Sunday, April 15, 2018

“Wild Jess” Elliott: Setting the Record Straight

camp elliottJessie Elliott was a unique figure in the history of the Beaver River country in the west central Adirondacks. Visitors to the tiny settlement of Beaver River are still told she went to prison for her role in the bootlegging that was rampant in the lumberjack days of the early 1920s. She is listed among the “lawless ladies” in Niki Kourofsky’s recent book, Adirondack Outlaws. Pat Thompson’s memoir about life in Beaver River claims Jessie rode her steed through the settlement with her long hair flowing and a pistol in a holster on her belt. More fantastic stories about Jessie can be found in Bill Donnelly’s Short History of Beaver River where she is described, among other things, as a good-looking Calamity Jane, a bootlegger, and a prostitute. The truth underlying the legends reveals a much more complex and interesting wilderness woman.

Jessie E. Elliott’s parents were Chester and Adeline Odett Elliott.   Their first child, William, had been born in 1879, followed by a second son, Joseph, in 1882. Jessie was their only daughter, born in 1885 in the family home at Chase’s Lake, in Watson, Lewis County.

As a young man, Chet Elliott had worked as a laborer, possibly at Lewis Crawford & Company at Chase’s Lake. His uncle Joe Dunbar was the foreman of the mill, which made hemlock bark extract for tanning.  In 1878 Joe Dunbar bought the Wardwell property on the upper Beaver River and built a sportsmen’s hotel.

During the spring and fall throughout the 1880s Chet Elliott and his brother William worked for their uncle at Stillwater and lived at the Dunbar Hotel. In late 1892, Joe Dunbar sold his hotel to a group of regular guests who wanted to make it the headquarters of their exclusive Beaver River Club. Chet Elliott liked the wilderness life. He also knew that a train station was being built a little further up the Beaver River to serve vacationing sportsmen. The Elliott brothers saw an opportunity. With the help of Joe Dunbar they built a new sportsmen’s hotel near the train station at a well-established camping spot where the South Branch of Beaver River met the main flow.

Chet and his brother William initially operated the Elliott Camp together with Chet’s wife Addie doing the cooking. William soon found a job at a hotel in Lowville and moved into town. Chet’s family continued to live at Beaver River during the spring and fall. During the rest of the year they lived in Turin, NY, where Chet found a worked as a laborer. At the time the Elliott family first took up residence at Beaver River Jessie was seven, her brothers were 13 and 10.

Chet Elliott became quite the wilderness entrepreneur. He met every train driving his wagon and team. If visitors were bound for the Beaver River Club he would drive them about a mile to Grassy Point where he kept a small homemade side-wheel steamboat docked on the river. The little boat ferried visitors in relative comfort the twenty river miles to the Beaver River Club at Stillwater. He named his steamboat Wild Jess after his adventurous daughter.

For a few years the Elliott Camp was the only place a visitor could stay in the vicinity of the Beaver River train station. The camp prospered. Chet improved the main building and added cabins along the riverbank. Newspapers from all over upstate New York carried favorable articles about successful fishing and hunting expeditions based at Elliott’s.

By 1900 the Elliott family appears to have moved to Beaver River full time. As could easily have been predicted, the three Elliott children, now teenagers, had become experienced in the ways of the wilderness. The boys began to work part-time as guides for guests and Jessie helped her mother with the meals. As early as 1898 the Elliott boys, especially Will, were praised for their skill as guides. But what about Jessie?

A rare first person account of young Jessie appeared in the St. Lawrence Republican and Ogdensburg Weekly Journal on Dec. 9, 1903. Eighteen-year-old Jessie was featured in the lengthy article that recounts a week-long stay at Elliott’s Camp by one L. A. Withington. Withington described “Miss Jessie” as an attractive young woman who “will serve you at meal time with flap-jacks, venison and coffee, take your photograph, beat you shooting, run a foot race, paddle a canoe, spring tricks on you at camp-fire, or teach a Sunday school class.”

On his first afternoon at Elliott’s Jessie “gave the writer a dare” to go on a horseback ride through the woods. She led him on a merry chase down back trails, fording streams, through the autumn woods, across a corduroy road and finally, sensing the author was tiring, back to camp. Later in the week she told the author, and a friend who had accompanied him, that she was ready to prove her claim to being a good hunter. Before noon she tracked and shot a big buck as the author’s friend stood in awe. “As she stood by his carcass that afternoon, after we hung him up, rifle in hand, relating how it occurred, they look a pretty pair of Adirondack beauties.” Jessie served as their hunting guide for the remainder of the week.

Interestingly, the same article noted that Jess had a camera. In 1903 Kodak introduced the No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak. The camera, designed for postcard-size film, allowed the general public to take photographs and have them printed on standard sized postcard backs. It was popular for Adirondack hotels to sell specialty postcards to guests. Jessie made such cards, including this hand tinted one of her father and his dog.

hand tinted postcard by jessie elliottJessie lived and worked at the Elliott Camp through her early twenties. On March 5, 1909 she married William A. Yaker in Oneida, NY. The marriage was brief. By 1910 she was divorced and back in Beaver River with her family.

In the spring of 1912, after twenty successful years, Chet Elliott sold the camp to W.H. and C.B. Johnson. The entire Elliott family moved to Carter Station, a small community down the railroad tracks closer to Old Forge, and took over management of a substantial existing hotel called the Clearwater House. In those days Carter was a busy place because it was the start of an important spur line to Raquette Lake.

