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Camelot on Neversink - Locals not Welcomed

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In November 1891, a contract was issued to local builder Levi H. Focht to erect the Neversink Mountain Hotel, which was to sit atop the mountain almost directly above 23rd and Perkiomen Avenue. An army of workmen was hired for the task that reached completion June 18, 1892; guests arrived on July 7.

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    In Nov. 1891, a contract was issued to local builder Levi H. Focht to erect the Neversink Mountain Hotel, which was to sit atop the mountain almost directly above 23rd and Perkiomen Avenue. An army of workmen was hired for the task that reached completion June 18, 1892.

The resort, situated on a 14-acre tract, and modeled after the famous summer hotel at Manhattan Beach, was 360 feet long, 45 feet wide, and 5 stories high. And it was made of wood. It’s not surprising to learn that Thomas Merritt of Merritt’s Lumber Yard was president of the enterprise.

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From the start, this resort was doomed to failure, due to miscalculation in a number of respects. Conceived and backed in large measure by men closely associated with "the railroad interests," it was part of the grand scheme to lure the genteel set from Philadelphia and New York (via train) to Neversink.

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    The Neversink Mountain Railroad opened July 31, 1890. By July of 1891, about 100,000 passengers had taken the 7-mile circuitous ride around the mountain. Despite seemingly adequate patronage, the enterprise was plagued by financial problems related to upkeep. It ceased operating at the end of the 1917 season.

Throughout its 13-year lifetime, the management catered exclusively to the out-of-town trade. Advertisements rarely appeared in anything destined for local distribution. Incredible as it may seem, the managements saw fit even to ignore any type of listing in the Reading editions of the Boyd’s city directories.

Indeed, to the public, the Neversink Mountain Hotel was as far removed as King Arthur's castle at Camelot in spite of the fact that it lay along the line of the well-traveled mountain railway and could be seen for miles due to its high elevation.

The Neversink Mountain Hotel Co. was originally capitalized at $100,000, divided into shares of $100 each. It was thought the venture would be a real money-maker; thus, the stock was widely distributed and eagerly purchased.

In November 1891, a contract was issued to Levi H. Focht to erect an elegant resort modeled after the big summer hostelry at Manhattan Beach, Long Island. To allow for construction, it was first necessary for Focht to build a roadway to the top of Neversink so that supplies could be hauled to the site.

Work progressed all that winter under the direction of the top officers of the project - Thomas P. Merritt, president (and half-owner of Merritt's Lumber Yard), and Dr. John B. Raser, secretary and treasurer. By June 18, 1892 the magnificent frame hotel was completed, on a splendidly landscaped 14-acre tract.

By the time everything had been obtained to render the place "sumptuously appointed," $160,000 had been spent. The furnishings and electric-light plant alone ran $38,000, a cost equal to the construction of 40 brick 2-1/2-story row homes in Reading during the same era. The unanticipated debt was provided for in 5 percent bonds, which proved too heavy a burden to make the investment pay.

An account published in Philadelphia stated that the hotel, which welcomed patrons beginning July 7, 1892, was 360 feet in length, 45 feet wide, and 5 stories high (including basement). All rooms had "new furniture, white linens, wire-spring beds and hair mattresses of the highest quality." In all, there were 30 en suite bedrooms (a room that has a toilet and comes with a shower and/or bath).

Other features touted were no "back" rooms, extra wide stairs, corridors, and exits, parlors, reception rooms, and dining halls with elegant old-fashioned fireplaces to cheer the guests with a glow of welcome and to temper the chilly mornings and evenings of spring and fall. Surrounding the hotel was a piazza 14 feet wide that provided a promenade some 800 feet long.

Insurance records indicate that on the ground level were the kitchen, barroom, billiard hall, and shuffleboard alleys. The first floor contained a large parlor, assembly hall, reception room, dining room, office, and a dozen superior chambers. On the second floor were 50 bedrooms. The third and fourth floors (actually the fourth and fifth levels) each contained 52 bedrooms. Thus, there were a total of 166 bedrooms, a shade short of the "200 large airy bedrooms" widely advertised.

During the season T. W. Piggott ran the hotel, an illustrated flier was prepared for circulation "to the right people" of the Philadelphia and New York areas. In part, it stated that the resort was open from June 1 until late in fall. Among the modern accommodations offered were electric lights and bells, steam heat, and hot and cold baths. Water was obtained from the famous Klapperthal Spring, "which is noted for its absolute purity."

