Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Lost Brook Tract in the 1800’s

There is a common conception that logging for prized wood such as the Eastern White Pine or the Red Spruce led to the depredations that nearly lost the Adirondacks for posterity. This is not exactly right.

In truth it was mining that led the charge to subdue these mountains. One of the early names given to the Adirondacks was the Peruvian or Peru Mountains, so named by the French – optimistically, one would have to say – and then used by early British miners as well, Peru being a country fabled for its precious ores and Incan gold.

It was largely people looking to make their fortunes in mining that penetrated the wilderness first and it was their enterprises and related lumbering that came closest to bringing Lost Brook Tract to a dire fate, as was the case in much of the Adirondacks. This will become clear as we pick up the chronology and move forward from the age of Haudenosaunee control of the Adirondacks in the 18th century.

Please remember that this chronology is meant only to be relevant, directly and indirectly, to the history of Lost Brook Tract and is in no way meant to reflect a larger chronology of the Adirondacks. Still, I am confident many of you will find interesting facts you may not have known. On we go, through the 19th century and to the doorstep of the 20th.

We begin in 1777. The revolutionary war engulfs the colonies and the crucial theater of war is upstate New York. A brash young British Commander, “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne has a plan to march from Quebec, take the Champlain Valley and meet General Howe’s forces in Albany, therefore severing the New England colonies from the rest of the continent and securing a British victory over the rebellion.

At first the Americans are outmatched and in deep trouble as Burgoyne’s campaign takes Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Edward. But the grand plan fails when General Howe fails to hold up his end of the plan and Burgoyne finds his progress arrested at Saratoga. Outnumbered and hemmed in he fights and loses a second battle at Saratoga and is forced to surrender. This is considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War.

That same year the great French map maker, Royal Cartographer Louis Brion de La Tour, makes a map of the Revolutionary War theater, ranging from Quebec to the Chesapeake (a fascinating map, it is available here, the first map in the list). The map is replete with detail, from islands in the St. Lawrence River to the tributaries of the Mohawk River to the encampments of Burgoyne himself. But a large part of the map in the Northwest corner, out of scale and shifted out of place, is for all intents and purposes a void. By 1777 the Champlain and Mohawk Valleys have been known to Europeans for well over a century, multiple wars have been fought and much of the territory has been settled. But the Adirondack region is unexplored by white men.

There has already been some initial speculation in these unknown Adirondacks. Totten and Crossfield’s Purchase has been made from the Crown in 1772 by the shadowy Jessup brothers using two shipwrights as fronts. Some of the purchase is surveyed by one by one Archibald Campbell, surveyor. His forays into the central Adirondacks mark the first documented journey into the heart of the park by a non-Indian, though little is known of his efforts. The Jessups subsequently do some of their own surveying. Unfortunately their method uses compasses, the result being that their work is compromised by the numerous deposits of iron ore. Thanks to a plethora of errant readings they make a real mess of their work, leading to all sorts of gores and disputes for more than a century. Having been loyal to the Crown, the Jessups lose all their holdings after the war and the purchase reverts to New York State as “wild lands.”

At the conclusion of the war the new American government moves to secure its new position. As part of that in the early 1780’s New York State decides to offer free parcels on their northern frontier to Revolutionary War veterans in the hopes that their presence will deter Indian incursion from the Canadas. In 1786 the “Old Military Tract,” more than 660,000 acres, is parceled out by NY State across in present-day Essex, Franklin and Clinton counties. But there are few if any takers and no settlement. The parceling is all on paper; no one explores the area. Lost Brook Tract lies within its boundaries.

The Old Military Tract abuts the Totten and Crossfield lands. In 1797 Charles Brodhead begins a survey of this line and in the process climbs Giant Mountain, the first High Peak known to be climbed. From the top of Giant the summit of Lost Brook Tract is visible, far in the distance. As Brodhead continues his survey in 1798 he follows a line over the north shoulder of the Wolfjaws, across John’s Brook, then over Tabletop, Boundary Peak and around Wallface.

Bushwhackers, imagine that expedition if you will.

The Haudenosaunee, fragmented and in disarray as a result of the war, still frequent the Adirondacks. Hunting parties, encampments and temporary settlements range through the southern, western and central Adirondacks, up the Fulton Chain and at least as far as the Lake Placid area, though their days in the Adirondacks are numbered. As far as is known the area of Lost Brook tract remains unvisited by humans, lying well away from Indian routes and activities.

The era of mining prospectors commences in 1798 when Nathanial Mallory settles in the Eastern part of the Adirondacks and erects a forge, gristmill and sawmill. The town of Jay, named after John Jay, is later established from “Mallory’s Bush.” Meanwhile on August 15th 1804 James Rogers, future iron magnate and founder of J. and J. Rogers Company, is born in Warren County. In 1806 iron ore is discovered at Arnold Hill. It becomes a primary driver of the Adirondack iron industry and is used to supply multiple forges for more than a century. For the next twenty-five years new mining and forging operations are started (and sometimes stopped abruptly) all over the North Country, dotting the landscape with settlements. The names of these entrepreneurs are woven into the fabric of Adirondack lore: McIntyre, Henderson, Palmer, Sanford, Purmont and Rogers.

