While researching the Raquette Lake Railway, I found several historical traditions that were repeatedly used by authors in their works regarding the railroad’s origin. Below I examine these traditions and then provide my research on its origin from period correspondence and historical sources, including the rationale from the words of its builder, Collis P. Huntington.
The Keg of Nails
Charles Burnett (in Conquering the Wilderness, 1932) provided the anecdote that Collis P. Huntington was required once to sit on a keg of nails during one lengthy Crosby Transportation Company steamer trip from Old Forge’s dock to Fourth Lake and decided that the time was ripe for a railroad. This was repeated by Joseph Grady (The Story of a Wilderness, 1933), David Beetle (Up Old Forge Way, 1948), Harold Hochschild (Township 34, 1954), Ted Aber and Stella King (History of Hamilton County, 1965) Henry Harter (Fairy Tale Railroad, 1979) and Clara O’Brien (God’s Country, 1982).
Mrs. Huntington’s Threat
In Township 34, Harold Hochschild described an oral tradition: Dennis Dillon, in 1941 testimony during litigation regarding St. William’s Church at Raquette Lake, remembered that Mrs. Huntington was tired of the lengthy, inefficient and uncomfortable trips on steamers and wagons from Old Forge to Pine Knot and would not come to Pine Knot until a short railroad was built. If Huntington could build the line from New Orleans to San Francisco, she said, he could certainly build a line over this stretch. This story was then repeated in the works of Aber and King (crediting Hochschild), Henry Harter, Clara O’Brien and in Ruth Timm’s Raquette Lake, A Time to Remember (1982).
John Dix’s Lumber Railroad
It’s correct to say, as authors Hochschild, Harter and O’Brien did, that John Dix’s railroad – used to haul logs from Dr. William Seward Webb’s lands at Rondaxe to his mills at McKeever – was extended as the route for the Raquette Lake Railway. But to reach Webb’s Township 8 (John Brown’s Tract) lands, Dix had to obtain a railroad right of way through Township 7 lands managed by William Scott deCamp. This brings us to the fourth origin story.
The deCamp Hoodwink
David Beetle’s popular 1948 road trip history added a new origin that misidentified the characters and purpose of the transactions involved. It turns out that William Scott deCamp was not on the losing side of the deals that took place.
According to Beetle, in 1897 Webb, Huntington, and Dix’s lawyer Charles Snyder arranged Thomas C. Durant’s purchase of a right-of-way from Clearwater east through deCamp’s Township 7 lands. According to Beetle, the railroad was built so to let Dix transport his logs to McKeever mills from Webb’s lands at Rondaxe Lake, before the land being lumbered was transferred to the state in 1902.
Beetle said Dix’s only alternative was to pay deCamp’s Moose River waterway tolls. Beetle claimed deCamp did not know Dix was funding the railroad right-of-way purchase or its railroad construction purpose. The main actors and plot described above were included in the works by William Marleau’s Big Moose Station (1986) and William Gove’s Logging Railroads of the Adirondacks (2006).
All, except for the “deCamp Hoodwink”, of the traditions above could be true.
Charles Snyder was a prominent Herkimer attorney. But he could not have been able to use Thomas C. Durant as Dix’s front man in 1897 because Durant had died in 1885. Following court battles in 1891 and 1892 with Webb, deCamp was forced to provide a right-of-way through his lands for the “fairy tale railroad”. So Dix and Webb both sought to hide their involvement in the purchase.
In 1894, Dix’s lumber company signed an eight-year lumbering contract with Webb who required the wood to be milled at McKeever. Dix’s lumber was being moved from Rondaxe Lake down the north branch Moose River through deCamps’ lands until the deCamps stopped the logs around Minnehaha with a boom armed with guards. Mrs. Julia Lyon deCamp filed an injunction in November that year to stop the floating. The case was finally decided in 1899, four years after her death.
The deCamps did not want to charge tolls; they did not want their river property used at all for trafficking lumber. The only toll ever charged to Dix was by court order in April 1897 for damages caused by the logs already stopped at their boom. Obviously, Snyder and Dix did not want deCamp to know Dix was a party. In a series of transactions described in another article, a three way deal resulted in deCamp acquiring land near the Old Forge navigation channel, Charles W. Durant Jr. (Thomas C. Durant’s nephew) acquiring a railroad right of way from deCamp and this Durant selling and transferring the right of way to John Dix.
