In the summer of 2015, while driving my beat-up Toyota truck through the back roads of northern Clinton and Franklin counties documenting the Great Dannemora Prison Break, I kept thinking that I had been swallowed whole by a tabloid news story, or maybe a trashy pulp novel, that refused to end. The setting was the rainy, gloomy Gothic woods of the northern Adirondack foothills. The characters all seemed to come straight from central casting.
There were the two brutal killers, David Sweat and Richard Matt, who had pulled off an escape that instantly drew comparisons with the film The Shawshank Redemption, digging and cutting their way out of one of the toughest prisons in the world. There was a brash, swaggering Governor Andrew Cuomo, who barnstormed through an active crime scene with a film crew in tow. There was the sad-sack, defeated-looking prison warden Steve Racette, the poor bastard on whose watch the impossible had occurred. » Continue Reading.
The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) will hold a series of public hearings to solicit public comments for State Land classification and reclassification proposals.
The action involves proposals for State Lands in all 12 counties in the Park, including the recently acquired Boreas Ponds Tract.
The 2016-2017 classification package includes 33 State Land classification proposals totaling approximately 50,827 acres, 13 State Land reclassifications totaling an estimated 1,642 acres, and a number of classifications involving map corrections (1,949 acres). » Continue Reading.
As the one-year anniversary of the infamous Dannemora prison break approaches, here’s the story of an inmate linked to a pair of unusual breakouts, excerpted from my book, Escape from Dannemora.
Despite media stories claiming early on that Richard Matt and David Sweat were the first-ever escapees from Clinton Prison, some in the past did it in even more spectacular fashion, and overall, hundreds managed to escape under various circumstances. Among them was Jack Williams, a participant in two Clinton exits involving unusual components featured in no other Dannemora escapes. » Continue Reading.
The Clinton County Historical Association will host longtime Adirondack Almanack contributor and award winning local author Lawrence Gooley on Monday, December 7.
The program will begin with a 7 pm presentation, “Escape From Dannemora: Breakouts, Tortures, and Violence in Clinton Prison’s Past” featuring an overview of Clinton Prison’s history including details of numerous escapes and attempts, routine punishments and profiles of famous and infamous inmates. » Continue Reading.
On July 29, 1928, Herbert R. Mackie, an inmate at what was then known as Clinton Prison (today called the Clinton Correctional Facility) in Dannemora was being escorted to a practice session for the prison’s band. He told an officer that he had forgotten something, and asked for permission to return to his cell. He was not seen again by prison staff for six weeks.
He was not at liberty during most of that time, however. He was still within the facility, busily digging a tunnel that would be a key part in what seems to have been a carefully planned plot for Mackie to escape the prison with fellow inmate Otto Sanford. » Continue Reading.
The search continues today for two men who escaped from the maximum security prison at Dannemora, Clinton County. State Police say David P. Sweat (age 35) and Richard Matt (age 49) were both incarcerated for murder and are “very dangerous individuals”. They are asking that any suspicious activity be reported to (518) 563-3761 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
After release from prison, Alonzo Clark returned to New York and married a young girl in Brandon, south of Malone, where he worked as a farmhand. It wasn’t long before he returned to crime, stealing horses prior to engaging in a high-profile scam at Helena, a hamlet in northern St. Lawrence County. In early 1885, posing as a salesman and tinware repairman, Clark ingratiated himself to Adam Knapp, 69, and his wife, Susan, 50, claiming to be a cousin of Luella, their adopted 16-year-old daughter.
After several nights of reading from the Bible with the family and turning on the charm, Alonzo won them over, particularly Luella. He courted her for several days, using Adam Knapp’s own horse and cutter to woo her on country rides. Within about two weeks’ time, they married. » Continue Reading.
This was not the bike trip I had hoped for. It seemed like a good idea, until I saw my girlfriend Liz dragging her bicycle up and over slippery rocks in a rushing stream. After a push and pull to gain some ground and a quick break to study the best way to rock hop with a bike in hand, she stumbled and fell. While dropping her beloved Surly bicycle into the water in an attempt to gain her balance she just groaned with exasperation. Now, with the bike partially submerged and her feet wet, we were both starting to question our reasoning. Not only were we fording streams, we found ourselves dragging bicycles over downed trees, ducking and weaving around overhanging branches, pushing through thick brush only to find the path strangled by even more vegetation and debris.
