Saturday, September 14, 2013

Commentary:
Preserving and Promoting Adirondac and the Upper Works

Signage at Blast FurnaceToday I conclude my series on Adirondac the the McIntyre Mines.  The deserted village of and the remains of the operation at Upper Works make for an evocative Adirondack destination.  Though this abandoned settlement’s historically significant mining heritage is known among locals, history buffs, and High Peaks backpackers who use the Upper Works trailhead, it is by no means widely known, or even somewhat known.   There are great benefits to be had if this fact changes.

When the Open Space Institute purchased the Tahawus Tract from NL Industries they put a terrific plan in place to designate the area containing Adirondac and the 1854 blast furnace as a historic district.  Work began some years ago to stabilize and preserve the furnace, the one original village building, McMartin House (or MacNaughton Cottage)  and the cemetery.  However the work has taken years and  I hear through the grapevine that funding is an obstacle.  As a result the implementation of the historic district has been slow. 

The result is an under-appreciated gem.  The Adirondac Historic District is off the beaten path and is not marketed or talked about as a vacation destination.  There are no promotional efforts, no facilities to speak of, almost no tourism IQ.  On the one hand I like that this helps preserve the lonely mystery of the place (or did, until recently… while the atmosphere of the village has changed little, the blast furnace to the south has been interpreted with excellent signs and a pathway with wooden fencing and viewing platforms that guide visitors to lookouts over the remains of the dam and machinery by which the Husdon provided power ).  On the other hand the economy of the central Adirondacks can use all the help it can get from a better known and more compelling draw.

In my view Adirondac and the Upper Works represent a significant asset that together with other Adirondack assets in the region constitute a golden opportunity to bolster the fortunes of nearby communities, specifically Newcomb.  I think a historic ghost town like Adirondac offers a great value proposition: everyone loves a ghost town, historic areas are very marketable, this area can be driven to and it is accessible to people of any age, physical condition and income level.

My feelings about the potential of Adirondac are supported by a lot of personal experience.  Of the few dozen people with whom I have shared my love of the Adirondacks by bringing or sending them here, almost all have been more interested in Adirondac than anything else I have mentioned.  If I say “Olympic facilities” or “Whiteface Memorial Highway,” interest varies.  But when I say “historic ghost town” the reaction is usually pretty strong.  People love that sort of thing.  Plus, of course, they can easily choose to combine it with a wilderness hike, exactly the kind of potent combination the Adirondacks ought to be known for.

However consistent my personal experience with Adirondac’s allure may be, I feel it is incumbent upon me to take a more serious look.  Two weeks ago in a comment on my Open Letter to Governor Cuomo I was challenged by a regular Almanack reader to make specific recommendations on how a Wilderness classification for the Essex Chain and Upper Hudson River corridor could be leveraged to benefit Newcomb and build tourism instead of restricting it, as those who support a Wild Forest classification have insisted will be the case.  Having taken up that challenge I have been looking at some interesting work being done in the park to evaluate new modes of tourism that have a great deal of potential upside.  An Adirondac Historic District is a perfect fit these new initiatives, as is a protected Upper Hudson area.

While I am not ready to write that column just yet, a prerequisite is to have a historic district that has real appeal and makes the best use of what’s there.  With that in mind, here are some suggestions.

First, I thought about what priorities I would have if the decisions were mine.  There seemed to be some very important things to preserve about this area other than the buildings themselves.  I came up with two organizing principles:

I.             Exclusively preserve the historic character of the area as a mining operation

There have been many events and activities at the Upper Works dating from the 1830’s to the present day.  But by far the most historically significant era is the mining operation.  A focus exclusively on that era alone makes a lot of sense.  I would include the period after 1857 when a caretaker was present as part of this (especially considering that one of still-standing markers in the cemetery is of the caretaker’s family), but would end before the club era.

The obvious and sole exception to this in my mind would be an acknowledgement of Teddy Roosevelt’s historic visit during which he became President.  Fortunately Roosevelt stayed at McMartin House, the same house that is original to the mining era, therefore he could be memorialized as a part of that restoration.

II.            Preserve at all costs the remote, wilderness character of the Upper Works area

This is the tricky one, the principle that I imagine would engender the most debate. But to me it is without question the most important one.  The profound loneliness of the area evokes a feeling of past that no curatorship could hope to achieve.    No matter the limitations, it would be tragic to lose the sense of the place, the formidable challenge of carving an enterprise out of the wilderness, the ultimate futility of the effort and the palpable feel of abandonment.  In addition, the wildness of the place contributes to the power of discovery.  There are many remaining artifacts that can be found.  Following an interpreted and marked path to some old artifact cannot possibly compare to finding it with a little nosing around, a little exploring.  Who among us does not relish the discovery of history as opposed to the presentation of it?