In 1812 Surveyor (and later Congressman and Judge) John Richards is hired to finally survey the Old Military Tract. He parcels the tract into townships and lots. The future Lost Brook Tract falls into the northeast corner of one of the lots. Richards and party become the first people known to set foot on Lost Brook Tract as they lay out the northern boundary line of the lots. I have a copy of Richards’ field notes and there is no indication that he ventures south onto the bulk of the tract.While conducting his survey Richards summits Big Slide Mountain, the third High Peak known to be climbed (Dix being the second). It is interesting to speculate on the view he enjoyed, for the summit is not the same as in the present-day. Big Slide is named after the massive slide on its south face which did not exist until massive rains caused it in 1830.

In the early 1830’s, intent on making a fortune in the mining business, James Rogers enters into various partnerships and enterprises with his brothers John and Thomas. In 1835 he purchases existing operations at Black Brook and the J. and J. Rogers Company is born. Thus begins the development of a mining dynasty that will alter the fortunes of much of the territory comprising the Old Military Tract including the lots surrounding and containing Lost Brook Tract. The town of AuSable Forks, essentially the Rogers’ company town, develops rapidly.

Having had no takers on their settlement offer the State of New York – showing appallingly little foresight – has dumped many of the Old Military Tract lots off at bargain prices to speculators. The lots deeper in the interior of the mountain ranges remain completely unexplored, owned in name only. The lot containing lost Brook Tract is one of them, though records do not reveal who owns it. Apparently, around 1850, this unknown owner has trouble paying his taxes to Essex County. His financial difficulty becomes our gain a hundred and sixty years later; it is the sole reason Lost Brook Tract is private land today.

Tax laws of the time have a long-forgotten provision to penalize landowners who fail to pay taxes on their property holdings: if the owner of a lot cannot pay taxes on a timely basis, the county slices off a piece of the property and takes title to it in lieu of money. This fate befalls the unknown owner of our lot. For nonpayment of taxes Essex County carves out a 60 acre square of land from the northeast corner. Whatever the details of this transaction, it is muddled and messy. It places the little square in County hands but leaves an unclear Title of Ownership, which becomes a crucial factor in its fate decades later. Lost Brook Tract, still not surveyed or explored, has come into existence.

During the latter half of the 19th century the J. and J. Rogers Company grows and grows, buying out the competition and greatly expanding their operations. By 1885 they reach their zenith as a producer of iron ore. According to The First Annual Report of the Forest Commission in 1885 the company is leaving the “country bare” as they consume the massive quantities of wood needed to run their smelting and forging operations. At this time Essex County is the number two producer of iron ore in the United States.

But from here things turn swiftly downhill. Beginning in the late 1880’s, the Adirondack iron industry has begun to experience extreme difficulty. The highest quality and most accessible ores at the Arnold Hill and Palmer Hill mines have been depleted. Meanwhile the Mesabi Range has opened in Minnesota with enormous deposits at Lake Superior. The industry is shifting west to areas of cheaper labor (immigrants) and cheaper fuel (coal). Most of all the introduction of pig iron and the “Bessemer” Process have given the iron manufacturing regions of the south and west a crucial and decisive competitive edge. In 1889 J. and J. Rogers Company shuts down all of its iron operations.

Down but not out… James Rogers, grandson of one of the original founders is quick to grasp the fact that iron making by the primitive bloomery process can never again compete with modern steel and iron making technology. Realizing that he can leverage the company’s vast forest holdings, he switches J. and J. Rogers Company to a pulp and paper company, literally overnight. The rise of the pulp and paper industry at AuSable Forks lifts the village from economic depression and sends J. and J. Rogers Company to even greater heights. They eventually control 250,000 acres of Adirondack forests, clear cutting at the astonishing rate of 8,000 acres per year. Among the land they purchase for timber are the lots in the area of and containing Lost Brook Tract.

The 1895 US Geological Survey Map, C.W. Adams State Engineer and Surveyor, is published. The Mount Marcy sheet accurately shows many features of the High Peaks including accurate placement of most of the high summits (thanks primarily to the unrelenting work of Verplanck Colvin). However the course of Lost Brook is completely wrong, the headwaters are shown in a different notch and the topography of the land is largely inaccurate. There is no indication of our summit. Clearly the area remains unexplored. It remains unlogged as well. J. and J. Rogers, with their voracious appetite for wood of all kinds for pulp, is making incursions into the area but Lost Brook Tract is still well out of the way, far from any road and high in elevation.

In 1903 J. and J. Rogers Company completes their paper mill on Lake Champlain, the largest paper mill in the Adirondacks. In order to feed their mills the Rogers Company begins to clear cut much deeper in the park and higher up the slopes of the great mountains than ever before. Through the early part of the twentieth century they will log the shoulders of Giant and Green mountains, Mount Marcy, the northern end of Indian Pass, Whiteface, Esther and the Johns Brook Valley area, right up the shoulder of Big Slide to the cliffs. It appears to be only a matter of time before Lost Brook Tract is logged.

It seems that with the construction of this paper mill, the year of 1903 is when fate turns her aim squarely towards Lost Brook Tract. Indeed this is true, but in an entirely different and far more dramatic way, as we shall see next week.

Photo caption: A hiker climbs Blue Mountain after heavy logging

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




2 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    Thanks, a always for engrossing and utterly fascinating read about our beloved Adirondacks!

  2. catharus says:

    Another great detailed and fact-filled post! Thanks!

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Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.