While many pieces of the past on and around the Shawangunk Mountains still remain today, what’s traversed by tourists and locals alike can be, in some cases, only a version of what once was. Although you’ll no longer see trolley tracks along Main Street in New Paltz or spot the famous Smiley twins on the deck of the Mohonk Mountain House, a trip into the Gunks’ past is only as far away as your nearest bookstore.
The Gunks-Ridge and Valley Towns Through Time, a book by locals Ronald G. Knapp and Michael Neil O’Donnell, offers a stunning glimpse into the area’s history in comparing scenes photographed a century ago to the same places as they appear today, along with narrations explaining the history of the featured location. Showing nearly 200 old and new photographs of the Shawangunk Mountains and the towns surrounding them, the book shows how many (or few) changes have swept the region over the past century.
Knapp is a SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the SUNY New Paltz Geography Department, where he has a focus in landscape history, and O’Donnell is a professional landscape photographer who frequently shoots scenes along the Shawangunk Ridge and Hudson River. The authors were featured at an Ulster County Historical Society book talk last month, where they spoke about the book’s production and the many points within the Ridge’s history that shaped how we see it today.
GETTING THE SHOTS
To know which images would be included in the book, the duo first had to choose from historic photos available from various local archives. As a generally picturesque area, and as one that attracted plenty of tourists from the mid-19th century on, life and leisure among the ridge and valley towns of the past were well-documented through photography, Knapp said.
“Many local archives were reluctant to let them [the historic photos] out due to their age,” Knapp said. “But we were able to get them and took many trips to Manny’s in New Paltz to make high quality copies for the book.”
The challenge that posed itself with these aged images, however, was that some copies were too small to be reprinted in a book. And later, when it came to the photography aspect, getting the “now” photograph to match its historic counterpart was another project in itself.
“The challenge with then and now photography is essentially retaking photos that were shot 100 years ago,” O’Donnell said. “You have no idea what kind of camera was used, the focal point or where the photographer stood at the exact moment it was taken, so achieving the right perspective on the ‘now’ photos is something that required a lot of going out and shooting again.”
Despite this challenge, O’Donnell had the help of Mohonk Preserve volunteers to lend a hand. The group consisted of local residents Fred Gerty, John Hayes, Maxine Kamin, Susan Lehrer, and Carol Rietsma, as well as Susan and Glenn Koehler, a couple from Long Island who frequent the area most weekends.
Though the photographs within the pages are displayed side-by-side, a striking composite of Albert Smiley (one of the founding proprietors of Mohonk Mountain House) in front of the Mohonk Testimonial Gateway blended with a present day version of the same scene graces the book’s back cover. When asked if he ever thought about the photographer who took the original shot as he stood there recreating the same one in present day, O’Donnell agreed, noting the extra effort that went into it back then.
“All I could think of was these photographers transporting their bellow cameras on wooden carts to some of these somewhat reclusive areas in the mountains,” O’Donnell said. “Many of them very well may have been up there with horse-drawn carriages and buggies at the time.”
A LOOK THROUGH TIME
“Do let me hear from you when you get among the Gunks… I hope you will find every thing there your heart can wish.”
Well before the tourism boom that resorts like the 10-room Stokes Tavern and later the Mohonk Mountain House helped support, Lake Mohonk and other surrounding scenes were common ground for creatives looking for some inspiration. These words above, found in a letter postmarked August 8, 1838 from Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole to a colleague, came as fellow artists were flocking to the Shawangunk Ridge to use it as a subject for their works.
“This letter may be one of the earliest instances in which the mountains were called ‘the Gunks,’” said Knapp, who wrote the historic narratives within the book’s pages.
While once seen as an expenditure, the mountains proved themselves an economic stimulus to the area, drawing city dwellers to the great outdoors and allowing them to stay at what was then called Lake Mohonk House, Knapp said. As twin brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley purchased the property in 1869, construction of the Wallkill Valley Railroad made its way into Gardiner, New Paltz, Rosendale, and Kingston by 1872, furthering the connectivity of goods and commerce throughout the region.
Often appearing in the New York Times in both advertisements and articles, Lake Mohonk House and the views surrounding it were regarded by the publication as a “perfect picture of quiet beauty” in a September 1874 feature. With its front commanding an extensive view of the mountains, the hotel expanded often over time until it matured to the seven-story-tall, 1/8 mile long edifice that it is today.
Despite the development of the hotel, the Smileys made a point to purchase land from surrounding farms to preserve the undeveloped beauties that surrounded it. In 1963, what is now known as the Mohonk Preserve formed and has since become the largest visitor-supported nature preserve in New York, offering more than 85 miles worth of hiking trails.
MERGING PAST & PRESENT
At the intersection of Main Street and Plattekill Avenue in New Paltz in 1914, you would not have found a Starbucks Coffee shop like the one there today—instead, the grand W.C. Tamney Hotel was housed there, with horse-drawn carriages parked out front and guests relaxing on the upper porch overlooking the road. In 18th century Gardiner, there was no Rail Trail to walk or bike on, as the Wallkill-Valley Railroad was there in full operation. And in Rosendale, you’ll no longer find a Casino on Main Street, but another spot for entertainment still resides in the Rosendale Theatre.
While change has struck the region in many ways, whether through fire, deconstruction, or sheer lack of business, imprints of yesteryear still remain alive and well around the valley. Places like the Clove Chapel in Marbletown (built around 1875), the Gardiner Reformed Church (1892) or the Albert K. Smiley Sky Top Memorial (1923) are just a few spots that keep the region’s history intact for future generations to appreciate.
And as seen in The Gunks-Ridge and Valley Towns Through Time, regardless of whether or not what once was is still here today, the historical relevance of this region is vast and well-documented—and there’s still plenty of opportunity to explore it.
To further aid land stewardship along the ridge, all proceeds from sales of The Gunks-Valley Towns Through Time will benefit the Mohonk Preserve. In addition to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, a complete list of retailers of the book, and some photos that didn’t make the final print, can be found at gunksthroughtime.com.