Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Indian Lake: The Troubled Acquisition of Township 15

Township 15 Map 1900Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: New York State makes a landmark Forest Preserve acquisition near Indian Lake. The seller is Finch, Pruyn & Co. The deal leads to controversy.

This is not another viewpoint on the Essex Chain, but a story from the past. In 1897 the state announced its intent to acquire two Totten and Crossfield townships located near Indian Lake; and like the modern Finch Pruyn acquisition that was recently consummated, this one was hailed as a landmark purchase full of benefits to the state. Then its flaws became exposed. More than simply sparking a debate over which land use would best benefit the local economy, this purchase directly impacted dozens of families—and it took more than two decades to resolve most of the issues. Some aspects of the purchase remain legal anomalies today.

To understand the story, it helps to first know the origins of Indian Lake as a logging boomtown in the middle of the nineteenth century. The first recorded settler in the area was Sabael Benedict, an Abenaki who arrived with his family during the Revolutionary War after hunting moose there for several years prior. Lumbermen inevitably discovered the area as they followed the Hudson River up from Glens Falls into the heart of the Adirondacks. In 1846 they built the first of several dams on the Indian River, which united three natural lakes into one larger flow called Indian Lake.

The loggers also cut roads to make it possible to transport men and materials, which in turn facilitated the ingress of settlers who established farms on the land that had been cleared by the loggers before them. They formed small communities where the main road from North Creek crossed the Indian and Cedar rivers; the commercial center that grew midway between these two sites eventually became the modern hamlet of Indian Lake.

Growth also occurred along the secondary roads that radiated outward from the town center, including one that followed Big Brook southeast through Township 15 toward the Hamilton-Warren county line. It was in this area, along the outlet stream of John Pond, that a handful of former loggers settled and established farms. The predominantly French Canadian origin of these settlers earned this outlying community the nickname Little Canada.

Not everyone who lived in Indian Lake was necessarily a landowner; the logging companies still controlled most of the acreage. Finch Pruyn & Co. owned Township 15, the large tract southeast of the village that included Big Brook and Little Canada. The lumbermen who would soon incorporate International Paper owned most of Township 32 to the south. Many of the town’s residents were therefore merely occupants of the companies’ lands—and by the turn of the century, this would become a problem for some of those people.

In 1897 the owners of Townships 15 and 32 desired a permanent flood control dam on Indian Lake. Finch Pruyn had enlarged the existing dam in 1861, but the Glens Falls lumbermen envisioned an even bigger structure capable of sustaining their Hudson River log drives for decades to come. To fund its construction they created the Indian River Company, a separate entity that they could jointly control. They then transferred ownership of both townships to this holding company and proposed their sale to the state: both tracts could be added to the newly created Adirondack Park if the Indian River Company could build and operate a dam on Indian Lake.

Township 15 Map 2014The subject properties were quite impressive. The founders of International Paper (which was incorporated a year later, in 1898) contributed 18,000 acres in Township 32, including Snowy Mountain and much of Indian Lake’s shoreline. The full size of a township is 25,000 acres; the 7,000 acres that were not included were Crotched Pond, farmland near Sabael, and a few lots that the state already owned. Finch Pruyn added 24,000 acres of Township 15, including the proposed dam site, Big Brook, Chimney Mountain, John Pond, and the site of what is now Lake Abanakee. Only a handful of lots totaling 1,000 acres had been omitted.

The state agreed to pay $164,000 for the combined 42,000-acre acquisition, and the Indian River Company agreed to build and operate the dam, which was to be located on this new state land. A Glens Falls newspaper, focusing on the dam’s potential to help regulate the flow of the Hudson River, hailed the deal as “a matter that will have an important bearing on the material prosperity of Glens Falls and other manufacturing towns on the Hudson river, and meanwhile assist the commercial interests of the state itself by improving the waterways for the purposes of navigation.” There was no mention whatsoever of the recreational or conservation value of the deal.

News of the pending acquisition of Township 15 did not sit well with the Delaware & Hudson’s Adirondack Railroad. This line originally ended at North Creek, but the railroad held long-term plans to continue its service across the heart of the Adirondacks all the way to Ottawa. However, this dream became a matter of urgency in 1897; there was no way for the railroad to get around Township 15, and once added to the Forest Preserve there would be no hope of securing a right-of-way across it. Therefore the company took preemptive measures to assert its claim to a travel corridor from North Creek to Indian Lake before the opportunity was lost forever.

