I will explain that quote in a moment but please note that this post is going to involve historical discussion of the Devil due to its place in Catskill lore.
The pond is part of the Devil’s Tombstone Campground. The campground is one of the oldest in the state park system and it appears that it has been abandoned due to financial issues. Still, route 214 passes through the campground, which lies in the valley between West Kill Mountain, Hunter Mountain, and Plateau Mountain. You can access the location on Route 214.
The “valley” that Route 214 and Notch Pond sit in is called Stony Clove Notch. It was not as wide or as convenient as it is today. It was overwhelmingly important but also was one of the most feared locations in the Catskill Mountains.
Why was it so feared and how does the Devil come into the story of Stony Clove Notch? The word “clove” comes from the Old Dutch “kloove.” It means a gash or cut in the body of the Earth. A settler or native that found the need to travel through a clove felt as though they were entering hell itself. Layer upon layer of rock formed massive walls with sharp edges and cracks on both sides of the clove; safely venturing into the notch formed between the mountain took courage and luck because at any time a rock or tree could fall from the mountainside above and crush the traveler. Indeed many people that entered Stony Clove Notch felt as though the walls of the mountains were closing in on them because they could only see a small patch of sky overhead between the cliffs.
The pass was only a few feet wide and could barely fit a person. If a thunderstorm came up while in the notch the traveler would be subjected to thunder that shook the mountains, water that poured on from the cliffs overhead, flash flooding in the pass, and rocks breaking off the mountainsides and falling. It is no wonder the entrance to Stony Clove Notch was believed to be the gates of hell.
Charles Lanman, a painter and writer, said in the early 1840’s that Stony Clove “is the loneliest and most awful corner of the world that I have ever seen—none other, I fancy, could make a man feel more utterly desolate. It is a type of the valley of the shadow of death; in single file did we have to pass through it and in single file must we pass to the grave…” (Evers, 232).
It was not just appearance that scared adventurers; it was the stories. I have done much research on the folklore of the Catskill Mountains and have even lived where the Devil’s name identifies with many landmarks. As a child I did not think much of these names but once I found the sources necessary to understand the origins I realized that the history of the Catskills and the Devil go far back.
Alf Evers, in one of my favorite books, “The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock” (1972), has an entire chapter on the workings of the Devil in the Catskill Mountains. Here is an excerpt:
“Devil lore is still very much in circulation among the Catskills. And if the tales that are told are to be relied upon there can be no doubt that the Devil was once very active in the mountains. He left the prints of his feet upon the rocks. He strolled, he flew, he ran about the Catskills—he seems to have had a fondness for the region. He was above all the good friend and adviser of the mountain witches, ever alert in prompting them to fresh acts of mischief and malevolence” (229).
Evers cites the stories he heard from residents of the Devil appearing before farmers offering to clear their fields of rocks for one year in return for their immortal souls. Another story mentions men playing cards on Saturday night deep in the Catskills. They heard a noise outside and smelled a curious odor. When they opened the door the Devil appeared to take them to Hell due to their Sabbath-breaking but they stopped playing cards just in time (230).
I used to live near a place named Devil’s Kitchen where it was thought that the Devil did his cooking. Giant boulders and various cliffs were the kitchenware and cooking surfaces of the Devil. In the late 1800’s during the tourist boom in the Catskills the location was a hotspot for visitors. The guides would tell visitors the stories of boulders being thrown around by the Devil. Indeed when I was growing up I was told that the thunderous roar emanating from the mountain was the Devil banging his pots and pans in an attempt to cook during the weather.
More specific to Stony Clove Notch, which is partially seen in the image, is the story (recounted by Evers) of a woodsman by the name of MacDaniel. After finishing a hard day’s work in the upper valley north of the Notch, MacDaniel was trying to head home with his oxen. While in the pass MacDaniel found that his oxen would not move one step more down the trail. A fog settled into the notch and a figured appeared from the haze. It was the Devil. MacDaniel first swore at the figure in hopes it would flee but that only angered the spectre. In desperation, MacDaniel fell to his knees and prayed. The fog drifted away and the Devil disappeared. MacDaniel was able to continue home.
It is believed that after the visit to MacDaniel that the Devil died. In fact, two objects closely associated with the Devil can be found not far from where I took this photograph. One is in the campground and it is the Devil's Tombstone. The tombstone is a large boulder, approximately seven feet by five, which was probably carried down the mountain many centuries ago by a landslide or glacier. There are no inscriptions on the stone but Alf Evers says that when the light hits the stone just right one can see ancient scratches and eroded pits on its surface. These scratches seem to arrange themselves into symbols of a forgotten language telling the tale of the Devil’s death (234). Here is a postcard photo of the tombstone from 1908: http://alturl.com/rjz3e and here is what it looks like today: http://alturl.com/eucb9
The other object is on a nearby mountain. It is the Devil’s Pulpit. The Pulpit is a rock outcrop jutting out from the mountain where the Devil was said to hold his meetings with Catskill witches. It can be seen here: http://alturl.com/zb6qh
Stony Clove Notch, like all things that stand in the way of modernization, was tamed by machines. In the late 1800’s the notch was widened enough to allow for a wagon and narrow rail line to pass through the gap. Later the rail was upgraded to a standard width and used until 1940. The rail bed is still visible in the eastern woods. In 1873 the Stoney Clove Turnpike Company upgraded the wagon road to allow for safer passage. That wagon road would eventually become today’s Route 214.
Tales of the Devil were once common talk in the Catskill Mountains. Today the Catskills have lost their ability to shock and mystify many people. GPS, 4 wheel drive, and cell phones remove the fear of getting lost or stranded in the mountains. The notches that required people to walk single file have been widened to allow passage of train and truck. However, like I experienced over the weekend, if you pause and listen to the silence the Catskills have to offer you will feel a subliminal and surreal emotion that brings about thoughts of mystery and awe.