Johns Brook (the apostrophe fell away long ago) is said to have been named for John Gibbs who lived at (or at least owned) the spot where the brook enters the East Branch of the Ausable in about 1795 (about where the Mountaineer stands today in Keene Valley).
The trail from the Garden Parking Area to Mount Marcy, on which Johns Brook Lodge sits, is said to have been laid out by Ed Phelps, son of legendary Keene Valley guide Old Mountain Phelps. Known primarily as the Phelps Trail (but also called the Johns Brook or Northside Trail), the route also serves as the northern boundary of the Johns Brook Primitive Area. The Primitive Area is one of four DEC management units (the High Peaks Wilderness, Adirondack Canoe Route, and Ampersand Primitive Area are the others) that make up the High Peaks Wilderness Complex [UMP pdf].
Johns Brooks Lodge (JBL) sits on one of 17 parcels of private land enclosed by the High Peaks Wilderness Complex boundary (3,315 acres total), known as in-holdings. The state recognizes historic rights of access to these parcels, and the Johns Brook Primitive Area serves as a 1.3 mile long right-of-way across state lands leading to 13 of these private parcels. The idea for a intensive recreational use area in the Johns Brook Valley was suggested by Robert Marshall in 1934.
JBL is 3.5 miles from the nearest road and provides access to some of the best hiking in the Northeast offering access to Gothics, Armstrong Mountain, Big Slide Mountain and Upper and Lower Wolf Jaw. At 5.6 miles from the summit of Marcy, JBL is the mountain’s closest overnight accommodation. The JBL area is the second most used area in the High Peaks and was the first area where water bars were used to control trail runoff (in 1967).
It could be said that Johns Brook Lodge was the Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) second project. The club had been founded in 1922 with the stated goals of making the state forest lands accessible to hikers and mountain climbers and building open shelters and permanent camps. In 1922 they launched their first project, the 134-mile long Northville Placid Trail, on which they built six lean-tos. The following year they received an offer from J. & J. Rogers Company, which had just logged the land along Johns Brook on the trail to Marcy. A ADk club newsletter announced in 1924 that “The main think in the eye of the Executive Committee is to have a Club Lodge.”
J. J. Rogers company had a long history in the Keene area, and the company holds a large part of the responsibility for the development of the Upper Ausable Valley. The company was formed when brothers James, John, and Thomas Rogers joined a Dr. Palmer to mine Palmer Hill in the 1820s. They bought, expanded and built new forges beginning in 1837 and continued to expand by acquiring new mines, building new forges, and eventually acquired 250,000 acres of forest.
The First Annual Report of the Forest Commission in 1885 said the company was leaving the “country bare.” In the process they dammed and diverted water, built a number of plank roads between facilities, and grew oats and hay to feed the 300 teams of horses and oxen used for transport. Among the roads the company built was the old tote road along the south side of Johns Brook Valley which they clear-cut.
The iron industry’s movement west to areas of cheaper labor (immigrants) and cheaper fuel (coal) combined with the use of pig iron and new processes put the company out of business in 1889. Over the next ten years James Rogers, grandson of one of the founders, established a pulp mill supplied by their spruce and balsam lands, and run by water power. In 1894 their paper mill, the first sulfite mill in the Champlain Valley, began operating.
To feed the Champlain Mill, the largest capacity mill in the Adirondack region, the Rogers Company logged the slopes of Giant and Green mountains, Mount Marcy, the northern end of Indian Pass, Whiteface, and Esther Mountain. It’s been estimated that the company clear-cut 8,000 acres a year for pulp. The ensuing spruce and fir shortage left the company without a source of wood pulp and their last log drive occurred in 1923; thereafter pulp logs were brought from Canada. Still, the move to paper carried the company into the 1950s when it was finally sold. A smaller mill on the Ausable River closed for good in 1971 due to lack of orders and the upcoming state requirement to limit pollution of the river.
The land the Rogers Company gave the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1923 had also been recently clear-cut for pulp. The Executive Committee decided that the location of their new lodge should be on the site of an old company office, which although closed, was the home of the old guide (and squatter) Mel Hathaway. Charles Brumley’s Guides of the Adirondacks, notes Hathaway had guided the Ausable Lakes until the area became part of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) in 1887. Refusing to abide by AMR’s fish and game rules, he was evicted and moved to the old Rogers Company building on Johns Brook.
