Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Discovery of Lost Brook Tract

Towards the SummitToday we move our surveying saga forward from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth.  We will not dwell in this century for long.  The stories of two dominant explorers of the 1800’s, geologist Ebenezer Emmons and surveyor Verplanck Colvin, have been well documented and need no retelling here.  But before Emmons, who was active in the region in the  1830′,s there was plenty of important surveying work done in the Adirondacks.

If you will, please consider the following two résumés, each an example of early American pioneering virtue:

Distinguished Gentleman of Politics

  • Born at Llanuwchllyn, Wales, 1765
  • Emigrates to the United States in 1790
  • Marries Sarah Rees.  Father of eleven children
  • School teacher and headmaster at Remsen, NY
  • Supervisor, Town of Johnsburg for fifteen years
  • Judge, Court of Common Pleas for forty five years
  • New York State Assemblyman, 1811, 1814 and 1815
  • Delegate to the New State Constitutional Convention, 1821-1822
  • Unites States Congressman, 1822 – 1825.  Exemplary record: misses only one vote during his service.

Wilderness Explorer Nonpareil

  • Frontier homesteader near Wevertown, NY in 1795
  • Important land owner and farmer with more than 1,000 acres
  • Operates a forge, furnace and mill
  • Becomes a surveyor in 1796
  • Appointed Deputy New York State Surveyor, 1804
  • Principal surveyor, Totten and Crossfield Purchase townships
  • Principal surveyor, Old Military Tract townships
  • Principal surveyor, Moose River Tract
  • First ascent of Big Slide, the third High Peak ever to be climbed
  • First ascent of Whiteface
  • With Major Reuben Sanford, first Euro-American exploration of Avalanche Pass
  • With Sanford, principal surveyor of the McIntyre Iron works, ore beds, Henderson Lake and Lake Colden gore.  They name Lake Sanford and Lake Sarah.
  • Died at Lake George in 1850 at the age of eighty-five, tramping in the woods until his last days


Here’s a question for you, just for fun: which résumé impresses you more?  Which man had the more demanding, interesting, accomplished life?

Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter who you pick… they’re the same guy.  Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the man who will finally bring our three-month surveying saga home to Lost Brook Tract and its conclusion: Judge John Richards.

As mentioned in a previous article, many people from the colonial period through the Civil War era were surveyors in addition to whatever else they may have been.  America was a great frontier and the establishment of property rights was fundamental to the establishment of all else; thus it is no wonder that a working knowledge of surveying was handy or even necessary.  As we have seen in previous Dispatches, surveying is a complex and demanding skill.  It is heartening to me both as a math teacher and wilderness lover to think that so many people of influence, means and political power in the early days of the United States were not only accomplished woodsmen and women but also strong practical mathematicians.  I doubt the same is true today.

With that said, most résumés of early surveyors do not approach that of Richards.  Imagine the life he led to compile such a biography.  Imagine the energy and industry he must have shown!  I will not dwell further on his political accomplishments but for those who are interested, Jim Richards, a direct descendent who assisted me with this Dispatch, has written a book on him.

John Richards became a surveyor in the last years of the eighteenth century, but he began his period of most intense activity in 1809 when Surveyor General Simeon De Witt put him hard to work correcting the numerous problems with the township lines in the Totten and Crossfield Purchase.  Over the next two decades while he was also busy becoming a politician of note Richards returned repeatedly to this task.  Records from the time show him working on one gore after another.  He also spent a great deal of time attempting to establish the boundaries of the particular townships that – surprise!  – bordered the northern line of the purchase.

Those of you who have had the staying power to actually follow this series already know that the northern line of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase was a bedeviling problem, represented in theory and law by inaccurate and conflicting surveys from four predecessors: Campbell, Mitchell, Brodhead and Wright.  Into this mire trudged Richards, chain in hand, establishing the northern boundaries of Townships 43, 51, 37, 23 and 50 and the gore east of Township 47.  This work took the better part of twenty years.  Having two primary conflicting northern lines to work with he had to make judgment calls, sometimes choosing Campbell’s line and sometimes choosing Brodhead’s.   He didn’t fix the problems with the line itself but his work on the townships solved numerous disputes and questions.

Judge Richards was also known as an excellent surveyor of roads.  He was one of three surveyors who laid out the famous Port Kent-Hopkinton Toll Road and he also surveyed a road from the Black River to Essex County, weaving through several northern townships of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase.  Portions of that road appear on my 1911 map and I am itching to see what I can learn of it.

Along with another distinguished, larger-than-life character of the times, the venerable Major Reuben Sanford (about whom I will eventually write more), Richards was selected to be the principal surveyor for the McIntyre Iron Works.  It was in association with that venture that Richards explored Lake Colden and Avalanche Lake.  The McIntyre saga is one of the greatest of Adirondack stories.  It was my first deep historical romance with the region and will be the subject of several upcoming Dispatches, at which point we will once again meet Richards in the woods.

