Volunteer Don Eccleston of Zena surveys the grand view from the top of the Overlook Mountain fire tower.
2.5 Miles Plus 81 Steps
History and scenery make a hilltop home on Overlook Mountain
By Alan Wechsler
Photos by Philip Kamrass
IT'S RUSH HOUR ON TOP of Overlook Mountain, elevation 3,140 feet. Hikers are clambering up and down the fire tower, sitting on picnic tables and otherwise enjoying the summit on this weekend afternoon.
Summit volunteer Mike Gera watches the crowd from his table when a bearded, shirtless hiker approaches the top. He is breathless and glazed in sweat.
“If we can answer any questions, we will,” Gera tells him.
The hiker thinks about it. “Is there an elevator down?
“Only in your mind,” Gera replies.
Welcome to what may be the busiest mountain in the Catskills. On a typical weekend day in the warm weather, hundreds of hikers will make their way up and down the 2½-mile dirt road that leads from just above Woodstock to the summit. It is far from the highest mountain in the Catskills – that honor belongs to Slide Mountain, about an hour’s drive to the west – nor, debatably, is it the most scenic.
But it is a mountain close to Woodstock and Kingston; with a 25-mile view from the summit. It’s easily accessible, with a unique history to the region.
To help manage these hundreds of daily visitors are 30 summit volunteers. Every weekend and holiday from Memorial Day to Columbus Day you’ll find them here to welcome guests. Many live in the area or are frequent visitors. Gera, for instance, lives in New Jersey but has a weekend home down the road from the peak. Charlie Lutomski, who lives nearby in Woodstock, has been known to carry cases of water bottles to the top, among the many things he does for the trail.
“We are there to remind people of the incredible amount of beauty in their backyard,” says Diane Sirois of Saugerties, a seven-year volunteer at the Catskill Mountain Fire Tower Project, a group that oversees volunteers at this and four other peaks (Hunter, Tremper, Balsam Lake and Red Hill).
“We’re not law enforcement,” she said. “We can’t tell people what to do. We’re just there to give people info, to teach them a little about the history of the Catskills and to encourage them to enjoy what’s so ridiculously close.”
Hikers begin the 2.5-mile trek up Overlook Mountain.
The will to hike
The start of Overlook is several miles above the Village of Woodstock, at the top of a steep road that would kill a car with a bad transmission. It’s across from an iconic Tibetan Buddhist temple, giving the hike an extra kick of spirituality (albeit one that’s hardly necessary, seeing as how the mountain is located in the most cosmic of Hudson Valley communities).
The hike up the mountain follows a dirt road for its entire length, and isn’t particularly steep – although it’s challenging enough to those out of shape.
“Sometimes it’s sheer willpower,” says Alan Via, another volunteer, speaking about some of the hikers he’s met on the trail. Via, who has written a hiking guide about the Catskills called “The Catskill 67,” is often asked how far it is to the top. Therein lies a conundrum.
“Do I mislead them and make it sound easier?” Via ponders. “Or do I tell them they’ve got halfway to go?”
Still, with enough perseverance nearly anyone can make the 1,400-foot ascent.
At the two-mile mark is the mountain’s first point of interest: the skeletal concrete façade of a four-story hotel built in the early 20th century. This is easily the most fascinating relic in the Catskills, and few hikers skip the thrill of wandering through the remains of this castle-like ruin. The building dates back to the 1930s, but the history of a hotel on this summit is far older.
A hundred years earlier, at a time when massive hotels like the Catskill Mountain House to the north dotted this area of the range, a man named James Booth served dinners to a group of investors atop Overlook Mountain. His bold idea: build a hotel here.
It didn’t take hold, but since then, four different entrepreneurs gave it a try, according to the history in the small museum at the top of the mountain. In 1871, a corporation finally successfully built the first Overlook Mountain House, which attracted ex-President Ulysses S. Grant and other famous visitors.
But the hotel burned down four years after it opened. According to legend, the owner’s daughter heard a fire burning in a chimney, but no one believed her. It was April Fool’s Day, 1875.
Two years later, a new hotel went up around the same site. It cost $3 for a night, and guests could take rowboats out on nearby Echo Lake, a mile down the trail. The hotel prospered, and owners added a bowling alley and a three-story viewing tower.
Eventually, the hotel in decline, it was purchased by New York City hotelier Morris Newgold. He began to make improvements, but the hotel burned down in 1924.
In what turned out to be a rather fateful decision, Newgold decided to rebuild. Swearing to create a hotel that would “last the test of time and weather,” he sold his booming place in Times Square in 1927 and used the money to build a four-story building out of concrete, including a power station and other amenities.
