On a cool autumn evening in 1874, 19-year-old Edward Bennett stood in line holding his two-dollar ticket and waited to board the night boat to Albany. If all went as scheduled, he would arrive by morning just in time to catch the train to Saratoga. There the newly opened Adirondack railroad would take him to the last stop on the line, North Creek, one of the gateways to the Adirondacks. Those who would come to know him as a robust mature adult would not have recognized this skinny, pale Irish farmhand.
And anyone inquiring as to his destination must have smiled when he told them that he was headed for a remote lake in Hamilton County, one of the least populated sections of the woods. The entire county had less than 3,000 souls living on 1,721 square miles, that’s well over a million acres of forest land. The winters were as brutal as they were long; four months, and temperatures as low as -40.
But Ed would not be alone, he would be in the company of a person strong enough and persuasive enough to overcome any doubts or reservations Ed might have had – his youngest brother, 15-year-old Charles.
Although we will never fully understand what motivated these two brothers to leave the safety and relative comfort of family and farm near Jericho, New York, a quiet old Quaker settlement in Nassau County, some hints are found when we examine the background of their family.
His father, Thomas, emigrated from County Wicklow in Ireland where he worked as a gardener for the Parnell’s, an influential and affluent family, and arrived in the United States in 1849 when he was about 25 years old.
Arriving in New York, he rented a room in the city above a butcher shop owned by Damon Bennett, a distant relative who lived in the 8th Ward. Shortly after he moved to Newark, and married Ellen Farley, who was also from Ireland, and a year later, in 1854, Ed was born. In 1858 there was Charles. The family didn’t stay in Newark more than a year or two because neither Thomas nor Ellen took to urban life very well. They were used to the countryside and he enjoyed the nurturing atmosphere of life on an estate.
Ellen’s sister, Anna Farley, was at that time working as a domestic for Judge Henry Davies at his estate in Fishkill Landing on the Hudson. With the help of reference letters from the Parnell’s, the Bennett family was able to secure work there.
Three years later the Bennett family, now consisting of four boys (Edward, Thomas, Richard and Charlie) and two girls, settled into the comfortable gardener’s cottage on Walter Langdon’s estate, Hyde Park. The place was widely known for the beauty of its landscape and its commanding view of the Hudson (he was the grandson of John Jacob Astor).
In 1841, While many Irish immigrants of the era worked on the railroad, or in coal mines. Tom Bennett’s family was living and working on this idyllic estate. This is not to say that they had it easy. It was a demanding work especially considering the importance the owner placed on his gardens. Young Edward attended school in a local one room schoolhouses but his formal schooling ended at the age of eight when the outbreak of the Civil War caused a manpower shortage and necessitated his helping his father full time. Yet this was not the most traumatic event in Ed’s youth; the year before his mother and two sisters died. I found it odd that in his public writings Ed Bennett contain no mention of the names of his children or for that matter of his wife. He mentions her cooking but not her name. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t think it was “proper” to write publicly about his family.
Around 1871 the family moved to Poughkeepsie about ten miles south, where James Winslow, founder of the prominent banking firm, employed his father. Ed recalled that during his summer there he worked for the neighbor, Samuel F. B. Morse, tending a herd of cattle at “Locust Grove.” He spoke highly of the old man – Morse was then 78: “Whenever he came near where I was, he always had a pleasant word for me. He was a fine old gentleman, with a flowing beard and a very musical voice.”
Throughout these years Thomas worked at estates owned by the wealthy, usually as a groundskeeper or gardener. In addition to being skilled in his work, he was also adept at conducting himself politely when in their company and he passed his knowledge along to his children. Class distinctions in this country, although less formal, were nevertheless present and a person in the employ of our upper class who did not conduct himself appropriately soon found himself unemployed. The Bennett’s lived with, played with, and even went to school with the privileged class and they knew how to intermingle without presuming equality. Throughout his adult life Ed and his brothers felt comfortable and certainly impressed by wealth. Although neither he nor Charlie ever achieved great wealth they both excelled at entertaining the wealthy. In later years the phrase “gracious hosts” was frequently used in describing Tom Bennett’s boys.
After only a year, the family moved again because, as Ed tells us, their father “thought it a good idea to get a farm.” He and his four boys, Edward, Thomas, Richard and Charles became sharecroppers at a farm owned by a well to do partner in a marine insurance company in Jericho. It is probably no coincidence that both his prior and his new employer were Quakers because this was a tight community and a reference from one of the Friends all but insured employment. When Ed visited the area forty years later he “found a change he did not expect as the old Quaker settlement known by him fifty years ago has been transformed into a beautiful place made up of homes of millionaires.” By the end of his five-year lease, four of his sons were to leave the farm for the Adirondacks.
