I recently discovered an article written by Alexander Byron Lamberton, one of Old Forge’s earliest historical figures, that was published in Forest and Stream in March of 1876.
The article describes the first large-scale stocking of fish on Fulton Chain waters. Lamberton had only recently taken over as owner of the Forge House, and his story reads like an adventure tale:
I left Rochester with favorable weather for a pleasant journey. Advices from the woods assured me that there was just enough snow to make passable sleighing. The fish arrived at Rochester on Monday evening from the hatching house at Caledonia and were inspected by my friend, Seth Green, who pronounced them fit for the journey, though quite young. They were placed in charge of the experienced and competent Mr. [Emmett] Marks, who accompanied me to the Fulton lakes. I preceded the fish about twelve hours to Boonville that I might start at once with them upon their arrival. Mr. Green was aware of the difficulties which we had to encounter, as both he and his brother [Monroe] had made similar excursions to these waters. He therefore remarked to Mr. Marks, not realizing the full import of his words, however, “You have undertaken a hard trip, such a one as you have never made”.
When I stepped aboard the cars at Utica, it rained hard; the Mohawk was running wild. I thought there would be no sleighing on the lakes. It did not stop raining during that day and night. The next morning the streets of Boonville were covered with ice.
The fish arrived on the 10 o’clock train in excellent condition. Mr. [Charlie] Phelps, the well known teamster of the John Brown Tract was on hand, the cans were supplied with fresh water from the canal, and the famous guide John Brinkerhoof (sic), the man who accompanied Seth and Monroe Green on their winter journeys to the lakes, was there taking a look at the fish. All ready, away we went with our babes to the woods.
Nothing transpired in the first twelve miles worthy of note. Three hours drive through the falling snow brought us to the Tannery, Moose River. Here we found a comfortable hotel, the Lawrence House. The landlord, Mr. [Abner] Lawrence, gave us a hearty welcome. No man in all the woods takes a greater interest in preserving the game than the proprietor of the Moose River House. It is about a year since he caused some cruel fellows to be arrested for killing deer in the deep snows. None but a brave man dare advocate the enforcement of game laws in the wilderness. The John Brown Tract has, however, many guides and sportsmen who appreciate the necessity of stopping the killing of game out of season.
Our fishes refreshed by a new supply of water, horses fed and dinner over, we took our departure from town and men and were swept into the wilderness by a storm. Fourteen miles of unbroken road had to be traveled ere the Old Forge could be reached, and however great the difficulties to be encountered, they must be overcome. The fish must reach the Fulton waters or they perish.
The woods were entered with song and story; night overtook us, however, before we reached their heart. As we advanced, the depth of snow increased remarkably fast, and ever and anon the horses plunged into mud and mire – the sink holes of the road – and the sleighs disappeared, where all remained until levers were cut and the whole pried out. Stony Creek was reached, the famous slough pond of the woods. In this the horses were mired and the sleigh tongue broken. It took but a few minutes, however, to mend the one and extricate the other.
The road now led through a swamp where the snow lay three feet deep. The horses now gave unmistakable signs of fatigue. We concluded to stop at a brook and give them an hour to rest and feed. As John proceeded to light a fire, he expressed his surprise that the bottom had fallen out of the road
Talk about genius, patience and skill. If I ever saw them centered in one man, it was in him, who had knelt in the snow and essayed to build a fire with everything wet around, and in the midst of a snow storm. He plunged into the snow up to his waist and, with the blade of his axe, swept the covering off a great pine tree. Striking a few vigorous blows, he hewed out by the moonlight, no, by no light for there was neither moon nor lantern, fuel enough to build a fire. Next, he scooped a great fire-place in the snow with an immense pine tree as a back-log, then a pile of shaving were manufactured, and the process of match-lighting began. Not less than twenty were consumed before the wood blazed. The fire was kindled, however, and after enjoying it awhile, was left, burning.
A mile further on the horses failed us altogether. We had not the heart to urge them farther. Whip and word would avail nothing. It was 11 o’clock and we were still six miles from the Forest House [Lamberton’s name for the Forge House, which was built in 1871]. What was to be done?
It was soon decided that two should remain all night with the fishes, and the other two push forward with the horses to the hotel. This being agreed upon, the teamster and the writer took their departure, agreeing to return as soon as possible with a fresh team. I would have willingly have given my place to Mark Twain, that he might have ridden that horse bareback through the banks of snow, he would have had communicated to his sensitive system the pleasures of a skeleton ride, and though the animal stood fifteen hands high, I could shut my eyes and see nothing of the quadruped but his back-bone. That impressed me.
