Saturday, July 27, 2013

Newcomb: The Adirondac Cemetery

Gravestone at AdirondacThe most obvious attraction to the settlement of Adirondac in its current state is that is is a ghost town, crumbling and abandoned.  It is no wonder that people find ghost towns appealing, being as they are romantic places tinged with loneliness and even sadness.  Most of all they are landscapes of mystery, places where the imagination can run with little limit, wondering at the lives and stories echoed within.

Like any ghost town and perhaps even more than most owing to its wild, forbidding setting, Adirondac invites mystery.  To the knowledgeable visitor some of that mystery requires little imagination, merely some history.  Where was the earliest furnace?  Where and what was the nature of the house in which legendary guide John Cheney resided?   How many families lived in the settlement at its peak?  These and many other questions have no answer.

When I first became obsessed with Adirondac in the 1980’s I entered into a mystery adventure of my own.  I assumed that there must be a cemetery associated with the settlement and I resolved to find it.  It was more than fifteen years before my wife Amy succeeded.

Now let me say from the outset that the location of the cemetery was no mystery to some: people who lived in Adirondac when it was reopened to support workers for the NL Industries ilmenite mine at Tahawus surely knew where it was; undoubtedly so did park rangers and a handful of hunters and hikers.  But before the Open Space Institute purchased the land from NL in 2003 the knowledge was not by any means common.  If you were not one of the few who knew where it lay, deep in regrown woods, you were not likely to ever see it.  So while it nothing unknown in any real context, to me and my children, who were born and growing up during my explorations, it was a personal mystery of the highest order, a ghostly search that acquired more meaning the more I learned about the people who had lived and worked at the iron works.

By the time I began to hunt for the cemetery on foot National Lead had ceased mining at Tahawus a few miles to the south and the extensive World War Two-era works lay largely abandoned as well.  But much like Adirondac before it, Tahawus had a caretaker.  I had researched a lot about Adirondac on paper and knew for certain there had been a cemetery, but no documents I had read gave any clue to its location.  So I paid a visit to the former titanium mine.

At first the caretaker was reticent: after all from his perspective here was yet another yahoo inspired by wrecked and empty buildings most of which had nothing to do with the original iron mining operation, ignorantly tramping around private land.  But as I revealed that in fact I knew a fair amount about the actual history of Adirondac his expression changed from impatient disinterest to bemusement.

“Oh yes, there was a cemetery and it’s still there,” he admitted, “but it’s very hard to find.  It’s in woods so dense you can be right on top of it and not see it.”

“I’ve gone looking for it twice, past the blast furnace near where the old church was supposed to be, but no luck,” I said.  “Is it somewhere there or was it located elsewhere, maybe closer to the town?”  This query produced only a silent smile.  Obviously this gentleman was not going to help me solve my mystery.

For some years my life was disrupted by personal affairs that kept me quite distracted (what is it with young men and ill-considered first marriages?) and I let my explorations of Adirondac sit.  However as my children got older my penchant for telling ghost stories began to weave the abandoned settlement as deeply into their imaginations as it was lodged in mine.  My itch to find the cemetery became a powerful desire shared by all of us.

By the time they were young teenagers our frequent forays into the High Peaks had given our boys multiple explorations of the extant remains of the iron works (there is quite a bit more left than that which meets the eye along the rotting village street).   But no cemetery.  We resolved to search for it in earnest.

I theorized that the cemetery must have occupied higher ground, probably a bit away from the center of town and near the mythical church, which a map showed had been built well south of Adirondac, along a road southeast of the 1854 blast furnace.  So we concentrated our search there, along a rise on the south side of the old Lake Jimmy road.  The first try was a bout of random traipsing.  The second was a more formal grid search, with five of us spaced evenly apart, working a best-guess compass bearing.  Both efforts were futile, producing only scratches and bug bites.  I began to doubt the wisdom of further attempts.

But romance is not to be trifled with.  I knew that a little poking around in the world of the living would find me someone who knew where the cemetery was, but that would only burst our pent-up infatuation with this personal mystery, which would be no good.  So we let it sit again, hoping that in our wanderings about the deserted works we would eventually get lucky and happen upon it.

Then one fateful afternoon in  2005 I was visiting the Adirondack museum, lingering in its mining exhibit (which was dismantled shortly thereafter, much to my dismay).  The exhibit had a section on the McIntyre works including a fascinating diorama, an old trip hammer, a magnetic separator and other artifacts.  Papering the wall of this section of the exhibit was a room-sized blowup of a well-known wood engraving of the “Deserted Village” made from an 1859 drawing by historical writer Benson J. Lossing.  I was daydreaming, looking at the layout of the village in the engraving when my eye caught something.  Suddenly my heart began to beat in a rush.