The first step was to file maps of the proposed six-rod-wide corridor in the offices of each of the affected counties; this was done on September 18, 1897. The Warren County map showed the line swinging southwest from North River through Old Farm Clearing, around the south end of Thirteenth Lake, and along the west side of Hour Pond on an adventurous course that eventually led to Indian Lake. These maps—which only showed the route in relation to lot lines and major landmarks, without any further topographic detail—were sufficient to help the railroad obtain an injunction against the Indian River Company on October 1.

The Forest Preserve Board, for its part, took measures to protect its intended purchase by condemning Township 15 in its entirety—using eminent domain to protect the public’s interest. The state feared that railroad corridors through the new Adirondack Park would increase not only the risk of forest fires, but the price of land as well; this was a time when the state was trying to buy as much land as possible, as expediently as possible, within its limited budget. Of course, if left alone the railroad’s proposal might have failed on its own merits. While the sketch maps were convincing enough to produce the injunction, they were probably little more than hastily prepared props in a desperate legal maneuver. They could not have been the product of a serious survey, because the mountainous Hour Pond neighborhood should have convinced any competent engineer to look elsewhere. This was no place for locomotives.

The railroad’s suit ultimately died in the courts, and New York’s purchase of Township 15 was completed in 1898. However, it soon became apparent that the transaction had been deeply flawed. When selling the property, Finch Pruyn and the Indian River Company had ignored the existence of all the farmers and other occupants that had moved onto the land since mid-century. Whereas the lumbermen may have purchased the tract in its entirety, they had over time sold off dozens of lots to the newcomers. Of the two townships included in the deal, this became an issue especially on Township 15, of which roughly a third had been taken off of Finch Pruyn’s books—much more than the 1,000 acres originally excluded from the sale. In short, the lumbermen had sold the title to almost everything, including the lots they no longer owned.

Defective titles were a common occurrence during these years—perhaps a result of hasty purchasing decisions, poor record keeping, and inadequate surveys. Individuals were often able to cancel sales and redeem lands from the Forest Preserve by demonstrating that the state’s title was invalid due to a technicality—a clerk filing the notice on the wrong day of the month, for instance. But at Township 15 the issue seemed to be more genuine. Surveying the township only made the situation more complicated, because it “revealed cases of adverse occupancies [squatting] that were not known before,” as the Schenectady Gazette reported.

In 1914 the state sent the retired Justice Irving G. Vann to Indian Lake to serve as a referee in a special court session set up solely to settle the title disputes. Vann had been a Syracuse-based lawyer who served on the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals from 1882 until 1913, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. Burton H. Loucks, a title examiner for the new Conservation Commission, represented the state’s interests.

Each case was tried by reviewing the deeds and available records. A resident who could prove he or she had bought their land from Finch Pruyn before the state’s acquisition won a clear title, and the lot remained in private ownership. The state won in cases where there were no other records of a sale; these sections—which tended to be the remoter or more rugged parts of the township—became public land.

The tediousness of reviewing the status of each lot prompted Loucks to complain on the record about Finch Pruyn’s bookkeeping practices. A so-called “Township 15 book” in which many of the sales had been recorded was no longer in the company’s vault at its Glens Falls office, and none of the employees responsible for it could say where it had been taken. “The book ought to contain a record of all these transactions,” he said. “It is in the possession of somebody down there probably very close to the Indian River Company, and we have tried to impress on them that it is their business to produce it.”

When Vann and Loucks left Indian Lake at the end of this process, several thousand acres had been subtracted from the state’s original purchase in Township 15. Among the town’s residents, most of the successful litigants had been the landowners along the Indian River and what is now Chamberlain Road, Big Brook Road, and Route 28—the same places that remain residential areas today.

The residents of Little Canada in particular did not fare well at all, however, because no one—not the Starbuck, Dumars, King, or Savarie families—had been able to demonstrate ownership of the land they were farming. The state’s claim prevailed, and Vann ruled that the lots in Little Canada had become part of the Forest Preserve. The residents could not stay. The buildings were removed, the clearings later replanted with trees. Only the foundations, a cemetery, and a few artifacts would remain to bear witness to the settlement’s existence.

In 1919, the Indian River Company settled with the state when the latter sued for reimbursement. The original 1897 deed had included a provision to protect the state from defective titles, so attorneys for both sides agreed to the amount of $10,402.36 to close the issue once and for all. The amount was remitted to the state 22 years after the original purchase.

