Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Logging and Railroads:
John Dix’s Right of Way to Rondaxe

319px-John_Alden_Dix_LOCSources can be scarce when tracking down information for a region where precious few histories have been written.  We are fortunate that the few we have are wonderful works, even though too many need reprinting.  Such a work is David Beetle’s Up Old Forge Way.  Originally published in 1948, this book provided readers with a humorous, introductory history of Fulton Chain lakes, hamlets and people.  His sources were books, newspaper accounts and people’s recall of events in some cases fifty years after they occurred.

From Beetle’s book, we read that John Dix, a former governor, needed to float his company’s piled logs from the north branch of the Moose River (Township 8) through deCamp lands (Townships 1 & 7) to the company’s McKeever mill.  Beetle wrote that Dix did not want to pay deCamps’ tolls for this river use, so Dix took them to court and repeatedly lost.  Consequently, he needed to build a logging railroad from Clearwater to Rondaxe Lake.  Dix got attorney Charles Snyder to get “Railroader” Thomas C. Durant to buy the right of way from deCamp with Dix’s money.  W. S. deCamp would later wonder how Dix received this right of way in 1897.

Let’s correct two errors.  Two later books also include this story and mention that this John Dix was governor before and after this episode.  John Adams Dix was governor 1873-1874, died in 1879, and John Alden Dix, the one above, was governor 1911-1912.   Also, Thomas C. Durant, William West’s father, had died in 1885, dead for twelve years by the time of the event described.  What follows is what I have learned about the events, the people involved and the transaction itself.

In September, 1888, Mrs. Julia deCamp had resisted the efforts of the “Peg-Leg” railroad investors (G. H. P. Gould, Samuel Garmon & Dr. Alexander Crosby) to extend a railroad through her lands and agreed instead to build a steamer, the Fawn, for taking the line’s passengers and cargo from the Minnehaha railroad terminus, formerly Jones Camp, on the Moose River to Thendara, then Arnold’s Clearing.  She stipulated that the railroad would have to be operating by July 1, 1889.  In June 1892, the Fulton Chain stretch of 11 miles, 4 through Mrs. deCamp’s Township 1, was the last unfinished segment on Dr. William Seward Webb’s new 150 mile “fairy tale railroad” because the deCamps resisted Webb’s condemnation attempts on their lands in court. Construction was completed after a judge, though agreeing with the deCamps, ruled “public exigencies” required that the line be completed.  In March 1893, commissioners awarded Mrs. deCamp $17,000 for the taking of her land by Dr. Webb.

In 1894, Dr. Webb signed lumber contracts with three firms, one an 8 year contract with partners Lemon and Edward Thompson, and John Alden Dix.  The Dix Company was to cut Webb’s Township 8 lands and float the lumber down the North Branch Moose River through Township 1 and 7 lands (deCamp’s) to their McKeever mill. Knowing prior deCamp property rights actions, the Dix Company got 1894 legislation enacted amending the state’s 1851 Moose River designation as a “public highway”.  The new law added the north branch as a “public highway for floating logs and timber without providing for compensation to riparian owners”.  Then they “offered” Mrs. deCamp $400 for the “privilege” of floating the logs on the Moose River through their lands, still used by the Fawn for excursions.  The company erected a dam above deCamp lands, then broke it to flow the lumber through the deCamp lands.

Mrs. deCamp did two things. First, she installed an armed guardhouse and dam at Minnehaha and stopped the lumber.  Of greater future impact to lumber companies, they sued the Dix Company, contending that the 1851 designation and 1894 legislation were unconstitutional because they only benefited lumber companies.  They were right, but the court action would take time.  The deCamps took the court action and they were not allowed to charge tolls.

By mid 1897, both Lemon Thompson (1897) and Mrs. deCamp (1895) had died.  But her husband William Scott deCamp repeatedly defeated the company in court.  The only lumber milled was that stopped at Minnehaha which had to be removed at Dix Company expense.  Furthermore, Dr. Webb had sold the lands being lumbered by Dix to the state under the 1896 Beaver River flooded lands settlement, with the 8 year contract allowed to be completed with no possibility for extension.  But no money was being earned by either because logs were not moving to the mills.  Dix and Dr. Webb were facing the 1902 deadline when Township 8’s trees, felled or not, would belong to the State.

The courts ruled in May 1897 that the Moose River 1851 and 1894 state laws were unconstitutional. Though an appeal followed, John Dix still needed a logging railroad from Clearwater Station (now Carter) in Township 7 to reach the soon to be state’s Township 8 boundary.  I can believe Mr. deCamp would not knowingly help John Alden Dix or Dr. Webb.

