Much of Durham’s early history was shaped by its geography. Located about twenty-four miles northwest of the village of Catskill and about thirty miles southwest of Albany, the state capitol, the Town is irregular in shape. Its 49 square miles, or 31,000 acres slope to the northeast out of the Catskill mountains to the Catskill Creek basin. There are numerous streams running down into the Catskill Creek in an area once heavily forested with hemlock trees. Hemlock bark was the basic raw material needed by the leather tanning industry which emerged in the area in the early 1800’s and in neighboring communities with names like Tannersville and Gloversville. Leather tanning required only the bark of the hemlock tree, and much surplus wood became available as a by-product. Mills for working wood, grain and iron were located along the stream banks prior to the 20th century and were responsible for much of the Town’s prosperity, especially in the hamlet of Oak Hill.
The Catskill Creek flows down the center-line of the valley, southeastward through Preston Hollow and Cooksburg in the town of Rensselaerville (Albany County) through Oak Hill and East Durham in the town of Durham.
Below East Durham, the valley broadens considerably, and Catskill Creek flows through the flatter portions of the towns of Cairo and Catskill, emptying into the Hudson River at the Village of Catskill.
From the mountains (more than two thousand feet in elevation) on the west side of the town of Durham, there are breathtaking vistas of the valley and foothills, encompassing five states. From the valley floor (approximately 500 feet elevation) one has scenic views of the wall of mountains to the west. The alignment of the valley forms a gateway from the Mid-Hudson Region northwestward to Schoharie County in central New York State.
The foothills of the Catskills spread across the western end of the Town of Durham rising from the Catskill Creek. The highest elevation is found near the northwest corner on Mt. Pisgah at 2,912 feet. The typical elevations in the settled parts of the town, however, are between 500 and 1,900 feet: East Durham is at 510 feet, Oak Hill: 650, Durham hamlet: 840, Cornwallville: 950, and East Windham: 1,940 feet. The lowest elevation of 380 feet is found where the Catskill Creek exits the town south of East Durham.
Settlement & Growth
The Town of Durham was settled by people of European descent over a very short period of time. In a matter of only thirty years the Town grew from the relatively uninhabited Coxsackie district of Albany County to an independent town of Greene County called Durham with a population of about 2,900. Although the initial control of the area fell under Dutch rule, there was no recorded settlement activity in Durham until well after the English wrested control of the Hudson Valley from the Dutch in 1664.
The final borders of Durham were established in 1836 when a substantial portion of the western part of the town was split off to form Conesville in Schoharie County.
The first documented visit to the Durham area was by Eliab Youmans who had been commissioned to survey the Maitland patents in 1767. Undoubtedly, explorers, hunters, and trappers preceded Youmans, but their travels were unrecorded. The patents were the first official parceling out of the largely unclaimed land and were the precursors to settlement. Eight patents have been identified for lands that were in, or partly in the Town of Durham.
Historically, the Maitland Patent is the one most often cited, despite the fact that it was not one of the first grants. The grant, which was the first to lie exclusively in the future Town of Durham, is historically significant as being the location for land described in the first known recorded lease in Durham and thus contains the first documentation for the initial settlement of the town. This patent of 5,000 acres was made to Colonel Richard Maitland, a British army officer of Scottish birth. The patent encompassed land that now includes the Oak Hill area as well as surrounding farmland leased by the earliest settlers. The first known lease was to Lucas DeWitt, dated May 3, 1774, for property in "DeWittsburg". The language of that lease suggests an occupation of the land by the earlier settlers, perhaps by 1771. In the early nineteenth century, Oak Hill matured into a vigorous industrial hamlet with highly productive mills and many fashionable homes.
The establishment of the first settlement in Durham is credited to three men, Lucas DeWitt, John Plank, and Hendrick Plank. These pioneers established homes at what was then called DeWittsburg, now Oak Hill. The Revolution forced the pioneers to temporarily abandon their homes until the end of the war. Hendrick Plank was abducted by the Indians and removed to Canada where he died in captivity. The two remaining pioneers and Hendrick's widow, who remarried to Leonard Patrie, all returned by about 1782 to reestablish their homes. DeWitt brought with him, a small hand mill for grinding grain and was in one respect the first miller in the town as well as being a farmer.
