The Cryptic Castle

My home state of Vermont has much in the way of oddities, but abandoned castles don’t make the list. So when I heard of one in downstate New York, I had a road trip planned in a few weeks to see it.

My friend and I drove through the often long haul destitution of the Catskill Park, an area I’ve already become familiar with. You know you’re in the Catskills when all of the green road signs that label whatever river your crossing over marks them as “kills”, (the other detail is when you figure out none of the towns have gas stations). It might seem strangely morbid, but it’s actually the old Dutch word for creek or river, as opposed to the English equivalent. It’s a cool regional quirk. (Vermont has the fly fishing famed Batten Kill, which is redundantly labeled on state atlases as the ‘Batten Kill River’).

Atop a dim ledged hill above a picturesque river, I would get my first glimpse of this incredible ruin through thick woods that would ultimately conceal it from view, if you weren’t only on that particular back road looking for a castle like we were. This place was something else. The sight of it made me drop my jaw – it was both eerie and serene.

I think it’s in our profiling nature to assume fanciful remains like these accrete some sort of spooky lore or gothic mystic, especially when you add several decades of forsakenness letting weather and moss transmuting what was once a soaring vanity project into a projection of arcane frenzy. Even the history is enigmatic, which has given birth to quite a few myths and whispers of curses that bounce off its turrets and stone walls.

The castle was the idea of gilded aged businessman Ralph Werts Dundas. And this is where the research gets a bit convoluted. In my inquiry, a few blogs have paid some interest to this place, and the general agreement is that the history here is a bit nebulous – each page describes a slightly different storyline.

Not much is known about Mr. Dundas, other than he was born in 1871 and would eventually become a wealthy man. He wound up marrying, had a daughter, and was known to be a bit of a recluse. He also carried a penchant of becoming a Scotish Laird, in America. Because Laird’s had to have a castle to push their legitimacy card, he wound up buying about 1,000 acres in the Catskills to build one on.

Before Mr. Dundas installed his enigmatic castle, a chunk of the land was owned by Joseph Cammer, a farmer and enthusiastic fisherman who earned a reputation by letting other outdoorsmen from New York City and surrounding Catskill towns board on his land. This eventually attracted the venerable architect, Bradford Lee Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert liked the area so much, that himself and another boarder, Frank Livingston, got to talking and concluded they wanted to buy some of the Cammer property and build a hunting lodge there. They struck up a deal, were joined by three other interested men, and began construction on what would be called the Beaverkill Lodge towards the late 1880s.

A couple of years passed, and Mr. Gilbert wanted the property for himself, so he bought out Mr. Livingston and the other members. He worked on enlarging the lodge from a modest log cabin and purchased more land to buffer it with. His wife, an Irish immigrant, named the area “Craig-E-Claire” – a Gaelic toponym for “beautiful mountain” that reminded her of her native Ireland and is still adhered to the area on both a street sign and a place name label on Google maps. But they only wound up spending a few weekends out of the year at the lodge, and eventually lost interest and decided to sell. Sometime before the 1920s (sources vary with either 1907 or 1915), Ralph Dundas would acquire the plot.

Some accounts say that Bradford Lee Gilbert was the one who architected Dundas’s castle, and that’s sort of true. He at least provided some of the framework. Instead of tearing down the Beaverkill Lodge and building over it, Dundas decided to build around and consume the lodge, and then keep expanding.

Around World War 1, the castle began to take shape looming above the river. 30 Finnish masons assembled it with leaded windows and hand laid stone walls, stone by stone, which legend holds that in some parts of the castle are 3 feet thick. Conical towers with gothic windows and steep parapeted roofs added great architectural flourishes and made this abandonment so much cooler to find out in the woods.

The insides were said to be just as generous, with steam radiators and electricity being added, which were amazing luxuries at the time. The floors and countertops were done with marble which was possibly imported from Italy, and legend has it that a few of the fireplaces were accentuated with gold leafing. Mr. Dundas even had exquisite furnishings and dexterously woven tapestries crated and shipped to the castle to decorate it with.

Ralph Dundas and his family at their castle, around its completion.

But Dundas wasn’t the least stressful of employers. He was a very particular visionary, who had a habit of adding lots of spontaneous changes to the blueprints, often making the laborers tear down entire finished sections of the castle to rebuild it again to his partialities. But regardless, we can at least agree that his fussiness created an astounding home. A home that he would never get to see.