Both Dr. Webb and W.W. Durant wanted a railroad from Clearwater to Raquette Lake, where Morgan and Huntington, and later Vanderbilt, owned Great Camps and wanted transportation to Manhattan faster than possible from the present stage or steamboat connections to Dr. Webb’s stations.  Also, easements were permitted in Dr. Webb’s settlement for a railroad through Township 8 state lands. Durant, Dr. Webb and lawyer Charles Snyder probably were behind the transactions that put William Scott deCamp together with John G. Harris and Charles W. Durant, Jr.  Before getting to the transaction, I now provide a brief introduction to Harris and C.W. Durant, Jr.

John G. Harris was 24 in the 1900 census, one of Ilion’s “popular and talented lawyers” and a noted local church singer and orator.  That year he was admitted to the bar.  He opened new spacious law offices in a new Utica business block in March 1900.  His career would continue in both musical and legal professions.  His father’s 1918 obituary mentioned him as director of the voice and choral department at Roanoke Institute in Danville, Virginia.  For the 1924 census, Harris listed “railroad lawyer” as his profession and Richmond as his residence.  But back in June 1897, Harris was just passing his law clerk test and had somehow acquired 13 forested lots (160 acres each) in Township 7, some from the heirs of Peter Moseman who had owned them since 1833. DeCamp’s neighboring Forge Tract owners, The Old Forge Company, also desired these lands on their borders.

Charles W. Durant, Jr. was the son of railroad builder Thomas C. Durant’s brother Charles W. Durant.  Both brothers dying in 1885, this eliminates them from the transaction.  Charles’s father made a fortune in sugar refining and had three sons: Frederick, Howard and Charles, Jr.  Frederick and later Howard would own and manage the Prospect Hotel at Blue Mountain Lake.  Charles would also be among the family members assisted by his uncle Thomas, and his son William West Durant, in acquiring camps on Durant lands at Raquette and Blue Mountain Lakes.

In 1879, Charles sought to acquire Raquette Lake’s Osprey Island (initially called Murray’s Island), inhabited originally in 1868 by author Adirondack Murray for a few summers and later year round by Alvah Dunning.  Dunning resisted these efforts, occasionally with a shotgun, but was convinced by Charles’s Aunt, Mrs. Thomas C. Durant, to make the sale.  The state really owned the land and Charles tried to gain true title but could only be assigned “custodian status” by the Land Office.  Charles built Camp Fairview with construction supervised by his cousin William.  Charles sold it in 1891 to leather merchant and later Raquette Lake Railway incorporator J. Harvey Ladew.  Court battles over thirty years, some including Charles’ testimony, resulted in it remaining in private hands today based on Dunning’s earlier residence.  Also, Charles had a boat named Stella that was included in the sale and Ladew renamed it Osprey. The boat is now on display at the Adirondack Museum’s Marion River Carry exhibit.

The first step in John Dix receiving the right of way was a three way transaction involving deCamp, Harris and Charles Durant, Jr.  The required one dollar consideration changed hands in transfers dated June 22 and June 30, 1897.

In the June 22 deed, John G. Harris transferred to W. S. deCamp 13 160-acre lots in Township 7.  These included lands around the Clearwater junction for the new railroad which deCamp later developed with a mill, houses, a hotel and a major station depot handling heavy passenger and freight traffic.  This allotment also included land surrounding Clear Pond, with the Aden Lair resort destination nearby.  Mr. deCamp received lots by Moulin Mountain where the Moose River north branch came close to Dr. Webb’s rail line and which later contained a mill and lumber siding.  Finally, deCamp received lands coveted by the Old Forge Company that bordered both sides of navigation route from Old Forge Pond to First Lake.  These lands surrounded the summer home “Camp deCamp” built on deCamp Island in 1888.

As mentioned above, Harris had obtained some of these lands mostly from the heirs of the Peter Moseman estate.  Finding no connection between Harris and the area, I presume Charles Snyder and Dr. Webb were involved.  F.W. Cristman was the notary on the above transaction.  Cristman, along with Snyder and William Thistlethwaite would later own choice lands surrounding Rondaxe, Moss and Cascade Lakes not included in the Webb settlement and acquired a few years later from Dr. Webb.  What Harris received was “good and valuable consideration”.  We do know as a green lawyer he opened his practice with choice office surroundings in 1900 and perhaps these connections enabled future employment as a railroad lawyer.  In the middle of June, Cristman and Harris remarked how, after a stay at the Forge House, they “made some discoveries in natural history” while there. (Utica Daily Press)

In the June 30 deed, deCamp provided Charles Durant, Jr. “and his assigns”, in recognition of the Harris conveyance of the Township 7 lands, the right of way from Clearwater Station in Township 7 to the Township 8 boundary for a railroad to Raquette Lake.  Rondaxe Lake is not mentioned in the deed.  In addition to listing the surveyor measurements for the path to the boundary, the deed included provisions for a dam at Big Safford Creek, a Safford Creek flag station and bridges over the creek for boat and lumber traffic.  The transaction was to be void and the land returned if the railroad was not completed in 5 years or if the completed public line ceased operating for two consecutive years.

