Will Nixon/ Overlook Mountain: The Beacon of Woodstock

An excerpt from The Pocket Guide to Woodstock

by Will Nixon

Should Woodstock ever declare its independence as a “People’s Republic,” surely the saddle-backed profile of Overlook Mountain would appear like Mount Rushmore on its money. This towering southeastern corner of the Catskill Escarpment, at first called South Peak by sailors on the Hudson, has filled the skyline and the town’s consciousness from the start. Thomas Cole stood on the summit on August 13, 1846 to admire the panorama that that sweeps across the Hudson Valley and deep into the Catskills. On a clear day you can see five states if you’re willing to count a tiny nub of Pennsylva­nia near the minuscule tower of High Point, New Jersey. Cole was the first to call the mountain Over­look instead of South Peak. He died two years later, leaving the scene unpainted. On July 31, 1873, Pres­ident Ulysses S. Grant visited the summit cliffs as a guest of the new Overlook Mountain House, built half-a-mile from the top. He shared cigars and sat on a rock that still bears his name.

Nowadays, the two-and-a-half mile climb up the Jeep road to the summit draws everyone from trail runners to first timers in flip-flops. For families, mountain bikers, backpackers on their way to camp at Echo Lake for the night—hiking Overlook is a rite of passage for visitors and residents alike. Once I even met a pair of parasailers hauling up their long poles like a sailing mast wrapped in sails. They car­ried the top of the pole slung over a shoulder while the rear rolled on tiny wheels. At the summit cliffs they intended to unfold their rigs, climb in, and sail away north­wards to Windham and back for a sunny afternoon.

Be forewarned that this Jeep road can be a chore, especially if you’re not in shape. But the summit views are worth the effort. No experience in town matches climbing up the fire tower for a tingling touch of vertigo that accompanies the heavenly feeling of standing on top of the world. Of course, in February this frigid climb feels like a shortcut to the North Pole.

Erected in 1950, the fire tower was used for fire spotting into the 1980s when small plane pilots took over observation duties. Now forest rangers rely on the public armed with mobile phones to report fires. In the late 1990s, volunteers restored the fire tower and nearby ranger’s cabin which is open on weekends from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Inside, you’ll find historic photos of the old hotel, funny photos of bears, and a few rattlesnake skins left by Overlook’s most famous rare species. Years ago, the fire warden cooked them for dinner. Now they’re now a protected species because poachers and others have decimated their populations across the state.

Overlook Mountain Tower
artist: Loel Barr

The summit is a good place for a short course in forest history. Looking down from the cliffs toward Woodstock and the Hudson Valley, you’ll see the forest that has overgrown the farms and pastures of a century ago. Our region looks wilder than it has in hundreds of years. The deer and wild turkeys commonly seen today were all but lost to those earlier farmers, done in by hunting and forest clearing. Now you might think the deer believe it’s our job to groom the landscape for them. The last two wolves were shot in 1829 and 1830, each for a princely bounty of $15 apiece—the bounty on crows was six cents, squirrels four cents—but they haven’t returned, nor have mountain lions, despite the local lore. As the forest has returned, however, open fields have disappeared, a huge loss for some bird species that once ruled the grassy expanses. The stately white pines in the lower forests, rec­ognizable by their wide ladder-like branches, are a pioneer species that reclaims open ground.

The gnarly trees above and below the summit cliffs are red oaks, one of the nut-bearing south­ern hardwoods that spread into the Catskills along with hickories, chestnuts, and walnuts some four to six thousand years ago, as Native Ameri­cans started cultivating the landscape by setting fires. They displaced northern hardwoods, such as maples and beeches, that still blanket the inte­rior Catskills. Native Americans set fires to create open woodlands for easier travel and hunting. The nut-bearing trees fed their game animals, the deer and wild turkeys, as well as the Native Americans themselves, who may have planted oaks and wal­nuts in orchards. They brought us the tree species commonly found in Woodstock today.

