve, the Mohonk Mountain House, online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble and at a number of Hudson Valley bookstores. More information on author Robi Josephson, including a number of articles on the Trapps and the Mohonk Preserve, as well as upcoming speaking dates, can be found on her website: www.robijosephson.com Additional information about the Trapps Hamlet can be found on Josephson and Larsen’s “Trapps Mountain Hamlet” Facebook page.