Fourteen-year-old Charlie was the first to leave, arriving at Blue Mountain Lake in 1873. None of the brothers appear to have had the experience or skills necessary for making a living in the Adirondacks. What they did have was a steely determination, a capacity for hard work and a gregarious nature. A sensible man would never have left the security of his family as ill-prepared as Charlie Bennett. By land, sea and rail he traveled several days from his home into a wilderness area with no job prospects or marketable skills.
But Charlie was neither sensible nor fully a man; he was an idealistic, overconfident teenage boy. Although Charlie never related his reason for coming to the Adirondacks, Ed Bennett related his reason in a memoir.
Ed writes that after the fourth year on the farm he was “taken down” with malaria. At the time the disease was still regarded as a mysterious malady, vaguely tied to swampland habitat. Droves of mosquitoes emanated from the meadow lands around Newark making southern New Jersey virtually uninhabitable. On his doctor’s advice, he began to search for employment away from Long Island. He had read about the need for tobacco farm laborers in the Connecticut River Valley and decided to pack up and take the overnight steamboat to Hartford.
In the village of Burnside, three miles east of Hartford, he found temporary employment at a farm. Ed returned to Jericho after his work on the tobacco farm was complete, “but I was not back long when the malaria was back at me.” His brother Charles suggested that Ed join him. “He wrote to me to come up there and I would have no more chills and fever. Again, I scraped together what few duds I had and started.” Why did his brother believe that the Adirondacks would offer relief from the symptoms of malaria? The answer is that everyone, or so it seemed, knew that the wilderness had a “curative effect.” It was preached from the pulpit and written about in newspapers, periodicals and most notably in a book published in 1869 called Adventures in the Wilderness.
So did the two Bennett brothers set off into the Great Northern Woods because of a preacher’s book that they may not have read? I doubt it. Had they lived elsewhere they may have gone West. Their family life was not the best and they were tired of endless days of hard work, with no end in sight. They had no permanent home and Ed’s health was failing. If they didn’t expect to find a better life in the Adirondacks, they at least expected that the potential for it there. With the optimism of a child running away to join the circus, Ed journeyed to Albany, then Saratoga and finally to North Creek.
Once in North Creek, Ed took the stage and traveled the nineteen miles to Jackson’s at the Cedar River crossing, just north of Indian Lake. This was a rough plank road, not at all a pleasant trip. Four by four beams had to be laid across ditches, similar to the boardwalks we see today at the seashore. Although they were an improvement over dirt and mud paths and made wagon transportation possible, planks wore out and rotted and more than a few were recycled by settlers for their private building needs. The empty spaces now exposed the stumps of felled trees. As one traveler recalled, “There are two thousand five hundred and fifty three stumps and we missed but two of them.”
As bad as it was, this primitive road was the end of the line as far as “modern transportation” was concerned. Richard B. Jackson built this “timber frame” hotel in 1863 and named it the Arctic Hotel. From the beginning the hotel was quite successful, but after Jackson received a liquor license in 1866 business boomed. At a dance held on opening night, Jackson was said to have taken in $1,200 at the bar. Like many hotels, it functioned as a town meeting center, dance and social hall, post office, guide headquarters and stage stop. From his hotel, Jackson would offer transportation, primarily by buckboard, to Cedar River Falls, Blue Mountain Lake and south to the Fulton Chain.
Jackson was also a very successful farmer as noted by a contemporary writer. “Richard Jackson’s clearing comprises over three hundred acres in the river valley, and a finer farm is not often seen.” Here he grew oats, rye, barley, potatoes and rutabagas.
The hotel was full of French Canadian lumberjacks with appetites befitting their occupation. Bennett recalled, “There on the table for the first time in my life, I saw brook trout and venison, great platters full. It was contrary to the law to have brook trout at that time of the year but did not make any difference in those days.”
He spent the night at Jackson’s and the next morning rested but still very weak he asked Richard Jackson when the stage for Blue Mountain would leave. “There’s no stage, you go on foot from here”.
“I was a little discouraged for I was quite weak and did not know whether I could stand it to walk ten miles or not.” But walk he did, all 98 pounds of him accompanied by another guest at the hotel, a French-Canadian lumberjack named Oliver St. Marie who later became a well-known resident of Indian Lake.
