It’s been a exhaustively hot summer in Kentucky this year. Although graced by the technology of central air conditioning, I’ve thought with longing about children’s books I read decades ago that described the decampment from urban cores to shady mountain retreats (I believe the Bobbsey Twins series even had a “fresh air camp for children” volume). And lo and behold, just as the temperatures continue to climb into the 90s in the Bluegrass, I find myself in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
Since we were focused on reaching the cooler climes of New York state in a timely manner, we by necessity stuck to the Interstate for most of our journey – a soul-sucking exercise for me. So three days after leaving Kentucky, I practically salivated as we set out on our first exploration along NY State Route 97 (built in 1939 as a scenic highway).
Although we arrived at our first destination via car, it was the Erie Railroad (and the timber industry) that propelled the growth and development of a hamlet by the name of Callicoon. In the 18th century, hunters entering the Delaware River valley in this area christened a stream near the river “Kolikoonkill” – which obviously means “cackling hen-turkey stream.”
As a railroad town, Callicoon shares characteristics (layout and spatial organization) with towns like Midway, Kentucky, but Callicoon’s history of abundant timber means that just about everything is built of wood…which burns easily and quickly. Such a fire wiped out most of Callicoon’s Main Street in 1888.
Some of the subsequent rebuilding was in masonry, like the town’s library, formerly the Callicoon National Bank Building. The two-story brick building has a bluestone facade, a lovely pedimented front entry, and a staggered parapet with “1913” emblazoned in the middle. The building has housed the town’s library since 1970.
Some of the buildings along Main Street survived the fire, including the venerable Western Hotel. Apparently, a mid-19th building is the core of this seemingly late-Victorian edifice, complete with a mansard roof and portico that overwhelms the facade. It is a striking landmark along Main Street, with weatherboards painted yellow, and best of all – it is still open for business.*
The same year as the fire, the Erie Railroad issued a publication extolling lodging available for summer guests along the railway route. The section on Callicoon “in the midst of surroundings of a wild and rugged character” included the following description: Callicoon has a population of 1,200, an excellent graded public school, numerous churches, and good stores and shops, which are always well stocked. It is the center of one of the famous trout regions of the Delaware Valley.” ** The last census figures enumerated the local population at less than 200 residents.
Callicoon flourished as hot urbanites made their way north to its hotels and to frolic along the Delaware River. But as rail travel ceded to automotive travel, the town’s fortunes waned. A revival of sorts began in the 1960s, as interest in outdoor pursuits drew campers, and kayaking, canoeing, rafting, tubing, swimming and fishing and eagle watching have continued to entice visitors. The creation of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River as a national park also helped.
I think it’s fitting that one of the last gasps in that first generation of tourism trade was the construction of the 1948 Quonset-hut movie theater. Repurposed for many activties after World War II, most theaters of this sort have a false front facade that belies the utilitarian nature of the structure. The example in Callicoon bears a a stripped down Art Deco/Moderne facade. First known as the Harden, then Arden, the Callicoon Theater today offers first-run movies, (Sully is showing right now), and is one of only 17 Quonset-hut movie theaters still operating in the United States. So if it warms up too much for me today, I’ll be at the movies tonight, eating popcorn and enjoying icy air-conditioning in a historic building.
**From the website Callicoon on the Delaware: http://www.callicoononthedelaware.com/vacationing_in_callicoon.html