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The Adirondacks

April 2024
14min read


On the big northward-hunching shoulder of New York state lies an area discrete and apart. About the size of Holland or Belgium, it exercises—by law, by custom, and by character —a measure of the independence enjoyed by such sovereign nations. Like Holland and Belgium, too, it is interlaced with waterways; but unlike them it is not a low country. It is the Adirondack wilderness. It is under constant threat from without—a threat oftener benevolent than malevoient, but possibly disastrous in either case.

In the spring of 1969, as for generations past, invasion forces began to mass on its borders. All around its vast perimeter, from Whitehall, Saratoga, Gloversville, Watertown, Potsdam, Malone, Plattsburgh, and the lake ports of Vermont, the invaders looked in hungrily on the promised land. And from Memorial Day on, in wave after wave, they poured across the Blue Line (the boundary of the Adirondack Park) to seize strong points on the heights, streams, and lakes of one of the last big wilderness areas in the eastern United States.

Their field equipment was the trailer hitch, the outboard, the water ski, and the sleeping bag. For weapons they carried the scout axe, the canoe paddle, and the fishhook—guns being relatively useless until the fall hunt- ing season. Chemical warfare equipment they had in abundance, for the only game still totally unprotected: the mosquito, the black fly, and the nosee-um.

The Adirondack region, the roughly triangular target of the annual onslaught, is bounded by the Mohawk Valley on the south, the St. Lawrence Valley on the northwest, and the valley of Lake Champlain and Lake George on the east. Once heavily forested throughout the twelve New York counties which it includes in whole or in part, its wilderness now lies chiefly in the heartland circumscribed by the Blue Line—about eighty miles from east to west, one hundred from north to south. It is largely mountainous: ninety summits rise above 3,500 feet. Mount Marcy, the highest, reaches 5,344; Whiteface Mountain, the second best-known, is sixth in height at 4,872, but has the attraction of greater beauty and, today at least, accessibility. Among its hundreds of lakes and ponds the largest and most famous are Lake George, the Tuppers, the Saranacs, Placid, Raquette, Blue Mountain, Long, and the Fulton chain. These are intricately connected and are drained by five rivers: the Hudson to the Atlantic, the Black to Lake Ontario, the Raquette to the St. Lawrence, and the Saranac and the Ausable to Lake Champlain.

This year’s Adirondack storm troops were, in a sense, celebrating a centennial, for it was just a hundred years ago that the truly massive assault on the wilderness began. Samuel de Champlain was probably the first European to glimpse the Adirondack peaks—in 1609—but that was only at a distance. Between then and the eighteenth century the great wilderness remained as aloof and virtually as untenanted as in aboriginal times—for there is reason to think that the Indians, though they knew it as good hunting ground, had little taste for living in its rugged depths. Indeed, the name Adirondack itself, which was not generally adopted until the nineteenth century, is supposed to derive from a Mohawk word of pejorative connotation once applied to an Algonquian people who presumably inhabited the forest north of the Mohawk Valley. At any rate, white settlers came slowly to the area, and relatively few lived there while the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and the War of 1812 roared around its boundaries.

Meanwhile, land speculators, lured by rumors of enormous riches in the hidden interior—of timber, minerals, and water power—got possession of huge chunks of the Adirondacks, often without ever seeing what they were buying. First from the Crown, and then from the state of New York, land patents were obtained which in the Old World would have represented dukedoms or principalities. The two most extensive, Totten and Crossfield’s Purchase (1772) and Macomb’s Purchase (1792), were larger, respectively, than Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Yet despite traffic in real estate and stabs at industrial development, ignorance of the Adirondack region remained profound. Neither of its two summits of over 5,000 feet appears on Governor Tryon’s official map of 1771; in fact no mountains or lakes are marked at all. In 1837 a reputable gazetteer was assuring its readers that the Adirondacks did not exceed 1,200 feet in elevation, making the Catskill Mountains lofty by comparison.

