Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Waterway Navigation:
The Moose River Lumber Company Cases

Moose River Logging Navigation CaseThe books of Henry Harter and Harold Hochschild discuss the building of the short-lived Raquette Lake Railway, its millionaire owners and probable origins.  These include Mrs. Huntington threatening not to visit Collis Huntington’s Pine Knot Camp if she had to continue using the Fulton Chain steamers, riding on buckboard and boat carries beyond Fourth Lake.

Maybe Mr. Huntington, not finding an empty seat, got the idea after sitting on a keg of nails on one steamer ride. No doubt tycoons as Durant, Morgan, Vanderbilt and Whitney envied Dr. Webb’s ability to ride a private train to his Nehasane Preserve from New York.

Hochschild mentions that John Dix used a 2-mile railroad spur to transport his Rondaxe Lake logs to Webb’s Clearwater Station for shipping to his McKeever Mill.  Only William Marleau describes Dix’s “influence” in getting the Racquette Lake Railway started.  This small line was important because it tells us the true reason why the Racquette Lake Railway did not pass through Old Forge, competing with the new 2-mile Fulton Chain Railroad line, and was routed to Rondaxe Lake before heading south to parallel the Eagle Bay “highway” along the Fulton Chain.

However, the above authors, except Marleau’s mention of a deCamp toll requirement, fail to mention why John Dix needed to build a railroad when it was customary and cheaper for logging companies to use the natural Adirondack waterways to move their lumber.  Barbara McMartin comes closest to the reason, without connecting it to the Dix line, in her discussion of the deCamp lawsuits against Dix’s firm in the 1890s.

Mrs. Julia deCamp and her husband William forced the building of this short line, determining the starting route of the Racquette Lake Railway.  The story of the deCamps’ role begins with the story of Julia Lyon deCamp.

Julia’s father, Lyman Lyon, was probably the largest Adirondack landowner by 1866 when he partnered with Henry and Augustus Snyder to built the first of three tanneries in an area near the Brown’s Tract Road which soon developed as the primary stopover for travel to the Fulton Chain, the Moose River Settlement.  After Lyon’s death in 1869, his lands were held in trust until divisions were made around 1886.  The three married daughters (Julia deCamp, Mary Fisher, Florence Merriam) received almost equal thirds of Lyon’s lands in the John Brown’s Tract.  Julia’s portion included 32,000 acres in Townships 1, 7 and parts of 6, of the John Brown’s Tract along the North Branch of the Moose River.

William deCamp, a Morris County, New Jersey native, met Julia Lyon when he agreed to accompany a friend who was interested in Lyon’s lands that were being held in the estate before division among the daughters.  DeCamp’s family was in the local iron ore business which nosedived when ore was discovered in the mid-west. William was restarting business prospects at the time.  Julia was both physically attractive and had good business instincts as well.  According to Grady, there was “mutual admiration”. William returned to New Jersey, wrote Julia a letter of proposal and the two married in 1875.

Julia believed in the permanence and value of her land inheritance.  Her 1880 will provided that William be the trustee of the lands and manage them as if they were his, but that actual ownership would pass equally among the “lineal issue” of their marriage upon both spouse’s deaths, and to William only if there were no children.  She listed detailed instructions for William’s management of her lands that he probably already observed while she was alive.

William proved a good steward of Julia’s lands.  Papers reported that he was appointed to and participated in the Sargent Commission of 1884 that was assigned by the Comptroller to develop a system of preservation for the Adirondack lands.  He joined a group of thirty timber land owners that included a Lemon Thompson with whom along with John Dix and Ed Thompson he would become more acquainted.  Unfortunately, men like Thompson would say the chief danger to forests were fires caused by hunters and fishermen and not the lumber industry, which they claimed only trimmed a small proportion of the woods.  The next year, New York established the Forest Preserve, a Forest Commission and the first “forever wild” law.

Up to and after her death, the newspapers referred to actions regarding her lands as being Mrs. deCamp’s though William was probably an equal partner in their management.  The deCamps’ first assertions of their preservation concerns occurred when Gordias Gould partnered with the Forge House owners Samuel Garmon and Dr. Alexander Crosby to construct the Wooden Legged Railroad from Moose River Settlement to the Forge House.  The project hit a dead end when Mrs. deCamp refused to let a railroad cross their lands, fearing fire danger to both forests and property.  It was only when the deCamps offered to build a steamer, the Fawn, to run from Minnehaha on the Moose River to a landing at today’s Thendara, that the project could proceed.  Julia would permit a railroad through her land only if the steamer line did not succeed.

