Saturday, July 6, 2013

Upper Works: The Lost Settlement of Adirondac

Collapsing AdirondacIt was early afternoon of a warm, windless July day, eight years ago.  Bits of sunlight flecked the ground, filtered by the dark foliage of the forest stand in which I found myself.  Minutes before I had been with my family, gathered together in conference along a faint trail.  Now I was alone, off trail, pushing through a phalanx of young hardwood growth dotted with cedar, hemlock and spruce.  Though my wife and three sons were spread out in the woods somewhere within shouting distance, the only sound I could hear was that of my own labor, of leafy branches pushing past my ears as I forged up a steep and uneven rise.

As I have so many times in the Adirondacks I felt a deep sense of loneliness.  No doubt due in part to the nature of my quest I experienced that disconcerting and enchanting feeling of being unmoored from time, as though I might next encounter Alvah Dunning or Mitchell Sabattis at the top of the ridge… or more to the point, David Henderson.  I imagined that my explorations might channel me back in time more than a century, never to see my family again, instead to have to live a life out of any generation I have known, perhaps as a guide or trapper of old. 

This waking dream was suddenly dispersed by a piercing cry from Amy.  There was no fear in it, only astonishment.   My heart racing, I charged through the undercover in the direction of her shout.  It was but a few moments before I reached her, her face flush with excitement, radiant.  For a second all I could think about was how beautiful she looked standing there in exaltation in the midst of the Adirondack forest.  “Look!” she cried,  pointing as one of our three boys arrived.  I followed her gaze and there it was, the object of more than a decade of curiosity and searching, its mystery and meaning amplified by its wild surroundings.  As was only proper, Amy, our discoverer, had been the one to find it.

We entered and came to a shaped stone protruding from the forest floor, upright and straight after nearly a hundred and fifty years.  The lettering was still readable, carved into its face.  I read the name at the top: Sarah Hunter.  A visceral, emotional surge went through me.  I knew her.  I knew who she had been.

My favorite trailhead into the Eastern High Peaks is the one at Upper Works.  The first part of the trail is a logging road, still scarred and muddy and passing through a recently-cut section of forest that offers as compensation a corker view of Mount Colden.  Still, I wince as I walk though it and I rejoice when the mature forest finally envelopes me again, mere yards before reaching Calamity Brook.  Crossing the swinging bridge over the brook has always marked an entry into total wilderness for me, even though in reality this threshold hardly marks undisturbed forest.  But Calamity Brook at that point, running dramatically over a massive system of rock scoured clean by generations of spring runoffs, looks the perfect mountain stream and the woods beyond are dense and dark.

They hold their secrets, those woods.  Not more than a couple hundred feet beyond the brook as you come to a straight section of trail you might peer into the forest to your left, your eye drawn by an unexpected shape.  What is that, shadowing you and running parallel to the trail?  It is no mere spine of land; look more carefully.  It is an artificial ridge but four feet at the highest.  The trunks of some of the massive pines that lined it, long ago denuded of their bark, are rotting but still extant.  Behind and abutting the logs a snaking line of piled rock gives away the labors of the men who built it.

For years I wondered at this earthworks, paralleling Calamity Brook fifty feet into the woods from the trail.  What was it purpose so far from anywhere, deep in the woods?  Now I know its purpose and I have some sense of the lives of those who made it.  Like the gravestone of Sarah Hunter, this structure sends me adrift in Adirondack history, a physical sensation that emanates from the gut and settles in the far places of the heart.

The Upper Works parking area sits at the head of the former settlement of Adirondac.  Various buildings from the Tahawus Club, artifacts from a century past, line the former town street, with some further back in the woods and even across the nascent Hudson where once there was a bridge.  The collection of them feel almost posed, each in various states of irretrievable collapse – though there is one building further down from the trailhead that is in an obvious condition of stabilization and conservation.  This one is of an even more distant and significant era.

Many know of this ghost town, a favorite locus of stories and imaginings for decades of visitors.  Fewer know its actual history.  Almost none know its mysteries, the most private parts of a deep and rich lore that begins nearly two centuries back, before the Civil War when the Revolutionary War was still a living memory; before the name “Adirondack” described the collection of the surrounding peaks, when speculators with dreams of precious metals called them the Peru Mountains; before Verplanck Colvin, before Adirondack Murray.

In the woods to the east of the parking area, mere feet from its gravel edge, lies a pile of rock shaped like a haystack, surrounded and run through by forest re-growth.   It is hardly ever noticed by hikers and little noted by those who do happen to glance at it through the trees.  But look again: the rock is hewn and there are iron bars sprouting forth at various angles here and there, all akimbo.  This was a structure once, doomed by lightning, ravaged by floods.  It held the hopes of men, this edifice.  It held the promise of riches, a promise that cruelly and inexorably retreated beyond the reach of their nineteenth-century human enterprise, their nearly unimaginable toil.  Now it is forgotten.


Before my acquisition of Lost Brook Tract gave me impetus to dig into the history of its environs, to immerse myself in the world of surveying and delve into the complicated historical quilt of Adirondack land ownership, I had another obsession with history: the McIntyre Iron Works and the settlement of Adirondac.

This obsession began thirty years ago, in a manner and with a power that has undoubtedly worked its influence upon many: one day I decided to try my first High Peaks hike from Upper Works, ignorant of the surrounding remains, and I simply came upon them in stunned surprise.

