If any image represents early Fulton Chain history, it is the Forge House atop the elevation overlooking the pond as a king viewing his realm. When the hotel burned in 1924, prominent citizens planned to quickly rebuild it but the era of the big summer hotel had ended, replaced by smaller, shorter stay motoring hotels to cater to the automobile tourist.
Today, its location is a grassy knoll across from the Old Forge Fire Department building, down the street from the Old Forge Hardware store and behind the Forge Hotel sign. But while the Forge House existed, the traveler was given the name of an individual there who would not fail to provide necessary comforts. This narrative is about the hotel’s owners, and about the proprietors and managers who usually were not the owners.
Regional histories list these individuals, some with dates and some with different spellings. A partial list is handwritten on the reverse of a photo in the Town of Webb Historical Association files dated 1888. Here I try to tell what I have learned of these hotel pioneers, though often I found too little. I also found names not on previous lists.
In 1868, the only lodge for travelers to the Fulton Chain was Arnolds, an enlarged home originally built by Charles Frederick Herreshoff around 1815 as part of his failed attempt to establish a settlement. It was inhabited briefly by Nat Foster around 1834 until his killing of Drid at Indian Point and homesteaded since 1837 by the Arnold family. But the late September 1868 suicide at Nick’s Lake by patriarch Otis Arnold after his shooting of James Short over a dog collar and the bad press from the death in April that year by exposure of Arnolds’ manager Charles Grant after meeting Otis’s son Otis, Jr. a short distance from his destination resulted in Arnolds being placed in the hands of Cyrus Sanford Sperry and his wife Jane Noble Sperry. Young Otis was hurrying to Boonville for a doctor for the ailing Mrs. Amy Arnold who would soon die that June.
Arnolds’ location was on a hill later replaced in recent years for a time by a highway materials storage yard across Route 28 from the Thendara Station, but was then called “Arnold’s Clearing”. It is now a grassy hill. Two miles from Arnolds was the Old Forge pond and remnants of Herreshoff’s failed forge.
On April 1, 1871, John Milton Buell and Dr. George Desbrough bought a tract of land from the executors of Lyman R. Lyon’s Estate. But it was not the Forge Tract. This 250 acre tract, the “Grant Lot”, and another 160 acre tract owned later by the deCamps were the only portions of Township 8, John Brown’s Tract, shoreline not owned by the Adirondack Railroad Company and were listed exclusions to Dr. Webb’s purchase of Township 8 in 1891. Lyman Lyon had acquired the two tracts from the Adirondack Railroad Company in 1867.
According to Joseph Grady, the Grant Clearing at the head of Third Lake was a popular camp for the Northwoods Walton Club in the 1850s and was maintained by Charles Grant in the 1860s. On April 16, 1876, Albert G. Buell of Rochester purchased the tract from the Buell (I could find no relation) family. According to an 1884 ad, Buell leased the Buell Camp in 1880 to Robert Perrie who established the Third Lake House. Nessmuk lodged with Buell in September 1880 and debated with Robert Perrie over the best fishing flies. In May 1890, Buell listed the property and Perrie soon acquired it. In June 1893, Perrie sold the Third Lake House and 125 plus acres to Charles Barrett who soon built the famous Bald Mountain House. I now return to J. Milton Buell and Dr. George Desbrough.
Before partnering with Desbrough, Buell, born in 1813, and his wife, Lucy Loomis Buell, were farmers in Westmoreland, N.Y. with a daughter, Sarah Adelaide (she preferred “S. Addie”). They were living in Whitestown at the time of the 1860 census. Buell soon after became proprietor of Utica’s Mansion House which he operated for many years. He was perhaps in this position when he was listed in the 1870 census as “Hotel Keeper” living in the town of Leyden. Listed on the census line after daughter S. Addie was Dr. George Desbrough, physician.
Dr. Desbrough was born in Cold Brook in 1825 and moved with his family to Middleville where as a youth he worked for a farmer. He transferred his interest in the care of animals to the care of humans and studied medicine, acquiring an Oswego County medical license in the 1850s. Soon after obtaining his medical degree, he suffered consumptive symptoms, the prognosis considered hopeless, and moved west where he worked as “medicine dispenser” for the Butterfield Overland Coach Company and the Pony Express in New Mexico and Texas.
Recovering his health, he practiced at Trenton Falls and opened a drug store in Port Leyden where he would meet J. Milton Buell. Dr. Desbrough was also the family physician for Lyman R. Lyon’s family. He learned the medicinal qualities of roots and herbs and later developed remedies for common chronic ailments that were still sold under his name into the 20th century well after his 1899 death.
