The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America

Grossinger's...Has it All

A funny thing happened on the way to filming a documentary on the Borscht Belt: it became the most comprehensive book in decades on the Catskills – all five counties of the Catskills, from Henry Hudson to Henny Youngman to high volume hydraulic fracturing – with personally sweet and bittersweet sidebars.

Alfred A. Knopf recently released the 449-page tome, “The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America” by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver.

Just about every subject in every time period I can think of is covered: The Lenape, their spiritual Manitou and fishing with black walnut shells? It’s in there!

Bluestone quarrying, “Boss” Tweed and Jay Gould blackmailing John Fletcher Kilgour (“The Bluestone King”) into a “partnership” to build New York City sidewalks, monuments and mansions? It’s in there!

The “odd couple” friendship (and public relations coup) that blossomed when John Burroughs, the naturalist/essayist, was gifted on New Year’s Day, 1913, a Model T by Henry Ford, the industrialist, and they tooled around the area with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone? It’s in there!

It is, as the introduction predicts, a history that demonstrates “the color, charm and even lunacy that for the past four hundred years have characterized the Catskill Mountains and the people attracted to them.”

Silverman’s and Silver’s characterizations begin in 1609  with Hudson’s “rogue voyage” that failed to discover the long-sought northern passage to the Asian markets only to chance upon The Catskill Mountains; Johannes Hardenbergh’s official development of those mountains when in 1708, he acquired a grant from England for a 2 million acre tract of land for roughly 60 pounds, the modern equivalent of $1500; and Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper, who decades after New York declared its political independence from England (on July 9, 1776,) spearheaded the literary and cultural  emancipation.

Hudson River artist Asher Durand's 1849 "Kindred Sprits"

Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church painted breathtaking mountain vistas that drew America’s new aristocrats up the Hudson – first by stage, then by steamboat, later by railroad – to view firsthand the actual landscapes, resting up for the return trip at European-style spas in Saratoga, the Aldridge House in Ballston Spa and the unparalleled splendor of The Mountain House in Catskill.

The word “vacation” wouldn’t become common parlance or even an acceptable concept until the middle of the 19th century. (Idleness was the devil’s playground, preachers said, a sign of financial and spiritual decay.)    Yet, Silverman’s and Silver’s multi-hued yarns about the Catskills’ role through the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and cultural evolution, have a common thread: it all leads to the uniquely American brand of vacationland known internationally as the Borscht Belt, the sliver of time and geography (only in parts of Eastern Sullivan and Western Ulster Counties) that catered to vacation habits of the upwardly mobile Jewish population who were shamelessly excluded elsewhere.

Here is where history geeks and nostalgia buffs tend to part ways. And Silverman’s and Silver’s account should clarify the confusion about tourism in the “The Catskills.” “The Jews don’t even show up until page 215,’’ he recently quipped to my husband, Sullivan County Historian John Conway – meaning there was an earlier, long-standing robust recreational industry – mostly fishermen – who travelled the railroads to enjoy the outdoor opportunities and stay at well-established hotels that made their restrictions shamelessly known: “Hebrews will knock vainly for admission” read one Catskills hotel sign, circa 1880.

So when “the Jews did show up,” roughly around the turn of the 19th-20thcentury, there evolved two parallel summer worlds of boardinghouses, bungalow colonies and hotels,  each making it clear in their advertisements which clientele they sought. Offensive wording in publications such as the O&W’s “Summer Homes” softened over the years to code phrases such as “Near Christian Churches” or “Dietary Laws Observed,” which, strictly speaking, was where borscht was served, giving rise to that network of hotels and entertainers.

Henny Youngman, one of many Kvetch Comics in the Borscht Belt

But those phrases seemed to disappear from ads following World War II, when – either from an enlightened camaraderie gained from fighting a common enemy or from sheer economics – hotels tended to be more welcoming and inclusive.  Yet, even into the 1950s – the heyday of the hotel era when the New York Times reported in 1953 there were 538 hotels, 1000 rooming houses and 50,000 bungalows – nostalgia buffs, especially those who participated in some capacity, still refer to all Sullivan County hotels of all eras as the “Borscht Belt,” or  “The Catskills.”

Although the book’s narrative continues through the 1969 Woodstock Festival, the decline, further decline, and final demise of the hotel era despite desperate attempts to introduce gambling, and touches on current and potential forms of development that might forever change the face and destiny of the Catskills – and I highly recommend you buy and read about it – this is where I step off the timeline account, and where the book got personal.

My Story Behind the Story

About ten years ago, Raphael D. (Ray) Silver and his wife John Micklin Silver contacted John for an interview on a documentary they were planning, roughly covering the rise and fall of the Borscht Belt. Our first reaction was “Here we go again,” having gone through a series of film makers trying to recapture the phenomenon. Such attempts  involved us traipsing through the abandoned airport hangar at Grossinger’s to film an interview at the location of heavyweight boxing champ  Rocky Marciano’s training camp or standing in drizzle on the shore of Swan Lake to recount the mid-summer floating to the surface of Walter Sage’s body, strapped to a slot machine.

It was personal for Ray, too. An American history major at Harvard, he had stopped at Grossinger’s on his way home to Cleveland  – where his father was a rabbi – andwas enthralled by all things Grossinger’s: the food, the activities, the camaraderie with fellow Jews probably sometime around the early 1950s. He always wanted to revisit.

Actor Paul Newman and heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano

Yet these two held much better promise of making a movie happen. Ray, who had become a successful real estate developer, produced (among others) Joan’s films “Hester Street” and “Crossing Delancey,” which won a Golden Globe for actress Amy Irving.

We met for dinner in Rock Hill so they could pick John’s brain. Little did they know just how much his extra ordinary brain holds, nearly everything he has ever read or researched on any topic. We lingered for hours over coffee and dessert.  On the way home John lamented he thought he’d gone too far. Weeks went by without hearing anything further from them, and he was sure of it.

