The 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.