Nevertheless, by that time the well-informed few knew better, and their numbers were growing steadily. It was in 1836 that Ebenezer Emmons, newly appointed state geologist, began his extensive surveys. He climbed the highest mountain, measured it, and named it after Governor William L. Marcy; he also proposed calling the high central peaks the Adirondack range. Later extended to the whole wilderness, this name swiftly gained currency, as proved by its bestowal that same year on a large ocean packet ship launched in New York City.

Lumbering, the only industry extensively developed in the Adirondacks before the tourist and resort business, had toppled millions of white pine by 1840; by 1850 New York was the nation’s leading producer of lumber. The Adirondack woods, however, were still abundant: spruce, balsam, hemlock, ash, cedar, birch, and many other species crowded the plateaus and mountain slopes. In the lakes and streams of the interior, trout and bass were eager, it seemed, to be caught, and deer were so plentiful along the shores that it was not hard to keep a large hunting camp furnished with enough venison for meat three times a day. Quite obviously, the region was a potential Eden for sportsmen, campers, and—given an appropriate number of lodges and hotels—vacationists in general, including women and children.

Lake George had a hotel, the Lake House, before 1800. The Rural Resort opened at Trenton Falls, just outside the modern Blue Line, in 1822. In 1836 Lake Pleasant, thirty miles inside the southern perimeter, was “a favorite resort” for sportsmen. Soon thereafter began what was bound to happen to a fine wilderness area reasonably accessible from New York and Boston: the promotion of its attractions by literary gentlemen who had been there and wanted to share their enthusiasm. Charles Fenno Hoffman, editor of the New York Mirror (in that day an elegant weekly devoted largely to literature and the arts), journeyed into the mountains shortly after Mount Marcy was first scaled and described what he saw in eloquent columns dispatched to his journal. The Reverend John Todd’s Long Lake (1845) hinted vividly at the beauties of the central Adirondacks, although his attitude was antipodal to that of the sportsman: “When the day shall arrive in which these forests shall be cut down, and along the lakes and valleys and around the base of these glorious mountains there shall be a virtuous, industrious and Christian population, I have no doubt it will easily support a million of people.”

Such appraisals undoubtedly attracted a good many visitors to the Adirondacks, but they did not quite belong to the literary genre that a few years later was to start the really large-scale trek to “the north woods.” Essentially, that genre was the fish story—in both its literal and figurative senses. In The Adirondack; or, Life in the Woods (1849), an ex-preacher and popular journalist named Joel T. Headley gave some descriptions of trout fishing that must have driven many an angler into spasms of anticipation: “The very first cast I made, I took one and kept taking them till at the end of two hours I had fifty fine fellows. … My friend … did not fish over an hour and yet in that short time, took a hundred and twenty pounds of trout and left them biting as sharp and fast as when he began.”

Headley and several other writers on the charms of the Adirondacks had made it clear that even ladies could enjoy the wilderness without great discomfort, and in 1855 the Honorable Amelia Murray, doughty maid of honor to Queen Victoria, traversed the region under the guidance of Governor Horatio Seymour of New York. Her report detailed various hardships encountered and overcome, but made it clear that the amenities of empire could be maintained to a tolerable degree even in this outlandish corner of the globe: ”… M—— selected a sheltered rocky nook a little way back for our dressing room; there we bathed and adjusted our toilet with brushes, combs, toothbrushes, a luxury of towels, and even a tiny mirror hung upon the lowest branch of a fine hemlock spruce. …”

Three years later Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and eight other intellectuals “shantied out” for several weeks at what came to be called the Philosophers’ Camp, on a pond not far from the Saranac lakes; Emerson later wrote a poem about it that read like bad Wordsworth but indicated high approval of the natural surroundings. About the same time, at a less lofty level, Currier and Ives were selling lithographs glorifying the Adirondacks in colored “scenes” that made thousands of people think they would like to go there if they got the chance.

