by John Conway
January 15, 2016
Sullivan County dignitaries flooded into Hurleyville last week to attend a press conference called by U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, and it might have been the greatest gathering of elected officials in the tiny hamlet since the days of the railroad.
The railroad pulled out nearly sixty years ago and the hamlet has had its ups and downs since then, but as with so many Sullivan County communities, it has maintained hope for a new prosperity. It appears that after a number of false starts that new prosperity may have finally arrived.
Prior to the railroad, there wasn’t much to Hurleyville, save for a few scattered houses and a place name on some maps. In fact, all of Sullivan County was a rugged and desolate area as late as the early 1800s. William A. Thompson had founded a settlement he called Albion (present day Thompsonville), and the Jones brothers had begun work on their dream of a magnificent city they called Monticello, but there was no civilization to speak of between those sparsely inhabited communities and the Blue Hills of Liberty.
An enterprising hunter named William Hurley decided that his property was ideally situated to become a town of great importance, being located on the only road connecting Thompsonville, Monticello and Liberty, and began calling the new community he envisioned Hurleyville.
But Hurley had miscalculated, and soon equally enterprising and more resourceful men had engineered new routes connecting the major towns in the new county. Hurleyville, meanwhile, consisted of just one house: Hurley’s. Historian James Eldridge Quinlan, writing in 1873, noted that in the early years of the century "deer and wolves and panthers abounded in its vicinity after they had left the surrounding settlements, and the population of Hurleyville consisted principally of muskrats, raccoons, and foxes. During all its days of desolation, it retained the name bestowed upon it by the old hunter and continued to perpetuate his memory."
Hurleyville grew slowly, and what little growth it did experience was severely set back when diphtheria struck the area in 1861, killing nine children of Doctor Benjamin Kile and many others. So the settlement had changed little by 1872, when the New York & Oswego Midland Rail Road constructed a station there. Quinlan wrote that with the arrival of the rail line, Hurleyville had become "a lively hamlet and the day is not distant when the dream of its pioneer-settler will become a pleasant reality."
By 1886, the New York & Oswego Midland Rail Road had become the Ontario & Western Railway, and Hurleyville had become known as Luzon Station, to avoid confusion with the Hurley (and West Hurley) in Ulster County. As Sullivan County stood poised on the brink of what was to become the Silver Age of its resort industry, the Hurleyville area was home to nine farmhouses that accepted summer boarders and it seemed destined to become a resort center of considerable stature and notoriety.
By 1907, there were 34 listings under Hurleyville in the O&W "Summer Homes" publication, including one, the Mountain View Farm House owned by Mrs. M. Brophy that had a particularly colorful reputation. Known as "Brophy’s Mad House" it was frequented by firemen and policemen from New York City, who liked to "let their hair down" when they came to the mountains. The place burned down in 1910, but the road on which it stood still bears the Brophy name.
In keeping with the trend throughout Sullivan County, what had been strictly Gentile hotels and boarding houses began to pass into Jewish hands around 1910. The trend was noted in a 1912 newspaper story detailing the sale of a local hotel. "The Hotel Waldorf at Hurleyville was recently sold to some Hebrews of that village," the story began. And in 1919, a headline announced, "Hebrews Buy Smith Farm: Pay Thirty-Six Thousand." That story went on to note that the new owners planned to scale back on the farming and to take in summer boarders.
With the influx of Jewish vacationers in the early years of the 20th century, it became common to see notations such as "Catholic and Protestant churches nearby" in the railroad travel guide, to indicate a Gentile establishment and "Dietary Laws Observed" to denote a Jewish resort.
Despite the growth of the Jewish resorts throughout Sullivan County in ensuing years, the most famous of the Hurleyville area resorts in the Golden Age remained the Knapp family’s Columbia Farms Hotel, or simply the Columbia, as it became popularly known. The hotel was built in 1891 by John H. Knapp, and was the oldest continually operating hotel in Sullivan County when it closed in 1969. Much of the hotel burned in a suspicious fire on Christmas Eve, 1971.
A more famous, and sadly, more tragic hotel fire occurred in Hurleyville on Washington’s Birthday in 1926. A fire that started in the fireplace in the central lobby destroyed Schindler’s Prairie House, killing 12 people. The resulting investigation changed New York State’s fire laws governing resorts, and changed resort owners attitudes toward fire safety. In 1927, the state enacted a law requiring hotels to maintain fire escape appliances in all rooms, and forbidding the issuance of an operating certificate until after an inspection had revealed that the law had been complied with.
Hurleyville thrived as long as the railroad operated, and farmers and hotelkeepers subsisted side-by-side. At its height, the hamlet comprised several photographers, its own newspaper, a school, several places of worship, two grocery stores, a pharmacy, a creamery, four butchers, and many other businesses. When the O&W finally ceased operation in the 1950s, Hurleyville, like most of the other communities in Sullivan County that had grown up around the railroad, began to decline.
That decline has now been reversed, and as Senator Schumer and a host of local dignitaries discovered last week, the future is nearly at hand.
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian.
He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.