A Catskill Mountain tragedy

Contributed photoPostcard. Twilight Inn as viewed from Kaaterskill Clove on Route 23A.

Today I would like to reflect a bit about the Twilight Inn in Haines Falls. The site of the old hotel is where a fire on July 14, 1926 resulted in one of the greatest tragedies in Greene County History — more than 20 people lost their lives. Other famous hotels that burned include the Katterskill Hotel which burned at the end of the season in 1926 with no loss of life, and the Catskill Mountain house which was burned by the State of New York in 1963, also with no loss of life.

The Twilight Inn in Twilight Park in Haines Falls started out as a chalet style building in 1887 and served as a clubhouse for park members. 1898 it was opened as a hotel and called the Twilight Rest. In 1908 and 1909 it was greatly enlarged with a capacity for 200 patrons and staff. At that time the name was changed to the Twilight Inn.

John M. Ham writing in his wonderful book “One Hundred Years on ‘Resort Ridge’” has this to say about the hotel. “The hotel quickly became renowned for its fine cuisine and service, and drew many to the most respected names in New York and Philadelphia society.”

Ham goes on to say the following about the hotel: “The view of this grand hotel from the Palenville Mountain Road (Route 23A) on the north side of Kaaterskill Clove dominated the landscape, often stopping motorists in their tracks to observe this impressive scene. The vision was striking, with the beautiful alpine style building perched near the edge of the precipice overlooking the deep gorge.”

Fortunately we are able to draw on a first person account of the 1926 tragedy related to us by George H. Peiffer in the Winter 1982 “Greene County Historical Journal.”

Along with his Aunt Helen, 10 year old Peiffer arrived at the Twilight Inn on July 8, 1926. His aunt had been hired a chambermaid and he had been hired as a juvenile jack-of-all-trades to shine the brass, sweep the floors and assist the guests.

Peiffer describes their accommodations: “We were assigned a room on the third floor, down a narrow corridor, in the rear of the right wing. The bathroom was 30 feet away, toward the front of the hotel, in the same corridor just before it joined at right angles with the main hallway for that floor. The room was small but comfortable, with twin beds, a bureau, and washstand with its pitcher and basin.”

About 1 a.m. on July 14 young George went to use the bathroom and when he got back in bed and was dozing off, his aunt heard a commotion. When she went to investigate she found the building ablaze. “The next thing I remember was my aunt yanking me out of bed by the arm, explaining that the place was on fire and we had to get out.” Eventually they made their way to an open window where Aunt Helen held him out so he could fall to the grassy slope facing the burning hotel.

George says the following about the next moments: “I stood there drinking in the awesome sight. Never in my young life had I seen anything like it! Great flames darted out the hotel’s main entrance, the very exit which I, choking with smoke and restrained by my aunt, had sought to use but a minute or so earlier. Suddenly I was seized with fear. Where was Aunt Helen?”

Fortunately he was reunited with Aunt Helen who had sustained a back injury from her fall from the same window George had exited from. They made their way to cottage that George believed was the Inn’s annex, but that was quickly threatened by blazing cinders from the hotel fire and they had to move on. They were relocated to the Vista located on the eastern end of the village. After a couple weeks of convalescence George and his Aunt Helen returned home.

Neither author speculates as to the cause of the fire. One theory advanced at the time is that during a party in the staff quarters, a lighted cigarette was carelessly discarded leading to the tragic event.

Peiffer provides us with the grim statistics from the fire. There were 48 guests and 30 employees in the building at the time of the fire – less than half the hotel’s capacity. Of these, 35 escaped unscratched, 21 were injured and 22 died. Fourteen who were burned beyond recognition were buried in a common grave in Haines Falls cemetery.

George Peiffer concludes his narrative with the following: “The Twilight Inn has something in common with other sensational disasters — the Titanic, the General Slocum, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, etc. — for it awakened people to the need to do everything possible to safeguard the most precious of all possessions, a person’s life.”

To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail gchistorian@gmail.com or visit him or on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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