Dundas dies in 1921, but work continued until the castle was completed in 1924 – the final structure was “L” shaped, with 2 curtain walls completing a rectangle and creating a Scottish style bailey in the middle.

His wife Josephine, who was known for being emotionally unstable, suffered from some sort of undocumented malady, which may have been a form of dementia. She was eventually committed to a sanitarium. A creepy legend that seems to be widely trafficked about this place, is that Dundas actually locked his wife away in one of the upper bedrooms without an interior doorknob to keep her worsening disposition out of public scandal.

While those details are a bit hard to parse, what we do know is that their daughter Muriel suddenly came into a lot of money.

She was either completely swindled by the man she married (which may have been a hired caretaker of the castle) or made the decision herself to travel to England to find King James’ lost gold, using her substantial fortune to pick up the bill. She recruited the best scientists, historians and even a dowser and mystic who used a willow wand, but all efforts proved fruitless. By then, those around her considered her insane, and she was committed to an asylum for the remainder of her days.

The keep and its interior riches gathered dust and remained abandoned until it was sold to more thematically fitting owners in the 1940s; the Freemasons. But they never wound up doing anything with the great building, and instead, for reasons unknown, let the place enter multiple decade stasis. Today, the property is off limits, and it’s said that a groundskeeper may live in one of the former castle outbuildings just down the road.

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I only knew of the castle’s vague location, without knowing much else about it – driving down back roads that traversed through a serpentine river glen until I eventually spotted one of its towers through the trees wearing their seasonal verdures.

We found a level-ish shoulder to pull off onto, gathered our gear, and hurried over into the forest cover and up the rocky slope – which at times was surprisingly steep – until we could reach out and touch the stone bulwarks. An up-close look revealed that saplings and sneaking moss were growing freely around the thoughtful stonework and beginning to take root inside the gutters. If the beleaguered prowess of nature isn’t decreased, this place will really look like an ancient ruin in a decade or so. The visual made all the adulated baggage this hunk of rock and slate carries pretty believable.

That was further reinforced by a thunderstorm that began to rage overhead when I was inside, making my explore so much more surreal as shadowed light fell in all directions. The only mood killer was an Ace Of Base song climbing around in my head from my friend’s Best of The 90s playlist on Spotify.

Passing through the climactic barbican into the bailey, we found our way inside and made for a set of spiraled marble stairs climbing up one of the turrets – when my friend noticed “To The Kill Room!” scrawled in red spray paint on the wall with an arrow pointing crookedly towards the ascent upstairs.  I heard a resolute “nope” uttered behind me, and I turned around to see her heading back towards where we climbed in. “I’ll just wait for you outside”.

Now on my lonesome, I moved silently through this literal monument to the epoch of American industrialism and prosperity. A walk through the anachronistic property today is a weird one. Though the lower floors were blackened due to boarded windows, its incredible attention to detail and marvelous stonework could be detected and appreciated through the shine of my flashlight. Upstairs, gray light came through and cast the hallways and the bones of ornate chambers into a dull pallor. Old push button light switches and 4 prong electrical sockets on the walls sort of break the otherwise ‘fairy tale’ illusion here, bringing a castle that remarkably looks ancient into 20th century America. There was even a functional dumbwaiter, (or ‘baby shoot’, as someone re-invented it in black sharpie) where meals from the kitchen could be ferried upstairs to the bed chambers. The castle was sending me the weight of its silence, with the only pause being summer breezes pushing around all the dead leaves that had long collected inside the vacant rooms.

I’m a little late on exploring out of state locations, so a great deal of what I see through the photography of others isn’t what I’m greeted with in real time. Dundas’s castle had lots more vandalism, and the few surviving glass window panes on the third story had by then, all been shattered. This is why I’m obscure about many places I write about. But despite that, the castle was in really good shape – most likely because of its robust construction and not being near much of a population. I wonder if anyone will ever revive it? Or will this go the way of many fascinating sites in America and become something only recalled in wistful stories?

Before departing, we headed down the road a ways to get a look at the defunct iron front gates that once opened up to a gravel carriage road that gradually climbed the ridge crest, went underneath a castle arch and inserted you in the central courtyard. Today, the intricately rusted doors and nudging stone abutments are all that remain – the path has since transitioned into a mowed lawn and make the former grand entry way even more conspicuous in its location at a 3-way intersection.