Our plan was pretty simple; retrace the route of the abandoned D and H Railroad from Plattsburgh to Saranac Lake. The maps all showed it, locals talked about its existence and one bike shop mechanic told us he traveled the whole thing by dirt bike years ago. “Although, “he said, “the right of way seems to be lost in places.” After some roadside scouting of the railroad grade via our little Toyota, we concluded that the best place to begin was outside of Cadyville where there were no houses or any no trespassing signs blocking our way. » Continue Reading.
In May 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed two controversial laws that would change life in the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, which the governor pushed through the state legislature, established new zoning rules for private land that aimed to protect open space and limit residential development. The other law set minimum prison sentences for drug users and pushers.
“I have one goal and one objective, and that is to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victim,” the governor insisted, promising that the harsh new penalties would stem the epidemic of cocaine and heroin addiction in New York City.
As it turned out, the Rockefeller drug laws—which also included tough penalties for marijuana use—would rival the land-use regulations in their impact on the Adirondacks. » Continue Reading.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is preparing to restart a management plan for nearly 60,000 acres of Forest Preserve and other state-managed lands in the Chazy Highlands Complex. The lands spread across 493 square miles in 34 separate parcels in the northeastern Adirondack Park and are located in the towns of Bellmont, Duane, and Franklin in Franklin County and the towns of Altona, Black Brook, Dannemora, Ellenburg, and Saranac in Clinton County.
Natural features in the Complex include Lyon Mountain, Haystack Knob, Norton Peak, and Ellenburg Mountain; Upper Chateaugay Lake and Chazy Lake; and Saranac River and Great Chazy River. The primary recreational uses are fishing and hunting; however the public also participates in hiking, camping, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and bird/wildlife watching on these lands. Both the trail to the Fire Tower on the Lyon Mountain and the Lewis Preserve Wildlife Management Area are frequented often by the public. » Continue Reading.
Among the several dozen correctional institutions in New York State, Dannemora (officially Clinton Correctional Facility, but most often referred to as Dannemora Prison) is the largest maximum security prison. It is located in northern Clinton County, where the cold winter weather led to a variety of nicknames incorporating the word “Siberia.” It is also known as home to the worst of the worst, housing many of our most dangerous criminals.
For more than 160 years, the North Country’s famous lockup has confined inmates guilty of the most heinous crimes: murder, rape, arson, assault, bank robbery, serial killing … and chicken theft. » Continue Reading.
Catamount Mountain (now doesn’t that seem redundant?), the one rising from the shores of Taylor Pond north of Whiteface, has always been one of my favorite climbs. Exposed rock can be so alluring, just one of the many elements that draws in people who love the outdoors. And Catamount has it all for the average hiker/climber―beautiful woods, a conical peak with great views, a dike to climb through, and lots of open rocky expanses.
We visit such places for our own personal reasons. For me, at the beginning of more than four decades of hiking, the most powerful attraction was the rocks―ancient and bare, and preserved in their natural state, allowing a glimpse of undisturbed wildness. Only they weren’t as undisturbed as I thought.
Solitude, peace, and oddly enough, danger, were also elements that drew me to Catamount. Every time I ascended the steep, open rocky areas or skirted cliffs and drop-offs, it struck me how dangerous the place could be. I wondered how it was that more accidents weren’t reported over the years. » Continue Reading.
Election fraud! It makes headlines, and it has many faces. When I was a young boy growing up in Clinton County near the Canadian border, I overheard stories from adults talking about election fraud in nearby towns. With a wink, it was mentioned that so-and-so, an annual candidate, would once again be standing by the door at the polls all day long to greet the electorate―that’s just how dedicated he was to representing the interests of locals. He was, it was said, “greeting” them with $5 bills.
I never forgot the image that placed in my head―votes for sale at five bucks a pop. Years later, when I neared voting age, I assumed those stories were exaggerations, but as it turned out, they were right on the money (an excellent choice of terms, as we’ll see). » Continue Reading.
Pico. What a lucky mutt. As far as anyone can tell, he is half border collie and half Australian shepherd. Seems good to me, and he really doesn’t care what you call him.
A couple of weeks after I moved to Florida, I realized that living with my brother was the first place I had ever lived where I could have a dog. So I went out and got a dog. I checked the local shelters and there were no border collies, so, I went on to Petfinder. There were border collies galore on the site. Most people think they want a border collie until the dog begins outsmarting them and gets bored and starts destroying things. » Continue Reading.
