What do we call the Creek from South Lake?
Within the past few months I've had a number of people ask me the name of the creek that flows from South Lake, joins a second creek just before it plunges over Kaaterskill Falls and then cascades over Bastion Falls (and Terrace Cascade) until it and the creek that drops over Haines Falls merge in the depths of Kaaterskill Clove. The immediate answer is that the creek is Spruce Creek.
People who know me or are familiar with my 2005 book Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide, will not be at all surprised to find that my answer has not been Spruce Creek. Nevertheless, who am I to dispute the United States Geologic Survey or the U. S. Board on Geographic Names? The question of the name of Spruce Creek has been settled, modern Greene County Highway maps clearly show it as Spruce Creek, and I'll agree to go by the decision. But why has it been a question among local residents, authors, and map makers? What other names have been used, and what were some of the sources of those other names?
Since the 19th century there has been no disagreement that Spruce Creek starts on North Mountain, flows South. It crosses North Lake Road (County Route 18) and flows between Laurel House Road and Schutt Road until, just east of the site of the Laurel House, it joins the creek from North-South Lake. That section is shown as Spruce Creek on USGS maps, and 19th and 20th Century trail maps. Trail Guides and travelogs call it Spruce Creek more or less consistently and have so for over a century and a half. But once it joins the creek from South Lake the agreement ends, and in most historic cases the name 'Spruce Creek' does not appear downstream from that confluence.
So if the stream wasn't referred to as Spruce Creek, what was it called? There are two candidates: first the east or main branch of Kaaterskill Creek and second Lake Creek. There is ample evidence that both names were used in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The evidence for Kaaterskill Creek is sometimes semantic and sometimes direct. The name of Thomas Cole's 1826 painting “The Falls of the Kaaterskill” seems to imply that it is the waters of Kaaterskill that falls and therefore that the creek was known as the Kaaterskill. Kaaterskill Falls was often called “The Falls of the Kaaterskill,” for example again in an 1837 Atlantic Monthly article “A September Trip to the Catskills” reprinted in a Mountain House publication The Scenery of the Catskill Mountains. Another well know example is from William Cullen Bryant's poem Catterskill Falls which starts
Midst greens and shades the Catterskill leaps.
Again, it's the stream, and therefore the Catterskill (we won't quibble over the spelling) that leaps.
But arguing by semantics is hardly enough evidence. There is clear written use of the name Kaaterskill in Beers' 1884 History of Greene County. On page 18, the history states:
[T]he Katerskil … which rises in the lakes on South Mountain and flows through a channel down one of the grandest gorges in all this mountain region. As it descends it makes several falls and cascades of rare beauty and grandeur. The most noteworthy of these are Haines Falls, where the waters of the West Branch of the Katerskil dash over a precipice 150 feet high, and the Katerskil Falls where the east or main branch of the stream comes over two falls a few yards apart, the first being 175 feet high and the second 80 feet.
For years, one of the best guides to hiking trails on state land in the Catskills was available free of charge from the New York Conservation Department, now the Department of Environmental Conservation. Written by W. D. Mulholland, Catskill Trails appeared is several editions apparently starting in 1928. I have two copies, one, a 1953 revision of the 1928 publication. On pg 30. Mulholland describes the trail to South Mountain:
South Mountain Trail Description
0.00 Junction macadam highway from Haines Falls and dirt road, just east of highway bridge over Spruce Creek and ½ mile west of North Lake Campsite. Follow dirt road down hill.
0.05 Cross bridge over Kaaterskill (outlet of South Lake) and meet dirt road from Laurel House.
And in the edition of 1970 starting near the hairpin turn in the Clove:
0.00 Junction of Route 23A and Kaaterskill Creek. Trail leaves north side of highway and follows up stream... [The description leads to the old trail past Kaaterskill Falls to South Mountain trails.]
None other than Alf Evers, on Pg 92 of his definitive history, The Catskills from Wilderness to Woodstock, describes a 1753 botanical trip taken by John Bartram and his son William. Evers states:
“The elder Bartram, eager for more waterfall wonders, insisted on exploring Spruce Creek which joins the Kaaterskill just above the great falls.”
Walton Van Loan's Catskill Mountain Guide (1879 and several other editions) implys the creek is “Lake Creek.”
Van Loan's 'Map of Points of Interest' labels the creek from the lakes and before Spruce Creek joins it as Lake Creek. Van Loan also refers to Lake Creek Bridge, as the bridge on the road from Palenville, as it crosses the stream. The abutments of that bridge still exists below the current highway bridge at the hairpin turn on 23A. It seems as if he considered the creek to be Lake Creek from the lakes until it joined the Kaaterskill deep in the Clove.
Walking News' excellent Guide to the Catskills with Trail Guide and Maps by Arthur G. Adams et al 1975, on page pg 55 also uses the name Lake Creek in its trail description of the beginning of the escarpment trail in Kaaterskill Clove:
0.00 At Bastion Falls, immediately off Rt. 23A at hairpin turn in road BLUE trail leads north following Lake Creek upstream.
The assumption that the creek is called Lake Creek appears throughout Roland Van Zandt's 1966 book, The Catskill Mountain House. In particular, in talking about Kaaterskill Clove eastward from the base of Haines Falls, Van Zandt suggests, on pg 127, some of the most spectacular scenery of the Kaaterskill Clove is all but unknown today. It is the bottom of the chasm between the base of the falls at Haines Falls and the junction of Kaaterskill and Lake creeks. Van Zandt's only mention of Spruce Creek is (pg. 117) as a source of water for the Mountain House. Van Zandt was writing about the history of the Catskill Mountain House and the region around. In that period, the name Lake Creek was used on the trail maps of Walton Van Loan and Samuel Rusk, on the map published by the Hotel Kaaterskill, and in trail descriptions. It's little wonder that he chose to call the creek Lake Creek, the most common name used in the period of the great hotels.