Monday, May 29, 2017

Tahawus History: An Early Adirondack Railroad

1840 essex co burr RRThe history of railroads in the Adirondack region has been well documented. The names of Dr. William Seward Webb and Dr. Thomas Clark Durant are permanently etched in the annals of railroading with evidence of their work still in existence today. However, the first Adirondack railroad to bear the name was established decades earlier.

In April of 1839, by an act of the State Legislature, a corporation was chartered with $100,000 capital to be known as the Adirondack Railroad Company, with David Henderson, Archibald Mclntyre, and Archibald Robertson as owners. These names should sound familiar. Although subscription books were opened with all due formality, there would really be no stockholders excepting the original proprietors. The route was to run from the Adirondack Iron and Steel Company’s works in McIntyre (later known as Adirondac) to Israel Johnson’s Inn at Clear Pond in the town of Moriah.

Brief History of the Works and Transportation Issues – First Decade

On October 14, 1826, from North Elba, New York, David Henderson wrote to Archibald McIntyre the letter that would change the central Adirondacks forever. No, he didn’t find the silver he was looking for but he had been lead to the richest iron ore deposit yet discovered in the northern region of New York. From that moment on, the next thirty years were forged in history. The principal investors in the operation were Henderson, McIntyre and McIntyre’s brother-in- law Judge Duncan McMartin.

Due to the remoteness of the location, one of the major problems confronting them from the beginning was transportation. The first option was a road, preferably built by the State. With this in mind, in 1828 Judge McMartin, then state senator, secured the passage of an act appointing commissioners to survey and construct a road from Cedar Point (now Port Henry), on Lake Champlain, westward through the towns of Moriah and Newcomb to the western boundary of Essex County.

Progress on the road was, however, painfully slow and a constant frustration to the owners. Alternative means for getting their ore out and supplies in were constantly being considered. In a letter from McIntyre to McMartin in 1832, there was even discussion on hiring a surveyor for a slack water navigation system (canal) connecting Sanford Lake and the Champlain Canal via the Hudson River.

The actual development of the works began in May, 1832. McMartin planned to spend the whole year supervising the construction of the works. Very high water, wet ground, and snow caused initial hardship and difficulties. Then as the snow ended and late May arrived, so did the black flies. The work proceeded quickly enough under the circumstances. The early efforts involved clearing land and moving in supplies. McMartin considered a farm to be a top priority, and had men planting potatoes, oats, and grass. Preparations for shelter, food, and materials had to be accomplished before the iron works were started. By mid-October, the initial structures stood almost complete: a working sawmill, 20 X 40 two story log house with glass windows, some stabling, coal house, forge for a hammer and two fires, and a blacksmith shop. McMartin named the place McIntyre. The very last structure completed was the forge itself, finished in November.

By 1833, a routine had developed for the mine. The first yearly step was to assess the needs of the works and lay out the guidelines for the next year’s operation. McIntyre and Henderson developed an extensive list for 1833’s activities, which included:

1. Construction of a dam on Lake Henderson to furnish more water to the works.
2. Building a road from the works along the west shore of Sanford Lake to the state road
3. Having 2 men blasting ore all season.
4. Redoing the boarding house to add a kitchen and cellar.
5. Keeping the sawmill at work.
6. Clearing earth off the entire ore bed.
7. Building a good road up the Main Street; also one from the ore bed to the forge
8. Purchasing additional land, including state land east of the works and the Newcomb farm south west of the settlement.

As the plans for the year unfolded, the necessary supplies had to be purchased and then shipped in the summer via canal boat from Albany to Cedar Point and stockpiled. They were then transported to the mine via sleigh in the winter. This means of conveyance was the only transportation possibility that made sense, for the muddy spring or early summer roads were almost impassable. Yearly consternation quickly developed about getting the material into the settlement before the snow melted. McIntyre constantly worried about this problem. “I presume that whenever the sleighing will permit, you will start teams to the North with provisions, etc. It is so important that everything of this sort should be done when our works are accessible with loads.” The mine’s transportation logistics were no mean feat, as an example, in the fall of 1833, 26 tons of materials for the next year were stockpiled on the shore of Lake Champlain. The ore had to be transported out by sled, also, which proved to be difficult and unreliable as Duncan McMartin discovered in January, 1831. He attempted to move 6 tons of ore out from the mine to the state road for eventual haulage to Moriah for processing. But heavy snow stopped him, forcing a return to the settlement.

The next few years of the operation were perhaps the most difficult for the owners because of the delays and seemingly interminable problems. Constant labor issues and problems making iron in the forge without adequate expertise lead McIntyre to write McMartin a letter in September of 1834 stating:

“The more I think of our unfortunate concern, the more I am satisfied of the egregious folly of our whole proceedings… let us out of every expense, and get back what little we can from the wreck.”

The works had hit their low point in the fall of 1834, and remained there for a couple of years. Some 3 or 4 tons of iron required shipping out, but there were no new plans for a return. The works sat idle through 1835 and early 1836.