Before reaching the Forest House my horse fell several times, throwing me at each plunge into the feathery snow. Mr. Phelps, my companion, varied the journey by walking. When walking he could only advance by aid of the animal’s switch. A dog pressed close upon my horses heels’ the snow covering the old fellow, save his nose and a narrow strip of his back. At last we gained the hotel, the horses were stabled and we were seated by a warm fire.
The wind screamed around the building like a wild animal let loose from the mountain. The snow beat the window panes and banked up the doors. The storm might rage were the boys in. The team that we expected to find fresh for our return had just come in, and was worn and fatigued. It was out of the question, therefore, to go back for the men and fishes that night.
With the first light of day the teams started. The snow was still falling. The day had hardly worn away when our companions issued into the clearings from the woods. Men and horses were literally covered with ice and snow. They advanced toward the hotel after the manner of machines, rather than human beings. Our greatest concern was for the fishes.
The cans were examined and not one of the little “innocents abroad” were dead [a reference to Mark Twain’s 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress]. There were the little finny fellows full of life, wiggling in the self-made current, delighting with the prospect of being accounted worthy of a home in the Fulton waters. I just began to realize what a perishable commodity tiny fishes are. Before, I had had no conception of the care and attention required in conveying these on their journey. Not an hour had passed since our departure from the hatching house that was not full of labor and anxiety. The water had to be aerated continually.
That your readers may form some correct conception of the labor consequent upon the conveying of young fish to the almost inaccessible waters of our State, I need but recite the experiences of a single night. At 8 o’clock on the night previous to the one when the fish were put in the lake, the cans were filled with fresh water, and I took charge of them. They run all right up to 11 o’clock when I commenced to draw the water, filling the cans with new. I discovered the little fellows wiggling to the surface, a sure sign that they were suffering, and in one can they lay on the bottom, giving but little signs of life.
Mr. Marks was aroused, and for three hours, it was one continued effort to resuscitate the young salmon. At last we saw a decided change in their condition for the better, but agreed that the surest plan to preserve their lives was to put them at once into the lake. I aroused a man to aid in cutting a hole in the ice. After much trouble we succeeded in making a cavity large enough for the small salmon to escape through. The balance were taken on a hand sleigh far up the stream and put in to the Fulton Chain. It may be well to remind anglers, when seated in their boats amid the green foliage, enjoying the scenery of these lakes, unsurpassed in beauty, trolling or casting the fly, of the winter day when these fishes came to the waters.
Also call to memory the days of waves and winds, of wet and cold, when Seth Green and his men gathered spawn on Lake Ontario. The patient study and experimenting of Mr. Green has made our waters as susceptible of production as our acres of land. Mr. Green is already receiving encouraging reports from water recently stocked with young salmon and other highly esteemed table fishes. The state has just commenced the hatching of brook trout, and now our streams once famous for these fish will contribute again to the table of the mountain farmer, and afford the bare-footed boy with beech rod and twine rare sport, and the Isaak Walton’s of our land may bend their way to streams, where far from care and strife, from smoky town and busy life, they may cast the fly o’er the finny race.
This southern gate-way to the wilderness is unsurpassed in fine scenery and excellent sport. The Old Forge House, newly named the Forest House, stands on an elevation commanding a fine view of the picturesque Moose River. The hotel is new and commodious, and will accommodate from seventy-five to one hundred guests. Important improvements are to be made in the house this spring. Those who have visited the Fulton Lakes will be glad to learn that the hotel has been leased for a term of years to Mr. Joel T. Comstock, of Boonville, N. Y., who knows from experience how to keep a first class hotel. Mr. Comstock will furnish sportsmen with camping supplies, tents, cooking utensils, provisions, etc. Those who wish to tarry at a first-class forest house and enjoy the combined beauties of wood, lake and mountain scenery can find no more pronounced location and charming spot than at the Old Forge. As one writer of note has said, in speaking of the hotel and its surroundings, “None will fail to pronounce this location a most appropriate one for a forest inn; ladies will especially note its superior attractions as a summer resort”.
There is an effort being made to obtain the non-resident tax of the counties within the region from the State to expend on the road from Lawrence’s Hotel to the Forest House. The water will be stocked with salmon and brook trout making the section unusually attractive to anglers.
