Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Myths About Adirondack Military Roads

cannon abandoned in 1776 by Sir John JohnsonDuring a recent discussion concerning pre-Civil War roads in the Adirondacks I mentioned to a friend that I am amazed by the number of people who insist on calling certain roads “Old Military Roads” even though they never had a military purpose.

My friend told me he heard that a hunter once found the remains of an old cannon somewhere near Terror Lake deep in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. His point, I think, was that the cannon must have been abandoned in the course of some American military expedition along a long-vanished woods road.

I asked him if he knew who had found the cannon. He didn’t. A few days later he sent me an email to inform me that one of his friends knew the identity of the hunter who discovered the cannon. He promised to track the guy down and question him closely. A few days passed before his next email. He had contacted the hunter and it turned out he had not seen the cannon himself but had heard about it from someone else.

The argument that discovery of lost cannon establishes some military usage of certain Adirondack roads has been around for at least 100 years. Alfred Donaldson discussed this phenomenon at some length in his History of the Adirondacks (1921). His point was that the three northern Adirondack roads commonly labeled old military roads, i.e., the roads from Chester to Russell, from Westport to Hopkinton and the Albany Road from Fish House to Russell, were not built by soldiers and had essentially no military purpose. Donaldson supported this contention by referring to maps of the era and by careful analysis of when those roads were constructed.

Donaldson handily dismissed the theory that the discovery of a cannon establishes a road’s military credentials. He was aware that two old cannon barrels had been discovered near Tupper Lake. Based on their location and condition he surmised they were from Sir John Johnson’s retreat to Canada in 1776. Johnson’s loyalist band was traveling along a Mohawk trail as there were no roads at that early date through the Central Adirondack wilderness.

Because the tales of old cannon seem so persistent I set out to discover how many bonafide Adirondack cannon discoveries have been reliably documented. So far as I can determine only three military cannons have ever been discovered anywhere in the Adirondack wilderness. It turns out that Sir John Johnson was probably responsible for all three.

The first two, both large 14-pounders, were found about five miles apart just south of Tupper Lake. These are the cannon mentioned by Donaldson. [See also, “Cannon abandoned near Tupper in 1776 now at Johnstown,” Tupper Lake Free Press, October 07, 1937]

The third, a small swivel gun that fired a 1-pound ball, was more recently discovered along the old Bartman Road near Bakers Mills. Sir John and his loyalist troops may have abandoned this cannon during the course of their 1780 raid on Johnstown. Glenn Pearsall wrote about this here at the Adirondack Almanack in 2015.

That’s it. All the documented abandoned cannon are associated with the American Revolution, none with the War of 1812. Nonetheless there are still plenty of people who are sure American soldiers dragged heavy cannon along wilderness roads during or just after the War of 1812.

Photo of cannon abandoned in 1776 by Sir John Johnson.

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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.

23 Responses

  1. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Great article, Ed! As a Big Moose resident, I have heard these cannon stories all my life, as our Lake, Twitchell, has a trail out to Terror and beyond, and hunters do well with bear and deer there. I was brought up on this idea of a “military road,” connected with the War of 1812, so these hunter stories just reinforced that. I decided this summer to try to track down one credible story, and found that each person I checked with, in a chain of about 6, none of them had actually seen a cannon, just heard about someone else seeing it. And so on. Appreciated your research which did verify where three cannons found near Tupper Lake came from. I can just imagine Sir John Johnson dragging that back to Canada, and I guess abandoning it [them?] before he got there. I have heard that he is associated with the naming of Raquette Lake, too, piling up a pile of ‘raquettes’ on the shore in an early thaw. I wonder if that is more legend that fact, too?

  2. Richard Carman says:

    I thought this was going to be about military roads, not military hardware. I was curious about the military road that runs from the Johnstown area through to just north of Remsen where it becomes through 12. I was told that was a Military Road in the War of 1812. It brushes up against the edge of the Adirondack Park in the town of Norway.

  3. Jay O'Hern says:

    Very interesting , Ed.)l

  4. Phillip A. Bobrowski says:

    *We should line up thousands of metal detector enthusiasts along the Thruway, shoulder to shoulder, and have them march north to the Canadian border.
    It might take a couple generations, but, at least, they’d be able to uncover all the artifacts located within the ADK.


  5. Greg Keefer says:

    Fascinating article – if these cannon were truly abandoned, just think of the history behind that.

  6. Jim Fox says:

    Occasionally the Six Mile Rd from the eastern shore of Stillwater Reservoir to Beaver River Station has been referred to as the Old Military Rd. I recall talk that it was part of a road from Sacketts Harbor to Ticonderoga that was planned during the War of 1812, but never completed. During the 2001 reservoir drawdown, chatter began about finally finding the remains of a wrecked military wagon that had been underwater since the multiple dams that flooded of the Beaver River. Idle chatter.