DeCamp later learned how Dix acquired the right of way and from whom. DeCamp also was developing a lumber mill and village around the new station to be called Clearwater and would profit from a railroad to Eagle Bay and Raquette Lake which was mandated in the deeds with Charles Durant; this did not change with the quick transfer to Dix.
In 2007, while researching Huntington’s involvement with this railroad in the Adirondack Museum Library, I found a letter dated January 24, 1898, from Lieutenant Governor Timothy Woodruff to William West Durant. Woodruff reminds Durant about Dix’s lumber railroad and suggests that this railroad could be extended through Eagle Bay to Raquette Lake along an existing wagon road (today’s Uncas Road). A station a station at Durant’s Mohegan Road could be accessed from J.P. Morgan’s Camp Uncas, and then under construction, Camp Sagamore and Woodruff’s Camp Kill Kare. Woodruff urged Durant to press the issue with Morgan and Huntington.
I also found a story in The Malone Farmer, published in 1913 shortly after J. P. Morgan’s death. According to the article:
“Mr. Morgan reached Camp Uncas by long drives: some times from Big Moose, and other times from Eagle Bay or Old Forge, but in either direction it was a drive of upwards of 20 miles… When he got into the springboard at Big Moose station or at Eagle Bay, he wanted to get to camp, and he usually made the journey at not less than eight or ten miles an hour.
“There was one instance, when he was hastily summoned from Camp Uncas, that he made the sixteen miles to Eagle Bay behind a pair of sorrel horses in 53 minutes. At Eagle Bay he caught the steamer for Old Forge, connected at Old Forge with the train and was in New York just in time for a most important conference before the opening of the banks and the Stock Exchange in the morning.
“That ride shook Morgan up so that he and the late Collis P. Huntington (who died in 1900 at Pine Knot), who had a camp on Raquette Lake, built the railroad from Clearwater to Raquette Lake”.
The railroad’s strongest opponent would be the Old Forge Company who owned the transportation monopoly on the Fulton Chain’s first four lakes and who did not know that the deeds on the Railway’s Fulton Chain portion already contained right-of-ways from the days of Thomas C. Durant’s Adirondack Railroad Company, a line that ended at North Creek but on paper projected a route to Sackett’s Harbor. Webb’s 1896 deal with the state also provided right-of-way easements through transferred state lands for a projected Clearwater to Raquette Lake “highway”.
Finally, we have the words of the Raquette Lake Railway’s chief projector, Collis Huntington, who provides the primary reasons for the construction of the line. In an appendix of Craig Gilborn’s Durant (1981) is an 1899 letter by Huntington that fully described the poor service of the existing five-hour journey and that both the wealthy and the “public” would benefit from the Railway.
In his letter, he expected the Forge Company (which owned the little steamers) would fight the Railway’s application to protect their interests – which they did – unless the Railway bought the lines – which they did in 1901. Huntington wrote that if his opponents feared danger from fire, he would draw from his western experience and use coal or oil so risk from fire would be minimal. This was definitely “Huntington’s Railroad”.
You can almost feel his anger as he described his trips before the railway was built. After leaving the N. Y. Central’s train at the Fulton Chain station, travelers would:
“take a little two-mile railroad up to Old Forge; there change to one of the little lake boats, transferring baggage and summer supplies as well; steam for an hour through the Chain until the east end of 4th Lake was reached; there the passenger and his baggage and stores were deposited on the wharf, transferred to wagons and pulled across a “Carry” to 5th Lake.
“There another little steamer was taken and baggage and supplies were put on board, and another hour was spent in steaming through 5th, 6th, and 7th Lakes, again came a transfer of the passenger and baggage to wagons, and another ride to 8th Lake; here there was still another transfer to a third steamer with baggage and stores, and when 8th Lake had been traversed again the passenger was alighted with his baggage and was transported across another carry to Brown’s Tract Inlet, where still another steamer awaited him; and after the seventh transfer of parcels and baggage had been made, the traveler began a long, slow and tiresome trip through that narrow, shallow and tortuous little stream, the steamer often striking the bottom and running into the bank, long poles being used to push her off.
“At last the beautiful Raquette Lake was reached, after five hours or more of a journey which had for its only recommendation some charming scenery more than counter-balanced, after the novelty had worn off, by the discomfort and inconvenience attending antiquated and out-of-date methods”.
This from a man formerly active in building the Transcontinental Railroad.
Huntington’s personal travel experiences to Pine Knot using the only available public transportation option to Raquette Lake were clearly stated. He died in 1900, one month after the new line was opened to the public.
Photographs author’s collection, the Goodsell Museum (Old Forge) and courtesy of Thomas Gates.