But finally, he heard from Ray who said, after meeting and talking with others, he saw exactly what John had been saying: the story of the Borscht Belt extended much, much further and he decided to write a companion book to the documentary.

“The book was very much his thing,” Joan told me a few weeks ago. “He loved American History and really digging into subjects and events.”

In between other projects, Ray and Joan came up to Sullivan County a number of times to film interviews with John and others. They emailed questions, and holiday greetings, then concerns for when our house got flooded by the Delaware. They became friends and we shared their excitement when funding and a book deal came through.

Unbeknownst to us, they had enlisted the help of Stephen M. Silverman to write the book. “Ray’s novel, ‘Congregation’ was taking up most of his time,” Joan said. “And we’d known and liked Stephen for years. So the deal was, Ray would lay out all the research work and Stephen would write the words.”

An accomplished author of a number of biographies and other works, Stephen is a 20 year veteran of Time, Inc. and editor of He was up to his elbows in 400 photographs and piles of notes and film when tragedy struck in March, 2013. At the age of 83, Ray died as the result of a skiing accident in Utah.

Catskills post card: Having Fun. Wish You Were Here

“I just abandoned the documentary,” Joan said. “I just couldn’t bring myself to work on it without Ray.”

Not knowing about the deal with Stephen, we thought the entire project was dead, too.

Then I took a phone message for John last month from a woman whose part time neighbor, Victoria Wilson, is senior editor at Knopf. She had a handful of copies of a new book by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver about the Catskills she was sharing and hoped to give John one to review.  I never knew Ray as Raphael, so nothing clicked. She offered to send it and I promised John would read it.

When I looked it up on Amazon, the bulb finally went on and I was excited. When the book arrived, I was thrilled. Not only was this the immense and fabulous culmination of years of work, but John was mentioned in the lengthy Acknowledgements. “That was nice of them,” I thought, as so many have come and gone and not acknowledged.

But then as I started to read closely, and noticed John is quoted profusely throughout on topics I know that no one else has researched, written about or, in some cases, would even know about if not for his labor of love, being Sullivan County’s longest serving official Historian.   Showing up first in the introduction, (well before the Jews, Stephen  might say,) his words appear about: Bethel Woods Center for the Arts; fly fishing; fracking; Henry Inman; Jewish tourism and resorts; the Liberty Highway; Prohibition, the bootleggers and Murder Inc.; Loomis and tuberculosis; and more.

Knowing he often ponders if he’ll ever live up to the legacy left by previous Sullivan County Historians” – Manville B. Wakefield’s invaluable “To the Mountains by Rail,” James Burbank’s writings on Cushetunk and the literal building of Fort Delaware – it hit me that this book, is alone already John’s legacy. Being able to offer so much information on such diverse subjects that were collected and woven together so masterfully with other voices, is a testament to his 22+ years of research and writing and fabulous recall when called upon.   Usually his toughest critic, I’m profoundly proud John gets to say he contributed to and participated in Ray and Joan’s and Stephen’s triumphant work that  should take its place on every local historian’s or nostalgia buff’s shelf.

John Burroughs and friends

Although the closing words of “The Catskills: It’s History and How It Changed the World” were written about someone else trying to save Callicoon’s historic Western Hotel, they equally apply to John Conway and all his Sullivan County history, historic preservation, and heritage tourism endeavors.

“And while aiding in the rescue of the historically colorful hotel might prove as elusive  for the town as finding the Northwest Passage was for Henry Hudson, Hartwell’s determination and the potential for the Western, along with other cherished regional institution like it, show, in the words of “Making Mountains” author David Stradling, that American romanticism is alive and well, and that Americans have a very strong connection to the natural landscape and the increasingly historical landscape of the  United States.’

“ Or as John Burroughs so bluntly, and no doubt contentedly, put it, “Where the cow is, there is Arcadia.”


Tune in to “The Black Dog Tavern” show on public radio station WJFF (90.5 FM, streaming online at at 10:00 AM, November 28th to hear Stephen M. Silverman and Sullivan County Historian discuss “The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America.”


Posted in Catskill Mountains, Hudson River, Sullivan County, Ulster County, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Social Media Does Not Belong at Our History Organizations?

Social media has no place in the office! It’s a distraction! I’ve heard this in some form or another from a variety of museum professionals. Their message was that unless you were hired with the purpose of managing an organization’s online image, then engaging in the internet’s social world may lead to no good. Horror stories that include public shaming and job terminations may have accompanied breakroom conversations. There’s also the claim that social media doesn’t bring people through the doors of our historic houses, sites and museums. Numbers matter.

Communication Insight

I agree. In an industry where resources are limited, there is often very little justification to focus any part of the annual budget towards generating history themed tweets. And spending resources in an attempt to MAKE people do anything is probably wasted.

However, are some of us too quick to dismiss social media’s influence?

In November, I had the opportunity to speak on this topic during a forum geared towards the history community of Sullivan County. I addressed the benefits, concerns and the role of social media in capturing community interest and interaction through the lens of the Newburgh Historical Society’s award winning community exhibit, “Growing Up in Newburgh.” It turns out that there are plenty of social media users with an interest in history who are looking for something to do; a heritage to experience and be a part of.

I was also granted permission to analyze the Facebook pages of other local history and heritage related organizations. It was interesting to see that the results from most of the pages aligned with trends in visitation demographics while others had a broader appeal. This analysis also revealed which post type – plain text, image or links – reached a larger audience.

Social media’s popularity is undeniable. There are a total of 1.55 billion active Facebook users in the world. That’s larger than the sum total populations of the United States, Canada, Mexico and the twenty-eight countries that make up the European Union. It’s larger than the populations of India and China. Click to view infographic.

