Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sandy Hildreth: Finding ‘The Great Adirondack Pass’

During the research I did several years ago about historic landscape painting in the Adirondacks, I came across a painting that took me deep into the High Peaks region, told me a wonderful story, and led me to some interesting discoveries.

In my two earlier posts on this topic, I provided some of the background about the development of landscape painting in the 19th century. While researching, I made several trips to the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, to look at the many wonderful paintings in their collection. One of my goals was to try to visit some of the sites I could identify and do my own paintings of them – 150 years later.

There is a painting in the museum that really captured my attention. “The Great Adirondack Pass, Painted on the Spot, 1837”, by Charles Cromwell Ingham. It depicts a bare rocky cliff on the right side of the painting and what looks like two gigantic glacial erratics in the center foreground. It will probably not be clear in the reproduction, but in the lower left corner is a small figure of an artist, and at the base of the very dark rock in the center, there is a tiny little person. I noticed these when I saw the actual painting in the Adirondack Museum. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the size of the two rocks. Compared to the person at the base of the dark rock, it is at least 10 times the height of that person, perhaps more. That makes this unique glacial erratic 50-60 feet high. Huge! I decided I would try to find this place.

Reading in “Fair Wilderness: American Paintings in the Collection of the Adirondack Museum”, I learned that Charles Cromwell Ingham was a portrait painter invited by Archibald McIntyre to join a geological survey expedition – the first to make the ascent of Mount Marcy, in August of 1837. In another book I read it was reported that Ingham passed out several times while doing the climb because it was so strenuous. Also on the expedition was Dr. Ebenezer Emmons, the state geologist of New York. Ingham was brought along to visually record the trip as pictorial accuracy was deemed very important – this was before the use of cameras. “Fair Wilderness” also explained that this location is now known as Indian Pass – that I could find!

So one Columbus Day weekend I packed what I needed for a day trip, including the Adirondack Mountain Club “Guide to Adirondack Trails: High Peaks Region”, drove to the Upper Works trail head and hiked the Indian Pass trail. This is a very rugged trail that goes from Upper Works, through Indian Pass between the massive cliffs of Wallface Mountain and the McIntyre Range, and about 11 miles later ends up at the Adirondack Loj trailhead near Lake Placid. “Fair Wilderness” included several quotes that further identified the location. Another artist who visited the pass later in 1837 noted there is “a sloping platform amidst the rocks where the finest view of the whole scene is to be obtained”. He also predicted that the site would soon host resorts and lodges and be more popular than Niagara Falls! Later author Alfred Billings Street wrote “I wish to bear testimony to the accuracy” of an engraving that was done based on Ingham’s painting.

I was on a mission to find those two gigantic rocks. It’s approximately 5 miles from the trailhead to the summit of the pass, an elevation of 2660 feet. It was a brisk fall day, many of the leaves were already off, and I found the trail to be one of the most challenging I had ever climbed at that time. Up and over boulders, steep and narrow – I tried to imagine the expedition in 1837 – before there were any trails or man-made ladders to help get you up through the steep sections. After a few hours of climbing I encountered a small sign and arrow that said “summit rock”. Stepping out onto the bare sloping rock I had the barren cliff of Wallface to my right – exactly as it was in Ingham’s painting. Out in front of me the land sloped downward and in the hazy distance I could just barely see the light reflecting off of Henderson Lake – also in Ingham’s painting. This had to be the spot where he painted – but where were those two gigantic rocks?

I took photographs, did some sketches, and had a snack and then I heard another hiker approaching, coming from the opposite direction. I stepped back onto the trail to meet him, showed him my sketch (based on the painting) and asked if he’d seen a couple of big rocks – and he said he had. I thanked him and continued on past summit rock – which I later learned is not really the summit but does have the best view to the West. It did not take long, maybe another quarter mile, and I found them. There were indeed pine trees growing out of the top of the one on the left and the one on the right had a funny bump on the top – just like Ingham’s painting.

They were surrounded by trees and underbrush and nearly impossible to step back far enough to get a decent photograph of both of them. The hiking trail passes directly next to the rocks. But my big discovery was that they were not anywhere as large as Ingham had painted them. What was he thinking? Supposedly he created the painting “on the spot”! How could he be so inaccurate? By my estimation the rocks were twice as tall as I am, maybe three times – so perhaps 11-15 feet high (not 60!).

I took as many photos as I could and then with daylight waning, headed back down the trail, feeling very successful. It wasn’t long before I did my own painting of the two rocks and the view, based on my photos – only it was a little disappointing. The research and the journey had been so exciting but my painting wasn’t very exciting. Two rocks and a cliff. There was no way to understand the scale of the rocks. In my painting they just looked like two boulders – four feet high, six feet? There was no way to tell.

Then it hit me – Charles Ingham may have painted “on the spot”, but I bet when he got the painting back to his studio to finish, he too probably felt he needed to do something to show the actual size of the rocks. I can imagine him remembering the rigors and challenges of this hike into uncharted territory – I thought it was rugged and I had a marked trail to follow. So Charles Cromwell Ingham painted a little person into his painting – something to give the rocks some scale. And he painted himself in the corner, painting. In his memory, perhaps he believed the rocks to be the size of a 6 story building!

So, with a friend to accompany me, I hiked back through Indian Pass and had a photo of myself taken in front of the rocks. Back in my studio, I did a new painting: “Self-portrait in Indian Pass” , which one of my children will inherit someday. I have great respect for all the artists of the past, but I now understand a bit more about what “artistic license” means. I’m sure Mr. Ingham did sketch and paint on the spot – it would be my guess that he did what he could in a few hours, not wanting to hold up the expedition. He was working with oil paints, so probably did more of a sketch than a complete painting, otherwise it would have taken days for the paint to dry. The canvas was then most likely removed from the wooden stretcher bars and rolled up and put in a pack for ease of transportation. Ingham might have rendered the rocks from that specific location, and he might have also sketched the view from the more open “summit rock”. Then I bet he combined the two when he completed the painting of the “Great Adirondack Pass” in his studio. When he realized there was no way for the viewer to understand the size of the rocks or the ruggedness of the terrain, he added the little figures to the painting, for scale. Mystery solved!

If you visit the Adirondack Museum, look for “The Great Adirondack Pass”. See what kind of story it tells you!

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Sandra Hildreth

Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting.

Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks.

Sandy’s work can be seen on her website sandrahildreth.com.




2 Responses

  1. catharus says:

    Great story! I too have been meaning to hike to that very spot. ‘Will get there some day. Thanks!

  2. Scott says:

    Thanks for putting this together. The same Ingham painting has caused me to do my own research on where this was located and I am going to do the hike to see it in person myself at the end of this month. Now I know how to get there and where the “big” rocks are thanks to your article. I’ll also be going to the Adirondack Museum to see the painting.

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