In the era before the introduction of the automobile, the mountain resorts of South Heidelberg Township were served by a very busy Wernersville train station, bringing 13 trains per day to enjoy such destinations as Grand View, Walter's Park, and The Mountain Sunset House. South Mountain was a destination for the monied elite, a place to take the waters and seek health minded recreation and be waited upon hand and foot.
The real beginning to the story of the South Mountain Resort Hotels is the establishment of Grand View in 1847. Dr. Charles Frederick Leisering was a German Immigrant from Frankfurt who settled in Philadelphia. Reading of an opportunity in Ephrata for "a man with medical experience", he set about developing his water cure therapy. Ephrata was ill-suited to the task due to a lack of a quality water supply. He began looking for a more ideal location to establish his own sanitarium, and found it a half mile from Cushion Peak on South Mountain, and purchased a 52 acre plot that was served by ample springs of mountain fresh water. Dr. Leiserings Grand View grew and became something of a self contained health community. Upon Dr. Leisering's death in 1859, his widow attempted to carry on running the enterprise, but in 1860 Grand View was put up for sale. The buyer was Dr. Aaron Smith, and he ran the establishment as The Mountain Home which proved more sucessful. Beginning in 1873-74, Dr. Smith leased out the enterprise for a three year period. On of those men who leased the operation was James S. Preston, a man who saw the promise of the area.
James Skirrow Preston, a native of Lancashire England and later emigrated to Canada was a man who did not enjoy robust health. He found the Canadian climate too harsh and began a search that lead him south to the warmer climates of the United States. He traveled to High Point, NC first then to Wernersville, where he stayed at Grand View which by this time was called The Mountain House. He was sold on the location which offered fantastic scenery, fresh air and spring water for his family. He believed in the resort and tried to come to an agreement with James W, Deppen one of the owners in order to from a partnership. The partnership was not to be, which led Preston to think of his own resort.
James Preston's Resort was originally called the Stone House which was erected in 1880 and constructed of three stories of native mountain stone, situated on the south side of the mountain. In addition to the main buildings there were cottages which were constructed along a winding lane on the side of the mountain. These are among the only surviving structures that remain from The Preston and Galen Hall Hotel era and today are charming private residences. The resort took advantage of the natural surroundings and was cut with scenic paths for walks, carriage driving and provided with several parks. In 1882 James S. Preston's health finally gave out and the operation passed to James H. Preston and his siblings. During this era the place was called Preston's Sunnyside due to it's position on the sunnier south side. Among James H. Preston's siblings was a Dr. Thomas Preston who had a successful practice in Philadelhia, and naturally referred many of his patients to Preston's Sunnyside. He later moved his practice, and as a result the referrals stopped. In 1907, the name Preston's Sunnyside was changed to The Preston, as James H. Preston felt the name was not helpful as a draw to those seeking a cool refuge for the summer months in an era before air conditioning. The other change was more towards a resort based on recreation than a health resort. The installation of heating allowed the Preston to operate year round rather than just spring to fall as previously. Visitors were picked up at the Wernersville train station and conveyed via horse and carriage for 25 cents and deposited at the Preston. The resort drew the monied from far afield, and the resort enjoyed a period of operation that began to get more and more competitive and required more attraction to visitors in order to continue. The Pristanes realized that they would have to put more into the resort to remain operational.
On April 8th 1911, based on the new reality, the Prestons sold the resort to The Galen Hall Company which ran a Hotel and health sanitorium of the same name in Atlantic City. The Galen Hall Company had the resources and in 1912, the Mountain wing was built, and now offered seven stories and 300 rooms. Galen Hall had to compete with Walter's Park and Grand View, and the owners had to add something that none of the others could offer. The original nine hole golf course was designed by a Scottish emigrant, Alex Findlay (1865-1942). Findlay was really a pioneer who helped bring the Scottish game to the attention of Americans, many of whom had never even heard of the game. Throughout his career, Findlay personally designed over one hundred golf courses in sixteen states, and played on over 2,400 courses, played exhibition matches with then renowned Henry Vardon, and left many course records in his wake. The course was built by James Albert Preston who stayed on as Galen Hall's contractor. The front nine was built in 1912.
