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A History of the Gunk’s Carriageways

I love hiking in the Shawangunks (also known as the Gunks) in eastern New York State, near the Mohonk Mountain House and Preserve. This entire area is a hiking and rock climbing paradise.

One of the unique features of the Gunks are the stone and gravel carriageways that snake though the rugged terrain of the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park. Originally built in the late 1800's and early 1900's, the carriageway system was the brainchild of Alfred Smiley, one of the owners of the Mohonk Mountain House. His vision was to create a system of roadways, hiking trails and viewpoints for guests to experience the sublime grandeur of the surrounding area: we're talking about landscape architecture on a grandiose scale. For example, the photo above shows Skytop, a tower built by Smiley, that overlooks the Mohonk Mountain House and provides 50 mile views of the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley on a clear day.

 

The carriageways were a central component of Smiley's vision and I've always wanted to find out more about who built them and how they were constructed. To this day, they are still an engineering marvels when you consider how long they've lasted and how difficult it must have been to build them in what was then a rural wilderness area in the late nineteenth century.

Last week, I was vacationing in the Gunks and visited Joan LaChance, the head of the Mohonk Archives to learn more about the history of the carriageway system and how it was constructed. She found some old photos for me, taken in the winter of 1924, showing different views of the construction process and the tools that were used.

It turns out that the carriageways were constructed in the winter time when guests were not present at Mohonk or it's sister resorts. The work was supervised by Alfred Smiley, Albert Smiley's brother. Albert, the landscape visionary, didn't like spending cold winters in the Gunks, so he would go to California each winter leaving behind Alfred to manage the carriageway construction effort. Alfred would update Albert by sending him photographs of the progress being made, and the photos Joan found in the archive were from a communication between the brothers.

The carriageways, like the one in the photo above, were constructed from the local conglomerate common in this area. Many of the men in the area were skilled at dressing the stone since it was commonly used for local construction. The rest of the workforce was comprised of local farmers, who were out of work in the winter and worked on the carriageways to earn extra income. The tools they used were fairly primitive, including pulleys, crowbars, steam-powered jack hammers, horse drawn sleds for carrying crushed stone, and dynamite for blasting roads into the mountainsides.

Joan also provided me with a list of when each carriage road was constructed for the period between 1870 and 1925. Since then, no additional carriageways have been added to the 100 mile carriageway system, and most construction efforts today on focused on conservation of this Victorian treasure.

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4 comments

  1. You gave me inspiration for a winter visit to the archives! Since I rock climb at the Gunks, I am saddened by the season's end each year about this time…. I also never take the time IN season to do such things. Perfect! Such history in those archives.

  2. I just left a comment on your blog! You should definitely go, but think up a question you want to research before you arrive and make sure that Joan is expecting you. The archives are closed so you just can't browse. But Joan is helpful and will retrieve materials for you. If your interests are more environmental, check out the Dan Smiley research center, also on the Mohonk Grounds. They specialize in longitudinal data collection of environmental conditions and have published groundbreaking research in the area, particularly on the effects of acid rain on the sky lakes of the Gunk region.

  3. MY FAMILY( 13YRS, 20 YR OLDS AND ME 50 YR) AND I HAVE CLIMB THE LEMON SQUEEZE IN THE PAST. HOW DOES THE BONTICOU COMPARE WITH THE SQUEEZE? WHERE DO YOU FEEL IS THE BEST PLACE TO PARK WHEN CLIMBING THE BONTICOU?THANKS LOOK FORWARD TO HEARING FROM YOU

    LAURA

  4. The lemon squeezer is easier. Bonticou crag is more remote and challenging I think. I usually park up at the Mountain House and walk to Bonticou, but it's a trek, a few miles one way at least. It might be closer to park at the Mohonk Gatehouse. I'd call and ask.

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