In the United States, there is estimated to be more than 150 million Facebook users.

One 2013 university study concluded that Facebook has cut the widely accepted theory that any two people in the world are connected by six or fewer steps is now closer to four.

That’s a lot of people communicating over the internet and although they’re mostly sharing videos of their cats, it continues to be a dominant method of communicating and engaging with the world around us.

Communication is the key. Social media and my cat may have no place in the office, but communication media certainly does.

A Look Back at Communication: Newburgh

Boothroyd brothers standing in the doorway to their news dealing, stationery, and printing business in 1891.

While in operation for over 130 years, the Newburgh Historical Society has experienced nearly every form of communication media from the nineteenth century through the present.

I can imagine a former board secretary purchasing fountain pens, ink and stationery from Oliver and Arthur W. Boothroyd’s Water Street paper goods business in 1894. Now the meeting minutes are taken on paper with a ballpoint pen, transcribed onto a computer and distributed via email to the remaining board of managers.

Eventually the task of setting letters and applying ink would be replaced by the typewriter, photocopy machine, dot matrix printer, facsimile and now the three-in-one printer, fax and copier.

Newburgh also has a place in advance forms of communication. Albert James Myer, a Newburgh born United States Army officer who served during the Civil War, is known as the father of the U.S. Signal Corps. His work with telegraphs to transmit weather observations led to the creation of the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Fast-forward to 1939, Newburgh along with Middletown and Poughkeepsie were test cities for new televisions by the RCA Manufacturing Company.

From Reach to Action?

Visitors sharing their collection of photographs from an older Newburgh.

The internet has recently become an available resource in our media kits with a variety of online venues providing access to information, including social media. We can harness this to reach more potential visitors and communicate information as quickly as it can be entered onto a computer.

The question of whether an enhanced reach influences our audience to visit still remains. However, the “Growing Up in Newburgh” exhibit challenged this idea.

Uncertainty shouldn’t become a reason to avoid further investigating something. At the Society, we had our reasons for building a stronger online presence: free advertising, learning more about our audience and, simply, keeping up with organizations like ourselves.

One important reason was to regularly engage our audience. The Society has a responsibility to its mission to preserve and present the history of Newburgh and although we are fortunate enough to have a permanent headquarters and historic house, limited resources prevents it from being available as frequently as we would like. A new and revamped website focused on communication and social media allows the Society to maintain a regular and reliable presence while communicating with current members and informing future visitors of what the Society is and how it fulfills its mission.

A Touch of Controversy

Our first step was to research how an organization can best utilize social media. We came across many sources complete with pros and cons facing any organization including museums.

Some concerns about the use of social media included copyright issues, inadvertently discouraging visitation, lack of resources, myth building and a complete disconnection of information from its sources.

Then there is the idea that on social media everyone has equal standing and that popularity not an accuracy of information is the deciding factor on how far-reaching a post may be. This is problematic for any organization attempting to serve as an authority. The Society experienced something similar to this while promoting for a panel event on the topic of their exhibit. We used images from the exhibit to spark conversation on Facebook. One image showed a group of Newburgh children with ear to ear smiles, each holding a cup of water.

How could this spark controversy?

In our excitement we missed the potential trigger of this image showing children who participated in the 1950s Newburgh and Kingston trials for the fluoridation of the water supply as a means to reduce tooth decay. All it took was one person to unravel the conversation into the controversy of forcing citizens to ingest potentially hazardous chemical fluoride.


We lost control of that conversation as it spiraled into a long discussion digressing far from where it started. Beginning on the topic of growing up in Newburgh, it quickly went beyond the dangers of ingesting fluoride and into the controversy of children and vaccines.

Consider Your Audience

A common piece of advice to any organization seriously considering social media was to “consider your audience.” Although we aspire to attract a younger audience, the Society targeted senior donors. Adults were the dominant group that attended the Society’s events and this is the case for many history museums and historic sites. Reach Advisors, a research firm headquartered in New York State, conducted a survey of museum-going households in 2010 and determined that 60% of history museum visitors are women while 65% are over the age of fifty years.

According to another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September 2014, Facebook remains by far the most popular social media site, which includes 56 percent of online adults in the United States aged 65 and older are now using Facebook. According to this, Facebook is the preferred social media service for reaching our intended audience.

The Society has had a Facebook page since 2011 and this allowed us to use an insights feature to retrieve useful data while researching our existing audience. We learned that the results of the 2010 survey were very close to the ours with 61% of our followers being women and 57% of all followers over the age forty-four years.

I decided to take my research a bit further and was recently granted access to other history and heritage related Facebook pages and the results were similar to the Reach Advisors survey. The pages I sampled included: Friends of the State Historic Sites of the Hudson Highlands, Mid-Hudson Historic Destinations, Newburgh Landmark Conservancy, Orange County History and Heritage and Preserve Algonquin Park.

Although most of the pages are attracting the attention of a familiar audience, two pages run by Johanna Yaun, the Orange County Historian, are drawing interest from nearly an equal amount of men and women as well as young and older adults. Through a series of speaking engagements and her bi-weekly newsletter, Yaun has positioned herself as a spokesperson for heritage tourism promoting immersive tourism and targeting a younger audience. It looks that something she is doing on social media is working.

Not an Elixir, Another Method of Communication

At the Newburgh Historical Society, all it took to encourage a Hudson Valley community to tell its own story was a post on Facebook comprised of one picture and 176 words. Russell Lange, the curator, provided the image and wrote the post description. Russell was gauging the public’s interest in contributing to a community exhibit centered on the theme of growing up in Newburgh. “The idea is to ask folks who grew up here to submit photos that depict familiar scenes from their childhood in Newburgh,” he wrote.