    Any truth to that planned road, Ed?

  7. Ed Burke says:

    I once spoke with the gentleman who was the longtime owner of Brown’s Beach on Saratoga Lake and sold it around 1990. I forget his name but not the extended conversation I had with him around the time of the sale. I had recently been bitten by the history bug and we ‘got talking’. He mentioned he had helped edit part of the American Heritage series of books. He also mentioned he ran a trap line near Piseco when he was younger and on one foray into the woods came across a wooden-spoked and iron wheel that was being reclaimed by the forest. He found it curious at the time, only later realizing it may have been from a cannon carriage abandoned by Sir John Johnson. He dreamed of going back with a metal detector to try and find it but I’m sure that never happened because of his age which I’ll guess may have been about 70.

  8. Ed Burke says:

    Another cannon story to relate, have notes on this. In August 1995 I spoke with 85 year old John Gandron of Whitehall as we watched the Niagara Prince tour boat head south after entering the Champlain Canal at Lock 12. John was with his young friend Ed Hilder, age 75. John told me when he was fifteen (1925) he and friends found a cannon on the remains of an old war ship in the mouth of the Poultney River. Several boats from the War of 1812 had been moved there to clear the navigation channel at the head of Lake Champlain. He said they borrowed a winch or pulley from the local highway dept. garage, tied it to an overhanging tree and removed the cannon which was given to Fort Ticonderoga. Possibly one of the beat up pieces that used to line their parking lot, now since removed, I believe. The Niagara Prince was a 90 passenger river cruiser piloted and built by Luther Blount out of Warren R.I. Google tells me it was built in 1994 so this may have been its maiden voyage.

    • Ed Burke says:

      Just reread my notes, that was the Ticonderoga warship John Gandron and his friends removed the cannon from. It now lays on display along the Champlain Canal in the village of Whitehall.

  9. Michael H Hay says:

    Myths and legends are part of the mystery of the Adirondacks! I hunted the hills around Piseco for many years and those legends were great conversations around the wood stove after a days long hunt!
    My point being sometimes facts, being what they are, get in the way of great stories of legend and lore!

  10. Mary Alex says:

    I found the article to be interesting, however found your tone to be rude. As a first time reader and one that was unfamiliar with military roads, I was interested in the topic. I felt as if you were a public school student told to write an argumentative paper.
    You have done your job by piquing my interest. I will go read a couple of your other articles to see if it’s your typical writing style. If so, I won’t download your app.

  11. william c hill says:

    So it’s just coincidence that the Chester to Russell road led to to a town (Russell) with an arsenal built for the war of 1812?

    • Ed Pitts says:

      The road from Chester to Russell was authorized by the legislature in 1807 for the purpose of opening up land for settlement. It was not originally supposed to end d at Russell but go all the way to Canton.

  12. Gil Paddock says:

    Why is it that Co. Rt. 26 and Co. Rt. 14 in the Town of Duane are designated “The old military turnpike” have a wider right of way than other Co. Rds. because of the designation? I believe there are NYS historical signs designating that also.

    • Ed Pitts says:

      Donaldson believed that road was tagged as an old military road because it ran through the “old military tract” of land set aside for veterans. See History of the Adirondacks, Vol. 2, p. 127.

  13. Bess Hawver says:

    The Russell Turnpike road was authorized by an act of the state legislature in 1809 to run from Malone in Franklin County, through Russell, to Carthage in Jefferson County. This road was built specifically to connect Sackets Harbor, west of Carthage, with the Chateaugay Trail at Malone so as to facilitate transportation of troops and supplies between the military installations at Sackets Harbor and Plattsburgh. The Russell Turnpike was the most important east-west road in the state during the War of 1812.

    • Bess Hawver says:

      In 1809, the state legislature authorized the construction of a state arsenal in the village of Russell as part of a chain of nine arsenals built to guard the northern and western frontier. The arsenal would serve as a storage building for small arms, ammunition, and artillery to be distributed to troops serving in the St Lawrence District. The three story building was constructed of three-foot thick stone walls, and surrounded by a high wall with iron spikes on top. It was furnished with 500 stand of arms. Supplies were carried from here to the garrison at Ogdensburg at various times during the War of 1812. The building was later used as a school.

    • Ed Pitts says:

      Agreed. On maps of the time the Russell Turnpike is usually called the St. Lawrence Turnpike and was used to transport supplies during the War of 1812. The other three roads discussed in my article had no such military use.

  14. John Morris says:

    “14 pounder” is a mis-identification, no country with any presence in North America at any time fielded a cannon so-identified.

    If you can provide detailed info on the pair mentioned I can probably identify them.

    John Morris
    Historical Consultant
    Springfield, VA