With these organizing principles in mind, I came up with the following ideas:

A.            Restoration of the McMartin Cottage to its approximate state when David Henderson lived there.  I would not make it a museum per se, in keeping with Principle II, but rather restore and maintain it simply as an authentic structure.  A plaque or other identifying marker could commemorate Teddy Roosevelt’s stay there.

B.            Removal of all structures and artifacts in Adirondac that post-date the mining era.  This would include all other cottages, pumping stations, power lines, wiring, refuse, bridge foundations, etc.

While none of the other cottages themselves date from the mining era, some of them are built on the foundations of mining-era structures.  I would preserve these foundations to add to the sense of history and also to give some indication of the extent of the town.

C.            Possible restoration of one of the hill cottages as an interpretive center/museum.  If there were to be a museum on site, one of the hill cottages might serve well for that purpose.  These seem to be in better condition than the cottages along the road or across the river and their position, set back from the road and out of the way, would make the museum less intrusive in keeping with the idea of wilderness.

D.            Conservation of the cemetery.  The historic importance, research benefits and respect for the people who rest there dictate this choice.  Fortunately this is already being done.

E.            Identification and conservation of all other mining artifacts and evidence in the district.  There is much that is still to be found, including the original furnace, which, although reduced to a pile of stone and iron bars, is still important.  There are various other items of machinery strewn about which could be researched and conserved.

F.           Rebuild the charging bridge, approximating the original design.  While in general I would not add to what is already at the Upper Works, it occurred to me on a recent visit that rebuilding the charging bridge to the blast furnace would provide an unmistakable and dramatic entrance and an announcement of the historic district while still keeping with character of the preservation.  The charging bridge could have signage and also have a sheltered area with interpretive maps or other materials.  This would accomplish the need to provide information to visitors up front without having to have other information sources placed throughout the site.

G.            Provide a rapidly biodegrading brochure that contained a succinct history of the works plus a map and identification of extant artifacts and structures as well as indicators of where other structures used to be (school, forge, etc).  The brochure could document a timeline and cross-reference it with the artifacts and structures.  One of the most lovely things I have found in exploring the site is that enough remains here and there to render a fairly complete timeline from the early 1830’s until abandonment of the enterprise.

H.            Eschew any other signage or identifiers in the district or any other modern improvements except toilet facilities.  Maintain minimal natural paths or trails to sites.  The idea would be that the map would provide enough information for explorers to find what they desired, but that upon proceeding past the entrance visitors would find the town and works to be essentially as wild and lonely as today.  Discovery of artifacts using the map would be a compatible – and wonderful – experience, preserving the wild, lonely aura of the place for all time.

OSI is doing great work to save a precious asset.  But whatever becomes of the historic district, it will take more money and time.  Let’s hope that the work gains momentum because foresighted people see that not only is Adirondac and the Upper Works valuable in its own rite, but also valuable as part of an economic impetus to the central region.  In a future Dispatch I will explore that possibility in detail.

Photo: new interpretive signage at the 1854 blast furnace

Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson has been a lover of the Adirondacks since his family discovered Blue Mountain Lake in 1954 and made it a family summer destination. As the years have passed, his love for unspoiled territory has changed his focus to wilder areas in the Central and Western Adirondacks and the High Peaks.

Pete recently purchased an Adirondack in-holding and writes about his adventures exploring it.

When not in the Adirondacks Pete is a college math teacher, musician and professional stilt walker in Madison, Wisconsin.



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12 Responses

  1. Scott van Laer Scott says:

    Ghost Towns are a major tourist attraction in the west. I always felt this Ghost Town could be publicised better to become a tourist destination. Unfortunately abandoned buildings deteriorate much quicker in the East.

    There could be a clustering of associated facilities around upper works on easement or private lands as well. A museum, bar/restaurant, ADK Loj type facility. The rail line has recently been cleared. Imagine taking the train into ADK Loj? There is great potential here and the Newcomb area.

    I always thought that Great Camp Santanoni was under utilized and should be an interpretive or sturbridge village type reenactment area, showing how the camp was managed, including the farm area.

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  2. I was thinking along the same lines, Pete. Here is a letter I wrote to George Cannon this week.