The Carter Station agent at the time was a fellow named Budd Delong. Before long Budd was courting Jessie. They married in December 1913 and moved to Utica where Budd worked as a telegraph operator for the New York Central Railroad. Budd and Jessie soon returned to the Adirondacks. They were living in Long Lake West [now Sabattis] in 1914 and by 1915 they were in Carter again living with Jessie’s parents at the hotel. Jessie Elliott’s mother died in 1917 and her father died in 1918. Sometime before 1920 Jessie split with Budd Delong and took up with a man named Harry Smith.

Smith loved the backwoods as much as Jessie. The couple initially settled at George Bushey’s lumber camp at Woods Lake a few miles down the railroad from Beaver River Station. Jessie and Harry worked as the camp cooks. It’s not clear what else Harry Smith did at the lumber camp but it may have involved violating the Volstead Law against selling alcoholic beverages.

After Bushey’s camp burned to the ground in 1921, Jessie and Harry moved to Beaver River where Harry opened a “lunch room” that catered to lumberjacks. Beaver River was by all accounts a pretty wild place during the early 1920s. Between 1922 and 1924 the Black River Regulating District hired a large number of loggers to clear the 4,000 acres that would be flooded to create the Stillwater Reservoir.

Most of these men lived in and around Beaver River Station. Some lived in boarding houses, some at the Norridgewock Hotel and many lived in shanties. The Utica Observer Dispatch described the scene as more like the Wild West than New York State “with its rough, crude surroundings and several hundred French Canadian huskies living in tumble down shacks – or some of them with bare ground for a bed and the sky for a roof.”

In late October 1923 federal agents staged a prohibition raid at Beaver River and arrested Harry Smith after he sold one of them a shot of illegal whiskey for $1.  Smith was arrested again for the same offense in 1924. There is no record of Harry in Beaver River or Jessie’s life again.

Some of the legends surrounding Jessie appear to have originated from a sensational newspaper article about the 1923 prohibition raid. Even though the article makes it clear that Jessie was not arrested, she was featured in the description of the raid. The two brave federal agents are imagined to have barely escaped from hundreds of rampaging drunken lumberjacks at Beaver River. In this chaos, “Mrs. Smith, girl rough rider, known as ‘Jess,’ was the queen of the camp.”

“Attired in her riding breeches, in which she appears most of the time, Mrs. Smith always has her pony nearby and her six-shooter is fastened to her belt where she can whip it out on a moment’s notice. Needless to say the prohibition men let her alone.”

The author of the news article was obviously more influenced by popular images of the Wild West than by the facts. It’s true that Jessie rode horses from an early age and it seems likely that she wore riding breeches when astride. Although she was a crack shot with a hunting rifle, there is no first hand evidence that she rode with a pistol on her belt. In order to spice up the story the author conveniently equated Jessie with famous “girl rough riders” such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.

wild west posterThe article also overplayed Jessie’s involvement in bootlegging. Her husband Harry was the one arrested for violating prohibition, not Jessie. Jessie surely knew what Harry was up to and may have been a willing participant but there is no evidence she was ever the subject of a criminal investigation.

Understanding Jessie’s reputation as a prostitute is a bit more complicated. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Jessie was a prostitute. She was married three times in the course of twelve years and had no children. In a time when divorce was rare and considered morally questionable this record alone would subject a woman to malicious rumors. Women were expected to settle down, have children and support their husbands by creating a stable home life. Jessie never settled down, wanted to live in the woods, and was too independent a soul to fulfill the role of a traditional wife.

During most of her life Jessie lived in backwoods Adirondack communities where there were few women. The women who did live in the Beaver River country in those days were married and had little social contact with loggers, railroad men and sporting tourists. Because she grew up working in a wilderness hotel Jessie felt comfortable socializing with outdoorsmen. In time local men jumped to their own conclusions and the rumors grew.

After Harry Smith disappeared Jessie may have remained for a time in Beaver River. In 1925 the Black River Regulating District paid her for the part of her property that was about to be flooded by the new reservoir.

Her exact whereabouts for the next several years are unknown. There is some evidence that she moved to Grieg where her mother’s siblings lived. Jessie lived alone except for her three dogs. In June 1928 at the age of 43 she contracted pneumonia and died. Her body was found when the barking of her dogs alerted the neighbors.

In all it’s fair to conclude that Jessie Elliott lived up to her nickname but not to the stories told by the Beaver River old-timers. Wild Jess lived a wilderness life on her own terms. The real Jessie Elliott was wild in the same way the great northern forest of the Beaver River country was wild: beautiful, enduring and untamed.

Photos, from above: detail of Henry Beach postcard of Elliott’s Camp, and hand tinted photo postcard by Jessie Elliott courtesy of the Town of Webb Historical Association; and Wild West Show poster.

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Ed Pitts is a retired attorney and Administrative Law Judge who lives in Syracuse, NY. He is a past president of the Rap-Shaw Club, an Adirondack sportsman’s club founded in 1896, now located on an island in the Stillwater Reservoir. He has a life-long interest in local history especially of the Adirondacks and Central New York.

3 Responses

  1. Neal Aubel says:

    In our area, the location is referenced as Beaver River Station on the Stillwater flow…would this be the same? Sure sounds like that…

  2. Jim Fox says:

    Loved it Ed. Especially the color postcard. Doggone it you’re thorough! Your dogged research makes clear why Marty Podskoch called much in his fire tower books, “lore”. But “Wild” Jess sure was a marketing draw for such a remote place as Beaver River.

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