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Doctors Say, “Go to the Mountains!”

John Conway - Columnist
Posted 5/13/21

Long before the O&W Railway began touting Sullivan County's healing environment in the 1880s, the Erie Railroad had been established along the county's western edge.

By 1849, the Erie had been …

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Doctors Say, “Go to the Mountains!”

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Long before the O&W Railway began touting Sullivan County's healing environment in the 1880s, the Erie Railroad had been established along the county's western edge.

By 1849, the Erie had been completed through the county, and the communities of Narrowsburg, Cochecton, Callicoon, Hankins, and Long Eddy, each of which had a station on the line, as well as Pond Eddy and Barryville, which were served by stations directly across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, would be changed forever.

It was largely through the promotional efforts of the Erie that the upper Delaware Valley began to receive notice as “a sportsman's paradise,” and by the 1870s hundreds of people were traveling each weekend to dozens of resorts in the approximately 60-mile long valley from the Delaware Water Gap to Narrowsburg. These people were drawn here by the river, lakes, and streams, and came to fish and to boat and to hunt.

Still, it was the O&W's promotional campaign employing the slogan, “Doctors Say, ‘Go to the Mountains!'” that would have the most dramatic impact on the county, as each year for decades, hundreds of thousands of big city residents from New York and New Jersey fled the oppressive heat and rampant diseases of their urban homes for a healing respite in Sullivan County.

By 1890, the county boasted about 200 summer hotels and literally thousands of farmhouses that would entertain boarders each summer, offering them, as the railroad promised, “pure air, pure water, and pure milk,” and in some cases, little else.

When Dr. Alfred Lebbeus Loomis announced in 1894 that ten years of research had revealed that Sullivan County's climate was the most efficacious he had found in treating tuberculosis, the most dreaded disease of the day, and that he would be constructing America's second tuberculosis sanitarium near Liberty, the region's reputation as a healing environment was enhanced even further.

“Why don't you take these people to Sullivan County and try to cure them? Some of them can be cured,” Loomis had implored those gathered at a Manhattan dinner party called to announce the plans for the sanitarium, and they responded by putting up the money to construct a state-of-the-art facility.

Although Dr. Loomis, who suffered from TB himself, contracted pneumonia and died in January of 1895, after he had purchased the land for the sanitarium, but before construction could begin, the facility was built and opened in June of 1896. Its immediate success soon led to numerous spin-offs in and around Liberty, and patients flocked to them searching for the cure.

It is a fact that the area's history as a healing environment is the history of its tourism industry; the two are so closely intertwined. Sullivan County resorts had two very prosperous eras: what is today called the Silver Age, which lasted from about 1890 to about 1915, and the Golden Age, which lasted from about 1940 to 1965, and at its peak boasted 538 hotels, 1,000 rooming houses, and 50,000 bungalows. Both eras owe their existence to the region's reputation for healing.

The story of how the railroads and the region's renown as a healing environment built the tourism industry in Sullivan County is a fascinating one, and is made even more relevant today in the wake of the ongoing COVID pandemic.

This history will be the subject of the program, “Doctors Say, ‘Go to the Mountains'” to be presented by the Sullivan County Historian at the Narrowsburg Union in Narrowsburg at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 22. The program will be presented for a limited number of in-person audience members in the large Narrowsburg Union events space, which allows plenty of room for social distancing, and will also be accessible via ZOOM for those not wishing to venture out in public. There is no admission charge, but registration is required.

For more information, visit the Narrowsburg Union's website, www.narrowsburgunion.com/events.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. He will present the program “Doctors Say, ‘Go to the Mountains: How the Region's Reputation as a Healing Environment Built the Tourism Industry in Sullivan County” at the Narrowsburg Union at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 22.

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