SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
January 28, 1980
Though Twain and T.R. knew it, and Lake Placid lies within it, Adirondack Park is our "best-kept secret"
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January 28, 1980

"no Landscape More Brightly Gemmed"

Though Twain and T.R. knew it, and Lake Placid lies within it, Adirondack Park is our "best-kept secret"

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The first European to see the Adirondacks was Samuel de Champlain, who in 1609, with a band of Algonquins, explored the lake that now bears his name. His brief visit was important because it eventually led to Canada's becoming British rather than French territory. Encountering 200 Iroquois, Champlain shot two of them, including the chief, thereby implanting a hatred of the French that prompted the Iroquois to ally themselves with England.

Forbidding to settlers, the Adirondacks—or the Greater Wilderness, as the area was known—remained largely unexplored until the late 19th century. The Adirondack historian Alfred Donaldson wrote in 1921 that Stanley had found Livingstone and made the world familiar with the depths of Africa before most New Yorkers knew anything definite about the wilderness in their own backyard. In fact, the highest source of the Hudson River, Lake Tear of the Clouds on the southwest shoulder of Mount Marcy, was not discovered until 1872, 10 years after the discovery of the source of the Nile, and as recently as 1960 Paul Schaefer of Schenectady found a deep glacial lake in the east central Adirondacks that was unknown to county and state officials and unmarked on U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps.

Well into the 19th century the Adirondacks continued to be called the Greater Wilderness. A smaller region, the Tug Hill Plateau to the west, was known as the Lesser Wilderness. The plateau, which rises to 2,000 feet, is directly in line with west-east storms coming off the Great Lakes and it draws much of the precipitation that would otherwise fall on the Adirondacks. The plateau gets 18 to 20 feet of snow in winter, the heaviest east of the Rockies, while the Adirondacks average 10 feet.

Before the Revolution, the colonial government sold off some tracts in the Adirondacks, and the state, which fell heir to the crown lands at the end of the war, did the same. But for the most part the tracts were bought by speculators and remained unsettled. John Brown of Providence (no kin to the abolitionist), a wealthy merchant for whose family Brown University was named, bought 200,000 acres in 1794. Although Brown divided the tract into eight townships, which he named Industry, Enterprise, Perseverance, Unanimity, Frugality, Sobriety, Economy and Regularity for the acquisitive virtues he esteemed, he failed to attract settlers because, as noted in a letter from Brown's son-in-law, the "region was so barren a crow would shed tears of sorrow while flying over it."

Still the Adirondacks proved vulnerable to exploitation by trappers, hunters and loggers. The beaver was highly prized by the Dutch settlers, who took great numbers to satisfy the European demand for skins. The animal was so esteemed that it was incorporated into the seal of New York City. By 1820 trapping pressure had nearly wiped out the beaver population; only 1,000 or so were left in the mountains. When trapping was finally prohibited in 1897, perhaps only a dozen survived. Thanks to the efforts of an Adirondack enthusiast named Harry Radford, 34 beavers were imported in the early 1900s, some from as far away as Montana, to augment the native stock. The beavers have flourished to such an extent that they have spread as far south as Westchester County, just north of New York City.

Hunters did in the moose by 1861, and wolves disappeared a few years later. Contrary to popular belief, moose were never abundant in the Adirondacks, and it would be difficult to reestablish the species today. When lumbermen began logging they opened up the forests to white-tailed deer, which thrived on the new plant growth. The deer carry a brain-worm parasite to which they are immune, but which is fatal to the moose.

Lumbering had by far the biggest effect on the Adirondacks. In 1813 two brothers, Alanson and Norman Fox, began cutting on the banks of the Schroon River and originated the practice of driving single logs down the Schroon and into the Hudson, and thence to mills at Glens Falls. This revolutionary method of sending logs downstream was so successful that other lumbermen began branding their own logs with distinctive designs, and the state legislature declared a number of Adirondack streams and rivers to be official public highways for logs. Glens Falls literally became a boomtown when a chain, or boom, was set across the Hudson to contain the logs coming from the Adirondacks.

By 1850 New York was the leading lumber state. At first the lumbermen cut only the biggest pines, hemlocks and spruce for building materials, and spared the ash, maple, birch and other hardwoods because they didn't float well. In the 1860s a new method of making pulp with chemicals made the smaller softwoods worth cutting, and the introduction of railroads made the cutting of hardwoods feasible. Although the railroads served as a boon to the tourist trade that burgeoned in the late 19th century, the locomotives threw off sparks which often ignited the logging slash, and every year thousands of acres went up in smoke. As early as the 1870s the rapacious pace of logging, often on state lands, caused public uproar.

Incredible as it may seem, the tourist boom came to the Adirondacks because of one book, Adventures in the Wilderness, written by the Reverend William Murray, a young Congregational minister in Boston. Although a dozen other books had been devoted to the Adirondacks, none had the impact of Murray's, which appeared in April of 1869. It literally inspired a stampede of tourists to the mountains that summer.

An article in Harper's described the crowd boarding a Lake Champlain steamer bound for the mountains: "Immediately a small boy came up and proffered 'Murray'; other small boys were observed to waylay the procession below and tender copies of 'Murray.' The procession was continuous. It was a moving phantasm of sea-side hats, waterproofs, blanket-shawls, fish-poles, old felts, mackintoshes, reticules, trout-rods, fish-baskets, carpetbags, guns, valises, rubber boots, umbrellas, lap-rugs, hunting-dogs, guide-books and maps. There were old women, misses, youngsters, spinsters, invalids, students, sports, artists, and jolly good fellows. Behind followed innumerable vans, crates, and barrows of miscellaneous luggage."

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