Many tourists and lovers of this favorite haunt in the John Brown Tract have described its charms. “A ride through these eight lakes”, says one, “is an episode in a man’s life he can never forget.” “The eight lakes”, writes another, “are connected by streams and form a group of surpassing beauty. They vary both in size and shape, each with a different frame work of hills, and the change is ever from beauty to beauty.” While another remarks, “the beauty of the waters, their elevation and the wild scenery which surrounds them would not fail to attract visitors.”
The eight lakes are moreover the point of entrance to the boat route through the heart of the wilderness to Paul Smith’s and Martin’s. It is twenty five miles from Boonville by stage to the Forest House (Old Forge). Boonville is about forty miles north of Utica and is reached by the Black River Railroad.
The guides of John Brown Tract are a superior class of men, intelligent, competent and well mannered. Those sportsmen who have ever had the misfortune to be in camp with a lazy, low-bred guide will hail this announcement with joy in case they wish to visit the region. An ignorant guide, in the sense of the writer, is one who has neither the capacity to find game nor ingenuity to capture it when found. With such a guide, a sportsman will be robbed of all pleasure and comfort, and be in danger of starving. The John Brown Tract guides are “independent” i.e., no-hotel guides. The latter are never to be engaged, if the former can be secured. Those intending to visit the Fulton Chain would do well to write to Mr. Joel T. Comstock, Boonville, N.Y. and engage guides.
I intend to spend the summer months with my family in a little cottage by the lake adjacent to the hotel. “What,” says a friend, “take your wife and children into the wilderness to be devoured by black flies and mosquitoes?” Not so.
What you call the wilderness is full of life and beauty to me and mine. In the woods the nights abound with silence and repose. How sweet and full their sleep, and the mornings and evenings of the forest are sublime. The morning air comes laden with the aroma of its balsam and odoriferous trees, the sweet fragrances are spread by the breezes from mountain to valley, and the gum trees are there for the healing of consumptives, and my girls will be down by the waters with early song, watching the ripples and romping the shore with my pointer Ray. After breakfast, we shall take a row on the lakes or go to a little pond, a hidden gem that is ever lulled by the sweet toned pines, and angle for trout. There are to us, thousands of new objects and sounds in the woods and by the waters.
The night after depositing the little fish in the lakes, as we smoked our pipes around the fire, some one speaking of the habits of fish, Marks, the “spawn man,” related the following as an actual fish story. He said, “Some time last summer, a small dog, having fallen in to one of the trout ponds at Caledonia, the one containing the older fish, he, being near by went to assist the canine out, and was much surprised and amused to observe that on the dog attempting to crawl up, and just as he would lay his paws upon the edge, the trout would dart for him with mouths wide open, and fastening their jaws upon would pull the animal in again, then dart off, curving about immediately, however, seeing to exult over their victim.” The listeners agreed when Marks had finished, that in time he might tell a good fish yarn.
The good natured [Edwin] Arnold [son of Otis Arnold] was not to be outdone. He said, “I once saw, when rowing in Fourth Lake, a trout capture and kill a duck”. Marks reiterated that his story was a true one. “So is mine”, retorted Arnold, “but it was a young duck that the trout captured.” The evening was spent in the recital of amusing stories relating to personal experience in the pursuit of game.
Friday morning we left the Old Forge, with two teams, on our return and were fourteen hours reaching Lawrence’s Hotel, Moose River. From this point we had a pleasant ride to Boonville. The popular hotel of Boonville is the “Hulbert House”. The proprietor, Mr. Geo. A. May, is the most obliging and genial of landlords. It can but continue to be the favorite hotel for sportsmen en route to the wilderness so long as it shall remain under his management. Both Mr. May and Mr. Lawrence contributed toward paying the expenses of transporting the fishes to the lake, and by the important suggestions of Mr. B. P. Graves, the merchant and enthusiastic sportsman of the town, we were enabled to make our trip a successful one. All these gentlemen, besides others, take a lively interest in all that pertains to the John Brown Tract.
I expect to leave here with fifty thousand brook trout for the eight lakes within a few days.
Note: this has been lightly edited. Thanks to Jerry Pepper, Librarian of the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain for providing me a copy of Lamberton’s Forest and Stream article; maps excerpted from the Library’s Collection “Lands of J. Milton Buell at the Old Forge”.