Saturday, July 13, 2013

McMartin House: Adirondac’s Last Building

IMG_6774Those  who visit the Upper Works trailhead pass through the remains of the most notable ghost town in the Adirondacks.   The ruined village is known by various names: Adirondac, the Deserted Village, Tahawus (mistakenly), Upper Works, McIntyre.

All of these names (some more historically valid than others) hearken back to the original settlement carved out of the wilderness more than a hundred and eighty years ago by prospectors eager to capitalize on the massive veins of iron ore to which they had been guided by Abenaki Indian Lewis Elijah Benedict in 1826.

However, the collapsing structures lining the old village street and ranging back into the woods date from a more modern era, most around the turn of the twentieth century and into the 1920’s (though the foundations of some are original to the mining village).  The last of them was abandoned as recently as the 1960’s.  Now the Adirondack forest is reclaiming them at its usual unrelenting pace.

But there is one building that stands out.  First, it remains intact while the others decay, an obvious preservation effort having stabilized it.   Second, its design – a plain wood frame saltbox  – is quite different than the other structures.  Those who know something of the history of Adirondac are aware that it has a measure of importance, even fame.

Like the settlement itself, this building has had a lot of names.  It is most typically referred to as MacNaughton Cottage, the name given it while it was a clubhouse for the Tahawus Club, the same era during which its rotting neighbors were constructed.    In fact it is much older.  Built in 1834 it is the oldest extant structure or artifact remaining from the entire mining operation including any of the old machinery or works still present.   Indeed it was the first frame house to have been raised in Adirondac.  The Adirondacks having a relatively recent Euro-American history, it is in fact one of the oldest buildings still standing in the park.

Originally built to house the proprietors when they visited, it was first called McMartin’s House after Daniel McMartin, its first resident and son of one of the original investors, Duncan McMartin, who in failing health sent his son to oversee his interests in development  of the works.  It was also referred to as the Proprietor’s House.  Later in its long life it was known as Hunter house, then Cocktail House, then still later Crocker House.  Wesley Haynes of the Preservation League of New York State who did a detailed study of the site in 1994 and described the history and structure of the house in great detail, identified it as the McMartin/McIntyre House after both principal investors in the mining operations.  To honor its longevity  I’ll favor it in this article with the original name: McMartin House.

McMartin House served numerous roles in the life of Adirondac.  In many ways it was the heart of the town.  Early on it was a boarding house for guests (as opposed to workers who boarded first in a log structure and later in a much larger frame building on the other side of the street).  It remained a boarding house for guests for many decades, even as the mining enterprise failed.

McMartin House was also the residence of the mining operation’s succession of managers when they were on site.  During the years 1845 – 1852 it was the year-round home of Andrew Porteous, the redoubtable and incredibly hard-working manager who came closest to achieving success with the McIntyre Mine.

McMartin House served as an early general store of sorts, as the settlement’s first post office and as an occasional gathering place for meeting and music.  Perhaps its most interesting utilitarian function is memorialized by the small addition to its south side.  If you look at the house from straight on you will plainly see that the one-story portion to your right was an asymmetrical add-on to the original plan, made thirteen years after the house was first raised.  This was McIntyre Bank, a fully functioning financial institution in the heat of the Adirondack wilderness in the 1840’s!  The bank was given a charter by the State of New York to print its own money – bank notes , redeemable in gold.  The strong box, which itself outlived Adirondac and was around during the years the site was a sportsman’s club, was reputedly something to see.  I do not know its ultimate fate.

When Adirondac was abandoned in 1857-1858, McMartin House remained the sole inhabited residence, the home of caretaker Robert Hunter and family for fifteen years.  It is for this reason above all that it did not suffer the fate of other town buildings and still exists today.  Robert Hunter left in 1872 after the death of his wife, Sarah.  It is Sarah Hunter’s gravestone in Adirondac’s lonely cemetery to which I referred in last week’s introductory article.

When the ruined environs of Adirondac were reinvented as the Preston Ponds Club in the late 1870’s (later the Tahawus Club), McMartin House was in the best condition and was the first to be occupied.  It was subsequently established as a guest house.  It was in this role, just after the turn of the century,  that it achieved its greatest notoriety.  Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and family were staying there when Roosevelt, coming down from a climb of Mount Marcy, learned that a wounded President McKinley had taken a turn for the worse.  Roosevelt’s famous “Midnight Ride” to North Creek, during which he became President of the United States, began at its door.

But for me, McMartin House is historically significant and emotionally resonant not because of its age or its multitude of roles in the story of Adirondac.  It is not because it was the home of the Hunters, the last residents of the fated, abandoned enterprise.   It is not even because Teddy Roosevelt stayed there .  For me that plain and poignant frame house is dear for one reason above all: for the better part of nine years it was the residence and home away from home for a man named David Henderson.

You may know of David Henderson, whose name graces one of the most beautiful lakes in the Adirondacks and a modest mountain as well.   If you have hiked into the High Peaks from Upper Works you have likely seen his memorial at Calamity Pond and have heard the oft-repeated story of his accidental death.   You may even have read his first-hand account of the discovery of ore beds in 1826, available in editions of the Adirondack Reader as well as other sources.  But these things alone are not sufficient to do justice to one of the most amazing people in Adirondack History.  Next week I will introduce you to the Prince of Adirondac.

Photo: McMartin House, aka MacNaughton Cottage

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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.

5 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    I thought it was one of those neighborhood watch guys that shot Henderson?

    What is the plan for this building? Is it on Forest Preserve land now?

  2. katfitz says:

    Great article!! Looking forward to the next !

  3. Avon says:

    I’d like very much to be able to look at another article in this series when reading one of them. Would it be feasible to insert a live link to each other installment when posting a new one?

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Good idea! I’ve been in the woods, sorry for the delay. I’ll check with the editor about doing that.


  4. Shari says:

    Excellent article…. very informative. I learned a few things I didn’t know, despite having lived here nearly 10 years. My family was the last to leave as my Dad was the caretaker of the Masten House at that time.

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