Hathaway spent 18 years where JBL now stands and was frequently visited by hikers, including Russell Carson, author of Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, who remembered spending “many evenings in his shack and listening to his wild tales.” “I remember,” Carson wrote in a letter to the Adirondack Museum in 1952, “he stuck to it that wolves and panthers were still in the Adirondacks and their calls could be heard at night in the Johns Brook Valley.”
Hathaway also claimed to tend the state’s highest elevation garden. After ADK took over He refused to move on from his squat, even when offered land elsewhere. His refusal to clear out of the building caused a construction delay. Eventually, or so Carson says, Hathaway was offered a payout to leave and he spent his remaining years living with his sister; he died in 1932 at the age of 84.
With Hathaway gone, the old office razed, and a new stately cabin built, Johns Brook Lodge opened in the first week of July, 1925. The new cabin included an enormous covered porch with, thanks to the logging, outstanding views of the surrounding peaks that lasted into the 1960s. In 1929, ADK purchased two nearby camps Thistle-Dhu (‘Thistle Do’, known by ADKer’s as “Winter Camp”) and Grace Camp (built as quarters for volunteers).
The State built the Johns Brook Interior Outpost (one of four in the High Peaks Wilderness) a half mile downstream from Johns Brook Lodge in 1948. After World War Two the porch roof was removed and improvements, the last until the 1960s when a much needed overhaul was made. In 1968 following a fire, Grace Camp was replaced and Winter Camp was replaced in 1989 (named Camp Peggy O’Brien). A small hut was built for volunteers in 1978, and in the early 1990s both the Winter Camp and Grace Camp were renovated.
Over the years there have been discussions over whether or not ADK should give or sell the JBL property to the state. In 1973-74 the NYS Conservation Department made a halfhearted attempt to acquire the in-holdings following adoption of the State Land Master Plan. Even as late as April 1st of this year a practical joker claimed JBL would be closed and sold to the state. The odds of that happening are slim. The JBL Master Plan addresses the issue like this:
“ADK’s presence in the Valley has always been a subject of some debate. There have actually been some efforts, however short and futile, to have ADK dispose of this property. The facts, as stated elsewhere in this document, indicate otherwise — JBL is not the source of any problem. ADK must capitalize upon its opportunity to serve and educate the public in the interior. The JBL Property has available 46 beds for rental and three lean-to’s. These beds, when occupied represent 46 people not erecting tent sites, fouling water and cutting trees for firewood. It is a fringe benefit that ADK can meet this need, and generate a modest surplus which is directed to our public service effort.”
Over the years supplying JBL has become less of a challenge as transportation shifted from pack, to mule, to snowmobile, and since 1984, to helicopter. This is usually a one-day effort during a weekday in late April or early May. Among the benefits of the airlifts, is the ability to fly out garbage and sewage.
This spring, ADK volunteers, under the leadership of expert craftsmen Rich Preis, gave the lodge’s two main bunk rooms a major facelift, insulating both bunk rooms, installing new paneling, and installing transom windows for added light. The improvements were made in the fourth year of a five-year project to rejuvenate the lodge and improve the visitor experience. Over the past few years, the JBL great room has been insulated and paneled, the kitchen has been renovated, windows have been replaced, the family bunk rooms have been upgraded, and the staff cabin has been expanded.
Service at JBL is also getting an upgrade thanks to a new volunteer host program. On weekends this summer, trained volunteer hosts will greet and direct arriving guests, explain services, operate the JBL store, and provide hikers with information about ADK and the surrounding backcountry. Volunteers will take meals with guests to continue their interactions and will assist staff in a variety of ways.
With two, four-bunk family rooms and two larger bunk rooms, the main Johns Brook Lodge can accommodate up to 28 guests. During the summer, accommodations include meals prepared by ADK staff. JBL is also open during the spring and fall, but guests must pack in their own food during the “caretaker” seasons.
Access and reservation information can be found online.
Illustrations: Above, Johns Brook Lodge (photo courtesy ADK); below, a map of the Johns Brook Primitive Area included with the High Peaks Wilderness Complex UMP.
Sources: The May/June 2000 edition of Adirondac celebrated JBL with several articles including “Johns Brook Lodge: A Short History” by Bob Grimm. Also, the High Peaks Wilderness Complex UMP, The Forest Preserve by Eleanor Brown, Guides of the Adirondacks by Charles Brumley, Barbara McMartin’s Great Forests of the Adirondacks, and the ADK’s JBL Master Plan.