Today 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