In deeds dated November 10 and December 8, 1897, Charles Durant sold this right of way to John Alden Dix for $2,000 dollars.  Construction of the logging railroad, the beginning of the Raquette Lake Railway, to Rondaxe Lake would be completed in the spring of 1898.  John Dix’s company could then move the piled logs to Dr. Webb’s line for transport to the company’s mills at McKeever.  There were some subsequent transactions.

All of the pieces were not quite in place yet for continuing the line beyond Rondaxe Lake to Raquette Lake.  This would be a project undertaken soon by millionaires with Great Camps, a task not on John Dix’s plate.  On January 20, 1898, deCamp signed another right of way agreement with Durant repeating the 6/30/1897 measurements, but amending them to permit the line being completed to Fourth lake instead.  Also, it called for a flag station to be constructed on the Moose River north branch (Moulin area) to accommodate boat traffic and deCamp’s driving of logs.  Construction of Dix’s line had stopped for the winter; but this new right of way agreement was promptly transferred to John Dix eight days later.

One final housekeeping agreement would be signed by deCamp and Durant on March 28, 1898.  This confirmed first, that the 1/20/1898 deed changed the completion point to Fourth Lake, changing the 6/30/1897 deed and, secondly, it reaffirmed that if the line was not constructed in 5 years or if it ceased public operation for 2 years, the land would return to deCamp and the right of way terminated.  Mr. deCamp would by then know of Dix building the railroad to Rondaxe Lake, think the right of way was only for this purpose, and he may have wanted to insure at least he would get his land back if the line did not go farther.  It may also have prodded the millionaires to construct their railroad to Raquette Lake, which did occur one year later.

To sum up, everyone seemed to be winners.  William S. deCamp got valuable and useful Township 7 lands coveted by a neighboring developer; John G. Harris got nice offices for his new law practice and possibly railroad legal work; Charles W. Durant, Jr. got $2,000 dollars for showing up; and John Alden Dix, later a governor, got his right of way for a lumber railroad to Rondaxe Lake to move Dr. Webb’s lumber before the lands transferred to the state.  Also, the soon to be built Raquette Lake Railway would get a 2 mile head start on its construction.

The lumber railroad was in operation during 1898 and after.  The line to Raquette Lake was completed for its millionaire owners’ private cars by September 1899 and opened to the public July 1, 1900 amidst bitter court battles with the competing Old Forge Company, Fulton Chain Railroad and the Crosby Transportation Company steamer line.

In June 1899, the state’s court of appeals defeated the final appeal by Dix’s Company and affirmed that the 1894 designation of the north branch as a highway for floating logs was unconstitutional.  It extended the ruling to any similar legislation declaring state rivers “public highways” for such purposes.  This 1894 failed tactic by Dix would force lumber companies to rely on more expensive railroad lines to move Adirondack lumber to their mills.  Rather than use and artificially adjust river flow, they now had to build connecting logging lines through the woods to transport their felled timber on main lines or simply build mills near major railroad lines.

The singing lawyer John G. Harris of Ilion, a key player in the above transaction, remains a mystery.

Photo: John Alden Dix, NYS Governor 1911-1912.

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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.

2 Responses

  1. andrew egan says:


    Thanks for the article.

    Any idea if there was a required minimum width for railroad rights of way in the ADKs in the late 1800s and early 1900s?



  2. Charles Herr says:

    Thanks for the response; I don’t know about a minimum width, but the deed providing the right of way from decamp to Charles W. Durant, Jr. provided for the width of 100 feet wide, 50 feet from the center line of the track extending to each side; but another strip for the second Fulton Chain Railroad I discussed in a separate almanac article, a two mile stretch from Thendara to the Old Forge dock, the deCamps provided the Old Forge Company a strip 66 feet wide, 22 from the center strip. But this latter line was through a developed stretch, while the Dix line was through virgin timber, so a wider strip was probably appropriate. Again I have no knowledge of a minimum strip, unless it may be in the state guidelines, if the railroad was going to be registered with the state commission. Small railroads like lumbering railroads may not need to be if there weren’t going to be public lines.

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