In 1892, coincidental with the opening of Dr. Webb’s railroads, Julia deCamp established a Wilderness Park in sections called South, North and East Parks which surrounded the railroad line and the North Branch of the Moose River, as well as areas around Nick’s Lake, First Lake and parts of Second Lake.  Under an 1871 act, owners could fence off or post their lands for the purpose of protecting fish, game or forests, and could fine trespassers.

In 1894, Dr. Webb signed three lumbering contracts, one carrying an 8-year term with Lemon Thompson, Edward Thompson and John Dix (governor 1911-1912), operating as the Moose River Lumber Company.  Dix would store cut timber around Rondaxe Lake.  Timber privileges included land around Big Moose Lake and the Moose River watershed.  The Company intended to build logging dams at Big Moose, Cascade and Moss Lakes to enable flow of the lumber down the North Branch of the Moose River to Dix’s mill at McKeever.  After 8 years, the lands would revert to the State under Webb’s 1896 Beaver River lands settlement.  While camp owners at Big Moose were concerned about the raised water level’s effect on the lake shores, Julia deCamp determined not to allow the flowing of the logs through their lands.

In the spring of 1894, the Company broke open their dams at Big Moose and the logs flowed downstream through the deCamp lands and were stopped around Minnehaha at a boom constructed by the deCamps.  The deCamps built a shanty and “stationed guards with Winchesters” to ward off Company men attempting to force a break to allow logs to float to McKeever.  The volume of logs floated was estimated to be 12,000,000 feet. The deCamps also sued for damages.

On June 9, 1894, Mrs. deCamp brought suit against Dix’s Company who claimed they had the right to drive logs down the North Branch, of which the deCamps’ lands included a distance of up to 30 miles.  The state had declared the Moose River a “public highway” in 1851.  Mrs. deCamp claimed that since she owned both sides of the Moose River route, the North Branch could not be a public highway and obtained an injunction restraining the Company from driving logs on this stretch.  Another judge subsequently vacated that ruling when the Company offered bonds to pay for damages caused to date to the deCamp property.  The case went to a referee.

Playing hardball, the Company also persuaded the 1894 legislature to enact a law amending the 1851 enactment by declaring the north branch of the Moose River’s a public highway specifically for the purpose of floating logs and timber.  This action would eventually prove costly to all Adirondack lumber companies.

During this period of court decisions and temporary stays, Julia Lyon deCamp died after a period of prolonged illness on July 26, 1895, the day before ex-President Benjamin Harrison gave a rousing patriotic speech at a Forge House flag-raising ceremony, which she and William certainly would have attended.  General Harrison was staying his first Fulton Chain summer at one of the deCamps’ camps on Second Lake leased to Sam Dodd.  William continued Julia’s case with fervor.

In July 1896 Referee W. G. Tracey of Syracuse ruled for Mrs. deCamp.  The logs remained at the deCamp boom at Minnehaha.  The Moose River Company appealed.  At the end of this year, Dr. Webb agreed to transfer the lands lumbered by the Company to the state, part of a 75,000 acre sale, when the Dix contract terminated in 1902.

In April 1897, deCamp won a decision from the “appellate division of the supreme court, fourth department” which confirmed the Tracey decision and affirmed that the Moose River’s North Branch and its tributaries were private property and not a public highway under the 1851 Moose River Act or under common law.  That court also granted a motion that “permanently” restrained  Dix’s Company from floating logs on the North Branch of Moose River and Mill Creek (outlet of Old Forge dam).

Furthermore, it gave the Company one month to remove its logs from deCamp’s boom, pay deCamp for the use of the stream (a practice common at that time) and provide deCamp a bond covering any damages caused by the flow of logs in the past and from the present passage of these logs to McKeever.  Julia was memorialized in the headline “Mrs. deCamp Wins Her Adirondack Suit”.  The Company appealed to the state’s highest court in September 1897.