    Monday, September 9, 2013
    Dear George Canon,
    We met about fifteen years ago on an AARCH tour of Tahawus. You told the stories of the Upper Works, the buildings, the town, the furnace, the people, the land, and the river. I have forgotten the names of the kindred spirits on that tour but I remember the grand dreams that we spoke that day. None of us ever imagined that we would see the day when our dreams manifested. But yesterday was that day.
    On Sunday, September 8, 2013, my eyes beheld a glorious sight. A crowd gathered beside the blast furnace for the “ribbon-cutting” ceremony of an interpretive site at Upper Works. Thank-you, thank-you was heard all around and then, instead of cutting a ribbon, the final oak pin was pounded in with a rubber mallet. The mallet was handed round for several taps until the final swings were made by a lefty. A perfect ending!
    After the crowd left, I rode up past the old village, turned around at the gate, and slowly cruised back on my motorcycle past the deserted blast furnace. As I paused, I realized there were some names that needed to be spoken that day. Ed Ketchledge. Barbara McMartin. Judy and Warder Cadbury. Oh, how they all must have been smiling that day. How they all must be so happy and proud to see that we can work together; that we can appreciate history, wilderness, and community; that we can stop bickering and complaining and find common ground on which to create a heritage for our followers.
    This project is an example of what is possible when we work together. It shows what can be done throughout the Adirondack Park. It shows what Adirondackers are made of. It makes me proud to call the Adirondacks my home.
    One final word. Stewardship. When we are done patting ourselves on the back, we must remember that we have to promote, care for, and maintain the Upper Works site. We have taken a huge step but we can’t sit down and rest. We must continue our stewardship.
    With highest praise for all the cloud-splitters who made this dream come true,
    Sandra Weber

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  3. Paul Hai Paul Hai says:

    Pete’s passion for the Upper Works and its potential role in promoting understanding and visitation to the region shines through this essay and is much appreciated.

    However, that passion, as outlined above, misses several important points, first and foremost of which is that the history of the Upper Works did not stop when iron production ceased in 1856, and to suggest so ignores a great deal of complex, interesting, and important history about not just Newcomb, but the Adirondacks.

    That history includes, but is not limited to, the establishment of one of the earliest sportsmen’s clubs and almost certainly the first to engage in fisheries-related conservation; the well-known history of TR’s association with the community; the revitalization of a resource-extractive industry and the subsequent collapse, and second abandonment of the Upper Works.

    All these aspects of the Upper Works story are valuable and vital to explore in the context of gaining a better understanding of how we use, manage, recreate in, live in, and understand the Adirondacks, in order to more responsibly consider the impacts, opportunities, and challenges of our human presence here through time and into the future. This examination of our role is especially valuable to address as the railroad is reopened and we must confront how we avoid another boom and bust cycle, and decide what, if any, economic activity is appropriate and how to sustain it in the Upper Works area.

    There is great work being done by the Town of Newcomb, in partnership with OSI, DEC, SUNY-ESF and others, to embrace this unique legacy for the benefit of all who are interested, while also benefiting the community of Newcomb.

    That work rightfully includes a broad telling of the history of Upper Works, and should continue to look beyond only one aspect, though dynamic, on the continuum of time.

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    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Paul H:

      This is the sort of comment that makes the Almanack valuable, that validates a blog structure which allows comment and discussion (which too often is instead demeaned by inanity).

      I have no argument with any of your comments. I am well aware of the longer history of Upper Works and agree it needs to be documented, understood and considered in the context of current times (especially with the reopened railroad).

      However I think John is right in his first sentence below. I think that the goal of making Adirondac an appealing and known historical tourism destination is not the same goal as preserving and understanding all of its history. That is not to say these different priorities are in conflict – I’m sure they are not.

      My suggestions are a lay-person’s food for thought, based upon the aspects of Adirondac that have most resonated with me and others I know who have become fascinated with it. The mystery and feel of a long-abandoned mining operation from more than a century ago, surrounded by wilderness and echoes, is just that.

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      • Paul Hai Paul Hai says:

        Pete, I completely agree, the early iron history at the Upper Works (and throughout the valley) is absolutely fantastic, and one of the most compelling and inter-disciplinary educational sites I have ever been fortunate enough to work with.

        Many people and organizations have been working hard in partnership for almost a decade, since OSI’s purchase of the tract, to thoughtfully consider, develop, and implement an interpretive plan for the area that will present the story of iron production in all its multiple facets, while also working as a mechanism to bring more people and economic activity to Newcomb.