At this blown-up scale the engraver’s chisel marks were so richly textured that they were almost three-dimensional.   The chisel marks largely went one direction for any given object in the drawing.  But in the upper-left-hand corner of the engraving, northwest of the northernmost part of the town street, between the village and Henderson Lake, the chisel marks were different.  There was a small group of them that were mixed in two directions, cross-hatched.  As in crosses.  Could it be this was no random feature of the engraving?  Excitedly I wrote down some rough measurements. This suggestive array of crosses was just about as far from my previously guessed-at search area as one could get , diagonally opposite the works from the supposed church.  The line from Raiders of the Lost Ark flashed into my head, uttered by Indiana Jones when he learns that the Nazi archaeologists have relied upon an errantly-measured staff of Ra: “They’re digging in the wrong place!”

The very next day the family piled into the car and we drove from our camp site at Blue Mountain Lake to Upper Works.  We made our way into the woods northwest of Adirondac’s main street and immediately discovered an informal trail that led from the upper part of the gravel parking area to the shore of Henderson Lake.  The trail lay just about along the line from which I wished to search.  Taking any measurements from a 150-year-old perspective engraving made from a hillside nearly a mile away does not exactly constitute stirring archaeological accuracy, but as best I could determine the area of crosses depicted should lay south of this (at the time) faint trail.  I disbursed Amy, Alex, Zach and Adam along the trail at twenty yard intervals, centered on a best guess of distance from the village street and off we went.

It was not more than three minutes before Amy’s piercing screams filled the air.  I came charging through the thick underbrush, up a rise to my right.  Zach was close behind me.  “I’ve found it!” Amy cried.  “It’s right here!”  I reached Amy and immediately saw a tomb stone, standing in the forest, then another.  The regrowth was dense surrounding the little plot but obviously someone had been clearing the cemetery itself from time to time, as only small trees and brush were present on the actual hallowed soil.  The ground was uneven and rocky, disrupted by a hundred and fifty years of Adirondack frosts, heavy snows, spring rains and storms.  The area of the cemetery was partially bordered  by an old log fence.  It was small cemetery but it was breathtaking and lonely, right out of the imagination.

As the other boys arrived I went over to the biggest marker standing.  Sarah, Wife of Robert Hunter,” it read.  Died Jan 26, 1872.  I knew who she was.  Sarah had been the wife of the caretaker who had been left to see to the proper deterioration of the works after they were abandoned in 1857.  Robert and Sarah Hunter were the last residents of the original settlement of Adirondac.  Their children used the old school.  They lived in McMartin House and farmed some of the old fields.  They accepted travelers and guests.  When Sarah died Robert Hunter left and the era of the McIntyre Iron Works came to an end.

In all there were five grave stones still standing.  One was a young child of eleven.  One was an infant.  Two were unreadable.   Having found the cemetery we were no less imbued with mystery, just more rewarded by the somber, poignant reminder of past lives surrounding us. We stood silently for some time, each of us lost in our private thoughts.

Today the cemetery is easy to find. The trail to Henderson Lake has been cleared and the little spur trail leading up from it to the cemetery  (which we noticed a few minutes after we discovered it but which was very faint and deliberately blocked with piled brush) is opened up too.  The cemetery itself has been cleared of trees and bushes and the fenced border and little entrance gate has been restored.  The aura of mystery is lessened, though it is not altogether absent.  It is an old cemetery, after all.

Still, I’m not giving any further directions. You want to see it, reverently only, of course?  Go find it.

As for the Nelson family, we moved on to other mysteries.  The biggest one was left at our feet the moment we found the Adirondac cemetery and it remains completely unanswered to this day.  Here is where the people were buried.  Where then was the evocatively-named church, lost in the shadows of history?  Where was the Church of Tubal Cain? In the next and penultimate entry in this particular series on Adirondac I will invite you along for one more search.

Photo: Gravestone at the Adirondac cemetery.

Previous in Series.     Next in series.

Related Stories

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.

