Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Old Mountain Road: A Short History

Given the Grannis Decision‘s potential to open Old Mountain Road between North Elba and Keene to automobile, ATV, and snowmobile traffic, here is a look at the old road’s history.

Originally the only road between Keene and North Elba, Old Mountain Road was built in the early in 1800s and travels behind Pitchoff Mountain. The road is part of the a route that was authorized by the NYS Legislature in 1810 and completed around 1816. The longer road went from Westport on Lake Champlain to Hopkinton in St. Lawrence County by way of the Keene Valley, Saranac Lake and Paul Smith’s – parts of the original road are still in use today.
In 1858 construction of the “Cascade Route” (now Route 73) was begun. When completed it supplanted Old Mountain Road as the main thoroughfare, although it’s said that in December 1859, when John Brown’s body was returned to “moulder in his grave” in North Elba, it traveled Old Mountain Road. For the next thirty years, the road fell into disuse and disrepair.

Topographic maps produced from surveys in 1893 and 1894 show the road had already been largely abandoned by then.

In 1922, Essex County authorized money for repair of Old Mountain Road from the North Elba side to the town line; in 1923 the county authorized repair funds for the Keene end. The road was graded and culverts laid and repaired, probably the last time the road was officially maintained.

In 1930, Old Mountain Road was already being used for cross-country skiing. During the 1932 Olympics, part of the road was used for Nordic ski events. Several abandoned trails back to Lake Placid can still be found. Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen served as the coach of the Canadian team.

In 1968, North Elba passes the first snowmobile ordinance in New York State. It was replaced in 1972 with a law that opened Old Mountain Road to snowmobiles. That law was rescinded in 2002.

In 1974, Old Mountain Road, considered abandoned, was included in the Sentinel Range Wilderness Area UMP as closed to motorized traffic.

In 1986 Tony Goodwin of Keene founded the Adirondack Ski Touring Council (ASTC) with the express plan to maintain Old Mountain Road as a ski trail. The Town of North Elba pledges its support for the new trail system, including the Old Mountain Road section. Over the next year the road is cleared to serve as a cross-country ski trail.

The following year the Jackrabbit Trail is officially opened including the Old Mountain Road to Keene. The ski network connects Lake Placid with the Cascade and Mt. Van Hoevenberg cross-country ski centers, the Adirondack Loj and the High Peaks, and Keene. The trail was named for Jackrabbit Smith-Johannsen who skied the Lake Placid area in 1915, including the Lake Placid Club-Mount Marcy-Adirondck Loj route. The ASTC has maintained the trail for the past 23 years.

In 1991, the Town of Keene passes a resolution declaring Old Mountain Road open for snowmobiles.

In 2002, a regional snowmobile map showed Old Mountain Road (and several other roads considered closed by DEC) as part of the local snowmobile trail network.

March 2003 James McCaulley rode his snowmobile down Old Mountain Road and then sought out a DEC Forest Ranger and demanded he be ticketed. His later conviction (he was fined $50) was overturned on appeal on grounds that the state had not properly closed the road.

May 2005, McCulley drives his truck down the trail and is again ticketed, setting off a legal battle that ends with last week’s Grannis Decision.

Rock and ice-climbers currently use the road as a hiking access to climbs on Pitchoff Mountain.

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John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




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