The Country Hotel Years: 1871-1887
Shortly after the purchase of the Forge Tract Buell’s wife Lucy died in late January 1871 of consumption. The Utica Weekly Herald in May 1870 informed readers that Buell & Desbrough were building a hotel at the “Old Forge”. Desbrough brought machinery to the tract and rebuilt Herreshoff’s sawmill beside the dam to prepare lumber for the hotel’s construction. In a transaction dated April 29, 1871, the Desbrough & Buell partnership purchased the Forge Tract, 1358 plus acres, from the Lyon Estate for $10 (Joseph Grady wrote that the published price was $10,000). It included the right to raise the dam three feet above its original height.
After building a dwelling nearby for workers, the partners built the Forge House. The first building erected on the Fulton Chain intended as a hotel, Grady described it as “built of rough sawed, perpendicularly arranged spruce boards, battened at the crevices.” The first wing opened on May 1, 1871 and a second wing in 1872. The Sperry family leased the new place. Their prior concern, Arnolds, would begin an architectural decline that terminated with its burning for public safety reasons in May 1896. Cyrus advertised the new hotel as a “first-class country hotel”, offering supplies, guides and boats.
The hotel’s business started slow and was beginning to pick up when Cyrus drowned at Limekiln Lake in November 1872. He and his 10 year old son Will were deer hunting with Daniel Sears, Sam Dunakin and Jack Sheppard. His son watched from the shore as his dad faltered after tipping his boat on the lake. The newspapers described Cyrus as noted “for his good qualities, as well as for his skill as a guide, hunter, trapper and fisherman.” Jane Sperry ran the hotel for a brief period in 1873 and returned to Boonville that year. She and Will built a camp on Fourth Lake and later she married a guide named Andrew Alexander. Jane Alexander died in Boonville in February 1903. Will Sperry became a guide, a steamer pilot and camp builder.
After Mrs. Sperry, the Forge House was managed in 1873-1874 by guide Bart Halliday (sometimes spelled “Holliday”) who was joined in 1875 by Otis’s other son Ed Arnold. The Utica Morning Herald announced in July 1873 that Charlie Phelps and Halliday were “postal carding” the Forge House. An 1874 Syracuse newspaper described the manager of the “Old Forge Hotel”, Mr. Halliday, as having come to the region as a consumptive twenty years before, regained his health, became a competent guide and now kept the hotel. After Ed Arnold’s term as proprietor, he guided and operated Fulton Chain camps, and died in 1906.
During this period, changes also occurred in the ownership of the Forge Tract. Buell & Desbrough had mortgaged the tract to the Lyon Estate for $1700 to pay for improvements. Due to a resurgence of his health problems, Desbrough left the partnership and purchased a summer residence in 1875 at Port Bay in Wayne County that grew into a health resort for his patients. Desbrough still administered to the Lyon family in the 1880s and also expanded his drug business overseas. He organized a mica mining company in 1886 that achieved modest results from minerals extracted on the neighboring Township 7 lands. His tract today at Port Bay still carries the name Desbrough Park.
On August 15, 1874, the partnership dissolved and its assets were obtained via auction by J. Milton Buell; his bid was $11,700. In addition to the Forge Tract, Buell also acquired full ownership of the 250 acre Grant Lot “at the old landing at the head of Third Lake” and assumed the outstanding mortgage.
On September 27, 1875, Buell conveyed the Forge Tract to his daughter S. Addie who in January 1876 sold the hotel and tract to Alexander Byron Lamberton of Rochester for $30,000. Lamberton assumed the Lyon Estate mortgage and an additional one to an L. C. Thompson for $4500, both due for payment at the time of the sale. S. Addie sold the Grant Lot to Albert G. Buell a few months later. J. Milton Buell moved to Rochester and worked as a coal agent, retired, died in 1901 and was buried in Westmoreland. S. Addie also lived in Rochester, taught music, died in 1917 and was buried with her parents.
Alexander Lamberton, a former Presbyterian pastor, had married Eunice B. Hussey in 1864. Eunice had been a widow who inherited the patent profits due for the talents of her deceased husband, Obed Hussey, who invented the mechanical reaper. Lamberton turned to business and the natural sciences and obtained the tract with the hope of establishing a preserve.
Accompanied by Emmett Marks in March 1876, he engineered the first large scale stocking of brook trout, 50,000 small fish, on the Fulton Chain and wrote in Forest and Stream about the experience. He encouraged Marks’ work with hatching pools under the Desbrough sawmill. In May 1876, the state passed the enabling act for the first private preserve on Fulton Chain lands, the Fulton Lake Park Association, whose members soon elected R. U. Sherman as president and Lamberton as treasurer.
