Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Old Forge Company:
Rise Of A Transportation Monopoly

Old Forge Co Stock Cert002A quick look at an Old Forge town map reveals streets named Garmon, Crosby, Adams, Gilbert and Sheard.  These are the oldest streets in town except for Main Street (Route 28), originally an extension of the Brown’s Tract Road.

The “main drag” was briefly named Harrison Avenue for former President Benjamin Harrison, the region’s most famous camper.  But this name was dropped from the maps of the Adirondack Development Corporation in the first part of the 20th century.

Recently, the Goodsell Musuem has been permitted by the Town of Webb to reinstate “Harrison Avenue” with a sign at the corner of Gilbert and Route 28.

Except for Main Street, these streets were created by the Old Forge Company, often called the Old Forge Improvement Company.  When its Directors established building lots through the woods of the Forge Tract, they assigned these names to the streets on the first village map filed in July 1896 with the Herkimer County Clerk.  What follows is part of a history of the Old Forge Company from its inception to 1899.

When Dr. William Seward Webb opened the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad through the Adirondack Wilderness in 1892, Old Forge replaced the Adirondack Railroad terminus at North Creek as the gateway of choice to the Fulton Chain, Raquette, and Blue Mountain Lakes.  In March 1893, Dr. Webb purchased 15,000 acres along the shorelines of the Second, Third and Fourth Lakes from the Beaver River Lumber Company for vacation lots.  Soon after the completion of its survey by David C. Wood that August, Dr. Webb’s land agents began selling  camp sites using a fill-in-the blank conveyance form that contained a version of the “Webb Covenant” and was intended to reduce repetitious handwriting by county clerks.

On February 13, 1895, Victor Adams purchased two of these lots on Fourth Lake and hired Little Falls carpenter Charles D. West to build his Camp Olgie that summer.

Victor Adams was a prominent Little Falls capitalist and politician.  He became a partner in his father’s bookbinding firm which he expanded for building cardboard boxes needed for the popular knitted goods made in the town’s mills.  He then built his own factories for manufacturing knitted goods.  He was appointed postmaster during Benjamin Harrison’s administration and organized a hose company in his name.  Adams was also instrumental in Titus Sheard’s caucus victory over Theodore Roosevelt for Assembly Speaker in 1884.

When Benjamin Harrison traveled to the Fulton Chain in July 1895, Victor Adams’ gun squad had given hourly salutes to the ex-President in Little Falls.  Adams’ unit traveled to the Forge House lawn and fired salutes as the “Fulton” carried Harrison’s entourage to their summer location, Dodd’s Camp. Adams recognized an investment opportunity as he watched the crowds carted from Fulton Chain Station and noted the sparsely populated Old Forge lands.

P15 Old Forge Dock prior 1900014Riding his steam launch that summer, he witnessed the independent steamers’ races up the lakes by the “Zip”, “Fulton” and “C. L. Stowell” to pick up customers and the separation of passengers from baggage between Fulton Chain Station and the steamer dock.  During that summer of 1895, Adams joined Garmon, Crosby and deCamp in opposition to the building of a road from Old Forge to Eagle Bay to connect with a new road being built to that location from Raquette Lake. That fall, Adams persuaded Little Falls business leaders to invest in the development efforts of the current owners of the Forge House and its surrounding lands.  At the end of October 1895, Adams purchased a 50% interest for a reported $25,000 in the ownership of these properties from the current owners.  Initially the name reported for the syndicate was “Garmon, Crosby & Adams”.

The current owners of the Forge Tract were Dr. Alexander Crosby and Samuel F. Garmon.  Dr. Crosby was considered one of the most skilled physicians of northern New York and his opinion carried great weight in court with both judge and jury.  He was a former assemblyman, was on the state board of charities and worked to obtain pensions for veterans.  Samuel Garmon was a Black River Canal superintendent 1874-1876, former Watson town supervisor (1867, 1869-1870, 1879-1880) in 1879 and served as State Forest Warden under Theodore Basselin on the newly established Forest Commission in 1885.  Watson native Joseph Harvey supposedly convinced Garmon and Crosby to purchase the Forge Tract in April 1888. Garmon and Crosby purchased the properties from Eunice Lamberton whose husband Alexander had treated the lands as a preserve since 1876. Harvey became their first Forge House proprietor.

The only buildings then (1888) existing were the Forge House, the deteriorating Arnolds Manor vacant since 1871 and the new log cabin built by John Ned Ball.  Partnering with G.H.P. Gould and the deCamps in the late 1880s, Garmon & Crosby invested in the Peg Leg Railroad and steamer “Fawn” transportation lines that attempted to replace the rugged Brown’s Tract Road wagon route to the Forge House.