16 Responses

  1. Charlie says:

    Nice story Pete.I like cemetery stories and I sure as heck like visiting old burial grounds.A few days ago I walked Albany Rural Cemetery for the first time in a long stretch.Albany Rural is huge,it takes about an hour to walk the whole circuit which is about three miles around.What an interesting place with its monuments and landscape! I always stop at Alfred B. Street’s (he wrote ‘Woods & Waters’) plot which is tucked away in one of the loneliest sections of the cemetery.Now and again I make my way to the Henderson/ McIntyre plot which is surrounded by an old wrought iron picket fence.
    You mention historical writer Benson J. Lossing. I found a re-issue copy of his ‘Hudson River’ book recently and have yet to read it. In North Creek this past week,in an antique store,I saw two first edition copies of this book priced around $400. Also,coincidentally… just a few early mornings ago while walking,I found,on the top of a heap of books thrown out at curbside for garbage pickup,a first edition copy of Lossing’s book ‘Home of Washington..1870.’ I couldn’t believe somebody would throw this book out as it is old and in near perfect condition…………….. Anyway thanks for the uplift with your cemetery story above.I’ve been to Adirondac but a few times,and now,after reading the above, I am tempted to go back just to look for this plot where Sarah Hunter and others are buried. I spend more time in cemeteries than I do anywhere else it seems,and boy! are there a heckuva lot of cemeteries up here in New York and the northeast. Many,like the one you found,are yet to be discovered as they are surrounded by woods.
    I’m drawn towards old cemeteries like shavings of steel are drawn towards a magnet.

  2. Bill Joplin says:

    Great detective work, Pete!

  3. Pat B says:

    Has the local or county historical society documented the cemetery on any of the historical genealogy websites?

  4. Tim Baker says:

    I too share a passion for these old cemeteries. There’s one up on Harrington Hill here in Warrensburg that has some very old graves. I don’t like to tread on such hallowed grounds too much though so it’s often impossible to get the dates off of them, I just can’t bring myself to walk on these folks graves, it seems so disrespectful to me. I have a horror of someone coming along and finding me standing atop the very spot where someone was interred…

  5. Rob says:

    I am very much enjoying your series on Adirondac. I share some of these similar feelings of intrigue and wonder if anyone can point me towards a published work focusing on this settlement in particular?

    Each time I have left Adirondac destined for the High Peaks I feel like I’m walking back through time more so than anywhere else I’ve found in the Adirondacks. It’s hauntingly marvelous.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

  6. Mike says:

    Another great story Pete- thanks.

    I may be all wet, but I could swear I remember seeing this location marked by a cross on a topo map? When I started reading this I thought to myself “Right, it’s just nortwest of the village.” Or maybe… (insert Twilight Zone music here…).

    • Pete Nelson says:


      You are not all wet (well, you could be but I can’t see you right now). Some topo maps do have an ‘x’ marking the spot. I don’t know when that began or definitively which maps have it.


  7. Charlie says:

    “There’s one up on Harrington Hill here in Warrensburg that has some very old graves.”
    If Harrington Hill is off of Rt 28 I’ve been to this plot.Very secluded and high on a hill,unfrequently visited from what I could tell.

  8. Paul says:

    How does it work when grave sites are added to the Forest Preserve?

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Good question, no idea.

      • Paul says:

        Kind of a tricky question. Back then there probably was no formal “contract” for the plot. I have always wondered about this since there is state land down here in the finger lakes where I bird hunt that has several really old cemeteries on it. They are just like this one you describe just sort of disappearing into the elements. Graves in my opinion (and beliefs I guess)are really for the living, if there is no one alive that cares then maybe it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I will see flowers on these old graves down here. Maybe just from someone in passing that wanted to do something nice I suppose?

        I guess if an old camp is worth saving as a bit of history a monument to a person may be worth as much? Even if they were only important in historical terms to someone who cared about them.

  9. Campers Journal says:

    Thanks for your nice post. Interesting, clear and precise. I like this one Pete.

  10. honkcronk says:

    I found this cemetery on a visit some years ago with Bill Frenette. He has since passed on without documenting it. He was the tupper lake historian at the time.

    We just stumbled across it… not looking for it at all.

    Bill said it was an interesting find.

    You should also rediscover the old railroad building at Lake Lila which supposedly was torn down…. another bushwack along what looks like a bear path to the railroad tracks.

  11. Charlie Herr says:

    Thinking of cemeteries and John Cheney, I am a contributor of photos and grave information to . I have located and added John Cheney and other notable Newcomb region historical figures for the Huntington Cemetery, a.k.a. Grave Yard Bay Cemetery, across from the Newcomb VIC. Caleb Chase’s family and Sabbatis’ children are also buried there and are on for that cemetery.

  12. Steve Mertens says:

    Do you know of Muller the cemetery in Loch Muller. Hoffman Notch.
    Barbara McMartin wrote about it. It has a reputation as being haunted. It’s near Muller Pond in the woods.