BY LISA DENSMORE
“Had I my way, I would mark out a circle of a hundred miles in diameter, and throw around it the protecting aegis of the constitution. I would make it a forest forever. It would be a misdemeanor to chop down a tree and a felony to clear an acre within its boundaries.”
— S.H. Hammond, “Wild Northern Scenes; or Sporting Adventures with the Rifle and the Rod” (1857).
Happy New Year! As you make plans to explore Lake Placid and the Adirondacks this year in conjunction with the 2013 OWAA annual conference, I thought I would offer this short primer on the history of the Adirondack Park to better ground you in the place where I grew up and where my great-grandfather was an early settler. The following is an excerpt from my book, “Hiking the Adirondacks”:
The commonly accepted origin of the name, “Adirondack,” is from the Iroquois word, “ha-de-ron-dah,” which means “bark eater.” The Iroquois who traveled into the Adirondacks in late pre-historic times to hunt, fish and gather plants, called the Algonquins “bark eaters” as an insult. The Mohawk, one of the six Iroquios nations, had a similar word, “ratirondacks,” which also translated to “they eat trees.” The Algonquins and the Mohawks were likely the first to live in the region shortly after the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, on the west side of Lake Champlain.
The first European to see the Adirondacks was likely Samuel de Champlain. In 1609, de Champlain sailed up the Saint Lawrence River to the north of today’s Adirondack Park and the “Riviere de Iroquois” near what would become the location of Ticonderoga on the northern tip of Lake George. By the mid-1700s, Ticonderoga and the eastern edge of the Adirondacks were of strategic military importance. In 1758, the British captured “Carillon,” a fort built by the French, and renamed it Fort Ticonderoga in an important battle during the French and Indian War. Seventeen years later, the Americans claimed an early victory during the Revolutionary War, capturing Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Cannons from here were then used to drive the British out of Boston.
By the late 1700s, opportunities for iron ore and logging enticed people into the interior of the Adirondacks, though serious exploration of the region did not occur for another 100 years. In 1883, the state of New York commissioned Verplanck Colvin to survey and map the Adirondack wilderness. Around this same time, the public began to romanticize wilderness areas. Writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and painters such as Frederic Remington who canoed the Oswegatchie River and William James Stillman who spent the summer of 1857 near Raquette Lake, portrayed the region as one of untouched beauty and serenity, which in turn triggered an influx of tourism. Over 200 hotels sprang up and the wealthiest built many of the Adirondack “Great Camps” during this heyday.
Also in the latter half of the 19th century, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, ill with tuberculosis, moved to Saranac Lake. In 1884, he founded a sanatorium and laboratory for the study and treatment of the disease, which attracted tuberculosis patients from all over the world in need of “fresh air and complete bed rest.” Today, the “cure cottages” still remain, though now as private homes in this part of the High Peaks region.
Dismayed by over-logging and intense human intrusion into the pristine Adirondacks, Colvin urged the state of New York to create a forest preserve to protect the area as a water source for the Erie Canal, which was an important part of the state’s economy at the time. In 1885, the state created the Adirondack Forest Preserve, followed in 1892 by the Adirondack Park, which was integrated into New York’s constitution, which states:
“The lands of the State … shall forever be kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, nor shall timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
The Adirondack Forest Preserve and Park were later used as a model for the National Wilderness Act of 1964.
Though there are expansive tracts of designated wilderness within the Adirondacks, it is really a patchwork of public and private lands. The economy of the Adirondacks remains dependent on tourism, logging and mining… About 52 percent of the land is privately owned, though the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) controls the extent to which humans can modify even private land within the park. Growth is allowed primarily within existing communities and where roads, utilities and other services already exist, leaving wilderness areas forever wild.
Some of the most influential people in the world of environmental conservation have spent time in the Adirondacks. The foresterwilderness activist Bob Marshall visited the Adirondacks frequently in his youth in the early 1900s. In 1924, Marshall, along with his brother and a guide from Saranac Lake, became the first to climb all 46 peaks in the park over 4,000 feet. Mount Marshall, one of the most remote mountains in the High Peaks Region of the park, was named in his honor.
Though they didn’t climb 46 peaks, other influential people have spent time in the Adirondacks over the years, including Henry Hudson, John Brown (the abolitionist), Wil Durant, Paul Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Edison, James Fenimore Cooper, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Presidents Harrison, Coolidge, Hoover, and both Roosevelts. You’re next! Want to know more? Here’s a reading list to help ground you in the Adirondack’s history and heritage, to guide you where you want to go, and a couple of suggestions to simply amuse you. Happy researching!
“Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks: Writings of a Pioneering Peak Bagger, Pond-Hopper and Wilderness Preservationist,” by Phil Brown (Lost Pond Printers, 2006)
“The Adirondack Atlas: A Geographic Portrait of the Adirondack Park,” by Jerry C. Jenkins, Andy Keal (Syracuse University Press, 2004)
“Hiking the Adirondacks,” by Lisa Densmore (FalconGuides, 2010)
“Best Easy Day Hikes Adirondacks,” by Lisa Densmore (FalconGuides, 2011)
“The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Wilderness,” by Paul Schneider (Holt Paperbacks, 1998)
“Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness,” by Anne LaBastille (Penguin Books, 1991)
“Discover the Adirondacks: AMC’s guide to the best hiking, biking, and paddling,” by Peter Kick (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2012)
“At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tragedy in New York’s Adirondacks,” by Peter Bronski (The Lyons Press, 2008)
“Loon Lake,” by E.L. Doctorow (Random House, 2007)
“Lake Placid: Then and Now,” by Laura Russell Viscome (Arcadia Publishing Books, 2008) ◊
A former OWAA board member and an award-winning television producer, writer and photographer, Lisa Densmore is local Chair of the 2013 OWAA conference in Lake Placid, N.Y. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.