If you step behind the summit cabin into the evergreens, you’ve walked back twelve thousand years into the boreal forest that covered the Catskills after the last Ice Age. Today the boreal forest has largely retreated north to Canada. The surviving remnants in the Catskills are found on the highest mountains, so this patch on Overlook is a surprise. The boreal species include mountain ash, paper birch, red spruce, and balsam fir, which you may recognize from Christmas trees. To distinguish spruce from fir, shake hands with a branch. The spruce has sharp needles, the fir soft.

Now confined to summits, this forest type once filled the valleys, too, and still would if not for the arrival of the northern hardwood forest about eight thousand years ago: the sugar maples and beeches that cover the Catskills beyond the Native American burn zones. These northern hardwoods grow on the western side of Overlook, which you can reach by starting down the trail to Echo Lake. As large, long-lived, leafy trees they out-competed the earlier boreal species for the best growing sites leaving the spruce and firs to thin soils and harsh winters on the summits. Time will tell what global warming brings to the Catskills, but the hope is that our forests are healthy and resilient, and better able to withstand the shocks to come.

Half a mile down from the summit stands the hotel ruins, towering walls open to the sky. The roof and interior were dynamited in the 1960s after decades of falling into such disrepair that they were a safety hazard. In fact, two earlier hotels preceded this one before they also burned down. The first, built in 1871, hosted President Grant and was an elegant success, a rival to the Catskill Mountain House eight miles north along the escarpment that opened in 1824 and lasted until 1941. In the end it also became a hazard until the authorities burned it in 1963.

The first Overlook hotel stood three stories tall with a mansard roof. It had three hundred rooms furnished with pine bureaus, mirrors, and black-walnut beds for $7 a week, meals included. The compound also had a barn, carriage house, stable, laundry, and icehouse. Entertainment included “singers, choruses, amateur musical clubs, one-man bands, and trained bear acts,” according to an early historian. “Boulder pushing” became a thing to do. “One botanist expressed his delight in seeing the trees topple over like dominoes.” The hotel pianist played his own “Overlook Hotel Waltz.” On April Fools’ Day in 1875 a child reported smoke pour­ing out of a chimney, but he was ignored by hotel workmen as a silly prankster until it was too late to stop the fire from consuming the building.

A second hotel, constructed in 1878, did well for half a dozen years, and then sat empty for de­cades until 1923 when it burned. Construction on the third began in 1928 with plans for an opulent hotel with a four-story lookout tower rising above the roof. Morris Newgold, whose stepson Gabriel built the Colony in 1929, spared no expense. He dreamed of clearing an airfield on the summit or running a train up the mountainside. But the De­pression defeated him. Reality, too, for the age of grand hotels was decades in the past. He died on the eve of World War II, and during the war this site was ransacked of its elegant furnishings. Yet the ruins still had floors and a roof into the 1960s, a haunted house for local kids to explore.

The ugly transmission tower was built in the early 1980s for Kingston’s WTZA TV (“From the Tappan Zee to Albany”), which became WRNN. When the broadcasting company switched to digi­tal, the tower was left for other uses. It bristles with antennas and transmitters, although the private owner hasn’t said what they’re for.

My friend Michael Perkins once proposed that everyone who lives in the region should hike Overlook Mountain as an act of good citizenship. If we are to be lords, we should see our domain at its finest.

Here’s a poem I once wrote after a day at the summit:

Fire Tower

Never mind your replacement, the airplane.
You’ve pulled lightning from the sky,
tickled your legs blue with St. Elmo’s fire.
You’ve bathed in cold fog, shed icicles
like thousands of earrings. You’ve whistled
through hurricanes, watched meteors
scratch the black dome in every direction
without leaving a trace. You’ve ignored
wars. You couldn’t name a president.
You’ve chaperoned two generations of trees.
You’ve tolerated thousands of visitors
climbing the zig-zag of your spine
to stand inside your empty square head
& believe they see what gods see.

////////////

Will Nixon is the author of The Pocket Guide to Woodstock and the co-author with Michael Perkins of Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America’s Most Famous Small Town. Both have been bestsellers at the Golden Notebook, Woodstock’s beloved independent bookseller. His website is woodstockpocketguide.com

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