On a recent drive in Clinton County, I was reminded of a story told to me by my grandfather, James Lagree. Jim was a Churubusco farmer, but he also worked other jobs, including road construction. We both loved fishing, and in my pre-teen years, he took me to all his secret places, including Bradley Pond near Lyon Mountain. As it turned out, he had worked on construction of the Bradley Pond Road.
The conversation that day drifted to other roads, and that’s when he told me the story of a truck losing its brakes on Dannemora Mountain. It was hilarious the way he told it (he was great with jokes and embellishments), but I recently learned just how true the story was.
If you’ve ever driven east over the mountain, you’re familiar with one of the steepest roads and most dramatic speed changes in the Adirondacks. For the sake of all the strictly law-abiding drivers out there, yes, the change is technically no different from many others: a main highway (in this case, Rt. 374) enters a village, where the speed limit drops immediately to 30 mph.
But the difference is this: after a couple of curves during the brisk, mile-and-a-half descent, a final, steep, straight incline ends abruptly at the village limits. The road suddenly flattens, and perhaps not everyone has decelerated to 30 mph by that point. Add snow or ice, and you’ve got hellish road conditions.
But weather wasn’t a factor in two of the most famous incidents linked to that section of highway. One of them occurred in September 1930, when nationally renowned driver Ralph Hepburn visited the region.
Inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, Hepburn won motorcycling championships and set records during a superb career, and then turned to automobiles. Many more records fell to his skills, and fifteen times he competed in the Indianapolis 500, never winning, but finishing second twice.
As the automobile industry flourished, racing champions were hired to promote and demonstrate the capabilities of different brands. Hepburn was employed by Studebaker in that capacity, and while touring New York State in 1930, he briefly set up headquarters at the dealership in Plattsburgh.
His highest-profile publicity stunt locally was a speedy climb up Dannemora Mountain, accompanied by two newspapermen. Despite the curves, he reached the summit while maintaining the astonishing speed of 50 mph. That was more than eighty years ago, when cars were in their infancy, and I can guarantee, I’ve been stuck going up that grade behind cars that were going much slower.
And consider this: when Hepburn did it, the road surface was composed of dirt and gravel, hardly conducive to high speeds and good traction.
Hepburn made a second run that day, carrying six passengers (some of them on the running boards, which must have been quite the rush). Carrying nearly 1300 pounds, the Studebaker crested the mountain at 41 mph. It was typical of Hepburn’s flare for the dramatic.
After the Dannemora exhibition, he continued promoting and racing for many years. Hepburn died doing what he loved (he was killed during qualifying practice for the 1948 Indy 500, a race he is famed for having led in three different decades―1925, 1937, and 1946).
The second famous incident on that notorious section of Dannemora highway occurred in October 1939. It began when a produce truck, driven by William Coryea of Malone, suffered brake failure while heading down the mountain. The road had been rebuilt with concrete several years earlier, which meant better tire grip and a smoother ride. To a freewheeling vehicle without brakes, it also meant greater velocity.
When Coryea reached the base of the mountain road, his speed was estimated at 60 mph. With the weight of 150 bushels of carrots on board, the truck was sure to coast for some distance. Stopping it would not be easy.
Racing through the village could have been disastrous, and Coryea had little time to think. After about three-tenths of a mile, near the gates of Dannemora Prison, he solidly sideswiped a moving car, and then another, sending carrots flying into the streets.
But the truck slowed only a little, and people were in danger. Coryea then hit a bread truck and two more parked cars. Bread products and carrots scattered everywhere while vehicles bounced aside, but still the truck kept rolling.
Finally, it slowed enough for Coryea to whip sharply onto a side street, where he drove the truck into a brick wall at the back of Lafountain’s store. The reason, as he later told police, was to avoid hitting any more vehicles. It’s amazing that through it all, there were no injuries.
I don’t know if my grandfather actually witnessed the aftermath, and although he was quite the storyteller, it doesn’t seem like he embellished it much after all. The crushed cars, with food scattered everywhere, and nobody hurt, were actually elements of the true story. Unlike many other Dannemora accidents on that stretch of highway, it thankfully lacked tragedy, and has been looked back upon with at least some amusement.
Photos: Ralph Hepburn (courtesy wikipedia); the maps shows Rt. 374 entering at the upper right and plunging into the village on the far left. Clinton Prison is at the bottom left.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
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