The Civil War came and went, and left the victorious North prosperous. More people than ever before could afford to take extended vacations. Dexterity with guns and techniques of living off the land had long been a grim survival formula for many men; now, if they chose, they could apply these skills to outdoor pleasures. At the same time the wilderness, while still moderately wild, was in various ways more attractive to travellers than it had been earlier. All “ports of entry” afforded good accommodation, and hotels now existed and were expanding at Adirondack settlements like St. Régis Falls, Saranac Lake, Schroon Lake, and Old Forge. The area was closely ringed by rail and steamboat lines, and there were stagecoaches running to several of the hotels in the interior. What was lacking to turn a steadily but slowly increasing parade of summer visitors into an invasion was a Pied Piper with a suitably alluring tune.

Then, in 1869, came William Henry Harrison Murray. The twenty-nine-year-old pastor of Boston’s fashionable Park Street Congregational Church, Murray was also a sportsman who appreciated the good things of life. Since few of his well-to-do parishioners spent their summers in Boston, he was able to take a two months’ summer holiday himself; and he chose to spend his summers in the Adirondacks, boating, fishing, shooting, and camping with a favorite guide and accompanied by his wife, an outdoor type. In April of 1869 a Boston publisher, Fields, Osgood & Company, brought out a little book called Adventures in the Wilderness, or Camp-Life in the Adirondacks ; its author was William H.H. Murray. The Adirondacks have never been the same since.

Unquestionably the public was ready for a testament that would send them packing off to the north woods in large numbers, but unquestionably, also, Murray’s book affected people in extraordinary ways. By June there had begun a mass influx into the Adirondacks the like of which had never been seen or dreamed of before. The “Murray Rush” was under way. Everyone seemed to have read the book and found something in it that perfectly answered his urge to get away from it all to the peace and freedom, the sport, the adventure, and the health of the great woods.

What was Murray’s secret? It is difficult, in retrospect, to say how much of the phenomenal response to his book was an explosion merely waiting to be touched off by any bright spark, and how much should be credited to him as a writer. Reading his little volume a century later, however, one can see certain aspects of it that clearly must have been provocative. Surely few have written so ardently about fishing, for example, as Murray: his descriptions of encounters with gamesome trout have very nearly an erotic quality:

Back and forth, round and round that pool he flashed, a gleam of yellow light through the dark water, until at last, wearied and exhausted by his efforts, he rolled over upon his side and lay panting upon the surface. … I paused a moment to admire. A bluish-black trout he was, dotted with spots of bright vermilion. His fins, rosy as autumnal skies at sunset, were edged with a border of purest white. His tail was broad and thick; eyes prominent, mouth wide and armed with briery teeth. A trout in color and build rarely seen, gamy and stanch.

Having raised his readers’ pulse rate with this, Murray goes on in the next couple of paragraphs to tell how he hooked three trout simultaneously:

I struck so quick and strong that the leader twanged like a snapped bow-string, and the tip of the light rod flew down nearly to the reel. All three were hooked . Three trout, weighing in the aggregate seven pounds, held by a single hair on a nine-ounce rod, in a pool fringed with lily-pads, forty by thirty feet across!

This, of course, is followed by a mouth-watering account of a Falstaffian fish fry “under the clear sky already thickly dotted with stars.”

Sport like this, the reader might have assumed, was to be had only as the reward for arduous hiking through thorny underbrush in order to reach the happy pools and streams. Not at all. If there is one thing more striking about Murray’s Adirondacks than the sybaritic fishing and hunting, it is the fabulous ease with which all this was to be arrived at. He speaks with open disgust of “tramping” and goes on to observe:

Now, in the North Woods, owing to their marvellous watercommunication, you do all your sporting from your boat. … This takes from recreation every trace of toil. … I have sported a month at a time, without walking as many miles as there were weeks in the month.

