Kaaterskill Falls, at over 260 feet, is the tallest waterfall in New York State and is one of the popular destinations in the Catskills. For over two centuries, visitors, including many famous artists and writers, have journeyed to the falls and found themselves amazed at its beauty.
The “jewel of the upper Catskills” was a popular haunt of the Hudson River School artists, including Thomas Cole whose paintings brought world-wide fame to the Catskills region. His 1826 Falls of the Kaaterskill and Kaaterskill Falls both beautifully capture the essence of what was to become one of the most popular subjects of 19th century American painting. Sanford Robinson Gifford’s 1871 Kaaterskill Falls is another masterpiece rendition.
The most celebrated painting of the falls though is certainly Asher Durand’s 1849 Kindred Spirits, sometimes referred to as the defining work of the Hudson River School. Originally created as a tribute to Thomas Cole, after his death, and poet William Cullen Bryant, it offers a romanticized view of the Kaaterskill Falls area, although it is actually a composite of several scenes in the area. In 2005, Kindred Spirits sold at auction for $35 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for an American painting.
One of the greatest descriptions of Kaaterskill Falls was written by James Fenimore Cooper in his 1823 novel titled The Pioneers. The dialogue below begins with Leatherstocking, also known as Natty Bumppo, talking of his time in the Catskills region.
“‘But there’s a place, a short two miles back of that very hill, that in late times I relished better than the mountains; for it was more kivered with the trees, and more natural.’
“And where was that?” inquired Edwards, whose curiosity was strongly excited by the simple description of the hunter.
“Why there’s a fall in the hills, where the water of two little ponds that lie near each other breaks out of their bounds, and runs over the rocks into the valley. The stream is, maybe, such a one as would turn a mill, if so useless a thing was wanted in the wilderness. But the hand that made that ‘leap’ never made a mill! There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks, first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running just like any creator that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is night two hundred feet, and the water looks likes flakes of driven snow, before it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers itself together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat rocks, before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-away and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain.”
“I have never heard of this spot before!” exclaimed Edwards; “it is not mentioned in the books.”
“I never read a book in my life,” said Leather-stocking; “and how should a man who has lived in towns and schools known anything about the wonders of the woods! No, no lad; there has that little stream of water been playing among them hills, since He made the world, and not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on it. The rock sweeps like a mason’s work, in a half-round, on both sides of the fall, and shelves over the bottom for fifty feet; so that when I’ve been sitting at the foot of the first pitch, and my hounds have run into the caverns behind the sheet of water, they’ve looked no bigger than so many rabbits. To my judgment, lad, it’s the best piece of work that I’ve met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in a wilderness, but them that rover it for a man’s life.”
“What becomes of the water? In which direction does it run? Is it a tributary of the Delaware?”
“Anan!” said Natty.
“Does the wat run into the Delaware?”
“No, no, it’s a drop for the old Hudson; and a merry time it has till it gets down off the mountain. I’ve sat on the shelving rock many a long hour, boy and watched the bubbles as they shot by me, and thought how long it would be before that very water, which seemed made for the wilderness, would be under the bottom of a vessel, and tossing in the salt sea. It is a spot to make a man solemnize. You can see right down into the valley that lies to the east of the High Peak, where, in the fall of the year, thousands of acres of woods are before your eyes, in the deep hollow, and along the side of the mountain, painted like ten thousand rainbows, by no hand of man, though without the ordering of God’s providence.”
For many years the former Laurel House hotel was located near the top of Kaaterskill Falls. The Laurel House was constructed as a boarding house in 1852 by Peter Schutt, and later managed by his son Jacob L. Schutt. The Laurel House, named for the mountain laurel (kalmia latifolia) that grows and blossoms around the area, originally had room for 50 visitors but was expanded after the Civil War and again in the early 1880s to accommodate approximately 300 people. The hotel was very popular given its location near the falls, its views of Kaaterskill Clove and its moderate pricing when compared to the more upscale Catskill Mountain House and the Kaaterskill Hotel. The grand Laurel House hotel operated until 1963, was acquired by New York State two years later and its grounds added to the Catskill Forest Preserve. The state intentionally burned the historic structure in March 1967.
Samuel E. Rusk, who would later become a noted Catskills photographer and boarding house owner, beautifully described the setting of the Laurel House and Kaaterskill Falls in his 1879 book titled Rusk’s Illustrated Guide to the Catskill Mountains.
“It is but a few feet from the Laurel House to the top of the [Kaaterskill] Falls. The Spray House stands on the very verge, and its platform, with timbers bolted to the rock, projects over the awful chasm. This is the point from which to view the Falls from above; and over this first Fall the water drops a hundred and sixty feet, broken into millions of foamy fragments ere it strikes below, and flowing along a few yards it again plunges to the depth of eighty feet . . .
It is from under the Falls where its grandeur becomes most striking. At a gate by the Spray House a payment of twenty-five cents is made – for once during the season – and a charming path followed a few yards through the forest to the head of the stairs. Rustic seats are place along the way, and there are resting-places at various landings along down the many flights of stairs passed in reaching the bottom of the falls.
In the immense ampitheater which curves behind of the first Fall is a level path on which one may safely pass entirely around behind the falling water. Midway along the path the flood comes pouring over the enormous arch of rock, and as it descends, is eighty feet distant from the point of observation. After passing around by this path, the stream may be re-crossed a few yards below, at the top of the second Fall, where the stairs continue down to the foot, and reach a seat placed so as to give an unobstructed view of both Falls. While parties are down here, the gate of a dam immediately above the Falls is opened, thus augmenting the usual flow of water, and the scene is then truly marvellous.”