The historical publications Old Forge: Gateway to the Adirondacks and The Story of a Wilderness inform us that George Deis & Son operated a large lumber mill near the Old Forge dam until 1900 when they relocated to Thendara.
Adirondack Lakes by Thomas Gates shows a picture of the Ben and Ira Parsons’ boat shop at its second location on the knoll now occupied by Water’s Edge Motel. Their dad Riley, along with John Sprague and Theodore Seeber, built Fulton Chain steamers and guideboats at a location next to the Deis sawmill during the 1890s, then they relocated in 1902. In 1901, the Fulton Navigation Company sued to prevent competitors’ steamers from soliciting customers and landing at their dock and train depot area in front of the Forge House.
This series of events seemed unrelated until I found articles dating from midsummer 1900 when V. K. Kellogg, the attorney for the state’s Forest, Fish & Game Commission, and Herkimer County Sheriff Daniel Strobel served notice on the owners of businesses occupying state lands adjacent to the Old Forge dam.
Attorney Kellogg asserted that the state would remove their premises for them if his orders weren’t followed promptly. Evidently, the state had been “agitating” the occupiers of the dam grounds for three years before this current action. It had been proposed that the state have this area vacated so that an attractive park could be established adjoining the Fish Hatchery grounds just below the dam.
I have never seen this proactive legal action described in any Fulton Chain histories, though its impact on those local businesses had to have been traumatic and expensive.
The news reports of that time listed the businesses: George Deis’s large sawmill, lumber yard and mill machinery, William Scott deCamp’s storehouse, John Sprague’s boat shop, Ira Parson’s boatshop and Walter Mark’s boat house. Walter Marks had to move his supply boat operation to the back of Artemus Church’s house. The Crosby Transportation Company had to dismantle and remove a junked boat on the shore line, so as not to make their steamer dock property unattractive. That Company shortly sold out to the new Fulton Navigation Company.
How did the state obtain this land and how did these businesses come to occupy these lands?
After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the state was continuously trying to obtain sufficient water volume from various sources to supply the necessary water volume for its traffic. When the Black River Canal opened around 1850, waters from the Black River were diverted to this canal to feed water to the Erie Canal. However, industrial growth in the towns along the Black River required adequate, consistent water flow, lost to this feeder, for their water-powered mills. In response, the state established reservoirs in the Adirondacks to return to the Black River water volumes taken to supply the Erie Canal with uniform river flow.
In 1879, the state enacted legislation that authorized dams to be built at Sixth Lake and Old Forge. This legislation also authorized obtaining surrounding lands sufficient for the “building such dams, and of bringing the proposed reservoir into successful use” including dam buildings and gatekeeper dwellings. A new “log crib” structure, the dam at Old Forge was built on the same site as John Brown’s 1799 dam which created Old Forge Pond and increased the water levels of the middle branch of the Moose River, resulting in the first four lakes of the Fulton Chain. Joseph Grady says the first state dam was finished in 1879, but perhaps it was completed a year or two later. Around 1885, the state paid then Forge Tract owner Alexander B. Lamberton for the 10 acres it appropriated for the dam construction, including the hatchery grounds, a park area and a portion of the bathing beach.
According to Ned Ball’s 1927 obituary, in the 1880s only two buildings existed when he built his log cabin in the Old Forge area: Arnold’s in Thendara and the Forge House built in 1871. Then in 1888, Samuel Garmon and Alexander Crosby purchased the Forge House and surrounding Forge Tract, in a deed which excepted the state dam’s lands. They immediately erected a large sawmill opposite the dam that was leased to George Deis in 1890 after completion of major improvements to the Forge House. The sawmill later supplied the lumber for Dr. Webb’s Fulton Chain station and was the primary source for finished lumber for Fulton Chain camps for years. Leasing part of the mill building beginning around 1889, Dwight Grant’s boatbuilders Theodore Seeber and Riley Parsons established a shop for building yachts and guideboats for the new clientele building camps on the lakes.
Theodore Seeber and John Sprague built The Fawn at the new boat shop for the deCamps’ Moose River steamer extension of the Wooden Legged Railroad line bringing travelers and cargo from Moose River Settlement to Minnehaha. The Seeber shop also built the first locally built (1888) Fulton Chain steamer for Capt. Jack Sheppard, The Fulton, and other steamers in the 1890s.
Ten years of sawmill activity and boat construction had also produced a junky, occupied area surrounging the state’s dam. But local folks just probably believed that the actions started by Crosby & Garmon in 1888 to use the area were just as appropriate in 1900.
It is possible that the “agitation” had two sources. Three years before, in 1897, the long time dam keeper Caleb Slocum died and was replaced by John C. Woodruff. Also, the Black River industries were still not receiving adequate water flows and the state was going to not only enlarge the Stillwater Reservoir at Beaver River, they would greatly expand the Old Forge dam. By November 1901, John Woodruff was supervising the reconstruction of the Old Forge dam and the laying of a wall of concrete. The newspapers expected the work, weather permitting, to be completed that fall.
With now no available alternative dock space, steamers competing with the Fulton Navigation Company began using the Forge House dock and that company sued, claiming to own the land under the water at the docks. They lost this suit, but were able to maintain their monopoly by buying or hiring all competing boats.
I am not sure if the cleaning up of the state dam lands directly resulted in the pleasant picnic area we now enjoy below the Pied Piper parking lot, but Attorney Kellogg’s action probably contributed to the improvement of the area.
Photographs: 1897 Old Forge Village excerpt, Old Forge waterfront and Old Forge Dam, courtesy Town of Webb Historical Association.