The bulk of the new population to follow, however, was to originate from Connecticut, a predominantly English settlement area, including settlers from Cheshire, Connecticut, who largely settled what is now East Durham (once called Winansville) in about 1784. The general settlement of Durham town is thought to have begun in the spring of that year. An excerpt from the diary of Elihu W. Baldwin, DD (the son of Jonathan Baldwin, an original settler) describes the migration to the new colony.
Shortly after the termination of the war of the Revolution, Baldwin's parents emigrated to Greene County beyond the Hudson River, in New York, where, with six other American and two Dutch families they settled down in the wilderness. The next year added five families to their number and in the following year four more families took up their abode among them.
This brief description illustrates the rapid pace of immigration to Durham. At that time an influx of Connecticut people gravitated to Meeting House Hill, just outside of Durham Hamlet. The hill, now deserted, was once thickly settled and is said to have contained " ... two meeting houses, at least one school house, a blacksmith shop, a store, and public roads ..." That settlement was soon abandoned for the lower lying area that is now the hamlet of Durham. Durham evolved two principal cross streets in the nineteenth century: "Main Street" (County routes 20 & 22) and Broadway (New York State highway, Route 145). The hamlet was devastated by a great fire in 1807 which started in a cabinet shop. The hamlet was quickly rebuilt so that now there is little suggestion of that early settlement.
The other hamlets of Durham were established soon after Oak Hill and Durham. West Durham sprang up in the mid 1770's and was first populated by Connecticut emigrants. The most prominent name among them was Captain John Newell of Southington. He and his descendants had a strong presence in the community and are memorialized on an historic marker along the Susquehanna Turnpike. By 1816, the little community had become strong enough for thirty-five residents to organize the Second Presbyterian Church of West Durham. Cornwallville was also settled at an early date by Captain Daniel Cornwall (also from Connecticut) around 1788. In 1821, Cornwallville was a strong enough community that the Methodist Episcopal Church moved once more from Durham to that hamlet, again bringing the church building with them. By 1840, the population of Durham had ceased to grow and any hamlet that was to be, had by that time been established.
The principal roads in the Town of Durham, like most of western Greene County, were established as turnpikes. Settlement areas closer to the Hudson, which were settled at a much earlier time in the eighteenth century, relied on roads that developed and improved with a slow growing population and demand. The explosive growth of the inner territories of New York State after the Revolution, however, required a more directed approach. New roads of sound construction were needed to encourage the development of western Greene County and the lands beyond. The turnpike was a private road chartered by the state. Ownership was obtained by subscription of company stock issued to the investors. A turnpike company was allowed to charge tolls at periodic intervals, usually about ten miles. In return, the road was required to meet specific standards regarding construction and time of completion; if these standards were not met, the state could prohibit toll collection until the problem was corrected or revoke the charter in extreme instances.
The Susquehanna Turnpike was the most notable of such roads to pass through Durham. The Susquehanna Turnpike was one of the first turnpikes authorized by the state; legislation enabling its creation was passed on April 1, 1800, and the first section was ready to be opened August 20, 1801. The road stretched from Catskill, on the Hudson River, westward to Wattles' Ferry (Unadilla), New York on the Susquehanna River. In Durham the turnpike passed through the hamlets of East Durham (State Route 145), Durham, and West Durham (County Route 20) on its way west. Soon after its opening, the turnpike was serviced by a weekly stage route. The overland stage took three full days to make the passage from Catskill to Unadilla and initially charged ten cents a mile. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the railroads which soon followed it channeled most westward bound traffic away from the more difficult inland Catskill Mountain passages.
The Susquehanna Turnpike was particularly important because it provided a route from the Mid-Hudson Valley over the northern tip of the Catskills and down to the Susquehanna River valley, which was then a significant transportation route and a place of new settlement. The road began at The Landing in the village of Catskill, and roughly followed the alignment of Catskill Creek up through the Durham Valley to what was then New Durham.
The route was lined with taverns and inns, at least about one every mile. Travel was slow, by horse drawn coach or wagon, but it was a good for the time period. It was also used by farmers and herders for driving their flocks. Particularly noteworthy were the stone bridges built over some of the creeks that crossed the route. These remain today as historic sites, such as one about a mile north on Route 145 from East Durham (by Stone Bridge Road). The Susquehanna Turnpike was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
In 1856, the turnpike company closed its western section, beyond the twenty-two mile-mark at Durham hamlet, but continued to operate the eastern section until 1901. The route up West Durham Mountain retains the name Susquehanna Turnpike. Other turnpikes were also developed in Durham, though most operated for a relatively short time. These toll roads either charted out a new direct route between communities or improved upon existing roads.