1892 circa Forge HouseThey reopened the sawmill taken by the state in 1880 to mill local timber and hired Lowville contractors Sylvester and Sidney Wetmore to rebuild the Forge House from a vertical board and batten structure to a more modern appearance.

By 1895, they had sold only 30 building lots to guides and seasonal residents.  Land sales were slowing, Dr. Webb’s railroad replaced the faltering wooden railroad and the steamers on the Fulton Chain were not in their control.  During August 1895, Garmon & Crosby hoped to begin construction of a railroad from Fulton Chain Station.  Dr. Webb offered to help by providing the rails but talks with Mrs. Julia deCamp were postponed due to an illness that soon proved fatal.

The business plans Victor Adams discussed with Garmon and Crosby in October 1895 included converting the partnership to a corporation, doubling the size of the Forge House and constructing a railroad from Fulton Chain Station to the Forge House.  At a subsequent organizational meeting in March, the plans were finalized and the directors elected.

Three companies were formed: the Old Forge Company, the Fulton Chain Railroad Company and the Crosby Transportation Company.  In April 1896, Garmon and Crosby transferred the Forge House and Forge Tract to the new Old Forge Company.  Other Little Falls business and political leaders joined the Old Forge Company.   The first officers were Garmon as president and Dr. Crosby vice-president.  Victor Adams and Dr. Crosby became presidents of the railroad company and the transportation company, respectively.

Other directors of the Old Forge Company were Judson Joshua Gilbert and Homer P. Snyder, and Titus Sheard was a director for the railroad company. For all three companies, Judson’s brother Nelson Rust Gilbert was treasurer and Hadley Jones secretary. Hadley Jones was a lawyer and real estate speculator who with Nelson Rust Gilbert established a law firm that Gilbert soon left for another firm but Jones continued the firm name.  Jones later became Little Falls mayor in 1898-1899. Jones & Gilbert became the Company’s counsel.

Judson J. Gilbert inherited his father’s (Joshua Judson Gilbert) starch factory in 1888, converted it to a knitting mill and was its president until his death in 1925. After his brother Nelson left the Jones & Gilbert firm for another, Nelson resigned in 1896 to become treasurer for the three Old Forge companies.  He later wrote an Adirondack novel, The Affair at Pine Court, became a director on several bank and industry boards, and was elected Little Falls mayor in 1919.

Homer P. Snyder ran the Saxony Mill and with inventor Michael Fisher improved the knitting machine.  The two later manufactured “safety bicycles” (today’s shorter front-wheeled version) capitalizing on the 1890s cycling craze. Snyder later served 5 terms in the House of Representatives. While serving on its Committee on Indian Affairs,  he introduced a bill giving Native Americans who served in World War I citizen status.  His efforts later enabled all tribes to acquire citizen status.

Titus Sheard, an immigrant from Yorkshire, England, came to Little Falls as a youngster, quickly learned the knitting trade and was known as the “boy spinner”.  A natural leader with ambition, Sheard advanced in the trade, owning the Little Falls Knitting Company later named for him. He served three terms in the state assembly in the 1880s, defeated the then favored Theodore Roosevelt for Assembly Speaker. Sheard then assigned Roosevelt to a committee that would bring Roosevelt fame as a state labor and reformer of corporation laws.

1897 Old Forge HouseThe Old Forge Company hired Adams’ contractor Charles West to double the size of the Forge House to the footprint we see in many postcards today.  Current proprietors Alexander and Nellie Briggs were retained to manage the hotel during the expansion period.

Assuming they would routinely acquire deCamp’s Fulton Chain (then Thendara) lands by condemnation, the Company began staking out the route during April 1896 for the planned railroad spur from Fulton Chain Station to the docks.  James T. Campbell was hired to build the line.  Unfortunately, William S. deCamp was not included in the planning.  He objected to a railroad through his lands and he employed men to remove Campbell’s survey stakes and destroy markings for gradings and levels.

TP1062 Forge House and Old Forge Pond 1895 or after032he Company then threatened condemnation proceedings against a landowner who had halted the Peg Leg Railroad at Minnehaha, who reportedly settled with Dr. Webb for $30,000 (the amount was later reported to be $17,000) so his 1892 railroad could be completed through Township 7 and who then (1896) in court was continuing his late wife’s suit preventing John Dix from floating logs down the North Branch Moose River past Minnehaha to McKeever mills.  But at the end of April, deCamp and the Company directors met and deCamp accepted $3047.50 for the strip of land needed by the railroad.  Construction began shortly and the railroad began operations in August.

P418 Map Old Forge village026The Old Forge Company reportedly sold numerous lots during the year and built a pavilion in the new picnic park established in a clearing made south of the Forge House.  Sites for a Presbyterian Church and St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church were donated by the Company.  While lots were sold for houses, lumber mills, grocery markets and department stores, they prohibited lots to be used for hotel, restaurant or other purposes that would compete with the Forge House.

