The Story of Sky Top: A Towering Achievement

In 1870, the year that Quaker twins Albert and Alfred Smiley opened Mohonk Mountain House, they built the first of four observations towers overlooking Lake Mohonk on the high point of land which was known locally as Paltz Point. The Smileys referred to it as “Sky Top” and that has come to be the accepted name. Over the years these towers proved to be a very popular destination for hikers who enjoyed the view of six nearby states–New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

The First Tower, 1870

During the winter months in the 1870s, Alfred Smiley was busy at Mohonk acting as manager while Albert was busy in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was the principal of the Moses Brown School. In January 1870, Alfred built an octagonal observatory measuring eight feet eight inches in diameter on top of the mountain, high enough so that one could see the Mountain House over the trees. It was built of hemlock and white pine lumber, and held in place by three chains fastened to the stumps of trees located near the base of the tower. The finished tower was 20 feet high and could be reached via 26 winding steps. A month later, however, Alfred wrote to his brother that a severe wind had destroyed the tower. Unfortunately, we have no pictures of this tower.

The Second Tower, 1872-1877

In a March 16, 1872 letter, Alfred outlined his plans for a second tower, complete with drawings. The outside was to be built of “4 1/2in. matched pine nearly free from knots.” It was to have three stories and measure about 25 feet to the base of an open platform on top. On June 15, 1872, Alfred reported to his brother that “a violent storm of wind swept over the mountain-almost a hurricane-blowing down the scaffolding on one side, but the tower stood like a rock.” (Unfortunately, however, on May 10, 1877, a New Paltz newspaper reported that the Sky Top Observatory had burned on Sunday afternoon at about 4 p.m.

The Third Tower, 1879-1909

Alfred was undaunted, and in the following May of 1878 reported that work was under way on a third Sky Top Observatory. The tower was to have seven flights of stairs with four platforms and four floors.

The Mohonk Archives has several pictures of this tower. Regrettably, on June 1, 1909, this tower also was destroyed by fire.

The Fourth Tower, 1923-present

Just after the turn of the century, construction of a new stone addition to the Mountain House had been completed and everyone admired its appearance. Some years later, a committee was established to raise funds to pay for a structure of compatible design on the Sky Top tower site as a memorial to Albert Smiley who had died in 1912. The committee was led by Charles F. Miller, who managed to raise the very helpful sum of $11,624 toward the cost of construction a new stone tower. The architect was Mr. Francis F. Allen, of the Boston firm of Allen and Collens, who donated his services. Second generation Albert K. “Bert” Smiley served as the project manager.

A cornerstone was put in place on August 30, 1921. More than two years of intense labor by a wide variety of skilled workmen followed. John Lawrence was the “stone mason” and it has been said that he personally guided each stone to its final resting place as it was hoisted into position. John Lawrence’s son, Frank Lawrence, was the “stone cutter” who formed the rough stones using a sledge hammer to break the larger pieces as they were removed from the quarry near the tower. Down in the quarry was a steam operated drill held by a large tripod and powered by a portable steam boiler. This device required two men-one at the top to keep turning the bit down into the hole and a second man who held a water can and constantly poured water into the hole to keep the drill bit cool. There were others required to stoke the boiler, manage the horses needed to lift the rock by means of a derrick, and, of course, the Lawrence men, who shaped and finished each piece as it was carefully placed in the wall of the tower. A blacksmith was on site to sharpen the bits and hand tools. A millstone cutter was also on hand to cut the fine surfaces at each window opening, the lettering required on the cornerstone and on the front of the tower, and also the coping around the top of the tower. The dedication was held on August 30, 1923.

The stone quarried on the site created a large cavity at the base of the tower which was later converted to a reservoir holding 1,300,000 gallons of water. A second quarry was located a short distance to the north of the first and plans were made to construct a warden’s cottage there together with a souvenir shop. This part of the project was abandoned and the cavity roofed over with cement. It is still there as a reminder of the warden’s cottage that was never built. However the area surrounding the tower was “landscaped” with large pieces of rock taken from the quarry and placed along the carriage roads instead of railings.

It is hard to imagine the Shawangunk skyline without Sky Top Tower — a landmark that many of us look for whenever we have been away.