Kaaterskill Falls might be America’s oldest tourist attraction.
While Native people and the early Dutch colonists didn’t think much of it from a practical standpoint, English and European visitors were drawn to the falls as a “primeval Eden” where you could experience nature at its most thrilling.
This came at a time when England was being overrun by its industrial revolution. The upper classes were seized by a nostalgic hunger for the wilderness. Beards and backcountry adventures came into fashion (sound familiar?) as people shifted from viewing exploration as a necessary evil for survival to seeing it as a means of making an aesthetic connection with the natural world.
Since England was all built up with its overcrowded cities and “great satanic mills,” where better to indulge your inner noble savage than the giant virgin continent across the pond? And no place had more potential for adventure, both physical and imaginative, than Kaaterskill Clove, the cleft in the mountains between the Hudson and the Delaware rivers.
Sensing an opportunity, the painters and poets of New York City turned their attention from the intrigues of aristocracy to the wonders in their own backyard.
Kaaterskill Falls made its first appearance in Washington Irving’s 1819 story “Rip van Winkle.” This debut drew the interest of English painter Thomas Cole, whose painting of the falls appeared on the front page of the New York Evening Post in 1825. Other artists began making yearly pilgrimages to paint the falls; soon, they set up a colony nearby and came to be known as the Hudson River School.
This was America’s first recognized art movement, and it’s no coincidence that its popularity thrived at the same moment as the art-buying public were falling in love with the rugged wilderness even as their agriculture and industry effaced it from the continent.