The Silent Catskills
By Kelli Huggins / Visitor Experience Coordinator
The Catskills in Silent Film.
By Kelli Huggins, Visitor Experience Coordinator
When you hear the words ‘silent film’ what springs to mind? Charlie Chaplin and flickering black and white epics set to a swelling orchestral score perhaps — but do you think of the Catskills? If not, you should!
As early as 1897, the Catskill Mountains made their silver screen debut. Of course then, the screens were not yet silver, nor were they actual screens. Both Edison Studios and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company made 19th century Catskills films to show on their kinetoscopes and mutoscopes, respectively. Kinetoscopes and mutoscopes allowed one person at a time to insert a coin, peer into a viewer, and watch a short film.
Some of the best preserved early Catskills films are Thomas Edison’s Waterfall in the Catskills and Falls of Minnehaha, which were filmed at Haines Falls in June 1897. The films are a blatant attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Catskills scenery depicted by the Hudson River School painters and the flood of tourism to the region. Less than a minute each, it’s easy to imagine the sense of wonder these would have inspired in someone who deposited their coin for a few seconds-long glimpse.
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company filmed a series of Rip Van Winkle stories, which were released in 1896 and 1897, and re-released in 1902. Titles included Rip Leaving Sleepy Hollow, Rip Passing Over Hill, Rip’s Twenty Year’s Sleep, and Awakening of Rip. The films, like Washington Irving’s famous story, were supposed to be set in the Catskills. However, they were actually filmed at lead actor Jefferson Joseph’s home in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Very much like the fancy trickery of location shoots in modern Hollywood, the Catskills got the PR boost from the films without even being shown on screen. Rip Van Winkle remained a silent movie favorite with other companies committing their versions of the story to film in 1906, 1912, 1914, and 1921.
A few years later, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company did shoot a series of authentic Catskills films. These 1906 tourism pictures included A Trip on the Catskill Mountain Railway,The Gateway to the Catskills, Into the Heart of the Catskills, In the Haunts of Rip Van Winkle, and In the Valley of the Esopus. These short films were more focused on showing beautiful landscapes than much additional storytelling.
One of the final Catskills silents was A Day With John Burroughs, a lovely silent film from 1919 that depicts Burroughs at Woodchuck Lodge spending his day exploring the property with a group of children. Processed in stunning Prizma Color, the film is a unique glimpse of Burroughs near the end of his life.
1] Both films appear to have been filmed the same day and show different parts of the falls. The name Falls of Minnehaha is a reference to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” Confusingly, there is a Minnehaha Falls in Minnesota, but this film seems to have been filmed here. It’s unclear if Edison Studios wanted viewers to think they filmed at the actual Minnehaha Falls or if they were just interested in making an quick and profitable, if inaccurate, literary allusion.
 For more on this, see Scott MacDonald, Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration (University of California Press, 2009): 201-203.
 Interestingly, once film projection technology took off, the Village of Schoharie began offering free weekly open-air movies during the summers from 1917-1942. The first decade plus of the screenings featured silent films. These screenings are the first known open air movies shown. Learn more here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/site-of-the-first-known-free-openair-motion-picture-presentation
 Joseph Jefferson was famed for his portrayal Rip Van Winkle and the role defined his career. There are several images of Jefferson in his Rip costume. For more information see: Benjamin McArthur, The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre (Yale University Press, 2007).
 These films were Rip Van Winkle (1906) by Siegmund Lubin;
The French two-parter Rip Van Winkle (1912) by the Societe Francaise des Films et Cinematographes “Eclair” Paris; Rip Van Winkle (1914), starring Thomas Jefferson, son of Joseph Jefferson; and Rip Van Winkle (1921) by Edward Ludwig
 Scott MacDonald describes In the Valley of the Esopus in his essay “The Attractions of Nature in Early Cinema” in the edited collection Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-garde Film 1893-1941. A camera was mounted on a train engine and shows some moving Catskills scenery. Then, the train stops because there is a fisherman on the tracks casting his line off the trestle. Two men get out and throw the fisherman from the trestle and the train continues on its way.