In February 1898, concerns were reported about the good and the bad if this permanent injunction should it be sustained.  Preservationists were glad that no more timber cutting would occur on private lands unless near a railroad line or sledded in winter over snow.  Regrets were registered over logs already cut that wouldn’t be removed.  But the injunction closed streams through private lands to sportsmen.  A century later, navigation through the Adirondack League Club’s South Branch waters would be the subject of litigation.

On November 11, 1897, the Lowville Journal & Republican reported that a new railroad was planned extending about 17 miles eastward from Clearwater station into the woods “touching the head of Fourth Lake”.  The Moynehan brothers had a contract from Webb and Durant.  The line’s purpose was to assist Fulton Chain passenger traffic by reducing travel times, provide freight assistance to Chain hotels and reach the “rich timber belt beyond”. It included an ironic comment that Chain steamers could still be profitable with sightseeing tours.  This is earlier than Hochschild reports (1898) in his history and neither Mrs. Huntington nor a keg of nails were mentioned.

It is known construction was started by December 1897 because Bert Scrafford and Charles Clifford “were blown into fragments by the explosion of 25 pounds of dynamite” while working on the Clearwater railroad project.

An August 1898 article reported that a new 19-mile railroad would be built to run from Clearwater station to Eagle Bay, along the “bank of Fourth and Fifth Lakes to Racquette Lake.  Instead of Durant, Dr. Webb’s partner was the Thompson Lumber Company (probably the Moose River Lumber Company).  “DeCamp fought the lumber company bitterly and beat it at every turn”.  The lumber company was now in dire straights, not being able to move its logs to mills or market.  “The Thompson Company is pushing the road” and Dr. Webb wants the money from the Company’s removal of timber before the State owns it.  Again Mr. and Mrs. Huntington are nowhere mentioned.

In September 1898, the Plattsburgh Sentinel reported that 5 miles of the line was operational, though it was probably the 2 mile stretch to Dix’s Rondaxe timber lands, affirmed by an August 1899 Lowville Journal & Republican article describing the progress of the new line, chartered in February 1899. Expansion of the current 2-mile logging railroad past Rondaxe Lake probably began May 1, 1899.

Dr. Webb and the Company assumed correctly they would lose the Court of Appeals case.  Victory for William deCamp and posthumously for Julia Lyon deCamp occurred in June 1899.  In a decision that probably reflected the growing public concerns for protection of state forest lands, the Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional the 1894 law and any laws defining Moose River and other rivers public highways for the floating of logs.  The decision required lumber companies to use more costly alternative transportation for moving their cut product.  The court determined that those public highway declarations did not benefit the public, but only certain private lumber interests.

William deCamp continued his stewardship of Julia’s lands and they later passed to their children Mary, Horace and Lyon.  Around 1900, William married Annie Miller and later died of pneumonia in April 1905 at age 59.

While the Clearwater to Racquette Lake line may have been contemplated and a route considered by Dr. Webb as early as 1892 and easements provided for in Dr. Webb’s landmark 1896 settlement with the State for damage to his Beaver River lands, no reason was stronger for the building of this new railroad than the need to move Dix’s cut logs.  Adirondack rivers would no longer be available due to the determination of Julia and William deCamp, victorious in repeated court victories against the Moose River Lumber Company.


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Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006. His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He is the president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, was published in May 2017. More information is available at www.facebook.com/herrstory . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

4 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll says:

    The story of the Lyon, decamp, and Fisher families as it relates to the Adirondacks is fascinating and a worthy topic for a book.

    You mentioned this about how Lyman Lyon’s lands were distributed to his three daughters:

    “The three married daughters (Julia deCamp, Mary Fisher, Florence Merriam) received almost equal thirds of Lyon’s lands in the John Brown’s Tract.”

    I know which lands Julia and Mary received, but when prowling for info on this region last year I could find no mention of which property went to the third sister. I wondered if maybe her lands were in Lewis County, not Brown’s Tract?

    • Charles Herr says:

      I believe land was in Lyons Falls and included parts of Brantingham. They were Lewis County lands not part of the Adirondacks. I will try to look into this more.

  2. Phil James says:

    Thanks for a well-researched, well-written, interesting article.

  3. Adam Norton says:

    Thanks for the great read! I always appreciate the history surrounding the area.

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