Saturday, April 11, 2015

Adirondack Art History: The Opalescent Flume

IA wyant with textIn my ongoing search for painting locations used by nineteenth-century artists in the Adirondacks, I have had some notable successes that have taught me about artistic choices made in the past as well as in my own work.

In one adventure, the title of the painting listed a geographic feature and I assumed that the location would be fairly easy to pinpoint. Instead I got my first lesson in the difference between what I could see on a large scale hiking map and what was there on the ground in the finer details. And so the “simple” search took two separate trips.

In the late spring of 2001, I was contacted by Kirk Johnson, who was working on a multi-part series for the New York Times called “In Art’s Footsteps,” in which he was visiting locations that had been painted by nineteenth-century artists and writing about what is there in modern times. He was looking for help establishing some locations and we discovered a shared fascination with a painting by Alexander Helwig Wyant (1836–1892), The Flume of the Opalescent, from about 1875. The painting has a complex, enclosed space that is quite different from early Hudson River School paintings of broad scenes with dramatic skies. It is more in tune with some of Wyant’s later work with somber tonalities.

Kirk and I planned a trip to the flume, which appears on maps about six miles from the Upper Works trailhead near Newcomb. With the flume marked on a geological survey map about a half-mile above the Lake Colden dam, we felt it would be fairly easy to locate Wyant’s perspective. Since we would be taking a lot of photographs and stopping to sketch, we planned an overnight stay in a lean-to at Flowed Lands. Joining us were Librado Romero, the New York Times photographer for the series; Catherine Minnery, a good friend and fellow artist; and my daughter Ariel Diggory, an experienced outdoorswoman.

With a decent forecast for a few days we set off from the trailhead and hiked almost five miles before dropping-off our camping gear at a lean-to where the trail reached Flowed Lands. We hung our food in a bear bag and continued on to the flume.

After crossing the dam at Lake Colden we crisscrossed the Opalescent River, named for the opalescent feldspar that brightens the stream bed. As we ascended further from Lake Colden, the trail left the streamside. The term “flume” on the map refers to a narrow ravine and while the map didn’t precisely indicate the waterfall location, we had judged it to be where the elevation intervals were close together in a sharp formation resembling a pencil point. What was harder to judge was the nature of the terrain between the trail and the bottom of the flume. As Kirk mentioned in the article in the Times, we kept asking descending hikers if they had seen the falls shown in the painting, but none had. Finally, we reached a point at the top of the waterfall with a view over the ledge where the water disappeared into a deep space – we had gone too far. We paused and I made a sketch that later became a large painting.

IB 2001 the same river twice ac 36x24 with textBacktracking, we found an opening in the trail to descend rather precariously. It was too far below the falls and were unable to scramble up the streambed, blocked by a very deep pool between steep walls. Even though we weren’t standing precisely where Wyant stood, there was some satisfaction because the falls and cliffs to the left closely matched his depiction. The challenge of finding the spot reminded us of the difficulty of going back in time to understand what inspired Wyant.

Based on sketches and photos from this downstream location, I made a painting that expresses the inaccessibility of Wyant’s view and called it “The Same River Twice.” The foreground is purposely painted more expressively in a contemporary manner and the background is softened, evocative of the tonalist painters with whom Wyant is often associated.

I later discovered an image of the waterfall of the flume made in 1859 by Benson J. Lossing and published in his The Hudson, From the Wilderness to the Sea (1866). He describes the hike at a time of drought, when he could follow the streambed above Lake Colden for four miles, detouring around a few cascades. That mileage would have taken him well past the falls of the flume, which is about a half-mile above Lake Colden.

IC lossing with textLossing’s description suggests that the flume can be more accessible at times and different conditions may explain the ease with which Wyant made the trip – his right side had been paralyzed by a stroke. Lossing’s description of the waterfall in the flume misidentifies it as “Hanging Spear Falls,” which is on the Opalescent below Flowed Lands. He wrote:

At one place the river had assumed the bed of a displaced trap dyke, by which the rock has been intersected. The walls are perpendicular, and only a few feet apart — so near that the branches of the trees on the summits interlace. Through this the water rushes for several rods, and then leaps into a dark chasm, full fifty feet perpendicular, and emerges among a mass of immense boulders.

On a second trip about a month later, Catherine and I made it into the part of the flume next to the waterfall. We noticed a pointed boulder at the top that could have added to Lossing’s impression that he had found “Hanging Spear Falls.”

Images: Above, Alexander Helwig Wyant, “The Flume of the Opalescent,” from about 1875 (courtesy the Smithsonian Museum of American Art); middle, Anne Diggory, “The Same River Twice,” (from the Collection of Longfellows in Saratoga Springs); and below, Benson Lossing’s “The Fall in the Opalescent,” from The Hudson: From Wilderness to the Sea.

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Since moving to Saratoga Springs in 1977, Anne Diggory has been inspired by the natural world of the Adirondacks as well as mountain landscapes encountered in her travels. She uses her artistic perspective to identify the Adirondack painting locations of artists working in past centuries and has helped several museums correct their catalogues and rename their paintings. Her research concerning the painting location of John Frederick Kensett’s iconic “Lake George, 1869,” was recently published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal. Additional information and images are available at

5 Responses

  1. I was the adopter of Feldspar Lean-to for 11 years and made 3 trips per year most of which involved going up or down the Opalescent above Lake Colden as I hiked around Mt. Colden. I have also climbed several of the high peaks via that trail and photographed several falls on that section of the Opalescent. Despite having traversed that section at least 3 dozen times I cannot recall seeing a site that resembles Wyant’s painting, nor can I find one among my photographs. I do have a photograph of what I always thought was “the flume”. You can see that photo on my Google+ page .

  2. Very annoying. When I posted the comment it stripped out the URL to the photograph. I’ll try again

  3. Anne Diggory says:

    Jim – your photo is likely one of the cascades In the flume but in a different location from Wyant’s viewpoint. The term “flume” refers to the narrow passage or ravine which goes for some distance and not to the waterfall, which is something I learned while working on this adventure. The dramatic waterfall that Wyant painted is at the upstream end of the flume and is visable at the back of my painting in this blog entry. The “Part Two” of this adventure will be published on the Adirondack Almanack site and will cover the second trip I took and the successful descent into the upper part of the flume. Part of the story can be seen on my website diggory dot com, in the link to the mural proposal.

  4. I understand what a flume is, that’s why I thought the photo was ‘the flume”. Although the waterfall looks vertical in the photo, that section is more like a steep staircase between the slanted walls of the crevasse. I was in the lower (and somewhat wider) portion of the narrow section. As I recall it was necessary to climb down a bank to get to the spot I made the photo. I look forward to re-exploring that area this summer although I’m not sure I will climb down there again. I think I remember it being steep enough that I wished I had some rope. I was much younger then. I’ve gotten more cautious with age.

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