A Heavenly Dedication
Mt. Utsayantha Mountaintop Park Reopens
By Tara Collins
Fire tower view to the west showing Stamford and the observation tower to open in Fall 2006.
A tragic legend, a mountaintop carriage road and an awe-inspiring view continue to lure visitors to Mount Utsayantha, just off Route 23 in Stamford. The spectacular views and historic observation tower warranted the most recent restoration project. A ribbon-cutting ceremony held on Saturday, July 15 officially marked the park’s reopening atop a breath-taking, 360-degree vista of Delaware County and the Village of Stamford.
The Making of a Tourist Attraction
According to Dick Hinman, Stamford’s historian and president of the Stamford Historical Society, Dr. Stephen E. Churchill was ultimately responsible for promoting the area and branding Stamford as “The Queen of the Catskills.” “He is credited as the marketing genius popularizing the Mount Utsayantha legend, Stamford’s tourism industry and billing the Village as ‘The Gateway to the northwest Catskills,’” says Hinman. “He had a lot of high society friends who he invited to the area. In keeping with their expectations, Dr. Churchill was responsible for incorporating water and sewer systems early on in the Village’s construction. He also masterminded Churchill Park, a historic 100-acre resort living community on which his house still stands.”
In 1917, Churchill’s estate bequeathed a 20-acre mountaintop parcel for a Village park. “The Park slipped into disrepair through the 1970s and '80s. But through this restoration project, we’re improving and maintaining the Park to keep tourism strong in Stamford,” adds Mayor Waylen Bray. “Nicknamed Mount Utsie, this is the highest peak in the Catskills that you can drive to,” continues Bray. “Survey maps put the mountain’s height at 3,212 feet. But you’ll see it listed on promotional materials dating back to the late 1800s as 3,365 feet. They did this because it was easy to remember 365, the number of days in the year, and it would click with tourists.” According to Hinman, the Village population hovered at roughly 2000 people in the 1890s, about the same as it is today. But late 19th-century summers beckoned trainloads of tourists; boarding houses bulged, with over 5000 people summer-goers swarming through Stamford’s streets.
“The legend of Mount Utsayantha—translated ‘beautiful spring’—drew people to the region,” says Hinman. “Several variations circulated but they all involve the Princess, the lake and the mountain. One version says she bore a child from a white man. Her father, the chief, did not approve, and drowned her child in the lake where she later committed suicide. The chief is said to have retrieved her body, carried her to the mountain top and buried her there. Another version says the Princess jumped off the mountain top when her warrior lover, Wachusett, failed to return from battle. Heartbroken, she cast herself from the top, landing in Utsayantha Lake.” Allegedly, her grave site was discovered in 1862, where a monument was placed at the site in 1936. The Indian maiden’s gravesite marker is located at the right side of the road leading up to the Park.
Resurrecting an Historical Icon
Fueled by the tragic story, the development of Utsayantha Mountain as a tourist site began when a carriage road and a wooden observation tower were constructed on top of the mountain in 1882. “Several towers have occupied this site,” says Hinman. “The original tower blew down in 1892, then again 1895 and 1901. The third installment burned down in May 1926, following a severe thunderstorm. In the name of tourism, the new building was up and open in one month,” adds Hinman. The existing observation building, reopened in June 1926, will be rededicated and reopened later this year.
Mount Utsayantha glider take off point on the northwest
Facelifts of this magnitude don’t come cheap. Roughly $100,000 in matching grant money from Robinson-Broadhurst Foundation, another $5,000 from the O’Connor Foundation and $30,000 from New York State Department of Parks awarded through Senator John J. Bonacic, are moving the project forward. The mountaintop park actually has three viewpoints, with the formal park layout, fire and observation towers. “The benches and tables alone cost over $13,000,” noted Helen Budrock of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. “We’re using the state park monies to pay for new picnic tables, benches, barbeque grills and some interpretive signage.” An outdoor kiosk, similar to those around the New York City reservoirs, will have shingle roofing like the observation tower. Committee member and local contractor Jim Kopp of Skylands Construction is designing and constructing the kiosk, and has spearheaded the restoration of the observation building. Outdoor informational panels, to be mounted on the kiosk, will cost roughly $7,500 from design to fabrication. A 68-foot steel fire tower also located on the site was constructed by the State in 1934 and officially closed in 1989. However, it was reopened last year, compliments of private donors appropriately acknowledged on the steps to the fire tower platform.