Being Memorial Day weekend, the huge regional park I happened to be near was crawling with people in trucks and camping gear on almost all the back roads. After I pulled over to shoot this cool entryway, I had multiple strangers in trucks pull over and have rolled down window conversations with me as if I was an old friend, including an awesome middle aged couple who enthusiastically talked about the castle and other Catskillian esoterica.

Being Memorial Day weekend, it also brought out the foolhardy. As we turned around and drove back down the road, we noticed that 3 state police cruisers, 3 officers, a Ford Focus, and 5 bummed looking teenagers appeared outside the castle.

I think local historian Dr. Joyce Conroy reckoned best when she mused that the strangest thing to her about the castle, was how no one has ever been able to live on that land.

More on Vermont castles 

As I said above, Vermont doesn’t exactly have castles, but we do have some creations that come close. There’s the so-called Wilson Castle in Proctor, which is really a castle in name only, and there’s the inspired Gregoire castle up in the kingdom town of Irasburg that’s become a local curiosity and for a brief period was a cafe and later, for sale.

What to do with a defunct quarry and lots of rocks? You could build something like this medieval looking cylindrical watchtower tower in Woodbury, located off a thin back road in a quarried depression. It even has gargoyles perched sentinel around the top rim with faces rictus with gloom.

Property owner Scott McCullough, who also fittingly owns a rock crushing business, decided to begin building the inconspicuous 24-foot cylindrical quasi-mythical structure in 2009, partially in an effort to clean up the eyesore patch of land which locals began to use as a garbage dump, and partially for something to do on weekends. But be warned – trespassers aren’t welcome. And there are several signs to make the point. But I’m told he’s a friendly fellow who is pretty enthusiastic in striking up a conversation about it. Just as long as he’s around and you have permission to be there.

I became aware of this place when I was already en route on another oddity hunt; to find a pair of Indian footprints petrified in stone. This was a cool bonus.

In the past few decades, the Champlain Islands have transitioned from hard to reach farming towns to a tourist destination. Their topography definitely explains the interest – because they’re different than the rest of Vermont. The surrounding water influences the growing season, making it the longest in the state, and it also created a desirable real estate market, to the point where property values are offensively sky rocketing in lake shore areas. More importantly, it’s an area rich in history. French explorer Samuel de Champlain saw the islands when he sailed down the Richelieu River into the large lake that he named after himself. In 1666, Isle La Motte became the first settlement in what became Vermont, where 60 Frenchmen built a palisaded outpost known as Sainte Anne on the northwestern tip, now the site of Sainte Ann’s Shrine. Only 20 of them would make it through the first winter, the rest dying of scurvy.

One particular attribute is also a wonderfully obscure one; South Hero is home to miniature stone castles, some the size of a doll house, scattered around island lawns, gardens or wood patches. Finding them is an intriguingly cool experience on its own, especially if you’re like me and really dig craftsmanship, DIYs, and Yankee ingenuity. Laid down by a Swiss immigrant in the early 1900s, the story is both fanciful and mysteriously poignant.

Some Vermonters just want to live in a castle, like a local pyrotechnics expert and stonemason Jim Bayne. This contemporary broke down palace is located in Georgia – has 12 bedrooms, two full bathrooms and one-half bath, a kitchen, six fireplaces and 19,000 square feet of space, all of it mostly unfinished. It’s also for sale for a 6 figure price.

Being near my childhood hometown of Milton, I discovered this intriguing construction in my late teens, when me and my friends used to pass the time by hopping in someones’ car and driving around as many back roads as we could find with the radio cranked. I recall us slowing down and/or pulling into the tall grasses to get a better look at this place, and surmise the general questions you wonder about someone else’s property.

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Since 2012, I’ve been seeking out venerable examples of Vermont weirdness, whether that be traveling around the state or taking to my internet connection and digging up forsaken places, oddities, esoterica, and unique natural features. And along the way, I’ve been sharing it with you on my website, Obscure Vermont. This is what keeps my spirit inspired.

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5 Replies to “The Cryptic Castle”

    1. I don’t actually. Vaguely, I believe the free masons sold it to a local gentleman. I’ve spoken with other explorers who have spoken to the guy before, and they said he doesn’t like to talk that much about the castle, especially after the increase of vandalism and shenanigans there.

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