Also in March 1876, Lamberton renamed the hotel “Forest House” and leased it to Joel T. Comstock who advertised it as “Forest Hotel”. Comstock was a Civil War veteran and builder of Boonville’s Empire House which burned in 1869. He belonged to the 97th Regiment NY veterans’ association which included historian Franklin Hough as its president. Comstock was a former Boonville Village trustee.
Sportsmen’s accounts in the newspapers complimented the good services and supplies provided by Forest Hotel proprietor Comstock, his wife and son Eddie’s culinary skills. In 1878, Wilmurt’s voters elected him “road master” to improve the John Brown Tract Road from Boonville. After ending his term as proprietor, Comstock returned to Boonville politics and later accompanied the 1881 tour of state officials surveying damages claimed by property owners rom the state’s takeover and building of the Old Forge dam in October 1879. He moved to Asbury Park, NJ and died in 1910.
Comstock’s lease ended at the end of 1878 and the Lambertons hired James W. Barrett. But before Barrett took over, Emmett Marks took care of the Forest Hotel for about six weeks beginning February 1879 (Grady). Emmett then returned to his famous role as manager of the homemade “Hatching House” under the sawmill. The Utica Morning Herald reported in March 1879 that Lamberton leased the Forest Hotel to James W. Barrett who opened the hotel on April 1 under its original name, “Forge House”.
James was born on September 27, 1818 in Cheshire, England and abandoned by his stepfather at the age of 7 upon reaching American shores. He was adopted in Rome by an owner of Erie Canal boats and drove horses on the towpath. At age 15, he left this job and piloted canal boats between Rome and Albany. He later moved to Leyden, purchased and ran Barrett’s Hotel for over 20 years. In 1870, he purchased the Hildreth Hotel at Constableville which burned almost four months later in a fire that destroyed the village’s business district. He moved to Lowville, ran the Mineral Springs House briefly and then managed Beach’s Bridge Hotel in Watson for three years.
In 1879, James partnered with his son Charles to lease the Forge House. Another son, Frank, ran stage lines with Charlie Phelps between Boonville and the Fulton Chain. Jane Sperry returned to assist James Barrett occasionally at the Forge House. James died on August 31, 1886 from heart troubles. Charles Barrett handled most of the Forge House’s operations for his sickly father and around 1885 purchased his father’s interest and ran the hotel on his own for three years.
Lamberton’s hope to attract investors for his chartered preserve failed and the tract was later transferred to Mary Starbuck, a sister-in-law, and then to his wife Eunice.
But before this occurred, the state grabbed part of the Forge Tract. In 1879, factories along the Black River claimed damages from the loss of Black River water flow diverted for the Erie Canal. In response, legislation passed that year called for dams to be built at Old Forge and Sixth Lake, appropriating any lands necessary for dam operations. Lamberton lost 10 acres of land, 50 acres of timber for dam construction, a pipeline source for hotel water and his sawmill which was now on state land. Marks was allowed to continue his fish hatchery operations.
Lamberton and other Fulton Chain landowners sued for damages that would not be awarded until 1886. Though the state now owned and operated the dam, future deeds would continue to include the 1871 deeded right to raise the dam three feet. Some confusion was probably because the state sometimes appointed the hotel’s proprietor as the dam tender.
Lamberton provided financial assistance to William Dart who built a camp on North Branch, Moose River’s Second Lake (later Dart’s Lake). The John Brown’s Tract guide, Johnny Van Valkenburgh, had built a “pretty camp” in 1880 on the south shore of Second Lake on the Fulton Chain considered “semi-public” (Grady). Having just sold the Forge Tract a year earlier, the Lambertons purchased this camp in September 1889. This camp was later conveyed to his daughter’s family and sold to A. W. Soper in 1900 by Lamberton’s son-in-law Charles Hone.
Lamberton profited from real estate speculations in Rochester and would attain greater prominence as a manager of its state industrial school, a chamber of commerce president and long time leader on the Parks Board and commissions. He is memorialized at Lamberton Conservatory, built at Rochester’s Highland Park in 1911, and died in 1919.
In January 1888, Charles Barrett vacated the Forge House and purchased the Moose River Hotel originally owned by Abner Lawrence. In 1893, Barrett purchased over 125 acres of the former Grant Clearing from Robert Perrie which included Perrie’s Third Lake House. Barrett soon erected the famous Bald Mountain House which would soon rival the Forge House for popularity. Barrett died in March, 1930. The tract included today’s Bald Mountain Colony. At the time of Barrett’s leaving in 1888, the Forge House was still a board and batten structure similar to its initial appearance in 1871, though probably made larger over the years.
Map excerpts: Lands of John Milton Buell 1875, courtesy Adirondack Museum; photographs courtesy Town of Webb Historical Association; present photo of Forge House site by author 2014.