One of the first was the Windham and Durham Turnpike (State Route 23) which was established in 1800 and ran through East Windham. Another was The Rensselaer and Durham Turnpike (now Lee Road) out of Oak Hill. That company was incorporated in 1808 and operated for 28 years until 1836 when it finally gave up the route. The Greenville and Potter's Hollow Turnpike (County Route 81) chartered in 1845 also operated in northern Durham and made use of existing roads, including the route past the early Dutch Reform Church west of Oak Hill. The Coxsackie and Oak Hill Plank Road (Old Plank Road) was established at an early, but unknown date, and connected Oak Hill with Greenville and continued on to the east.
The importance of the Susquehanna Turnpike as a transportation route to the west declined significantly with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. As well-built as the turnpike may have been, water remained a more comfortable and efficient means of transportation in the early part of the nineteenth century. The village of Catskill was particularly hurt by this change because it had served as a hub of commerce, being located at the eastern terminus of the turnpike. For this reason, in 1830, a group of Catskill entrepreneurs banded together and chartered a new transportation system, a railroad, beginning at Catskill and extending up through the Durham Valley and the Schoharie Valley to the village of Canajoharie in central New York. Unlike railroads today, this pioneer line was built as a narrow gauge rail road. It mostly followed close to the banks of Catskill Creek. In East Durham it followed the west side of the creek.
Though the tracks are long gone, the alignment remains as a cleared walking trail from County Route 67A southwards about a quarter mile to an old, stone viaduct. Here a small stream flows underneath. The route crossed Catskill Creek a number of times upstream from East Durham. One of these crossings was at a place called High Rock. An old farm road leads from the Durham Center Museum on Route 145 back to this site where one can see the remains of the railroad embankment and one of the bridge abutments.
There is a bend in the creek at this point which causes a whirlpool. At this site, in 1840, this bridge unfortunately collapsed while a train was passing over, causing the loss of one life. This was one of the first railroad disasters in history. The Canajoharie & Catskill Railroad, as it was called, was never completed. Although trains regularly traveled the route for a few years after it began service in 1839, the line was a dead-end. It was only constructed from Catskill as far as Cooksburg. Due to lack of funds, high maintenance costs, and possibly the train disaster, the venture was ended in 1842. The tracks were pulled up.
Church life was a central focus of culture in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. The establishment of formal religious institutions followed closely on the heels of settlement. Each group of settlers would strive to reestablish their particular religious traditions in the new homeland. Some denominations would flourish; others would fade away as the communities became established. By the mid-nineteenth century, five denominations had established seven church buildings in Durham, with the Congregational Church by far the strongest and representing over half of the Town's church attendance.
In Dutch society, the Reformed Dutch Church was the primary religious organization. The Reformed Church was the first church in Durham, perhaps reflecting the Dutch heritage of some of the earliest settlers in DeWittsburg, or Oak Hill, and the original political and cultural landscape. The initial building was located just outside the present lines of Durham in the Town of Rensselaerville. It is believed that the congregation was organized about 1787 and the first Dutch church was built soon after in about 1795.
The most active and robust congregation in Durham belonged to the Congregational Church. The Connecticut people, like many others before them, held firmly onto their religious roots. Many of the early Connecticut emigrants belonged to the Congregational Church of Connecticut. Deacon Christopher Lord of Saybrook, the first pastor, arrived in 1787 and remained for ten years until his death in 1797. Within five years of his arrival, on November 8, 1792, he and the other settlers, with the help of Reverend Beriah Hotchkin of Greenville, had organized the First Presbyterian Church. This church maintained its congregational roots despite affiliating with the Northern Associated Presbytery in 1799. The Congregational following prospered and the congregation soon divided in 1816 to form the Second Presbyterian Church (also congregational) in West Durham. Their first building located west of the cemetery had been a small log structure, but a newer and more formal facility was erected east of the cemetery in 1834.
The Methodist Episcopal Church also had a strong following in Durham. Sometime near the start of the nineteenth century, following an unsuccessful attempt to raise a sanctuary for the Episcopal Church at East Durham, the timber-frame skeleton from the unfinished church was removed to Meeting House Hill.