The image he provided was indeed familiar. Every Easter, parents once dragged their children dressed in their Sunday best for pictures at Downing Park, a 35 acre park at the city’s center. In the photograph Russell is with his brother, Mark, and their mother surrounded by patches of tulips. Although it’s a black and white photograph, Russell described the vibrant flowers and the colors began to push through the shades of grey.

For a community like Newburgh, which exists in a state of economic hardship, telling its own story is important. The Facebook post received 60 likes, 13 comments, reached 989 users and was clicked 294 times according Facebook’s insights feature.

A “like,” however, is only a virtual “thumbs up” and an indication of the exhibit’s possibilities, but not a commitment. In the end, sixteen members of the community responded with 120 images, one rare video and three toys spanning from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth century.

The images the Society gained became valuable additions to the collection.

Laying bricks on William Street, Newburgh, 1915.

Thanks to one former Newburgher, a rare series of images were brought to our attention showing the progress of laying brick roads in the early 20th century, complete with steam rollers, company names and a demonstration of tools. The donor kept the images because her grandfather’s corner-market can be seen in the background. To our donor, the images represent a piece of her family history and nostalgia. To the Society, the historic significance lies in the broader picture of constructing Newburgh roads.

An English teacher from the local high school used the exhibit as the basis for a creative writing lesson plan. The Times Herald Record sought after a personal writing piece titled, “City tells its own story through its diversity,” connecting the exhibit to a city-wide festival.

The exhibit reflected the virtual newsfeed of Facebook where donors filled the space with their own materials.

People from all over showed up to view the exhibit hearing about it through a variety of means. We gained new friends, new members, new acclaim and new donors.

The community let the Society into their photo albums, toy rooms and hearts. In exchange, the Society gave them a voice; a way to visualize their Newburgh experiences both past and present. Here is where the Society met its goal, which was not solely due to our efforts on social media, but may not have been possible without it.

One thing the Society learned by this project is that Facebook or social media is certainly not the elixir to decreasing museum visitation, membership and activity, but it is certainly not snake oil. It’s just another method of communication in our marketing kit to engage our current audience and new visitors within a greater community.

Posted in Museums, Orange County, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Future of History: Roles, Resources and Relating Our Stories

Congressman Chris Gibson, center, congratulates Delaware Company boardmembers Steve Melendez, left, and John Conway on their award last year from the Upper Delaware Council for the group's Cultural Achievement.

November is New York State History Month and The Delaware Company is observing it with a first-ever forum for members of the Sullivan County history community – and beyond.

Titled “The Future of History: Roles, Resources and Relating Our Stories,” the gathering will be held from 10:00 to 4:30 on November 14 at SUNY-Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake. It is specifically geared for municipal and public historians, museum personnel, members of historical societies, educators, librarians and others interested in teaching, preserving or promoting local history and heritage tourism in new and better ways.

Presenters from Orange, Dutchess, Ulster and Westchester counties will join Sullivan County Historian John Conway, President of the non-profit Delaware Company, to offer their insights, expertise and opportunities for better networking and sharing of resources and common goals.

“History is ‘in’ right now and very much part of our current pop culture,’’ says Conway, who will act as the forum’s emcee. “With TV shows like TURN, and Sons of Liberty, and Hamilton on Broadway, something appears to be quenching a collective thirst to know more about and better appreciate our past. Now is the time for teachers, museums, historic sites and others to capitalize on that interest by better telling our  local stories – and how they fit into the bigger picture – for both residents and cultural heritage tourists.”

Following a taped message from Congressman Chris Gibson, who graduated magna cum laude with a history degree from Siena College, Orange County Historian Johanna  Yaun will elaborate on the economic benefits of promoting local history in her talk: “Heritage Tourism: What it Is, What it Isn’t, and What it Could Be.” Studies have shown that as many as 85 percent of American travelers make it a point to visit a museum or historic site when vacationing. They stay longer, and spend more and represent a market well worth capturing.

Conway’s talk will take the proven promotional concept one step further. During his presentation, “Telling Our Unique Stories: Revolution to Revolution, ” he will explain that heritage tourism is only viable if different places have different stories to tell, so it is important to know the stories that define a region and to know how to tell them consistently, accurately and well. He says that Sullivan County’s unique history can be summed up by the concept of Revolution to Revolution, which encourages synergy to enhance the viability of all the county’s historic sites.

Dr. Peter Feinman

During lunch, which, like the forum, is provided free of charge, Dr. Peter Feinman of Westchester County will discuss the often-ignored and mostly-misunderstood 1919 New York State Municipal Historians Law. Feinman is the founder of the non-profit Institute of History, Archeology and Education that regularly provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development programs for teachers and public programs. He has written extensively for New York History and advocates for the importance of local history in curriculum, community, and tourism and has some specific suggestions for how local historians can better fill their roles.

Following lunch, Dutchess County Historian William P. Tatum III will offer advice on “Reaching Beyond Your Neighborhood: Opportunities for Collaboration in New York State’s Heritage Community” with specific emphasis on statewide organizations and state government initiatives such as the “Path through History” program to promote heritage tourism.

Then, educators Linda Oehler-Marx and Jane Hernandez of Ulster County will explore the possibilities of “Finding a Place for the Local in the New NYS Social Studies Frameworks” by offering suggestions for teachers and local sites and site educators to collaborate and integrate the notion of textbooks in the classroom by adding authenticity to classroom inquiry.

“It is important that our education community – and society itself, for that matter – doesn’t lose sight of the significance that the understanding of history plays in developing a sense of place and community,” Conway says. “The appreciation of history is essential in building that sense of place, and that sense of place is essential for building strong local communities. History should not be a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul.”