A.W. Tillinghast added his unmistakable touch to the course, with the 15th hole, also known as the "Moat Hole". The course and Hotel were a mecca for celebrities during this era. Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle stayed at the hotel and the golf course drew names like Fred and Adele Astaire who once went out as a foursome with then pro Bob Middleton and his assistant Henry Moyer in 1927. The hotel was a popular place for conventions. Galen Hall well known for its beautiful and tricky golf course as well as for its conventions held in the spring and fall. One of the first conventions which attracted considerable notice over the entire country was held in 1915 by the moving picture industry. Wernersville was over run with reporters. Some of those attending the convention were the motion picture stars Pearl White, Mabel Normand, Marguerite Clark, Francis X. Bushman, John Bunny, "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mary Pickford. But again as time went on and the invention of the automobile provided the American public with more mobility and less reliance on rail lines, the fortunes of places like Grand View, Walter's Park and Galen Hall began to decline.
By the early 1930's it again became obvious that in order to keep bringing people to the mountain, a more lavish and better experience had to be offered. The Galen Hall Hotel was sold in 1935 to an experienced New York hotel man, Emanuel Burack who began taking the already elegant resort and transforming it into a more modern first class destination hotel. It was in this era that the Forest Glades Pool was built from a natural pond surrounded by tall beautiful hemlock trees, which was regarded as one of their most beautiful swimming areas in the Berks County area. There was on site "room service" and even a dance orchestra. The pool complex cost $18,000.00 a large sum at the time, and the work was again done by James Albert Preston. During this era, the Golf course was improved and lengthened. Galen Hall was aggressively marketed by Burack, aiming to continue to pull in large conventions. The Hotel hosted large conventions of bakers, brewers and other trades, pulling in as many as 700 to 800 people at a time.
The golf course was again enhanced in 1955 by the father and son team William & David Gordon, who designed other local courses such as Saucon Valley and Sunnybrook. The work made some refinements and lengthened the course to its current 6,271 yards, increasing par from 68 to 72.
In 1955, the guard changed again, this time Emanuel Burack's son Daniel took over the operation of the hotel in 1955. It was also in this year as well that the course revised by William & David Gordon who also designed the Saucon Valley Grace course. The Hotel continued to operate, but clearly the golden age of the South Mountain Resorts was coming to a close, Grand View was now just a distant memory having closed it's doors in 1927, Walter's Park had soldiered on into the early forties.
Then on the evening of April 7, 1963 fire finished what the automobile had started, the end of the grand resort era on South Mountain. Fire was discovered around 11:15 PM and flames were curling out from the penthouse. John Yocom the club pro at the time was notified shortly before midnight, and he in turn passed the grim news to owner Daniel Burack who was in Philadelphia at the time, and immediately rushed up the turnpike to the scene. Much to his horror, the extent of the blaze became plain when he could see the night sky lit up by the fire many miles in the distance as he drove towards the scene. The efforts to fight the fire were ultimately in vain due to the lack of enough readily available water to fight the fire. It was the end of the Galen Hall Hotel, and truly the end of an era. The golf course suffered some light damage but was repaired. Today the bungalows, the restaurant and an out building used to house ground keeping equipment survives from the once 900 acre complex that was Galen Hall. The golf course however continues on in a fine tradition, and harks back to the early years of golf in the United States.
In 2001, with the death of the owner Eli K. Martin, the golf course's future was now in question. The property was put up for sale in 2006, the invitation to bidders suggesting it might be a good choice for housing development, which would have meant an end the long history of the course.
Thankfully for local residents and lovers of golf and golf history, a partnership was formed to buy the property, with the goal of making the course the premier course in Berks County. The partnership consists of of Robert A. Fisher, of Naples, Fla.; his son, Fred A. Fisher, of South Heidelberg Township; and Brian R. Stiefel, of Sinking Spring. The new owners plan to invest $1-2 million into improving the clubhouse and facilities, and adding a driving range on an addition adjacent parcel of land that was also purchased. The owners have various backgrounds, but one feature in common; the love of golf, and the desire to preserve this piece of golf history for themselves and the community. The township was very pleased with the way this was worked out, preserving the recreational use of the land for local residents and the beautiful green space in a time of rampant development.