        That work culminated in the recent ribbon cutting, and an accompanying interpretive plan newly released by OSI. The plan itself was created over several years beginning with OSI advertising public meetings and inviting any and all interested parties to participate. The early meetings had 25-30 people attending, and worked to establish the core story and overarching themes forming the backbone of the interpretation proposed for the Upper Works.

        You and I (and everyone else I’m pretty sure) agree the McIntyre era should be (and is) the focal point of the interpretation, but other aspects of the story beyond the 19th century iron works do need to be infused, which from my reading of your original post seemed to be at odds with several of your points/recommendations.

        In addition, you strongly eschewed interpretive signage, which I can appreciate, but there are a number of factors (and alternatives)that were considered before OSI decided to adopt a plan that included the signage now in place (phase one) and the additional signage identified for the future (phase two).

        I anticipate OSI will be posting more of the interpretive plan on their website soon, where you can already find the artwork for the panels now in place at the 1855 furnace. http://www.osiny.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8571

        If you would like to see the full interpretive plan in person I am happy to share my copy with you, and would look forward to continuing this conversation (and starting a host of new ones) about a place you and I both love and are committed to bringing to a broader audience. You are welcome to contact me directly and John can share my email with you.

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  4. John Warren John Warren says:

    Historic sites do not need to cover every event on the “continuum of time”. Indeed, the worst examples of historic sites in this state attempt to do just that.

    On the other hand, a single minor episode in the life TR was a good place to start 20 years ago, but it’s no basis for developing an integrative and compelling approach to this valuable historic resource. There needs to be a balance. It doesn’t need to be politicized.

    It needs to be inclusive, and that means the history of native Americans, workers, women, the destruction of a half dozen species by humans, and a lot more have at least as much claim to the history of this place as the histories laid out by Paul and Pete.

    But whatever stories are told, it’s clear that so far, there has been a failure to preserve and promote this area for the outstanding historical resource it is. Rather than jumping straight to the shortcomings of Pete’s analysis of what to do about it, we should applaud his recognition of that fact and offer ideas about how to get going.

    The work done so far has been good, but it’s a far cry from what should have been done by now (why, for example, was the history community and general public largely not informed about the September 8 event Sandra Weber attended?).

    That’s not the fault of OSI, DEC, and SUNY. Our public, academic, and professional historians have job descriptions which require efforts to build and promote community historical resources. They have been absent. The mining industry, the railroad, sportsmen’s organizations, environmental preservationists, summer residents and most local people – myself included – have been absent.

    I’m proposing a one-day conference on our region’s historic resources and their role in tourism and economic development with a goal of promoting cooperation in applications to the regional economic development councils, the Governor’s Path Through History project, (and other funders and partners), and perhaps most importantly to establish a regularly meeting framework for each Adirondack county to address these issues.

    You’ll be hearing more about this in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’d welcome ideas for speakers, panels, facilities, etc.

    John Warren
    Editor
    The New York History Blog
    (My Other Hat)

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  5. Paul says:

    Has there been any efforts to save and restore the railroad depot that is near Lake Lila? Imagine if Forest Lodge could have been preserved? (I think the family wanted it razed) That would be a great stop on the expanded Adirondack RR. Bring your canoe in on the train and stay at the lodge. How cool would that be?

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  6. Paul says:

    “Possible restoration of one of the hill cottages as an interpretive center/museum.”

    Pete, don’t you think this kind of thing would ruin what is really neat about that place?

    It would definitely help bring in more visitors most people eat up that kind of stuff. The Wild Center in Tupper lake seems very popular yet all of what it contains can been seen in a much neater way that doesn’t require a museum!

    Here you are kind of talking about an interpretive function to educate people on the importance of commercial development in the Adirondacks.

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    • John Warren John Warren says:

      “yet all of what it contains can been seen in a much neater way that doesn’t require a museum”

      You have obviously not been to the Wild Center lately.

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      • Paul says:

        John yes, you are right I was way over generalizing. I was there this summer. We are members. Sometimes I think that having things in a tank is more popular for some people than having to go out and find it in the wild. I am guilty as charged.

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        • Sandra Weber Sandra Weber says:

          And we have both and need both (fish in a tank and fish in the wild). Some people are only physically, and mentally, able to appreciate fish in a tank. A lot of other people need to see fish in a tank to begin to appreciate and understand what those fish are and what they represent. Only then are they able to take the next step to venture out to see fish in the wild and to help preserve those fish and their habitat.

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