While many local historians regrettably do not use even email, local historic sites are at a serious disadvantage to visitors, especially younger visitors, without a dedicated web site or active presence on social media. Sites can more widely share intriguing items from their collections – artifacts, post cards, bygone tools, ephemera – that captures community interest and interaction, while also possibly expanding or improving the curators’ or members’ own knowledge.

Matt Colon, Director of the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands, will share the pros and cons of what happened when his group entered the modern era of history in his talk: “From Social Media to an Award Winning Exhibit” which should be inspiring for all.

The afternoon’s grand finale will come from Kristina Heister, Superintendent of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, a unit of the National Park Service, who will speak to the need of “Partnering to Protect History.”

“Our nation’s historic and cultural resources are reminders of the decisive times, people, and places in American history and culture,” she says. “The National Park Service mission is to help preserve these places, and as the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service and the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act are upon us, it is critical that we look forward and recommit to preserving the nation’s historic resources.”

That is difficult enough during the best of economic times, she adds, but even more daunting during times like these when budgets and staffs are being downsized, making it imperative for government to explore public-private partnerships.

Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to Ms. Heister, The Delaware Company is able to fill a void in Sullivan County by providing educational programs such as this forum, that are offered elsewhere by government-funded full time County Historians and staffs.

Although the “Future of History” forum and meals are free – made possible in part through the generous support of the Gipson Family Foundation – seating in the Paul Grossinger Dining Room is limited. Advance registration is a must – by midnight Nov. 11.

Email me at:

Posted in Education, Historic Sites, Museums, Sullivan County | Leave a comment

Opportunity for Escape

An 1897 reward postcard from the office of Sheriff Philip Schantz for the capture of John Boylan and William Lasher. (Author's collection.)

Owing to lax security and an aging facility, a number of escapes were attempted by inmates in the Ulster County Jail during its early history. (See “Breaking the Law,” by AJ Schenkman, A few efforts were so successful that they could have cleared the jail of its entire population, if not for the intervention of some of the prisoners housed in the jail.

One such incident took place in the summer of 1897, when four men created an escape route that allowed them to leave while their jailer was sleeping. At the time, all but the worst offenders were allowed a relative degree of freedom within the jail, which was then a wing behind the Ulster County Court House. It had become common practice to allow most prisoners to move throughout the jail, even during the overnight hours when only one jailer was on site. The evening of August 21, 1897, was no different, for of the seventeen male prisoners were housed in the jail, only one, Joseph Decker of Plattekill, was confined to a cell. (Decker, charged in the murder of farmer William Gardiner of Plattekill, was considered the most dangerous offender and was segregated from the other men (

Four men, John Boylan, 27, a Kingston burglar, William Lasher, 25, a Saugerties thief, Charles Sullivan, who was serving a 55-day for stealing a bicycle in Saugerties, and Michael Reynolds of Kingston, carefully planned an escape route from their second floor confinement. Under the direction of Boylan, and over a period of several nights, the four men sawed through four inch and a quarter steel bars, and carefully removed the metalwork from the windows. To avoid notice during the day, the men used soap to hold the sawed pieces together until the late night hours of August 21, when they made their escape. Using a makeshift rope of blankets and sheets, they lowered themselves to the ground, fifty feet below.

As the men made their getaway, Reynolds broke off from the group and returned to his Kingston home. He spent the evening with his sister, and apparently having a change of heart, decided to turn himself back in. Around 3 a.m., as they walked along Wall Street, he located night watchman Paul Cabel, and informed him of the escape. He downplayed his own role by explaining that he had noticed the open window and simply followed the other three out to see where they were going. After trailing them to the West Shore Railroad, a distance of about a mile, he decided to return to his home. Reynolds asked Cabel to place him under arrest, so that it would appear as though he had been caught and had not turned himself in, thereby avoiding any retribution from his fellow inmates.

When Cabel entered the jail with Reynolds, they found warden Robert Smith asleep, and notified him of the second-floor escape. Smith quickly locked the other prisoners up in cells, and sent word to Sheriff Philip Schantz. (It was later reported that Joseph Decker, the only prisoner restricted to his own cell, slept through the entire incident.) Schantz posted a reward for Boylan and Lasher and notified police agencies throughout the state of the escape. All three men were captured within the year.

The bars on the jail windows were reinforced to prevent similar escape attempts, but just a year later a similar incident occurred, when Joe Savage, a burglar with three stints at Dannemora to his credit, Frank Stafford, jailed for highway robbery, Thomas Monroe, a burglar and John Davitt, charged with assault, absconded together. The group made their way through the jail by climbing up a water pipe, shimmying through a crawl space and cutting a hole in the ceiling that allowed them to drop into to the women’s side of the jail. They took advantage of the thin iron bars securing the windows in that area by bending them and easily breaking through the glass. Like their predecessors, they tied sheets and blankets together to form a rope and lowered themselves to the ground. The other men who were locked up with them at the time claimed that the escapees had told them of their plans and offered to help them leave as well, but they thought better of the plan and decided to remain in the jail.

In 1899, five prisoners escaped through a hole in the ceiling, and in 1900 another attempt was made from the very same route, this time with nearly the entire population of forty men ready to move. The men forced boards loose in the ceiling and set out supplies in the room above while waiting for the signal to leave. A lone inmate, who was ill and therefore unable to join the other men, informed the jailer of the plan, who was then able to lock the men up in cells while the ceiling was repaired.

Security improved with the construction of the new jail behind the Ulster County Courthouse, completed in 1902. Designed by architect Myron S. Teller, the new structure featured four floors, with sixteen cells per floor, and was called “the most perfectly constructed jail in the state.” Most notably, the cells and the prisoners’ free areas were housed along an inside corridor, so that prisoners would not have access to windows.

An undated postacrd view of the Ulster County Court House. (Author's collection.)