It was situated near the Congregational Church and remained there until 1821. A subsequent shift in the population resulted in the church being relocated yet again off the hill and into Cornwallville. Eventually, in 1844, the Durham parishioners reestablished their church in that hamlet by converting a residence to meet their needs. Fifteen years later, in 1859, another new congregation was formed in Oak Hill, and the third church of that denomination was constructed. In 1882, more than eighty years after their first attempt to build a church, the East Durham parishioners finally succeeded in establishing a small sanctuary.
The Baptist Church also gained early representation in Durham. Obed Hervey, originally from the village of North East in Dutchess County, founded the Baptist faith in Durham when he established the initial settlement of the Hervey Street area around 1788. The group divided in 1860 to establish a second Baptist congregation in East Durham; the new assembly raised a building just one year later in 1861. The East Durham satellite site soon developed as the principal Baptist church. This transition was but one manifestation of the ongoing changes in Durham; in this instance, the growth of East Durham and the diminishment of Hervey Street.
The Protestant Episcopal faith is another long represented denomination in Durham. This group officially dates back to an initial meeting in 1809 in Durham hamlet. The first pastor was the Reverend Samuel Fuller, a former Presbyterian. The group at last built St. Paul's Church in Oak Hill in 1834 and consecrated the building on November 21, 1841.
The Catholic Church was established relatively late in Durham. The introduction of Catholicism came with the influx of Irish to the East Durham area at the end of the nineteenth century. The church became a formal presence in 1896 with the building of Saint Mary's Church and rectory at the south end of the hamlet.
Durham has a rich history of diverse and prosperous endeavors. The most notable were the high-profile iron works at Oak Hill. However, from the first settlement, the principal industry in Durham has been farming. Other enterprises such as milling, iron works, tanning, retail stores, and boarding houses all flourished in their time, but none dominated the local economy for so long a period and to such a degree as has agriculture.
Farming encompassed the entire town from the lowest bottom land along the Catskill Creek to the foothills of the Catskill Mountain range. By 1845, only sixty years after the principal settlement had begun, farming comprised about 88% of the total acreage in the town. In 1875, the farms tended to be fairly large, typically over fifty acres, with almost half ranging in size from 100 to 500 acres. In 1875 bout sixty percent of the families in Durham lived on farms.
Durham gained an early reputation as a thriving center of small industry. The industrial period in Durham lasted through most of the nineteenth century. This era witnessed the rise and fall of a multitude of enterprises and the fortunes of the families that were associated with them, including grist mills, saw mills, iron works, fulling mills, tanneries and woodworking factories. By the twentieth century, the advantages of water power that had been the basis for Durham's industrial growth were no longer sufficient to keep the firms competitive with larger and more progressive competitors elsewhere.
In the wake of the town's rapid settlement after the Revolutionary War, an array of grist and saw mills developed in Durham to supply the basic needs of the population. These mills, for the most part, were custom mills; that is, they ran small amounts of materials on a customized basis for their local clientele. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the introduction of preservatives, grocery stores and cheap bulk
transportation from the grain centers of the mid-west led to the gradual decline of the local grist mills; the advanced transportation networks of the railroads also undermined the need for the local sawmills.
Tanning was also a large and early industry in the upland areas in Durham and throughout the Catskills. During the 1830's and 40's, Greene County tanned more leather than did the rest of the state combined. The tanners used the acid-containing hemlock tree bark to cure hides for leather. At first, the bark and wood used in tanning was secondary to the lumber industry. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century the tanning industry had become quite extensive. Trees were cut, often in excess of what could be run through the saw mills, simply for their acid bark. Some of the excess from this process was used to pave the early plank roads that crisscrossed the area. The industry slowly faded through the middle years of the nineteenth century from five operations in 1835 to one in 1855. By about 1875, the last tannery in Durham, run by Wellington Peck, had shut down.
