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Author Talk - The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America

  • Catskill Center 43355 New York 28 Arkville, NY, 12406 United States (map)

The Catskill Center and John Burroughs Woodchuck Lodge are pleased to announce a talk with author Stephen Silverman on his latest book, The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America

Stephen Silverman, author of The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America, will be the featured speaker at the Third Annual John Burroughs Spring Lecture Saturday, April 2 at 4 p.m. at the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville.

The free talk is co-sponsored by John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge and the Center, which is located at 43355 State Highway 28, Arkville, 12455.

Refreshments will include cake to celebrate John's 179th birthday. (He was born April 3, 1837.)

Stephen Silverman’s book, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015, includes a chapter about John Burroughs' role in the region and his relationship with another famous Roxbury native son, Jay Gould.

In 406 pages of text and color images, Silverman tells the story of the Catskills, from Native Americans to famed Borscht Belt entertainers; farmers and quarrymen; artists and gangsters, and many others. The Anti-Rent War, the coming of the railroads, the development of New York City reservoirs and other episodes in the region’s history are covered.

The book was written in collaboration with Joan Micklin Silver, who with her husband Raphael Silver, had intended to produce a documentary film about the Catskills and its history and culture. The Silvers came to Roxbury several years ago to collect interviews about John Burroughs’ and to film his homestead, and the rural retreat to which he returned in old age – Woodchuck Lodge.

The film was never made, and Mr. Silver died in 2013. He is credited as co-author of the new book, which includes quotes and information taken from the original film footage, and from other sources.

John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge is in the midst of its annual membership drive. To support this historic site, visit


The Catskills (“Cat Creek” in Dutch), America’s original frontier, northwest of New York City, with its seven hundred thousand acres of forest land preserve and its five counties—Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, Ulster, Schoharie; America’s first great vacationland; the subject of the nineteenth-century Hudson River School paintings that captured the almost godlike majesty of the mountains and landscapes, the skies, waterfalls, pastures, cliffs . . . refuge and home to poets and gangsters, tycoons and politicians, preachers and outlaws, musicians and spiritualists, outcasts and rebels . . . 

Stephen Silverman and Raphael Silver tell of the turning points that made the Catskills so vital to the development of America: Henry Hudson’s first spotting the distant blue mountains in 1609; the New York State constitutional convention, resulting in New York’s own Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and its own constitution, causing the ire of the invading British army . . . the Catskills as a popular attraction in the 1800s, with the construction of the Catskill Mountain House and its rugged imitators that offered WASP guests “one-hundred percent restricted” accommodations (“Hebrews will knock vainly for admission”), a policy that remained until the Catskills became the curative for tubercular patients, sending real-estate prices plummeting and the WASP enclave on to richer pastures . . .

Here are the gangsters (Jack “Legs” Diamond and Dutch Schultz, among them) who sought refuge in the Catskill Mountains, and the resorts that after World War II catered to upwardly mobile Jewish families, giving rise to hundreds of hotels inspired by Grossinger’s, the original “Disneyland with knishes”—the Concord, Brown’s Hotel, Kutsher’s Hotel, and others—in what became known as the Borscht Belt and Sour Cream Alps, with their headliners from movies and radio (Phil Silvers, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, et al.), and others who learned their trade there, among them Moss Hart (who got his start organizing summer theatricals), Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Joan Rivers.

Here is a nineteenth-century America turning away from England for its literary and artistic inspiration, finding it instead in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and his childhood recollections (set in the Catskills) . . . in James Fenimore Cooper’s adventure-romances, which provided a pastoral history, describing the shift from a colonial to a nationalist mentality . . . and in the canvases of Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederick Church, and others that caught the grandeur of the wilderness and that gave texture, color, and form to Irving’s and Cooper’s imaginings.

Here are the entrepreneurs and financiers who saw the Catskills as a way to strike it rich, plundering the resources that had been likened to “creation,” the Catskills’ tanneries that supplied the boots and saddles for Union troops in the Civil War . . . and the bluestone quarries whose excavated rock became the curbs and streets of the fast-growing Eastern Seaboard.  

Here are the Catskills brought fully to life in all of their intensity, beauty, vastness, and lunacy.


 STEPHEN M. SILVERMAN is a twenty-year veteran of Time Inc. and was the first editor of His books include biographies of the filmmakers David Lean and Stanley Donen, and his work has appeared inEsquire, Harper's Bazaar, The New York Times, The Times of London, Vogue, and The Washington Post. He lives in New York City.


 RAPHAEL D. SILVER grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a rabbi, and lived in New York City until his death in 2013. A real-estate developer, he founded Silverfilm with his wife, director Joan Micklin Silver, and produced her Hester Street and Crossing Delancey. His first novel, Congregation, was published posthumously.