Despite the modern construction, escapes continued over the next two decades, though they were much fewer in number. An inspection by the State Commission of Prisons in 1922 revealed that while the building itself was more secure, some practices had continued that allowed for the potential to escape. The inspectors’ report noted that prisoners were all moving freely throughout the kitchen and guards’ corridors, giving them access to windows and other escape routes, as well as the means to communicate with people on the outside. While praising other areas of the jail, such as the cleanliness of the kitchen and the ample rations of food for the inmates, the Commission inspectors firmly stated that there was “apparently little, if any, discipline inside the jail, and unless conditions in this jail are corrected, there will probably be trouble for the officials,” They specifically condemned the long-standing practice of allowing the prisoners to move about the jail by concluding that not only was it a violation of state law, it also “[placed] more opportunity for escape in the hands of the inmate.”

Subscribe to Hudson Valley History Blog by Email

Posted in Bringing the Wicked to Justice, City of Kingston, Town of Plattekill, Ulster County | Tagged | Leave a comment

What are your Memories of DuBois Fort

Subscribe to Hudson Valley History Blog by Email

DuBois Fort on Historic Huguneot Street in New Paltz-Collection of A.J. Schenkman


DuBois Fort is located on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York. It has undergone many changes in its long history. Presently, it is the gift shop for Historic Huguenot Street, and interpretative center. Many years prior it was a “tavern.” According to the DuBois Family, ” in the ’20′s it became a tearoom, and then in the ’30s a restaurant run by Elsie Hanna Oates. Alice Crans, in 1976 continued the operation of this homestyle restaurant until her retirement in 1990.” One newspaper reported that when Oates ran the fort, Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed eating in the “tavern.”  What are you memories of DuBois Fort when it was a “tavern?”

A.J. Schenkman teaches history in the Lower Hudson Valley and writes about the history of Ulster and Orange counties. He is the town of Gardiner Historian and Consulting Historian for Historic Huguenot Street. He is the author of several books. A.J. is a frequent contributor to Orange and Ulster Magazines.

Posted in Education, Historic Sites, Lost Landmarks, Museums, Picturing the Past, Town/Village of New Paltz, Ulster County | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The 1883 Milton on Hudson Train Station

Along the Hudson River shoreline in the town of Marlborough, the 1883 Milton Railroad Station stands as a reminder of the vital role the railroad played in the development of the town. The land on which the station is located was once actively used by Native Americans, with archeological evidence suggesting that at least two camps existed within a mile of the property. It eventually became part of the Bond and Barbarie Patents, prior to the formation of the town, and was later purchased by Quaker Samuel Hallock in 1776. Within a relatively short span, the site housed a dock, storehouse and a number of other structures used for conducting business along the waterfront.

An early postcard view of the Milton Train Station. Courtesy of the Milton Train Station Foundation, Inc.

 By 1799, Milton Landing was a well-known port along the river. The development of the Farmer’s Bridge and Turnpike Company in 1808 further solidified the hamlet’s importance, as the road extended from the Milton dock to the town of Shawangunk, and by the mid-1800s the landing was home to stores, taverns, a hotel and a prosperous wheelbarrow factory, established by Milton resident Sumner O. F. Coleman on the site of a former Hallock sawmill. With the arrival of the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railroad (NYWS&B RR) west shore line along the Hudson River in 1882, Milton Landing became a prime location for a station house.

The Milton Train Station was built circa 1883, on the property adjacent to the former wheelbarrow factory. (A recent archeological survey suggests some construction prior to this period.) The station, like many along the west shore, was designed by Philadelphia engineering firm Wilson Brothers & Co. The one story late Victorian stick style building features the broad gable roof, board and batten siding and separate passenger and freight rooms that were characteristic of the stations along the Hudson. Decorative cut work on the bargeboard gables spelling out “NYWS&B RR FREIGHT” was another feature typical of the Wilson Brothers and Co. design station houses along the West Shore. (Due to extensive damage, the original cutwork was removed and replicated in 2015.) Extant exterior doors in the freight area and the exposed roof structure were further examples of the design approach of the Aesthetic Movement. The second phase of construction occurred in 1890, when the freight area was doubled and a protruding station master’s window facing the river was added.

The train station rests upon a fieldstone foundation at the northern end and cement block masonry piers under the 1890 addition. When restoration work began on the building, early features (such as the passenger bench) were preserved where possible; where restoration was not possible patterns were made so that all updates remain in the original shape, style and approximate location of the original. In a nod to the station’s role in transporting Marlborough’s agricultural bounty to New York City, the freight room contains the stenciled names of some early farmers; the design is based on the tin stencils used on their shipping crates.

The NYWS&B Railroad later became the West Shore Railroad, a subsidiary of New York Central, then part of the Penn Central System. Originally there was a double track line along the river, one set of which was subsequently removed. Passenger service ended in 1959, and freight delivery to Milton stopped in 1968.  In the 1960s, the property, which still included several commercial buildings, was acquired by Kedem Winery. The station house was used as a wine tasting room and some redesign took place, including the removal of a station master’s window and the installation of the steel stairway to the basement area.

A view of the station in 1978, when it was owned by the Royal Kedem Winery. (Author's collection.)

Following its brief use as a tasting room, the Milton station sat vacant for nearly 20 years. In 1998, Kedem donated the four-acre property with its remaining buildings to the town of Marlborough. The town entered into a unique agreement in 2006 with the not-for-profit Friends of the Milton-on-Hudson Train Station (today known as the Milton Train Station Foundation, Inc.), who wished to preserve the station house. Volunteers from that organization have currently logged more than 10,000 hours dedicated to the rehabilitation of the station. The Milton Railroad Station achieved New York State Historical Designation and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

The Historic 1883 Milton on Hudson Train Station in 2015. Courtesy of the Milton Train Station Foundation, Inc.