By 1935, he had spent $1 million. But Newgold died before it was complete. The second world war was looming, and Newgold’s grandson was about to enlist. He had the grounds sealed up and joined the service. When he came back after the war, he found the building had been broken into and everything of value carted off.
Vandalized beyond repair, the hotel was abandoned for good. Ironically, now it’s more popular than ever, albeit not as an overnight stop.
Once hikers finish touring the ruins, they can either continue a half-mile to the summit or take a path that curves around to the right (behind the hotel) to a hidden cliff. Here you’ll find graffiti carved in the rock going back to the early 1800s.
It’s interesting to compare the names; the earliest writing is carved with great care, an act that must have taken many hours with hammer and chisel. Later signatures were clearly made far less intricately, proving that a declining attention span didn’t necessarily start with the Internet.
The perspective affords a view to the Hudson River, a thin ribbon of blue that stretches to the horizon both north and south.
When hikers tire of this, they can return to the hotel ruins and follow the trail up. From here it’s another half-mile to the actual summit. Circling around a small cliff, hikers will pass a cabin, now converted to a museum and visitors’ center. Volunteers ask visitors to sign a guest sheet. Actress Uma Thurman, who lives near the mountain, is a frequent guest (during a recent visit, she signed it “U. Thurman.”).
Volunteer Val Schaff prepares to leave the tower after locking up for the day.
Finally, the mountain’s star attraction: a 60-foot-high fire tower. Originally built for a hill west of Kingston, the tower was moved piece-by-piece to its present location in 1950.
It was a time of wildfire dangers, and dozens of similar towers were installed in the Catskills, Adirondacks and other wooded areas around the state to spot fires during the dry summers before they grew out of control and destroyed valuable timber and endangered settlements.
Fire-spotting was a lonely but vital job. An observer lived in the nearby log cabin and spent much of his days scanning the woods for smoke. If he spotted something, he charted its location using a “range finder” (a round map with pivoting straight-edge) and ran down to the cabin to telephone for help.
Fire towers fell out of favor in the 1980s, when airplanes and local residents were reporting the majority of fires. Overlook’s tower closed in 1988, but was restored and reopened 11 years later.
Today, it’s a rite of passage for hikers to climb those 81 steps to the tower’s “cab.” From the top, the tiny indoor platform seems suspended above the mountains. Many hikers are moved to wonder: Is it their imagination, or is this tower swaying?
Back on the ground, volunteers are there to tell hikers about the time someone photographed a black bear climbing the stairs or warn them off the tower when a thunderstorm approaches.
Other volunteers have helped prevent teenage vandalism or acted as impromptu social workers for aggrieved parents or couples.
“Sometimes you end up controlling traffic,” says Sirois. “On Labor Day Sunday, you’ll get 300 people. And everybody wants to be on the tower at once.”
Occasionally runners or mountain-bikers will brave the journey to the top. Sirois knows of one local ultra-marathoner who has jogged up three or four times in a day.
Once she even saw a unicyclist.
“I was so shocked to see him,” she says. “He just turned around and nodded, and kept on up the hill.
“But it’s Overlook,” she adds. “The world comes to Overlook.”
After spending a good part of the day on the mountain, it’s time to leave. On the way down, I pass a mountain biker taking a break from the climb. “It’s a great workout for your legs, my friend,” says the cyclist, Oscar Hernandez of the Bronx. “Beautiful place.”
As he cycles on, dozens more follow: a group of young men, a family of four, a guy wearing a black fishing vest and a trail runner who doesn’t even look up as he jogs past, shirtless.
About halfway down, I walk up to a young and slightly overweight couple. The man is standing with hands on knees and head down, breathing hard. He looks up as I approach, and I see sweat running down his face. It’s their first time on the mountain.
“How much farther?” he asks.
They probably had at least 45 minutes of uphill walking. But, I thought, far be it from me to discourage them from the joy of reaching the top.
“Oh, not that far,” I tell them. “You’re almost there.”
$1 million dream
When the second incarnation of the Overlook Mountain House was destroyed by fire in 1923, owner Morris Newgold hired architect Frank P. Amato to redesign and rebuild the hotel. Amato reconstructed it in concrete, intending to create a world-class hotel that would withstand the elements, but the structure was still incomplete by 1939. Boarded up in 1940, the hotel was probably damaged by fire in 1941. Its architectural details and a roof-top tower survived intact until brought down by a final blaze in the mid-1960s.