Thursday, November 13, 2014

Johnsburg: A Rich, Mostly Under-Appreciated History

IMGP4846The sparsely populated towns in the Adirondacks often hold a particularly rich and intriguing history, but it often lies undiscovered and under-appreciated. The Township of Johnsburg, in the southeastern corner of the Adirondack Park is a prime example.

It appears that Sir William Johnson used a Native American trail through Johnsburg to sneak north to terrify and murder the French during the French & Indian War. It is likely too that his son, Sir John Johnson, used that same trail to lead a band of 528 loyalist New Yorkers south in 1780 to rescue 143 Loyalists and then burn 120 barns, mills and houses in his home town of Johnstown during the American Revolution.

After the American Revolution a successful New York City merchant, John Thurman, erected a sawmill, gristmill and distillery here. But he also established a carding mill, a fulling mill, and a woolen mill and in 1797 converted that woolen mill to a calico cotton printing mill, the first in New York State and the 6th or 7th in the United States. It could be said that Thurman brought the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to this region.

We now have documentation that famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady was born in Johnsburg. Internationally known poet and “Vanity Fair model” Jeanne Robert Foster grew up in Johnsburg.

North Creek DepotThe first suspension bridge over the Hudson River was built in the hamlet of Riparius, Johnsburg Township in 1871 by a veteran Confederate artillery office from South Carolina who had ties to family in Johnsburg.

On the steps of the North Creek Railway Depot in the early morning hours of September 14, 1901 Theodore Roosevelt first learned that McKinley had died of an assassin’s bullet and now he would become the 26th President of the United States.

Thomas Durant, as President of the Union Pacific Railroad, in 1869 helped drive the golden spike in the Transcontinental Railroad in Provo, Utah, uniting the country by railroad for the first time. Durant, then became President of the Saratoga-North Creek Railroad, and later died at his beloved mansion the “Gables” in hamlet of North Creek, Town of Johnsburg in 1885. Thomas Durant’s son, William West Durant, is credited with being the primary designer and developer of the Great Camps in the Adirondacks.

In the late 1800s the four local tanneries employed hundreds of men in tanning hides that came from as far away as Central and South America. In addition to a graphite mill and a paint bed mine, the Township of Johnsburg is also abundant with garnet mines. The largest, Barton Mines, has supplied 93% of the world’s industrial garnet. That garnet has been used for everything from sandblasting to mineral polishing to removing the red hulls that cover peanuts. It has also been used to polish the windows of the Space Shuttle and the lens of the Hubble Telescope and, as a water jet abrasive, to cut the heads off the burning oil wells in Kuwait during the Iraq War.

DSCN1728The Ski Bowl at Gore Mountain in 1934 was one of the first “Ride Up, Ski Down” facilities in the United States. Its “Clear-up Gang”, forerunner of the Gore Mt Ski Patrol, was organized here 1933-1934 and is purported to have been one of the first ski patrols in the United States.

Fifty years ago at his Adirondack camp in Bakers Mills, Township of Johnsburg, Howard Zahniser worked on the 66 drafts that would become the 1964 Wilderness Act. That legislation today protects almost 110 million acres of wilderness in the United States.

As cars and trucks go whizzing down NYS Route 8 between Utica and Ticonderoga, few even notice Johnsburg. Still fewer are aware of its rich history.

This is unfortunately true for many of the small towns in the Adirondacks. Many of these historic sites are often overlooked and some are slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Photos: Above, entering Johnsburg (by Glenn Pearsall); middle, the North Creek Railroad Depot (illustration courtesy North Creek Depot Museum); and below, Mateskared, Howard Zahniser’s cabin on Edwards Road (by John Warren).

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Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.

One Response

  1. Bill Ott says:

    As John S. replied to Tom Kalinowski’s porcupine article above, there is much to be learned from these posts. With this site being so easily searchable, it becomes an encyclopedia of sorts. Your mention of the paint bed mine got me wondering what one is. No mention in Wikipedia. A google search for “paint bed mine” brought me full circle to this article, with two other Johnsburg articles above it. The paint bed mine produced red paint which was called “Johnsburg Red”. Production ceased in 1896 when the mine building burned. I’ll bet it was a red fire.

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