I came across the above information while researching the forthcoming fourth edition of Discover the South Central Adirondacks, which will be published this spring. Most of this information came from two sets of sources: contemporary newspaper accounts and the writings of Ted Aber, the late Hamilton County historian. Aber once attempted to use Little Canada’s history in the 1980s as persuasive justification for keeping the old John Pond Road open to four-wheel-drive vehicles. He claimed that the detailed records of the Township 15 hearings were still on file in the County Clerks’ offices of Hamilton and Essex counties. I am by no means a practiced historian, so I can only imagine how much richer this story might be in the hands of someone with the time to research and flush out all the details.

Not all of the legal issues stemming from the Township 15 purchase have been resolved, however. The dam that the Indian River Company agreed to build and maintain in 1898 is the same structure that impounds Indian Lake as we know it today. The terms of the agreement allowed the Indian River Company to build it on state land and operate it for “lumbering purposes,” in effect creating an easement that allowed water releases only for the benefit of downstream logging activities. Does it matter that log driving came to an end on Indian Lake in 1942, and on the Hudson River in 1950, leaving the dam orphaned from its original legal purpose? This question resurfaces from time to time whenever any modification to the Indian Lake dam is proposed, including the way it is used. The cleanest legal resolution would be a constitutional amendment that clarifies the role of the dam and the adjacent caretaker’s residence.

Until that happens, the saga of Township 15 will continue.

Bill Ingersoll

Bill Ingersoll

Bill Ingersoll has hiked and backpacked in wildernesses across America, but feels most at home in the grand forests of the Adirondacks. He became a co-author (with Barbara McMartin) of the Discover the Adirondacks guidebook series in 2000 and is currently the series' publisher. Additionally, his articles and photos have appeared in Adirondack Explorer, Adirondack Sports & Fitness, and Adirondack Life magazines.

A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Ingersoll serves on the conservation committee for the Adirondack Mountain Club. You will find him exploring the North Country with his dog Lexie in all four seasons, by trail, snowshoe, and canoe.


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5 Responses

  1. Charlie herr says:

    Great history. My kind of story, important but little noted elsewhere.

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  2. Ryan says:

    Thank you for the interesting historical info, Bill. I’m looking forward to the fourth edition of Discover the South Central Adirondacks, as well.

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  3. Charles C. Morrison says:

    Interesting, Bill. Thanks for the good story. Here is another part of it.

    In 1981, SNC Adirondack Hydro filed an application with FERC for a Preliminary Permit to study the feasibility of a hydro project on Indian Lake dam. In reviewing the proposal, DEC staff, myself included, soon discovered that the deed said that the State owned the dam and the land under and around it, meaning it was Forest Preserve (just as the bed of Indian Lake has been treated as Forest Preserve for temporary permit purposes), all part of the same State purchase from the Indian River Company in 1897, with the dam being built in 1898 by the Indian River Company, as you said, involving thousands of acres.

    The State, under the deed, has first call (perhaps never really exercised) on releases for purposes of watering the Glens Falls Feeder Canal whereas the IRC had the right to make releases only for lumbering (floating logs) purposes and the last log drive on the Hudson took place in 1954. Not long after that Niagara Mohawk joined the IRC consortium and IRC began regular releases to augment the flow in the Hudson for downstream hydroelectric generation.

    DEC subsequently filed an objection with FERC on the grounds that it could not issue the crucial 401 Water Quality Certification for a hydro development on a Forest Preserve dam without violating Article 14. It also submitted a copy of its analysis of the deed for the record.

    There also was a separate issue of the gatekeepers house at the dam, with a barn and livestock and a garden on Forest Preserve land. The house was built in 1875 by the IRC. It is still there. In 1916, the house was investigated by Commissioner Pratt as being an Article 14 (then Article 7) violation. Nothing came of it. In 1949 the Conservation Dept. requested and received an AG’s Opinion to the effect that all of this constituted an Article 14 violation. In this instance nothing was done to enforce the law either.

    In 1984 the IRC (Joe Cleary from Niagagra Mohawk as Secretary) was called in to DEC Commissioner Henry G. Williams’ office at 50 Wolf Road and was told by the Commissioner and General Counsel Nick Robinson to remove the structures and restore the land. IRC did not comply but instead spent money rehabilitating the dam. In 1986, then DEC General Counsel Janice Corr turned the case over to the AG’s staff for enforcement. The Sierra Club (Per Moberg, Tom Kligerman, Jim Dumont)pushed strongly to have the case addressed. Jim, a lawyer,later prepared a draft brief with which to intervene but it was not filed.

