Book Review

Deep in the mountains, an Unforgiving Land revealed


Maybe you’re a rock scrambler or hiker and know the Shawangunks as well as you know your own backyard, or maybe you’re content to enjoy them from a distance, glancing at the side roads as you cruise over Route 44/55 on your way somewhere else. Either way, if you’ve ever wondered what secrets the mountains hold or just have an interest in local history, there’s a wealth of material worth pondering assembled in An Unforgiving Land: Hardscrabble Life in the Trapps, a Vanished Shawangunk Mountain Hamlet.

Robi Josephson and lifelong Mohonk ranger and cultural historian Bob Larsen have meticulously pulled together an account of the early settlement of the mountain hamlet from old newspaper accounts and public records and crafted a book that reveals much about not only the Trapps, but the shaping of nearby places like Rosendale, Kerhonkson, Ellenville, and New Paltz. They trace the impact of the Smiley brothers, the Shawangunks’ most successful hoteliers, on the lives of the mountain-dwelling regular folks – and the impact those regular folks had on the resort/preserve/state park that is today the region’s defining feature, and it’s a thought-provoking read.

Though it’s hardly a political tract, nor should it be, the book also reflects interesting light on the currently hot-button question of poverty and self-sufficiency. Poor people in the Trapps, which would be most residents, were able to carve out a living for themselves and their families on “scratch farms” only by using every resource they could possibly get their hands on. Clear cutting timber for barrel hoops and charcoal wood, hacking great chunks of rock out for grinding stones, and setting the forest alight to enhance the huckleberry harvest was honest (albeit incredibly grueling and dangerous) work, but even if the market for the end products still existed today, would we allow the habitat destruction? Moot point. When those markets collapsed, they collapsed, and fortunate were the mountain families who could bring their skilled hands and strong backs into the service of the Smileys.

Mountain cats, charcoal burners and stonecutters hauling their heavily laden wares down precipitous slopes, one-room schoolhouse life, births and deaths and scandals, preachers and drunks; all have their roles in the tale of the Trapps, a place that inspired artists and novelists and wheeler-dealers alike. You’ll meet characters with nicknames like Daddy Hype and Old Rooster, sorrow with a woman who lost a heartbreaking seven family members to Spanish influenza in two weeks. (If you’re feeling bugged by some first world problem or other, the struggles depicted in An Unforgiving Land make for a great source of perspective. It’s hard to rue a flat tire in comparison to what it took to get millstones down a mountainside to market.)

As history unreels and the events described become more recent, sources obviously became richer, and Josephson and Larsen devote the final chapter to collected reminiscences of the people who inhabited the Trapps during the Depression, toward the end of its existence as a distinct community. These are, naturally enough, some of the book’s most vivid moments – but don’t skip to the end, because they’re all the more poignant against the backdrop of meticulously researched history. And after you have read that history, your drive over the mountain – or your hiking or rock scrambling – will be forever enriched.

An Unforgiving Land is published by Black Dome Press, and is available through their website and on


Robi Josephson, Mohonk, Bob Larsen