The foundries, four of which were located in Oak Hill, were among Durham's most prominent enterprises. The most famous of these was the Cheritree Foundry. This factory began in 1833 as the Oak Hill Malleable Iron Company. The company was developed by Cambell and Scofield to make the "Dutcher Plow No.2" which they had introduced. In 1844, Sheldon Cheritree of Middleburgh, Schoharie County bought and expanded the operation. The factory burned to the ground in 1865, but was soon rebuilt as the Empire Foundry and continued operations until about 1900. The factory was famous for the "Climax" brand plows and other hardware. In addition to the Cheritree factory, there was a lesser known iron works at Oak Hill that was started by a Mr. Kimball at the former tannery site of Tremain and Dryer. That building was close to the Cheritree works and was also lost in the 1865 fire. Besides the well known and often cited industries, there were a large number of secondary manufacturers and other home industries were common in a rural culture.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century the population of the town of Durham declined as farmers and workers sought their fortunes elsewhere, whether in the Mid-West where better farming opportunities had opened up, or California, or the cities. The population dropped from a peak of approximately 3,000 in 1830, to only 1,200 in 1900. During this period tourism began to make up for losses in agriculture and industry in Greene County.
Tourism began in the Catskills at an early date. By as early as 1824, large establishments such as the world-famous Catskill Mountain House near Palenville had opened. But there were many other small establishments spread throughout the county. The taking in of boarders was a widespread practice by the late 19th century. Many farmers supplemented their income by opening extra rooms to guests. Numerous guidebooks promoted both the region and individual boarding houses with lavish praise and included photographs of their expansive views. The railroads were a primary source of these guides and were also the principal means of transportation for the summer vacationers. To capitalize on this flourishing industry the towns and counties along the way were eager to have station stops included in their communities. And although Durham was never directly served by a passenger railroad, a seasonal stage did access the inland town to deliver tourists. Even before the railroads, the route beginning at the Village of Catskill was a main access into the mountains.
The Summit House in East Windham was the grandest and largest boarding house in Durham for its day. The hotel was built in 1848 by Barney Butts and by the mid-1880's could accommodate ninety guests. East Windham was a popular spot and was host to at least four large and successful boarding houses. Besides Summit House they included the Grand View, built in 1872 by E. Dickerman, which could put up 85 to 90 guests; the Butts House, built in 1879 by Isaac Butts, which could take in 35 guests; and the Curtis House first opened in 1842 as a small hotel, later grew so that by 1856 it could accommodate 40 summer guests.
By the early 1900’s increasing numbers of middle class tourists found travel within their reach. Many of these were from economically advancing ethnic, immigrant groups in New York City, and they tended to remain in ethnically distinct tourist areas. East Durham became the center of Irish Catskills tourism and came to be known as the “Irish Alps”.
Today, the tourism is still present in the town, but it has changed dramatically from its nineteenth century roots. In 1884, J.G. Borthwick mentions, almost as an aside, that " .. East Durham is a charming place for boarders; bright clean and new. Some of the city people own and occupy houses there." As the times changed so did the manner in which guests were housed. By the mid-twentieth century, bungalow colonies, often developed in conjunction with the smaller boarding houses, had become an important facet of the industry.
An entertainment-based tourism arose. In the 1920’s, Ferncliff House was the first of the larger, resort–type boarding houses in East Durham with an Irish clientele. The Shamrock House and Erin’s Melody followed in the 1930’s. The Weldon House was one of the larger hotels. The resorts had bars, live music, dancing, tennis and pools. The peak period of Irish tourism in East Durham was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, before middle class vacation travel by jet became common. A photo documentary facebook page, Boarding Houses, Hotels and Resorts of Durham, NY is being compiled as a joint project of the Durham Historic Preservation Commission, Town Historian, and Oak Hill Preservation Association.
While there are fewer Irish hotels and resorts today, East Durham continues to be a center of Irish culture. In 1987, the Michael J. Quill Irish Sports and Cultural Centre opened in the Weldon House. Every Memorial Day Weekend it sponsors a large, famous Irish Cultural Festival at the fair grounds in East Durham with many bands and dancing. It also sponsors the Catskills Irish Arts Week every July, when experts in Irish music, dancing, and other arts travel from Ireland to teach courses. East Durham is also home to the Irish American Heritage Museum and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Knock which is an American sister to the pilgrimage site of Our Lady of Knock in the village of Knock, County Mayo, Ireland.
Over time, East Durham has grown as a center for the town's tourism. The tourism that grew in the early twentieth century generated a new prosperity in the Town of Durham. New homes and businesses were built on the impetus of this economic factor. Additionally, second homes were being built for the first time. Tourists, who had come to like the area, began to buy and restore existing homes and to have new ones built in the contemporary fashion. Today, second homes which are evident throughout Durham and the Catskills are an important driving force for the local economy.