    However, in 1988 the case took another twist when the IRC turned what they presumed was their share of the ownership of the dam (the right to make releases to float logs which, in reality, was no longer what the releases were being used for),over to the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District with a quit claim deed, for $1.00. HRBRRD is a State agency, in effect, whose establishment and operation is authorized by Article 15 of the Environmental Conservation Law.

    Ultimately,in the 1990s now,DEC legal staff (Jim Economides) and the AG;s staff (Arthur Conduzio in later years) dropped the case because they felt that the Supreme Court judge handling it would just say that the matter of an Article 14 violation should be settled by DEC and HRBRRD within the Executive Branch of State government. Also,HRBRRD was now arguing that the house was needed at the dam so that their “renters” (for decades now the occupants had full-time “outside” jobs and had very little to do with “gatekeeping”)could keep their eyes on things at the dam for safety and security reasons. But the occupants are not obliged to be there during the day. They are not HRBRRD employees. Security-safety objectives could be served by having a qualified security person drive in to the dam a few times a day. DEC and HRBRRD have not knocked heads at all to settle this matter, of course, because DEC has not pursued it.

    To make things worse, in 1996 then-AG Dennis Vacco settled out of court with the HRBRRD and specified that the HRRBRRD could leave the house standing indefinitely and if it ever burned down they could build a new house on the Forest Preserve! Such an agreement under these conditions could well be entirely illegal. Then the judge on the case approved the agreement. So much for Article 14! Again, DEC has not pursued it.

    You can read about this in the Jessup River UMP. The main text has a lot of errors in it and should be corrected, but in the appendices you will find Vacco’s pact. In recent years, APA tried to classify the land at the dam as Administrative, which would allow a structure to remain if it was being legitimately used for safety and security and dam operation purposes. But, while the presence of a house at the dam, regardless of ownership and empty or not, may discourage vandalism problems directly in front of it,the rental house in this case is not really used for Administrative purposes.

    In 2006, knowing nothing about the 1981 FERC case, the Town of Indian Lake filed with FERC for a Preliminary Permit, spurred by the then-President of the Indian Lake Association. A delegation,including myself,from The Association to Protect the Adirondacks met with the Town Supervisor and the Indian Lake Association President and explained the SNC Adirondack case. They kept insisting on forging ahead. Finally,a year and a half later, after Chris Amato, DEC’s Assistant Commissioner for Natural Resources who had been involved in the 1981 case when he was on APA’s staff, gave them the facts and they stopped work. FERC cancelled their permit in December, 2008.

    Bill, as you know, there are many dams on Forest Preserve land.It would not be a good idea to make an Article 14 exception for this one to allow hydro development on it. Bad precedent.

    There are other problems too. This is a Forest Preserve dam and DEC has a fundamental responsibility for its care and custody although DEC never maintained or operated the dam, leaving that to IRC and then HRBRRD. Under the deed both the State and the IRC had the right to “maintain and operate.” DEC did nothing to challenge the 1988 transfer to HRBRRD of interests that probably no longer exist, nor has it raised questions (to my knowledge) about HRBRRD’s releases program. It does not have any agreement with HRBRRD as to its releases program to augment downstream hydro generation despite ecological damage to fish habitat in the Indian River. The Indian River also is a designated Wild, Scenic and Recreational River, meaning that rivers in the system must be free-flowing, Both DEC regulations for that part of the river that is on Forest Preserve land and APA regulations for private land require that it be a natural, free-flowing river. DEC regs prohibit upstream influences to the contrary,like pulsating water releases from a dam. These pulsations also adversely impact the Hudson River, a designated Wild river in the State system.

    DEC and APA won’t do anything about HRBRRD’s releases, which are coordinated with the Town’s releases from Lake Abanakee, because in addition to augmenting the flow for downstream hydro generation they also serve to flush the whitewater rafters downstream on a two-hour “wave” release from Abanakee.

    I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of the story.

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  4. Paul says:

    Thanks Bill, this is interesting.

    It seems like the state has a habit of not making sure there are no title issues when they try and purchase land. This holds true today. This is on a smaller scale, but I have not seen any follow up on where we are with the public being barred from using the road that accesses the Madawaska Flow. In that case it appears that the state did not determine if they had a proper easement prior to making the purchase.

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