“A citizen may not have title to his home, but he does have an undivided deed to this Adirondack land of solitude and peace and tranquility. To him belong the sparkling lakes tucked away in the deep woods and the cold, pure rivers which thread like quicksilver through lush mountain valleys. His determination to preserve his personal treasure for posterity has been tempered by memories of campfires, and strengthened by pack-laden tramps along wilderness trails and by mountaintop views of his chosen land. To him the South Branch of the Moose is a River of Opportunity, for he has come to regard it as the front line of defense against the commercial invasion of his Forest Preserve.”
When John Apperson retired from G.E. in 1947 he began to narrow the scope of his environmental conservation activities, leaving the leadership of the battle against the Panther Dam project largely to his protégé Paul Schaefer. He continued, however, to vigorously defend the islands at Lake George. A few years earlier, when the State of New York initiated a suit against the owners of a dam at Ticonderoga, Apperson served as chief witness for the State. This litigation, now known as the Trespass Case, continued over many years, pitting Apperson against Lithgow Osborne, Conservation Commissioner (in 1942) and Charles H. Tuttle, attorney for the Lake George Association (in 1951). This story has been passed over by many of the environmental historians, and it deserves our attention.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Lake George was already highly developed, with its hotels, steam boats, and centers of population. Once John Apperson started camping on its islands, around 1908, he made up his mind to do whatever he could to prevent further development. To paraphrase Mr. Richards, Apperson considered Lake George as his “Lake of Opportunity” and his “front line of defense against the commercial invasion of his Forest Preserve.” To him the issues were crystal clear. The owners of the dam at the northern outlet of Lake George, at Ticonderoga, were controlling the water levels of the lake…as if it were a mill dam! First he enlisted the help of hundreds of friends, hauling out rocks and boulders and building protective walls around the islands. Later he managed to persuade the state to help. However, the islands continued to disappear.
- Letter from Lithgow Osborne, Commissioner, State Conservation Department to Kenneth G. Reynolds, attorney. August 28, 1942
“While it is always a pleasure to see you it is anything but a pleasure to tolerate such a high grade crook as Mr. Apperson….What Messrs Apperson, Langmuir and Reynolds et al apparently want is to have the lake levels operated for their specific benefit and pleasure as campers and users of the lake. I don’t blame them for wanting that. But I should think they might recognize there are other interests involved and that it does not follow that the interests of the state are co-terminus with their own. And furthermore, that it is extremely improper for the state to back one set of private interests as against another set of private interests.”
- Letter to the Editor of the Post Star, August 22, 1951, by Charles Tuttle:
The impression created by Mr. Apperson’s statements that the islands are being washed away is utterly erroneous. I have been on this lake for over 70 years and have a painting done in 1864. The islands are still with us.
- Letter to the Editor of the Post Star, August 27, 1951, by John Apperson:
“…your…letter from Mr. Charles Tuttle… ignores the record of the court, also the list of islands in Lake George publicized by the Conservation Department, and other pertinent facts available to him. For instance, the Conservation Department includes Manhattan Island in their list which was damaged year after year until the last wild rosebush and other shrubs were washed off about 20 years ago. The part left underwater is now a hazard to navigation and is marked by two tin-can buoys. …Mr. Tuttle knows these facts but he testified in the court to the effect that no material damage to islands had occurred…”
So what happened after that? Here is a summary from the Apperson papers, apparently written after 1957…author unknown…
The 60 year-old controversy over Lake George water levels has been fully documented officially and unofficially but the material is too voluminous for most readers. …The Association intervened on the side of the power company in the suit brought by the State against the power company. This Association was also committed by agreements to high lake levels which flooded Forest Preserve land. Such use of Forest Preserve lands is forbidden by the State Constitution. It will be observed the lower court’s decision was unfavorable to the people of the State. Mr. Tuttle seemed satisfied and did not recommend an appeal to the higher court. However, after much effort and delay an appeal to the higher court was obtained. After 14 years of litigation the highest court in the State ruled in 1957 that the State had the sole right to regulate the water in the lake and the water in the outlet of the lake. While the court awarded the ownership of the dam site to the power company, the dam can only be operated as directed by the State, since the State has the sole authority to regulate the water. The private shore owners lost their riparian rights, having failed to assert them before the lapse of time.
Clearly, the Lake George Association sided with the owners of the dam, a commercial interest. They may have been disappointed by the outcome, and unhappy to relinquish control to the State.
Apperson and his Forest Preserve Association, trying to protect the islands in Lake George, fought to remove the artificial dam and restore the natural stone dam that had been in place in the nineteenth century. This strategy was unpopular, and they were unable to convince the judges. So, the Supreme Court decided to keep the dam and allow the power company to continue to operate it, but with state oversight.
Although Apperson may have been disappointed in the outcome, he could take comfort in the fact that he had stirred up interest in the important issue of riparian rights, and helped clarify policy regarding waterways in the Forest Preserve.
It would be interesting to know what scholars and attorneys can tell us today about the effects this ruling had on other litigation in the Forest Preserve. From my perspective, this case illustrates the courage and persistence of a remarkable man!
Photos by John Apperson: Above and middle, Lake George island erosion; below, a crew of island volunteers. More photos of erosion of the Lake George islands in the early 20th century, and other examples of Apperson’s documentary photography, can be found at on the Apperson Associates webpage.