Another attribute of Murray’s little best seller that lias self-evident appeal is the series of fairly down-to-earth recommendations on what clothing and supplies to take, how to get into the Adirondacks by the best route, which hotels to patronize when not camping, and which guides (he actually names twenty-seven) to hire for the best service. He includes a special section on appropriate dress for ladies and makes light of such Adirondack pests as black flies and mosquitoes.

Finally, Murray spread the word like a true believer about the curative virtues of the Adirondack air and way of life. He was certain that the “pungent and healing odors” of balsam and pine were perfectly capable of curing “consumption,” as tuberculosis was then known, and to prove it he recounted how a dying youth was taken into the woods, only to walk out five months later “bronzed as an Indian, and as hearty,” having gained sixty-five pounds of flesh “well packed on.”

The important fact, in any case, is that after 1869 the Adirondacks drew bigger and bigger crowds of vacationers every year, and at an accelerating pace. What followed was in many ways an object lesson in the problem of preserving a large forest area for purposes of human sustenance and recreation. The root of the problem, as always, was the people themselves—their number and their behavior. How could the glories of the Adirondack wilderness be kept available to the ever-growing many instead of falling into the hands of the ever-wealthier few; and how could both species of citizen be prevented from despoiling what nature had created?

Within three years of the initial Murray invasion, some aspects of this problem were already under consideration by alert individuals here and there who cared about the future of the Adirondacks. One of them was Verplanck Colvin, an independently wealthy young man whose chief passion was the north woods, and who became official surveyor for the Adirondack wilderness in 1872. His mission was to make a topographical survey of state-owned lands and establish their boundaries more precisely.

Colvin worked hard at his task. He climbed every mountain of consequence to his survey, making many of the necessary measurements himself; he drove himself—and his assistants—to the limit in every season and every weather. Colvin also became one of the most eloquent and best-informed spokesmen for preserving the Adirondack wilderness. He saw with painful clarity the effect of the new popularity of the region with “the ubiquitous tourist”:

Where first comes one, the next year there are ten, the year after, fully a hundred. Hotels spring up as though by magic. … The wild trails, once jammed with logs, are cut clear by the axes of the guides and ladies clamber to the summits of those once untrodden peaks. The genius of change has possession of the land. We cannot control it. When we study the necessities of our people, we would not control it if we could.

Nevertheless, as the years went by it became more and more obvious that some sort of control would indeed be required. The decade following Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness saw the building of not scores but hundreds of hotels, many of them lavishly appointed and all of them serving trout and venison to their guests with such prodigal generosity that, before long, anguished cries went up from fishermen and hunters: it was getting harder and harder to find ready objects for their sport. Murray himself observed grumpily in 1877: “I have not put my fly rod together four times in four years.” Field and Stream , an influential outdoors magazine founded in 1873 by Charles Hallock, was more explicit:

Between the fish hog, the night hunter, the pseudo-sportsman and the like, this grand old region is becoming yearly less and less like its old self and in a few more years will witness the entire destruction from a sportsman’s and nature lover’s point of view.

The woods, too, were under attack. The discovery that paper could be made from wood pulp generated a new industry, and whole hillsides of Adirondack spruce were felled to feed the hungry paper mills. Entrepreneurs bought large segments of state land, cut down most of the trees, and then deliberately failed to pay their taxes; the people of New York recovered bare land where a short time before had stood magnificent forests. Nor were all of the woodcutters careful about observing the lines between private and state land, so that hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lumber was, in effect, poached. Forest fires often followed lumbering, sometimes sparked by a locomotive on one of the several railroads that were beginning to push into the region in the 1880’s.