New Life for the Works

The State of New York in 1836 authorized the establishment of a Geological Survey to run for 5 years. Ebenezer Emmons was charged with the survey of the 2nd district that covered Essex County. The resurrection of the iron works dates to this Geological Survey, for although formed for a scientific mission, most such surveys served as booster societies for exploitation of natural resources. The key difficulty so many industrial ventures faced as they struggled into existence was attracting investors’ recognition of their potential. The state surveys, by identifying promising mineral, timber, or agricultural features could and did highlight the value of given areas. But rarely did a state survey offer such substantial assistance to a private firm as Ebenezer Emmons provided to the struggling iron works of McMartin, McIntyre, and Henderson,

Emmons performed three vital services to the iron works owners. He made the first systematic survey of the various ore deposits and determined their extent. Emmons also made some rough determinations of the quality of the ores. More importantly, Emmons arranged a set of trials of the various ores by working them in the forge and then having the bars tested. The experiments worked very well, and the success proved to Emmons and the owners that the ores could be made to produce a high quality iron.

The contrast between activity at McIntyre before and after the release of Emmons’s reports was dramatic. By late in 1838, the owners had determined to resume operations, and no wonder with the glowing reports they were getting about their property. The only difficulty was finding a man to supervise the works. With the death of Duncan McMartin in 1837, neither other owner could spare the time at the works.

The owners hired Andrew Porteous as works manager. Porteous’s background is unknown, but correspondence indicates he was hired as manager and personnel officer, and not as iron master. In 1838, his duties consisted of implementing his absentee employers’ wishes and overseeing the iron-making. Porteous arrived about October, 1838, and immediately set the place running again, with the hopeful intention of working all winter.

Birth of the Railroad

In late 1838, Henderson and Mclntyre decided to build a railroad from the works at least as far as the state road at the Schroon River. The idea may have had its birth in a letter from Henderson to his partner in March, 1837, which discussed a horse-powered railroad in Pennsylvania. There, horses hauled 2-ton capacity cars with cast wheels and wrought iron axles on wooden rails dovetailed into ties at 6-foot intervals. There was plenty of wood available but little steel for rails so this concept appeared a viable solution to their transportation issues.

The terms of the Railroad incorporation in April 1829 called for work to begin within one year and be completed in three. James Holt, the contractor, was at work by July when the formality of stock sales took place, with Mclntyre giving Porteous shares in the company. But the work took longer to complete than expected and was not finished in 1839. The first hurdle was the marshy land around Lake Sally. This section had to be elevated on wooden piles and proved to be both costly and time consuming.

In the year 1840, with the forge not operating, Porteous had 8 men working on the railroad, at a wage of $14 per month. The railroad ultimately reached the shore of the Opalescence River where work halted. Approximately three miles of railroad had been completed at this point. In 1840, David Burr published a revised map of Essex County (see attached) which showed the railroad completed from the works to Johnson’s at Clear Pond. This route may have been from the 1839 railroad incorporation papers but the map proved to be highly optimistic. The December 3, 1840 balance sheet for the new Adirondack Iron and Steel Company (chartered also in April 1839) carried an asset for the railroad at $1,658.53. This same amount was carried on the balance sheets for the next couple years indicating no further on-going work.

Although the time for completion of the road was extended regularly until 1871, the first Adirondack Railroad would never be completed as far as Johnson’s let alone the Schroon River. The remains of the elevated section were still visible in the woods and on the meadows around Lake Sally when Arthur Masten wrote his 1935 book “The Story of Adirondac.”

Foot Note: The railroad idea didn’t die

Several attempts were made to build a railroad to the mine. The two most well known were those by Thomas C. Durant in the 1870’s and Wallace T. Foote of Port Henry in 1908. Durant made it as far as a few miles north of North Creek in 1871 before the money panic of 1873 halted any further progress. In 1908, Foote took control of the mine, then known as the MacIntyre Iron Company, and proposed a railroad from the mine to the Delaware & Hudson line just north of Ticonderoga. This dream ended when Foote died unexpectedly in 1910 at 46 years of age. Although his Champlain and Sanford Railroad Company continued in existence into the 1930’s, it never again had a visionary leader or the necessary financial backing to complete the project.

It would be a little over one hundred years from the original railroad incorporation before a railroad would reach the mine. It would arrive from the south out of North Creek along a route similar to that proposed by Durant. However, it wasn’t iron ore but ilmenite that the railroad would haul out for the next thirty five years. This ore was converted to titanium dioxide at the National Lead Company (now NL Industries) plant in Sayreville, New Jersey. The plant was closed in the 1970’s and mining ceased at Tahawus. Ironically, railroad transportation of magnetite (iron ore left from the titanium ore processing) continued through the 1980’s. The last ore train from Tahawus passed through North Creek on November 23, 1989.

Photo: 1840 revised David Burr map.


Don Seauvageau

Don Seauvageau is a retired chemical engineer living in Blue Mountain
Lake. He enjoys photography, flat water paddling, and sailing on Lake
Champlain. Don is an avid collector of Adirondack books and antiques
and a history enthusiast.




4 Responses

  1. richard.mackinnon@attglobal.net says:

    Great story. Might we have some photos?

  2. Richard.mackinnon@attglobal.net says:

    Excellent article .. many interesting facts. How about some photos of what is left either of the RR or the mine?

  3. Keith Gorgas says:

    Most interesting article. WOuld love to learn more.

  4. […] Tahawus History: An Early Adirondack Railroad […]

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *