Woodbourne: Off the Beaten Path

Woodbourne, New YorkAt the beginning of the 18th century, almost all of Sullivan County was secured by patents, including Hardenberg Patent (or Great Patent). Over time these land holdings were sub-divided into Great Lots, which were in turn divided into smaller lots that were then sold off, but despite the land sales the area remained only sparsely settled until after the Revolutionary War .). One of the impediments to settlement was the hostilities between the European settlers and the Native American population, who were at times under the sway of the French, and later the British.

Following the Revolutionary War, the construction of transportation networks, including the Newburgh-Cochecton Turnpike, which linked Newburgh and the Delaware River at Cochecton, encouraged movement into the area.  The Newburgh-Cochecton Turnpike, chartered in 1801, was among the first in the state. It was the brain child of a group of Newburgh businessmen, who wished to see an increase in the flow of goods between their riverfront stores and the interior.  Shortly after the establishment of the turnpike, the increase in population by 1809 led to the formation of Sullivan County from Ulster.

The Town of Fallsburg was created from portions of the already existing towns of Thompson and Neversink, and derived its name from the falls located on the Neversink River at Fallsburg.  Woodbourne, which was initially known as Neversink Falls, has been settled in mid 18th century, but, like many communities in Sullivan County, was abandoned during the American Revolution. Following the war the area in which Woodbourne is located was the subject of a dispute between the heirs of Thomas Beekman and the Hardenburghs that led to the forcible removal of some of the settlers, though others relocated voluntarily. According to Quinlan, there was a “particularly violent confrontation over the ownership of a farm and mill at Woodbourne, and the property was later destroyed by fire.  The opening of the Delaware and Hudson canal in 1828, which permitted coal to be shipped from Pennsylvania to the Hudson River, brought significant changes to the area, and Woodbourne, which had been primarily a farming community, became one of the centers for the tanning industry in Sullivan County. Tanneries were a mainstay of the Catskill Mountain economy in the early years of the 19th century, but the exploitation of the hemlock, used to tan the leather, led to a collapse of the tanning industry in the 1870s. However, at the time of the Civil War it was boasted that over 80-percent of the boots and leather goods used by the Union Army were supplied from tanneries of Sullivan County . Gabriel W. Ludlum, a lawyer and resident of Hasbrouck, which was located north of Woodbourne, moved to Woodbourne in 1830 to operate a tannery in the hamlet. He was one of the chief proponents of the turnpike between New Paltz and Woodbounre, which began operations in 1838, and another turnpike between Ellenville and Woodbourne; the New Paltz to Woodbourne turnpike was later extended to Liberty.  Ludlam later left the area, but his place was taken by Austin Strong.  One of the reasons for the decline in tanning industry in Woodbourne was that the supply of hemlock on which the industry depended had been depleted, and when the tannery was destroyed by fire in the 1870’s it was not rebuilt.

The construction of the railroads through Sullivan County, which began along the Delaware River in the 1840s, and elsewhere in the 1860s and 1870s, doomed the turnpikes and canals. The railroad provided easy access to market for many of the farm products of the county, but it also provided the route by which tourists came to SullivanCounty, producing the summer vacation industry that has been the mainstay of the county’s economy for many years. The first of the railroads to reach central Sullivan County was the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad, which, upon its bankruptcy in 1880, was acquired by the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad, referred to locally as the “Old & Weary”. By the 1870’s several railroads had been constructed connecting Monticello with areas to the south and north. The railroads promoted their service, which provided access to the hotels and mountain houses located throughout the Catskills. At that time the promotional efforts were focused on wealthy, predominantly Protestant family from New York City, who could afford to spend weeks in places like Woodbourne, but over time less affluent families joined the summer exodus.  Similar scenes were played out in other areas in the mountains.  Underlying the advertising campaign was the fear of disease in urban areas that was thought to spread rapidly during the hot summer months. Particularly alarming was the epidemic of tuberculosis that ravaged New York at the end of the 19th century.

In the early 20th century Woodbourne became the center of an eastern European Jewish farming community. Many of these families engaged in dairy farming, but poultry farming was also an important industry in the area. To supplement their income, many families began to take in boarders. As reported in the local histories, at first these families engaged in both farming and tourism, but gradually many of these families gave up agriculture all together. Woodbourne lacked a railroad station, but, despite this, there were many resorts in the area that received vacationers who arrived at South Fallsburg and traveled to Woodbourne first by horse drawn vehicles and later by car. By the early 20th century there were twenty-six resorts in Woodbourne and nearby Hasbrouck (Wakefield 1970:147). By the 1930s there were still at least fourteen hotels in operation. Despite the construction of a large state prison at Woodbourne, the resort industry remained vibrant into the 1950s .

Following the Second World War, Jewish families from New York City began to vacation in other areas of the county and the world. The more secular Jews who had been the mainstay of the resort community were replaced by the ultra Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, who began to patronize the local bungalow colonies. Today the business center of Woodbourne is almost entirely owned by Hasidic Jews. The businessmen operate their businesses between July 4th and Labor Day, then close until the next season. A new phenomenon is the purchase of large hotel properties, most of which have been closed for years, these properties are being turned into ultra Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities, hotel and conference centers.

Wakefield, Manville B. 1970       To the Mountain by Rail.  Wakefield Press: Grahamsville, NY.

Quinlan, James Eldridge 1873       History of Sullivan County.  Beebe & Morgan, Liberty, NY.

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