But this time my focus is on Richards’ work to survey the Old Military Tract.  Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Thorn had been hired by De Witt survey part of the tract in 1804 and 1805 but it fell to Richards to lay out the bulk of it, starting in 1812 and continuing into 1813.  This area is near and dear to many Adirondackers, encompassing as it does much of Essex County including North Elba, Lake Placid and Keene, extending down to the foot of the Great Range.

It was during this survey that Richards climbed Big Slide, the third ascent of a High Peak on record (Giant was the first, climbed by Brodhead as we have seen; Dix was second).   It is interesting to put this accomplishment into its historical context.  The mountain had no name yet and if Richards did name it (I have no evidence that he did) his name never caught on.  On early maps it is named Slide Mountain, the “Big” having been added some time later.  But even this name does not appear before 1830; that’s because there was no slide before 1830!  When Richards climbed it the south side was  prodigiously steep but it was largely forested.  The slide is a geologically recent phenomenon, the result of heavy rains.  There were permanent settlers in Keene Valley in 1830 and one wonders at the magnitude of the sound that must have been created from a slide that tremendous.

Richards surveyed lots in several townships in the Military Tract.  I delved into the details with great pleasure, working from digital scans that preserve his fluid and lovely handwriting.  Richards rendered his field notes in narrative form as opposed to the columnar format of surveyors like Brodhead and Mitchell, which makes the original notes even nicer to read, though like his predecessors he largely kept to the business as hand.

My greatest attention was given to this particular passage (spelling and punctuation faithfully preserved):

Beginning at the south west coner thereof at a spruce tree standing on the top of a ledge of Rocks and marked being the corner of those lots.  Running thence north 30 minutes west 130 chains 50 links to a stake standing on the top of the mountain and marked 65.66.69 and 70.  Thence south 89 degrees 30 minutes west 74 chains…

Let me offer a quick digression so as to make these notes more intelligible to those of you following at home.  Surveyors traditionally reference all directions from either a north or south bearing.  Thus north 30 minutes west means that Richards was running north, bearing slightly west by half a degree.  On the other hand south 89 degrees 30 minutes west means that Richards headed nearly 90 degrees west of south – that is, almost exactly due west.  Without understanding this convention it looks at first glance as if surveyors run only north or south!  The above excerpt shows that Richards chained north, marking the eastern line of the lot and continuing to the point where by calculation he determined a corner should go.  He then marked said corner and turned left 90 degrees to run the northern line.

This entry is of special meaning to me because my wife Amy and I have stood there (and it was Amy who found the actual corner post).  Following the eastern line to that corner and then continuing west, using my own crude surveying tools, all the while knowing that I was following in Richard’s footsteps almost exactly two hundred years later, was a thrill I will long remember.  You see, that corner is also the northeast corner of Lost Brook Tract.  Hardly anyone has ever been along that line and it exists in a setting unchanged since Richards’ time.

Richards writes that he is “standing on the top of the mountain.  That is no doubt because that corner is on the crest of a high ridge just below the summit of Burton’s Peak, our own recently-named mountain.  There is no evidence that Richards achieved the true summit which is more than a hundred yards from corner; he does not describe any such detour.  But for all I know he scrambled to the top for a look.  Richards would have had no reason to explore the remainder of the tract, however given that he walked on its eastern and northern border he gets my credit for the “discovery.”

Subsequent to Richards’ survey Lost Brook Tract remained untouched for more than a century, save perhaps for a passing hunter.  No one visited that corner again until 1948 when Hal Burton, the original private owner, found and explored Lost Brook Tract proper.  Fittingly, however,  it was not Burton himself who went to the corner: it was a surveyor.  His survey and my own attempt at a survey from two years ago will conclude this series.

However next week we will take a short break from surveying for a matter of contemporary priority.

Photo: near the northeast corner, Lost Brook Tract

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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. Ron J. Richards says:

    Mr. Pete Nelson:
    Greetings from lodi, CA.
    jim called last night and said to look for your article. I (one thousand reallys) enjoyed your writing. I am glad you walk in Grandpa’s tracks. I have some of Uncle Harry’s surveying equipment. Jim says he worked with Mr. Colvin. I took the liberty of printing out your story so Virginia can read it.Thank You, Ron J. Richards, Lodi, CA (Originally from Riparious and Wevertown, NY)

    • Pete Nelson says:

      It is a privilege to write these pieces and have them enjoyed in any measure by descendents of these Adirondack pioneers. Thank you. And thanks to you, Jim, for your assistance.

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