Colvin’s “ubiquitous tourist,” incidentally, made for the Adirondacks both in sickness and in health. The notion that pure mountain air was the cure for tuberculosis had taken a firm hold, and thousands of sufferers came for prolonged sojourns at Adirondack hotels. Many of them, in fact, recovered to a greater or lesser extent—not from the air, marvelous as it was, but from the regimen of good food, good rest, and gentle exercise in pleasant surroundings that was the stock in trade of the resorts. After the communicability of the disease was discovered in the early 1880’s, the resort hotels were not so anxious to attract these particular customers: the notation, in small print, “No Consumptives” began to appear in advertisements and hotel directories. The patients were welcomed, however, by sanatoriums. Some of these became famous—notably the one at Saranac Lake under Dr. Edward L. Trudeau, who himself had recovered from tuberculosis by living the good life of the Adirondacks through several seasons.

Under the combined impact of too many sportsmen, too many lumberers, too many tourists both sick and well, and too many privately built “camps” (that is, summer homes), the New York state legislature began to show concern about the future of the Adirondacks. “Wilderness” was not the issue at this time; the concern had more to do with saving the highland watersheds of the state and thus guaranteeing water supply for downstate canals, for the water table of the state’s innumerable farms, and in some measure for New York City’s future water needs. Nevertheless, in 1883 the legislature withdrew all state land from further sale; in 1885 it established by law a Forest Preserve of state land to be “kept forever as wild forest lands.” In 1892 the Adirondack Park was created by drawing the famous Blue Line; and although at that time the state owned only about one fourth of some three and a half million acres circumscribed by the line, the legal existence of the park served as an earnest of the state’s protective concern. (The Blue Line was subsequently pushed outward; today the park comprises nearly six million acres, of which the state of New York owns over two million.) But the most significant move toward preservation of the wilderness came in 1894, when an amendment to the state constitution declared:

The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.

The “forever wild” amendment brought to an abrupt halt most of the forces that had been working to destroy the Adirondack wilderness; and since its passage—by purchase of more land, planting of millions of trees, stocking lakes and streams with millions of fish, and so on—the state has indeed recaptured for the region some of the primitive attractions that had been partly lost. Yet the policy of “forever wild” has not been without outspoken opponents, including many who unquestionably are devoted conservationists. It is argued, for example, that a forest area that must be left alone is bound to deteriorate through disease, liability to forest fires, or the proliferation of undesirable growth. And, the argument continues, is it truly in the public interest to preserve the inviolability of beautiful natural areas to the point where they can be enjoyed only by hardy hikers and climbers, rather than by the multitudes in their automobiles? Clearly, more state-operated campsites are needed for the thousands of campers who invade the Adirondacks every summer.

Those on the other side of the argument make one central point which they consider overwhelming: once the genuine wilderness—such of it as is left—is tampered with, there will be no end to depredations, and the primitive glory of the Adirondacks will be gone forever.

These and other relevant questions came up for contentious consideration at the 1967 State Constitutional Convention, when a highly publicized proposal for an Adirondack Mountains national park broke upon the scene. There was much vociferous opposition, yet some on both sides of the “forever wild” controversy could see tendencies in such a proposal that seemed to support their respective views of the matter. On one hand it resurrected hopes, possibly impracticable, of reconstituting in some measure the integral wilderness that antedated Murray and Colvin—by stemming, for instance, the current process of minutely subdividing long-wild private lands for private “vacation home” construction. On the other hand those who favor utility, developed recreation, and “managed” forest preserves know that federal operation would certainly mean extensive moves along those lines.

It may well be that in the end Americans will have to settle for what has been called “a woodsy middle landscape,” or “forever somewhat wild”—at least in the Adirondacks, which are under more intense population pressure than any other wilderness area with the possible exception of some in California. What is certain, on this hundredth anniversary of Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness , is that the ultimate fate of such areas cannot be left to chance or laissez faire . Otherwise there will be nothing remotely resembling wilderness for people to have adventures in.

TO OUR READERS An Adirondack Exhibition Easy Game “All Done From the Boat” ‘Huge Frozen Lake Trout” The Natives Were Restful A Thousand Lakes Elegant Lake George

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