Given its condition, the observation building—once a souvenir shop with an observation deck for tourists—was a liability to the Village. Faced with the decision to either save this historic building or tear it down, Mayor Bray approached The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development for assistance in evaluating the structure and site redevelopment. In May 2003, an ad hoc committee examined potential redevelopment options for Mt. Utsayantha, identifying it as a viable tourist destination and valuable recreational resource. A working plan created by historic preservation architect Marilyn Kaplan of Preservation Architecture, and landscape architect Birgitta Brophy was completed in October 2003. With the help of community volunteers, the ad hoc committee implemented the plan’s recommendations.
“There is still quite a bit of work to be done,” notes Mayor Bray. “Aside from righting an overturned outhouse on a new foundation, we need to complete the building’s outdoor trim, install security shutters, and get on a second coat of exterior paint. We could use volunteer help in getting these punch list items completed so we can move on to the building’s interior and renovations.”
The inside is an ongoing project; it hasn‘t been touched since the '70s. On the first floor, a 24- x 30-foot room will house interpretive panels similar to those placed outdoors. “We’ve raised the first floor, added structural supports and are installing customized windows and security shutters,” says Bray. “Where possible, we’ve tried to restore this structure back to its original state. Luckily, we found a Texas manufacturer who reproduces the exact Victorian-Kortright tin-roof-shingle design we needed. We’ll eventually install a first-floor platform, so those who can’t make the trek up to the roof can enjoy the view from the observation building’s west-facing deck.” Once completed inside, the building will house information panels outlining Stamford’s history and the role of the fire tower, the story of Princess Utsayantha and Dr. Churchill’s land bequeath to the town. The text and graphic exhibits are being designed by Linda Norris of River Hill Partners. The second floor, once the living space for the building’s concessionaire, is under renovation as well. Stairs leading to the rooftop observation platform and 360-degree view of the valley are worth the walk skyward. Stair climbers can spot the upper lake of Blenheim and Gilboa, a bird’s eye view of Stamford and the area’s dairy farms. The panorama is rivaled only by a similar view from the Park’s fire tower.
Stamford resident Cleatus Benjamin located the original trails which circumnavigate the mountaintop. Having made the connection between Stamford and the Appalachian/Long Trails, Benjamin and Americorp volunteers have cleared overgrown trails, brush and fallen trees to re-establish the link. These trails and sleeping under the stars highlight annual overnight camp trips by inner-city students and Girls Scouts.
A second vantage point is located on the northwest side, or rightside cliff as you drive up the road. Committee member and head of the Utsayantha Flyers Organization, or UFO, Dave Koehn notes this as a perfect take-off spot for avid hang-gliders traveling here from all over the Northeast. “The winds and up-drafts are just right from here,” says Koehn, “and you can’t beat the views.” Koehn is coordinating NYSEG and Verizon engineers to move overhead lines so the site is more hang-glider friendly. “One possibility is to bury the lines together and share the cost, which could run up to $10,000,” notes Koehn. “The other option is to site the lines back further so they’re in a safer place.” He is already investigating possible matching grants, individual donations and assistance from the U.S. Hang Gliding Association in subsidizing the wire-relocation costs.
From the third lookout point, on the lower east side, onlookers can view the valley where the original Village of Stamford was to be homestead. Legend has it that settlers followed an old stagecoach route, went the wrong way, and ultimately settled to the valley’s west.
If a Sunday drive is in order, swing through Stamford and visit Mount Utsie. Today’s visitors can enjoy an outing established over a century ago, but still presents as pristine now as it was then. Its historic observation building and fire tower, and their accompanying views, are well worth the trip to Delaware County’s west side. To get there, take NYS Route 23 just outside of the Village of Stamford to Tower Mountain Road and follow the signs to the top of the mountain.
For more information about the project or how you can help, contact Mayor Waylen Bray at 607 652 6671.
Monetary donations can be sent to:
Village of Stamford
PO Box 68
Stamford, NY 12167
The Catskill Center for Conservation & Development
Route 28, Arkville, New York 12406
Phone: 845 586 2611 Fax: 845 586 3044
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