The Milton Train Station is located at 41 Dock Rd. in Milton, NY, next to the Milton Landing Park. For more information, visit the Milton Train Station Foundation’s Facebook page at

Information on Ulster County Executive Mike Hein’s recent visit to the station can be found at


Subscribe to Hudson Valley History Blog by Email

Posted in Historic Sites, Hudson River, Landmarks, Railroads, Town of Marlborough, Transportation, Ulster County | Leave a comment

What are your Memories Gardiner?

Callahan's Hotel in Gardiner, NY-Provided by AJ Scenkman

In a continued attempt to honor the requests of our readers, we decided to start publishing interesting photos with a small amount of text. This is in the vein of a picture paints a thousand words. We hope this will become interactive with our readers posting their memories about a particular picture.

The Callahan Hotel, according to the late Gardiner Historian Carelton Mabee, was better known as the Gardiner Hotel. The “hotel was built in 1869 when the railroad reached Gardiner.”

This hotel was not always known just as the Gardiner Hotel, but “for a time [was] called Callahan’s Hotel, after its operator, Tom Callahan.”

Do you remember this hotel, and if so, what do you remember about it?

A.J. Schenkman teaches history in the Lower Hudson Valley and writes about the history of Ulster and Orange counties. He is the town of Gardiner Historian and Consulting Historian for Historic Huguenot Street. He is the author of several books. A.J. is a frequent contributor to Orange and Ulster Magazines.

Subscribe to Hudson Valley History Blog by Email

Posted in Lost Landmarks, Picturing the Past, Ulster County | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Great Resource Part III: The New York State Historic Newspaper Project

Old Huguenot Burying Grounds in New Paltz-Provided by AJ Schenkman

Recently there has been a lot of attention focused on the Old Huguenot Burying Ground located on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz. This burying ground is one of the oldest in Ulster County. It has intact graves dating back to the early 18thcentury.

The burying ground was “closed” in in the 1860s. Since then it has been looked after by descendants of those buried there, community members, and still later Historic Huguenot Street (HHS). HHS maintains the burying ground as well as the historic homes which line the street. There is a plethora of information when it comes to the houses of the original settlers of New Paltz. This is not true when it comes to the Old Burying Ground. Unfortunately, little is actually known about the early history of the burying ground.

While researching the burying ground for an upcoming article, a fellow local historian sent me a link to a relatively new online resource. She felt it would be a very useful website to assist in the research. The name of the site is the New York State Historic Newspaper Project. Newspapers are great primary sources for the researchers.

This source is a free service courtesy of the Northern New York Library Network. Its mission is to, “provide free online access to a wide range of newspapers chosen to reflect New York State’s unique history.” One of those newspapers is The New Paltz Times (1860-1919). When researching the New Paltz area, it is an invaluable source. Prior to the digital age researchers had to slog through binders of clipped articles, microfilm, or through the actual newspapers. Using their online search function makes locating specific words or phrases a lot easier. When I conducted a preliminary search for the burying ground, it took seconds to search almost six decades of newspapers. I initially came up with three results.

The three results that came up were from the late 1800s when there was a renewed interest in not only the old stone houses on the street, but the burying grounds as well. The entries in the newspaper all pertained to keeping up the appearance of the grounds. The first reference was to Philip DuBois cutting down the weeds and grass in the Old Huguenot Burying Grounds on July 25, 1888.  Yet another newspaper clipping dated August 1893, stated that, “the weeds in the Old Huguenot Burying Ground need[ed] cutting.” Finally, the last result spoke of low hanging tree limbs in the burying grounds.

The New Paltz Times for now, is the only Ulster County newspaper contained on the site. However, it does have seven newspapers for Sullivan County, but sadly none for Orange County. Your best bet for digitized newspapers from Orange County is still Fulton History or Hudson River Valley Heritage.

Newspapers are a great resource for individuals conducting research on their communities from another period of time. They are also essential in researching genealogical questions. In some cases, newspapers are the only resources documenting someone’s existence or

Elsie Hasbrouck Grave in the Old Huguenot Burying Ground-Provided by A.J. Schenkman

where they were in a particular period of time.

<a href=”;loc=en_US“>Subscribe to Hudson Valley History Blog by Email</a>

Posted in Education, Sullivan County, Ulster County | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Breaking the Law

Ulster County Court House- AJ Schenkman Collection

Kingston is home to many historic buildings in an area commonly referred to as the Stockade District or Uptown Kingston. One of the buildings at the center of this district is the Ulster County Court House which has stood at the present location in some form for centuries. It is not only linked to the founding of New York State in 1777, but also to Sojourner Truth. However, it was also once known for its infamous jail.

The Ulster County jail held some of Ulster’s more notorious criminals. They were usually housed here while waiting for a trial or serving out sentences. Many hardened criminals were kept within the walls of the old jail, and more than a few had dreams of escape. Some of the escape attempts were quite inventive.

A rich source for those that escaped the Ulster County Jail are the newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local newspapers sometimes read more like tabloids than actual news sources. Frequently they not only invented some of the facts, but seemed to be drawn to sensational stories. The more sensational a story, the more attracted newspapers.  One of their favorite topics were jailbreak or even attempted ones.

More times than not, those who absconded were apprehended by the “sleuths” of the same period. Some of those lawmen included Ulster County Sheriffs Zadoc P. Boice, “Fearless” Phil Schantz, and Deputy Sheriff William Cohen to name just a few in the long history of the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department. One particular inmate, in 1903, held the distinction of “being the first attempt at a break out since the new jail was erected and the old jail repaired.” Jennie Green did not quite make it out of the jail, but she came quite close.

