Wayne County Wanderings: Remembering the author of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

As a sixth grader at the Wayne Highlands Middle School back in the 1980s, I began taking a keen interest in local history.

The first club that I ever joined was the Washington Irving Chapter of the Junior Historians. This group was mentored by one of my favorite teachers, Thelma Beers.

Mrs. Beers was a no-nonsense, “old school” type of teacher. She was passionate about education in general local history in particular … and it didn't take long for that passion to rub off on me.

Looking back through the lenses of time and memory, I can see where my experience with Mrs. Beers and the Junior Historians whetted my appetite for writing and research.

One of my very first assignments was an essay on Washington Irving, one that I labored long and hard to perfect with the naivete of a sixth grader.

These memories just recently came flooding back when I read that April 3 was Washington Irving's 235th birthday.

And so, without further ado, here's a little bit about one of America's very first world-renown authors … and an important figure right here in Honesdale.

Fascinating Man

Washington Irving was born in New York City on April 3, 1783. He died November 28, 1859 at Tarrytown, New York.

His father was a successful merchant, so he had a happy and stable childhood in what is now Manhattan.

One of the highlights of Irving's early years was a brief meeting with his namesake, George Washington, in 1879.

As a teenager, Irving was a voracious reader, lover of theatre and aspiring writer. He wasn't the most dedicated student, though. By the age of 14 he was regularly getting into trouble for ditching class to attend plays.

At 19, Irving was submitting letters to the New York Morning Chronicle under a pen name, Jonathan Oldstyle.

This became a recurring theme in Irving's authorial life as he would rocket to fame under the nom de plume “Geoffrey Crayon.”

His major breakthrough came in 1818-1820 with the publications of his wildly popular “Sketch Book.”

Two of the stories included in this work are timeless classics that still captivate readers: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”

According to multiple sources, Irving's “Sketch Book” had many famous admirers. Two in particular were Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. The former called the book “positively beautiful” and the latter said, “I know it by heart.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that the “Sketch Book” was one of the first works to excite his interest in literature...

“Every reader has his first book; I mean to say, one book among all others which in early youth first fascinates his imagination, and at once excites and satisfies the desires of his mind. To me, this first book was The Sketch Book of Washington Irving.”

Irving would go on to enjoy a long and productive career. He is widely regarded as America's very first “Man of Letters.”

At the age of 58, Irving appears on the scene here in Honesdale and plays a pivotal role in the annals of this bustling canal town.

Historic Visit

In the summer of 1841, Irving traveled up the canal to Dyberry Forks by packet boat at the dizzying speed of between three and five miles per hour.

He did so at the invitation of Philip Hone … mayor of New York City, canal baron and a man crucial to the history of a town that one day would bear his name.

The trip is described in a letter from Irving to his sister:

“It is situated between high hills on a plain through which two romantic mountain streams flow, uniting in the village and forming the Lackawaxen River.

“There are two wide basins where the streams unite, and the water was formed into the two most picturesque lakes. From the Eastern shore of one of these, Lake Dyberry, a solid ledge of serried and moss-grown slate rock rises almost sheer to the height of nearly 400 feet.”

This natural combination of rock, lake, woods and rivers enthralled Irving. He insisted on scaling the cliff with Hone and several companions in order to soak in the scenery from this dizzying vantage point.

And so, the entire company climbed to the summit. He was so delighted when he reached the summit, that Hone insisted the ledge be known as “Irving's Cliff.”

There's another (probably apocryphal) tale associated with Irving's visit. It tells of a picnic the friends enjoyed while hiking in what is now Glen Dyberry Cemetery.

The men rested near a spring, eating and talking. Once again, Irving was captivated by the beauty of nature and proposed a toast that the town name be changed from Dyberry Forks to “Hone's Dale.”

It's a nice story and there's little doubt that the picnic actually took place.

However, according to another of Honesdale's legendary teachers, Vernon Leslie, there's ample evidence to prove that the name “Hone's Dale” was already widely in for about a decade prior to that picnic.

The Hotel

Fast forward more than 40 years. It's 1883 and, on the summit of our historic cliff, a large summer hotel is being built by John Alden Wood.

The four-story building had 125 bedrooms with a capacity of 200 guests. It was furnished with many modern amenities, including individual bathrooms.

The hotel featured broad verandas that afforded guests the same view that had once so entranced Irving. It was set among manicured grounds, shady groves and imposing rocks.

Additionally, Wood claimed in advertisements that the hotel “was supplied with the best of water from a celebrated mountain spring.”

The Irving Cliff Hotel was slated to open on June 22, 1889. Sadly, the beautiful edifice was consumed by fire on May 28 … less than a month before its scheduled Grand Opening celebration.

No official cause of the disaster was ever announced, but anecdotal evidence has always suggested that an untended tar pot on the roof was the point of origin.

Fast forward once again to 2018.

I made a trek up to Irving Cliff this week, accompanied by two passionate amateur sleuths.

Roger Hermans and Larry Highhouse have been doing extensive research into the hotel and its untimely demise.

I'll tell their story more extensively in a future column. For now, suffice it to say that this dynamic duo is working hard to make local folks aware of this fascinating chapter in Honesdale history.

“Regardless of what some people today may say, you just can't deny history,” Roger said. “Our memory of things like this needs to be preserved. After all, you don't want to repeat history if it's bad and you do want to learn from it.”

Larry was quick to concur, adding: “I like to call this hotel the 'Titanic of Honesdale.' It was such a huge undertaking and it ended in such disaster. We need to remember it and maybe learn from it.”

Stay tuned for a future Wayne County Wanderings in which we dive much deeper into the ill-fated hotel, once perched majestically on the cliff named for Washington Irving.