Provided for the outdoor recreation of the guests were beautiful drives, rustic walks lined with benches, a 1/2-mile bicycle track, tennis and croquet grounds, a pool, and boat rowing, fishing, and steam boating on the Schuylkill. An orchestra was in "constant" attendance. Four saddle horses and liveries were available, and bicycles to hire were always on hand.

On all promotional matter, the point was clearly made that all accommodations were strictly for the use of hotel guests only. The late historian, Wayne E. Homan, told the story that in the early days (mid - 1890s), Reading businessmen would go there for dinner with their families. Following the meal they would lounge on the breezy veranda. After a bit, they noticed that when they reached the porch, the chairs would be turned and tilted toward the building. Gradually they got the message that local dinner customers were not really appreciated.

As a money-maker, the Neversink Mountain Hotel was a failure. No dividend was ever paid to the stockholders. There were several years when profits were made, but the money was required to make up for losses incurred during previous seasons.

In 1903, the hotel was sold on the foreclosure of the mortgage and bought by Heber Y. Yost, as trustee for a majority of the bondholders, for $21,000. The actual cost of the property to them, including loss of interest, etc., was $75,000. George F. Baer, civic leader and railroad executive, was the largest holder of bonds. Yost was a local notary, secretary of the Reading Paper Mills, and secretary and treasurer of the Neversink Light, Heat, and Power Co.

On Friday evening, Sept. 29, 1905, at about 8:30 p.m., Isaac Bowman was walking on the first floor "on his rounds" when he discovered flames breaking from the basement. A few minutes later, while he was trying to find some means of extinguishing the flames, fire struck through the floor in the center of the building, and soon after the west end was a raging torrent.

Within 10 minutes, the entire building was a mass of fire. Fortunately, the place had already closed for the season and much of value had been removed. Of little help were the "two fire spigots with hose on each floor" and the 10 "superior patent extinguishers" scattered throughout the structure.

And even if the blaze had progressed more slowly, the water supply would not have been adequate enough to do much more than slightly postpone the inevitable.

According to the late Albert Green, water was pumped from a dam built across a small stream which flowed into Klapperthal Glen below Dengler's Glen Hotel. A shed housed the powerful steam-driven pump which lifted the water uphill a considerable distance to three tanks (6 feet deep and 8 feet in diameter), situated in the towers of the hotel. When the third tank was filled, an alarm bell rang in the pump house. Pumping was done twice daily. On account of "hard digging," the water pipe was laid above ground level.

Watchman Bowman, his wife, and 5-year-old daughter escaped the conflagration with nothing but the clothes they wore. Bowman stated that he had no doubt that the fire was deliberate. Three strangers were said to have been seen walking through the woods when the flames first broke out. Further, the veranda was saturated with massive amounts of coal oil.

It is truly ironic that on the very afternoon of the evening the hotel burned, Msgr. George Bornemann, rector of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, had purchased the property for $20,000 with the intention of converting it to a retreat for nuns. (This fact was not immediately made known to the public.)

Fireman promptly reported to the scene, but could do little but watch. In this, they had plenty of company. Owing to the elevation, the flames could be seen 25 miles away. The Neversink Mountain Railway Co. put all its cars into service, delivering 1,500 passengers to the scene between 9 p.m. and midnight. The swinging bridge at the outer railroad station (6th and Oley streets) was so loaded with spectators that some concern was voiced for their safety.

The hotel was insured for $31,250. Because of its timber construction and remote location, far from a practical and abundant water source, what insurance could be obtained came at a high figure. It was divided among 26 companies, one being Prussian National of Germany.

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The failure of the Neversink Mountain Hotel as a business venture can be summarized easily. While theoretically ideally located for a resort, it was considered too isolated by "the run of summer pleasure seekers." The size of the place produced massive overhead which could hardly be overcome in the short business season, a little more than three months.

And in addition the encumbering interest payments due from the cost overrun incurred during initial construction, the decision to remain aloof from the nearby population center proved a major tactical error.

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    West End Pavilion - This alone survives as a reminder that the 14-acre hotel tract had once been handsomely landscaped and “improved.” Constructed at the same time as the hotel (1892) as a memorial to iron-founder William McIlvain, it was placed at the west end of the oval drive and promenade that surrounded the hotel. Look for this unusually well-built structure atop the mountain directly above South 20th Street.

The construction firm of Levi H. Focht, founded in 1870, continued in operation until Jan. 1982. This company is best remembered for erecting the Penn Street Viaduct.

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    Neversink Mountain Hotel in its completed form from the summer of 1892 until it burned to the ground on Sept. 29, 1905.

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