Monday, May 14, 2018

The Old Trail: A Short History of Lyon Mountain

The recent recounting here of personal memories and good times linked to the old trail on Lyon Mountain told only part of the path’s history. A decade ago, a new trail replaced the old one, which had degraded with sections ranging from grassy to rocky to bouldery to muddy to extremely steep, muddy, and slippery. It was a mess compared to paths built by modern trail crews. In 2006, ADK’s Algonquin Chapter completed the plans for a new trail, which was built in the summer of 2008.

Without fanfare, a new trail replaced the old one, but a bit of fanfare might have been nice, considering the old trail’s age and historical significance.

“Old” in this case applies in two ways: it’s the original trail of the few ever built to the summit, and it was 132 years old when it was abandoned for the new route. Do the math and you’ll find that it was created in 1876, the nation’s centennial year. At the time, the mountain was still so remote that unless one arrived by rail, the trip from Plattsburgh to the trailhead (via dirt road, plank road, and no road) took longer than the ascent itself.

In spring of 1876, the trail was completed, and in June, local newspapers reported that Meader Brothers’ Hotel at Chazy Lake offered “elegant boats, good fishing, good guides, and the best of fare…. Should you desire to take a trip into the clouds, there is a plain trail just cut from the hotel to the summit of Lyon Mountain, where you will get an unsurpassed mountain view if the day is clear.”

One source credited the Meader brothers — Farmer (taken from their father’s middle name), Charles, and possibly others — for laying out and building the trail, while another cited Burt Hungerford, a well-known guide. Most likely they worked together on it, assisted at least in part by a friend, Wales Parsons, and possibly Ed Davis, who also operated a hotel on the lake shore. The three of them worked for the Meaders and others as guides or helpers on ascents by tourists and visitors.

The earliest climbs of Lyon Mountain were all-encompassing adventures compared to today’s up-and-down efforts. The Meaders, with help, constructed camping facilities within minutes of the highest point (Lyon Mountain’s summit is a broad surface estimated to cover 100 acres). They also built a raised platform at the peak “in the tops of four trees, with a strong ladder leading up to it” to ensure an unobstructed view in all directions.

Not everyone stayed overnight, but many did. It was encouraged as part of the wilderness experience, culminating in a spectacular event: viewing sunrise from the highest point in the region. Enjoying the same thing a century later gave me the added feeling of sharing history.

Visitors to the summit back then made reference to “the Spring,” “the Gorge” (or “Flume”), and “perpendicular walls of rock,” all of them well worth rediscovering and exploring in modern times as well. But just sitting and enjoying open views from the rocky summit is also very satisfying.

The mountain was named after Nathaniel Lyon, who settled in the Saranac River valley around 1803, and shortly after moved a few miles northwest to take up farming near Chazy Lake, in the behemoth’s shadow. There’s much more to the Lyon story, but to summarize, the land mass became known as Mount Lyon, or Lyon’s Mountain. About six decades later, when mining of the world’s highest-grade iron ore began on the opposite (western) base, the resulting village was known briefly as Lyon Mountainville before the name Lyon Mountain became firmly attached to both the village and the peak.

It is said, that within two months of the trail’s opening, the first woman (accompanied by her brother) climbed to the summit on August 11, 1876. But the big news wasn’t so much that a female had made the ascent: it was that she (Hattie Lyon) and her brother (first name unknown) were the grandchildren of the mountain’s namesake, Nathaniel Lyon.

Four days after the Lyons completed the same-day climb and descent, a group of ten women and seven men made an overnight trip to the top, guided by Hungerford and Davis. Subsequent newspaper reports and word-of-mouth made the jaunt a popular undertaking for many years, both among tourists and the skyrocketing population of Lyon Mountain village, which had grown quickly from a few hundred settlers to a few thousand.

But in those early years, the highest-profile visitor to the mountain’s summit (after Hattie Lyon of course), arrived in summer 1878: Verplanck Colvin, commissioned by the state to survey the Adirondacks. Among the headquarter sites he selected was Lyon Mountain, a choice that ultimately benefited both Colvin’s work and locals who guided trips to the summit.

His survey required that very heavy equipment be transported to the mountaintop, where a cabin and observation tower were needed. The established trail saved his crew the trouble of cutting their own swath, and they made many improvements to the existing path.