Jennie Green was being housed in the women’s part of the jail. How she was able to obtain a “clasp knife” is not known. A clasp knife is another name for a pocket knife.  She did realize at some point, while awaiting trial, that all the walls which surrounded her were not reinforced with steel. With plenty of time to think and observe Green realized that the one outside wall was made of plaster and lath. A sharp blow from her tool confirmed it; she went to work.  Once she cleared the plaster and lath away, somehow without being noticed, she realized all that separated her from freedom was a ‘seven to eight inch thick wall.” It was made up of small stones. Once again with tool in hand Green went to work on the stone.

Jailer Carman, according to a local newspaper, was out on patrol when he became aware of an abundance of “falling mortar.” He made his way up to investigate the source. As he neared Green’s cell he heard a digging sound, and when he looked into the cell there was plaster and mortar all over the cell floor. He watched for a period of time as the inmate was so consumed with digging out that she neglected to realize that she was in fact being watched by the jailer. He entered the cell, and after cuffing her, placed her in a more secure cell until her arraignment the following day. An even more daring breakout occurred a few years before in 1897.

The week of August 22, 1897, was a warm one. When it became hot outside, the jail also heated up inside, to a point that it became unbearable for the prisoners being housed. Jailers, in order to show some compassion, allowed inmates to sleep outside their cells in the corridors were it was a little cooler. Once the jail settled down for the night, and they were sure the jailer was asleep, four prisoners decided it would be an excellent time to implement their escape plan.

Joseph Decker, William Lasher, John Boylan and Charles Sullivan somehow secured a saw to help them escape. When the jailer was asleep they went to work on the iron bars inside and then the second set of bars on the outside wall at the rear of the jail. How they did not awake anyone with the sawing is hard to believe. Jailer Smith was surprised when he was awakened by a prisoner who informed him that four prisoners had escaped during the night.  Smith went to investigate and found that four bars on each side of the wall had indeed been cut revealing a “fourteen inch square through which the prisoners escaped. All four men lowered themselves from the second floor using a blanket. Apparently some inmates knew that the locks on the cell doors were anything but secure especially if they were not set properly.

Thomas Cosgrove managed to pick the lock on his cell with a broken broom handle because the safety had not been set on the lock. All three escapees were quickly apprehended. One of the three convicts was apprehended in Albany while doing his laundry on the banks of the Hudson River. Some escape attempts were comical as was the case with Charles Johnston.

Charles Johnston made a name for himself at the new jail completed in 1903. He was so inebriated that thinking he was locked up in jail, tried to break out, but in fact, he was breaking into the jail. He got as far as climbing the fence that encircled it when he was apprehended by a guard. A local reporter wrote the following morning that Johnston did not have to worry about breaking into jail again because he was safe and secure having been given a sixty day sentence.

The Ulster County Courthouse has a long and storied past. Many of the more interesting stories about the jail, that was once part of the courthouse complex, were covered by the newspapers of the day. This especially held true when it came to jailbreaks. Frequently these escapees were caught soon after they attained freedom by the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department.

Subscribe to Hudson Valley History Blog by Email

A.J. Schenkman, Historic Huguenot Street’s Consulting Historian, teaches history in the Lower Hudson Valley. He is the town of Gardiner Historian, as well as, the author of numerous books and articles. His most recent books include Murder and Mayhem in Ulster County, Wicked Ulster County: Tales of Desperadoes, and Washington’s Headquarters Newburgh: Home to a Revolution.   He has been featured in numerous publications, venues , radio, and television.

Posted in Bringing the Wicked to Justice, City of Kingston, Strange Stories, Ulster County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes from the Other Side


Ellenville, NY: Local author Marc B. Fried is best recognized for his books on the history of the Shawangunk region. Known as “Mr. Blueberry” for his book The Huckleberry Pickers by many, Fried has been a regular contributor to the Shawangunk Journal; his column “Notes From The Other Side” has appeared monthly for nearly 9 years in the popular weekly paper. Fried’s latest book, by the same name, is a wonderful collection of author’s favorites from this column.

Readers who enjoy Fried’s local focus will not be disappointed, for the anthology includes a wealth of anecdotes, descriptions and musings about the history, wilderness, farm life and gardening of the Shawangunks and the Wallkill and Rondout valleys. Notes from the Other Side is also filled with exotic adventure, social commentary and engaging humor spanning more than half a century and encompassing great diversities of geography and culture. There are stories of cross-country hitchhiking, winter mountaineering, overseas travel and fascinating personalities and interactions, as well as stories from Fried’s earlier years as a professional musician. Notes from the Other Side is an intimate interweaving of action with retrospection that readers will find both interesting and thought-provoking.

Ellenville Public Library & Museum is happy to welcome Marc Fried on Wednesday, October 28 at 6:30pm for an entertaining evening in honor of Notes from the Other Side. He’ll share his story telling skills with us, highlighting local tales from his newest publication. A book signing will follow his presentation, which is free and open to the public. EPL&M, located at 40 Center Street, Ellenville, NY, has copies available for purchase, now. For more information, please call 845-647-5530.

Posted in Catskill Mountains, Education, Shawangunk Mountains, Strange Stories | Leave a comment
  • Blog Author

    AJ Schenkman

    A.J. Schenkman is the author of numerous books and articles. He is Consulting Historian for Historic Huguenot Street and Town of Gardiner Historian. Read Full

    Elizabeth Werlau

    Elizabeth Werlau is an English teacher in the Hudson Valley and is the historian for the Town of Plattekill in Ulster County. She has authored and contributed to several books on regional history, including her most recent publication, Murder and ... Read Full

    Debra Conway

    A former Features writer/Columnist for the Times Herald-Record and Director of Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg, Debra Conway is currently the Executive Director of The Delaware Company, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ... Read Full

    Matthew Colon

    Matthew Colon is the Director of the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands. He has interpreted the American Revolution at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site since 2009. He currently assists other history focused volunteer ... Read Full
  • Categories

  • Archives