The Notch


By Kelli Huggins / Visitor Experience Coordinator

The Notch.

The Notch.

It’s 1873. People in New York City live amongst the residue of industrialization and population growth.

Disease is a constant threat. Streets are filthy and the air is dense with pollution. Many middle-to-upper class white residents resent influxes of immigrants; xenophobia and racism are blatant. Politics are dominated by Tammany Hall, (an empire who's collapse will begin in 1873 with the criminal convictions of William “Boss” Tweed’). By year's end, the country, and much of the world, will plunge into an economic depression that will last the rest of the decade..

But perhaps there was a reprieve. An 1873 article (which was reprinted across the country) introduced readers a magical-sounding escape far away from the grime and disease, a place, “where snow and ice can be found at all seasons of the year. A road runs some five miles up a deep hollow, bounded on the two sides by high mountains with a clear, ice-cold stream of water running down its centre… There is snow and ice during the hottest days of summer a few feet from the roadway. There are large masses of solid ice in some caves not further than five feet from the road.”[1] That place was the Westkill Notch in the Greene County Catskills. The popularity of the Notch was a part of the Catskills tourism boom of the 19th century. While the Catskill Mountain House and other large resorts are were best known, other smaller boarding houses were spread throughout the Catskills and offered tastes of country life at a lower cost.

An 1873 article introduced readers a magical-sounding escape far away from the grime and disease, a place: “where snow and ice can be found at all seasons of the year”.

 The Westkill Notch (also known as the Deep Notch or the Echo Notch) falls between the peaks of the Halcott Mountain Wild Forest and West Kill Wilderness Area and is traversable now by Route 42. In the decades following that 1873 article, the Notch developed its own brand of tourism. Boarding houses and newspapers sold the beauty and uniqueness of the area, advertising heavily to people in New York City. Says an article on local trout fishing, “To a stranger going up the valley it appears as though there were no outlet until he comes within a short distance of The Notch. Then it seems as though a slice had been taken out of the mountain very much as a grocer would cut a slice out of a new cheese.” [2]

 An 1897 souvenir book offered a painterly description: “The magnificent original forest is on the one hand, and the great ledges on the other, draped with mosses of every shade of bronzy purples and greens and rich browns, and fantastically decorated with patches of pale gray-green and gray-pink lichens.”[3]


The Echo Notch House, a small hotel at the foot of the Notch in Westkill used the ever-present ice as a hook in most of its ads: “Pleasantly located 1,800 feet above tide water; abundance of shade; situated at the entrance of the Notch, where ice can be found at all times of the year; mail twice daily and telegraph office at hand; piano.”[4].

 And an 1877 ad pointed the way: “Take Albany day boat to Rhinebeck and Rondout, or Rondout night boat, thence Ulster Railroad.”[5] In 1893, the West Shore Railroad company listed seven Westkill boarding houses in its self-promotional tourist guide: Shady Lawn, Quiet House, Deyo Cottage, West Kill Cottage, Evergreen Cottage, Echo Notch House, and Vly Mountain House. According to the guide, visitors could depart the train in Shandaken and take stagecoaches up the Notch everyday, except Sunday.[6]

Tourists wrote glowing letters of their experiences. One Brooklynite gushed: “On one side, to the South, the grand old mountains, with their ever changing shadows of clouds and sunshine, seem to come together at right angles at the Westkill Notch, all covered with green trees… The only inconvenience we have met is the overcrowding of the house, which is our own fault in all instances, resulting in staying longer than we engaged and our bringing our friends one after another…”[7]

Tourism to the Notch may have reached it’s glamorous peak in the late 1800s, but it didn’t disappear in the years following. The Westkill Hotel, with it’s bowling alley and other modern amenities, was a draw through the early- to mid-20th century.[8] In 1937, workers built a new, more modern highway through the Notch. The Catskill Mountain News predicted, “When this route is complete it will not be surpassed for grandeur and scenic beauty.”[9]

What about the year-round ice, though? When the weather is cold, the Notch is a popular 21st century destination for ice climbers, and locals do claim to have seen ice in areas of the Notch through parts of the summer months. According to my family's lore (who have long lived in the area of the Notch), my grandfather’s grandparents (my great-great grandparents) made ice cream every Fourth of July with ice gathered from the Notch.

All images courtesy of Ann Shoemaker.


[1] “Perpetual Ice,” Superior Times (Superior, Wisconsin), originally printed in the Poughkeepsie Telegraph, August 2, 1873, 3.

[2] “Catching Trout Near-By,” Kingston Daily Freeman, June 8, 1889, 3.

[3]  The Catskills: An Illustrated Hand-Book and Souven Fully Describing and Illustrating All Summer Resort Localities in the Entire Region, Lowland or Highland (Kingston, NY: Ferris Publication, Co.): 1897.

[4] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 27, 1885, 1.

[5] New York Daily Herald, August 19, 1877, 2.

[6] West Shore Railroad Company, Summer Excursions with Routes and Rates, 1893.

[7] “Among the Catskills; Brooklynites Luxuriating at Lexington,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 3, 1880, 1.

[8] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 19, 1927, 73.

[9] “Westkill Route Most Scenic,” Catskill Mountain News, January 22, 1937, 1.