Colvin provided this assessment when he reached the summit in mid-August 1878: “It was a broad, flat area, a mountain plateau, seeming vastly larger at close acquaintance than it had appeared as seen from De Bar mountain in the fall of 1877. It would still require a week or more of labor to prepare the station.”

Dozens of guided hikers visited the peak that summer while Colvin’s men toiled away. When his measurements were completed and Colvin’s crew departed, they left behind a log cabin and lookout tower at the summit (on the same site where today’s retired fire tower stands). Thereafter, overnight visitors to the summit could avail themselves of the cabin, complete with enough bunks for a party of ten. Larger groups could erect tents, or use the covered shelters built in “the Flume.”

The trail beginning on Chazy Lake’s southwestern shore provided exclusive access to the peak for the first few years, and for most of the next 13 decades, but it’s a little-known fact that another trail provided competition during those early years. Lyon Mountain had grown to rival Plattsburgh as the most populous location in the county, and many of the mining-village residents took trips to the summit, which was also a popular place to bring friends and family visiting from the outside world.

For that reason, the decision was made in summer 1881 to build a summit trail beginning at the village outskirts, on the opposite (western) side of the mountain from Davis’s (which was on Chazy Lake). By mid-September, it was completed — effectively the old-fashioned version of modern gondolas, for instead of hikers toiling breathlessly in anticipation of hard-earned scenic payoffs, the new trail was a bridle path, allowing “climbers” to remain astride horses to within a short distance of the summit.

The idea didn’t catch on well enough for the trail to become self-maintained through frequent use, and despite plans to revive it in 1886 and 1888, it failed to become an established route. The trail used by nearly all climbers thereafter was the original one located on Chazy Lake’s southwestern shore. It began with a relatively easy grade on what today is known as the Lowenberg Road, became more inclined after that, and downright steep over the last stretch, the beginning of which was eventually marked by the Observer’s Cabin, which DEC says, “may have been constructed around 1916.” (Idiot vandals robbed and burned the cabin more than 60 years later. After attempting to steal the stove, which proved too heavy to carry down the mountain, they abandoned it in the woods, thus making off with virtually nothing of value. And if you’re offended by the generous term “idiot,” I’m offended that you’re offended.)

Since the first trail was cut in 1876, it seems Lyon Mountain nearly always had some sort of tower at the summit. The men who cleared the trail built a log lookout tower to give their guided clients a better overall view (otherwise, even from ground level, the relatively short trees on the summit blocked visuals that include the Chateaugay Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and Montreal). Colvin’s men improved the tower, which was used by hunters, guides, and climbers after his survey crew departed. Lyon Mountain was among the fire observation stations established in 1910. A DEC fire tower study published in 2010 says, “According to Paul Laskey, records of 1910 indicated a log tower station. Present tower erected in 1917…. The Lyon Mountain Forest Fire Observation Station was used continuously until its closure at the end of the 1988 season.” Lyon Mountain’s was one of 12 steel towers added that year (1917) utilizing stairs instead of ladders for access. All the mountain’s towers, from 1876 to 2008, were accessed by the old trail, which, although it is no longer maintained, is still used by some hikers.

Time and progress have led to a new trail, while the old one is mostly forgotten. Old buildings, even those long removed, are often marked by historical signs to help us remember them, but an old hiking trail can’t really be effectively marked — no one would visit an abandoned trail so no one would see the signs. I’m not entirely sure that makes sense, but at any rate, I appreciate the opportunity to share here the history of a long-enduring, historic mountain trail that is now defunct.

It’s kind of like saying a belated goodbye to a dear old friend.

Photos: Lyon Mountain Tower, 2008 (Andrew Lavigne); three Verplanck Colvin sketches from 1878—1) Colvin’s crew carrying equipment up Lyon mountain—2) lookout tower on Lyon Mountain summit—3) cabin on Lyon Mountain summit, next to survey station

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

One Response

  1. Todd Gumlaw says:

    I grew up in the life long home of Hattie Lyon. The home still belongs to my father who has some copies of letters written by Hattie that mentions camping on the summit and the view of the land for miles’s pretty neat. My father is proud to own such a great piece of history.

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