The Crosby Transportation Company eliminated the rivalries among the three major steamers on the lakes and organized the transfer of passengers and cargo from Fulton Chain Station.  They purchased the Zip from John Sprague and Will Sperry, the Fulton from David Pierce and leased, and later (June 1897) purchased, the largest steamer, the C. L. Stowell from George Sweet.  They not only established schedules and set higher fares, they solidified their monopoly by declaring the navigation docks private property and acted to prevent rival steamers from landing in front of the Forge House without permission.

In September 1896, the Company appointed a “general business manager” responsible for the business affairs and employees of the three companies.  He was George D. Smith, cashier of the National Herkimer County Bank and would later become its president.  The directors also hired a “superintendent”, under the business manager, as general supervisor of the “work and conduct of the affairs of the three companies”.  The man hired was Capt. John Crowley whose son published the Little Falls Times.  A Civil War veteran, Crowley was a reputable manager of buildings in Middleville and Little Falls and had been an assessor, trustee and police and fire commissioner.  The year ended with the Company floating bonds to pay for the railroad construction using the unsold Forge Tract lots as collateral.

The Forge Company signed Franc E. Schenck as Forge House proprietor for five years effective January 1, 1897.  Schenck and his wife Augusta had been managers of the Adirondack League’s Mountain Lodge.  But the Forge House’s current proprietors Alexander and Nellie Briggs refused to vacate the premises until the Company paid them for “money advanced, damages from non-completion of repairs and for furniture sold”.  The Company insisted no money was due and began eviction proceedings.  The parties came to a temporary agreement and the Schencks took over during January.  Two years later, the Company agreed to a settlement with the Briggs.  Harry G. Dale replaced Crowley as Company superintendent in May 1897.  Dale had been the N.Y. Central’s station agent at Little Falls for several years.

Lands became available to the north of the Forge Tract when their owner Peter Moseman died.  The Company appointed a committee to obtain these since the land included the shorelines at the end of the channel to First Lake and would strengthen the Company’s ownership claim to navigation waters.  But John G. Harris of Ilion acquired them and they were transferred to William S. deCamp as part of a three way transaction that resulted in deCamp conveying a right of way to Charles W. Durant Jr. for a railroad from Clearwater to Raquette Lake.  Durant sold this strip to John Dix for his lumber railroad to Rondaxe Lake so Dix could move the lumber that deCamp earlier prevented him from floating down the Moose River.

During 1896, Fred Hess and the Burton Brothers had launched the steamer W. S. Webb.  It was the first steamer up the lakes in 1897 and Nicholas Ginther leased it in June for the year.  The Crosby Transportation Company refused docking privileges and the steamer docked on land at the state  dam.  Company employees constructed board fences to prevent it from landing.  The steamer crew and villagers repeatedly tore the fences down.  The Company took its owners to court and claimed ownership of the lands under the waters.  During the “Steamboat War”, W. S. deCamp threatened to build a railroad across the channel to connect to the proposed new line from Clearwater, blocking the steamer route.  Before the case was heard, the Company ended the war by purchasing the lease from Ginther and tied the steamer to its docks for the remainder of the year.

Forge House 1900During the years 1898 and 1899, the Company controlled the traffic from Fulton Chain Station and owned the steamer transportation on the lakes, though profits were not enough to pay off notes and contractor bills from the 1896 Forge House expansion and Fulton Chain Railroad construction.  In June 1898, they leased the railroad to the New York Central.  Instead of building a new steamer, the Company leased the W. S. Webb for 1898.  In June 1899, Clarence Rivenburg replaced Dale as superintendent and made significant improvements.  Rivenburg, former conductor of the Montreal to Utica Central line, constructed a new station at the dock and one at Gilbert Street.

Also in June 1899, the Company purchased the W. S. Webb which replaced the Zip in the steamer schedules; the latter was assigned for mail delivery and special express duties currently being performed by the Fulton.   Company meetings were duly advertised in the newspapers for 1897, 1898 and 1899 but no record of these meetings were written in the minutes book (Goodsell Museum archives) for the Company maintained by secretary Hadley Jones.

However, the advertised meetings must have occurred with president Garmon and it is likely that the topic was the publicized construction of steam railroad being built extending south at Rondaxe Lake from John Dix’s 1898 lumber railroad.  In 1899, they knew Collis Huntington’s new line from Clearwater Station to Raquette Lake would skirt the north shore of Fourth Lake.

Photographs are from the collections of the Goodsell Museum; information concerning the minutes of Old Forge Company meetings are from the minute book of the company in the Goodsell Museum archives.

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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 . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

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