I remember parts of that first trip well.  I recall delighting in the import of the sign that said “Dead End” as I turned onto the road leading to Tahawus.  Jogging left at the junction of the road to Upper Works just before the bridge to NL Industries’ open pit mine I gazed in amazement as the piles of tailings came into view, the leveled and remade earth, sections of it scarred and savaged and black in hue, denuded of trees.  I recoiled in shock when the view across the tortured remnants of Lake Sanford revealed the massive complex of buildings that supported the ilmenite mine, sprouting up in the middle of what I had supposed to be wilderness and flanked by Overburden Mountain, a three-hundred foot pile of mining leftovers.  Like many before me I felt tremendous relief as the woods closed in again.  Then the pavement ended, the dirt road narrowed and the sense of penetrating deep into wilderness took hold.

How many wondering people have taken that dirt road to Upper Works, aware of the feel of the wild, their guard finally down to civilized sights, only to have their heads reflexively swivel to the right as they passed a wall of rock they did not expect, set back in the forest?  I vividly remember my first sight of the 1854 blast furnace, towering in the woods like a Mayan ruin.  This was something entirely different than the ugly factory buildings at the ilmenite mine.  This was the essence d’essence of ancient Adirondack history, a bona fide ruin in the wilderness.  And then to drive in to an honest to goodness ghost town shortly thereafter, the crumbling buildings calling me to question them!  How perfect was this to inflame the mind of a young Adirondack romantic?

I have no memory of my hike that day – I think I got to Flowed Lands.  What I do remember is exploring those dying buildings, seeing the fireplaces still burdened with ash, the old slat ceilings, the tattered fragments of curtain in some windows, stirred by the wind through the broken glass.  My imagination  that these buildings were terribly old was belied by bits of power line, electrical wire and switches here and there, but back then I had no idea of the real story and I was living a revel of ghostly imagination.

Much has changed since my initial visit to Adirondac thirty years ago and the overall effect has been to  blunt some of its mystery.  The trailhead is more popular, the houses are much more collapsed.  The road is paved and the blast furnace is in the open, trees and brush having been cut away and a plastic cap having been placed on top to preserve it from rain damage .  The sole remaining original building has been stabilized and some work has been done to conserve it.   There are a few signs up here and there, some gravel laid down, a short path put in place to the machinery that ran the furnace.

But these improvements just mean that experiencing the lonely mystery of Adirondac takes a little more digging, a little more delving.  Meanwhile the work done so far to create an historic district out of the settlement and its surroundings invites you to learn more.

There is a surprising amount of information available about the McIntyre enterprise and the settlement of Adirondac, much of it in publication and available at local stores, from Henry Dornburgh’s misnamed pamphlet Why the Wilderness is Called Adirondack to Arthur Masten’s The Story of Adirondac to Harold Hochschild’s monograph The MacIntyre Mine – from Failure to Fortune .  I particularly direct interested readers to explore the remarkably thorough set of anthologies researched and gathered by journalist Lee Manchester.

It will not be my purpose to retell any of the stories that are better told in these sources.  Instead I will share some of our adventures in discovering what our family has about Adirondac.  In doing so I hope that can leave readers with some of the sense of historical mystery that abides in us whenever we go there and hear the generations-removed echoes of people who struggled mightily in the harsh frontier wilderness, in the shadow of the mountains we so love.  The lost settlement and the mine works are an important and compelling part of Adirondack and American history.  It is worth the exploration.

For the next few postings I will mostly be in the wilderness.  A series of columns on Adirondac will post but you will see few comments from me.  Enjoy and I will see you in August.

Next in series.

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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.

9 Responses

  1. marisa muratori says:

    Thank You Pete…It was great to wake up this morning after visiting that very spot yesterday and read this article. My companion had never been there before and was curious about all that you mentioned.

  2. Big Burly says:

    As always thanks for a great read. I think we both “discovered” the same area about the same time. My first foray was short, maybe about 1972 or so. I’ve been back a couple of times. Today does not hold the same sense of mystery as the first time.
    Hope you enjoy your sojourn.

  3. AdkBuddy says:

    Stumbled across Adirondac while out for a ride +- 30 years ago. Very interesting indeed.

  4. Roger Payrot says:

    I spent 5 years in the Green house “Theodor Roosevelt camp” it was a great place and will always remember it fondly. Thank you Pete.

  5. Judy Amell says:

    I,am from Tahawus, lived there until I 13 when they picked up the town and moved it to Newcomb. My husband is from the Upper Works, he moved to North Creek at age 12.My father worked in the mines as a driller for 42 years. I know the places you write about because we lived there.

    • Paul says:

      Good morning Judy,

      Each year on TR weekend we host a history and technology tour of the Upper Works including the furnaces and a visit to the mine. Part of that program includes inviting former residents of UW and Tahawus to come share their memories of living and working there. We’d love to have you join us this year, and any other family or friend willing to share their memories. Please be in touch with me at the Adirondack Interpretive Center (582.2000) and I can share more details.



  6. Paul says:

    Folks may want to check out this book I was given recently. It has some fun hikes with history behind each, including this area Pete is writing about:

  7. SwilliAm says:

    Your writings deserve a much, much wider audience. The Almanack is indeed fortunate to have you.

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