Ed’s brother, Charles, had set up his camp on Long Point at Raquette Lake and the year Ed arrived, was “working in the woods” at Blue Mountain Lake with a man named Potter. He had made arrangements for Ed to meet him at “Potters lumber shanty” about a mile south of the lake on the Rock River.
Although Charlie was aware of Ed’s health problems, he must have been greatly concerned when he saw the once trim and muscular farm worker, reduced to 98 pounds on a 5 foot 10 inch frame. But he had a plan. After they had dinner they walked a short distance to Blue Mountain Lake to meet a friend of Charles’s who had agreed to look after Ed Bennett until his strength returned. Coming out of the dense forest at the foot of Blue Mountain, Ed saw the light of a large clearing and soon laid eyes on Blue Mountain Lake.
Fifty years later Ed Bennett vividly recalled his first impression: “The sun was going down, the lake was like a sheet of glass, the foliage had remained on late that year, and the reflection in the water was gorgeous. Not a sole in sight, not a sound to be heard. The spruce and balsam and cedar grew down close to the lake shore, no axe ever marred its beauty. I was young then, but I took in that grand scene and I think I appreciated it. I never expect to see its like again.”
At the end of a sandy beach on Blue Mountain Lake he was introduced to his new caretaker, Chauncey Hathorn. Chauncey or “Chancey” as Ed called him, was “the soul [sic] monarch of Blue Mountain Lake at that time, except Tyler Merwin, who had built his lumber shanty one mile from the lake, and where is now the blue Mountain House.”
Chauncey Hathorn, tall and lean- almost gaunt – is regarded as the first documented settler at Blue Mountain Lake but by 1870 he had been joined by a handful of other men who called it’s waters their home.
John Copeland, a guide, had taken up residence on what was later called Thatcher’s Island and there were also a few lumber workers on scattered sites around the lake shore.
Like many others, Hathorn had come to the Adirondacks in search of both health and happiness. Born in Greenfield near Saratoga Springs in 1826, he came from middle class, well established family who provided him with a good education. The author of an early article in Forest and Stream regarded Chauncey as “a man of profound and varied reading” while the guide book writer Edwin Wallace called him, “a most intelligent, even scholarly gentleman.” How strange it must have been to have seen in his shanty on Blue Mountain copies of Pascal’s Thoughts, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Junius’ Letters, Young’s Night Thoughts and Paradise Regained.
A contemporary, Branford Sherwood, described him rather succinctly as, “an unusual character.” And that he was, a rare combination of learned man, hunter, trapper and hotel-keeper. As Sherwood wrote, “he was a very interesting man to talk with both on account of his early life, and the fact that during his life in the woods, he had become thoroughly familiar with game of all sorts.”
Charlie mentioned on several occasions later in his life that he had great admiration for Chauncey Hathorn’s education but I don’t think that explains why he asked him to help brother Ed. Rather it was the fact that Chauncey knew what it was like to suffer from a debilitating disease. And both men were convinced that if woods had saved his life, perhaps it could save Ed Bennett’s as well.
Although the records of Hathorn’s early life are rather lean, we do know that in his mid-twenties, tuberculosis struck him. The persistent coughing, night sweats, fatigue, fever, and difficulty breathing frequently were deadly but the best advise medical experts could suggest was to seek a more favorable climate away from the crowded and unsanitary conditions of city.
To that end, he traveled west to California during the gold rush in 1849 hoping to find a little gold as well as some relief for his lungs. But his condition grew worse and he returned to Saratoga around 1851 where he opened up a tailoring business in 1853 with a friend, P. M. Moriarty. Two years later a different partner, A. F. Brown, was brought in to replace Moriarty.
Working in a crowded shop, even in fashionable Saratoga Springs, was of little interest to young Chauncy Hathorn. Fortunately for him, his uncle was a well-known resort owner of Union Hall and later Congress Hall and it’s quite possible that Chauncey had worked there as a young boy.
The sizable hotels in Saratoga Springs were major purchasers of venison, trout and game birds, much of it supplied by “pot hunters” whom Alvah Dunning said “sent wagonloads of deer and trout to Saratoga.” These were men who made their living satisfying the hunger of vacationing gentry by providing ever increasing quantities of deer and trout to the hotels in Saratoga.
Chauncy Hathorn probably met and talked with pot hunters, and in the fall of 1856, he wrote: “with a party of friends from Saratoga I visited the woods for a hunting excursion… and located on what is now Eagle Lake.”
It was there he would meet the famous writer Ned Buntline.
Photo: The Arctic Hotel.