Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Twitchell Lake History: ‘A Melancholy Occurrence’

Pencil Sketch of Guide Amos Spafford on Winter Photo of Twitchell Lake“Melancholy Occurrence” was a fairly common expression for a tragic event in the middle of the 19th century.  A search of historic newspapers revealed the phrase was used some 250 times from 1820 to 1870.  Several of these were murder cases, such as the son of the Spanish Consul being stabbed through the heart with a cane sword by an angry neighbor. But most were unexpected events such as a fatal strike by lightening, a young fire victim, or a drowning.

One occurred at Twitchell Lake. In a December 3, 1856 article titled “Melancholy Occurrence,” The Lewis County Banner reported that Briggs Wightman stepped onto ice while hunting, crashed through, and drowned. Adirondack Guide named Amos Spafford (1824-1897) came out on the north shore of Twitchell Lake and observed a hat and a gun lying next to a large hole in the ice.

Edwin Wallace, author of Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks & Handbook of Travel (often considered the bible for 19th Century Adirondack hunters, fishermen, and guides), reported in his 5th Edition (1876) that a party of four men – Uncle Orville Bailey, Briggs Whitman, Lewis Diefendorf, and Orlando Reynolds, were the “architects and builders” of the Rock Shanty, an overnight stop on the Carthage to Lake Champlain Road, four to five miles beyond the Twitchell Creek crossing. This was the cross-Adirondack Road Nelson Beach laid out in 1841. Wallace reported that Rock Shanty was so named because it stood by the side of an immense rock just a few rods east of the trailhead Briggs and Amos used to reach Twitchell Lake. Wallace said they had constructed the Rock Shanty twenty years earlier around 1856.

1879 Map of the NY Wilderness Accompanying Wallaces Guide By WW Ely “The same party also assisted Uncle Chauncey Smith [1798-1883, a guide at Number Four] in rearing his woodland structure at South Branch,” Wallace said.  The South Branch of the Beaver River was situated about four miles further out from Rock Shanty, a short hike northward off the Carthage to Champlain Road, and on the bank of the river route to the noted fishing spots at Albany and Smith’s Lakes on Brown’s Tract. Lewis County papers called the area a sporting “paradise.”

In a letter to his son George, Chauncey revealed just how busy this wilderness outpost had become by the 1863 season:

“I have spent the most part of my time up at my forest house through the summer and winter up to the first of Jan, waiting on gentlemen sportsmen and hunters and doing something at hunting myself… I have had 25 customers in one night… and 3 ladies… I had 10 hunters there for a month or more the fore part of this winter… Besides goers and comers, venison and fur buyers” (This January 26, 1864 letter was provided by Smith descendant Dawn Graham Jackson).

A careful reading of Wallace’s 1872 edition reveals that he was one of Chauncey Smith’s overnight guests. He offered an in-depth description of that log shanty from The Modern Babes in the Wood (1872), a book he co-authored with Henry Perry Smith. Erwin Wallace knew this part of the Adirondacks and its guides and sportsmen firsthand.

The date for the Smith shanty is supplied in a brief notice printed in The Lewis County Banner on July 20, 1859: “We learn that CHAUNCEY SMITH, hunter, has erected a comfortable woods shanty, for guests, with stabling attached, at the South Branch of Beaver River – 18 miles beyond FENTON’S.” (Briggs Wightman was not there to help build the Smith shanty, as perished several years earlier, but his fellow sportsmen hung together and continued to frequent their favorite fishing and hunting grounds).  Wallace said that “Uncle” Orville’s party members were from Hunt’s Corners, New York.

The only Hunt’s Corners I could find in the State is in Erie County, near Buffalo. Research puts their residences much closer to the Adirondacks, near the shores of Lake Ontario. Orville Elishia Bailey (1847-1921), the apparent leader of the group, resided just east of Rochester in Wayne County. The other three were all Hastings, NY neighbors in Oswego County- Lewis F. Devendorf (1820-1857); Orlando Reynolds (1823-?); and Briggs Lathrop Wightman (1804-1856).  All are listed in a Federal Census as farmers, except for Lewis who was a merchant. Briggs’ wife was Almira Esterbrook (1811-1890) and together they were raising two boys- Rumsey (1837) and Platt Burr (1839). Apparently, these men had connected around their hunting and fishing interests, adopting the Twitchell Lake area for their annual hunting trips. They were networked in with Chauncey Smith and Erwin Wallace. We can assume that treks prior to 1856 had developed in them a real investment in several shanty building projects.

Twitchell Lake’s “Melancholy Occurrence” began with a decision by Orville and Briggs to travel together without their Oswego County buddies that autumn in 1856.  A horse and buggy took them through Lowville and Number Four to the Rock Shanty, the shelter they had helped build and which, according to the writer of the Banner article, “has been occupied for some years, during the Winter months” by Bailey and Wightman “for the purpose of trapping and hunting.”  I suspect that they arrived on Nov. 18th (a Tuesday) because they needed time to lay out traps along the six-mile trail in to Twitchell Lake. Five days later (on Sunday) Briggs left the shanty at 4 am “for the purpose of visiting his line of traps and catching some fish, saying he would return in the afternoon.” Orville stayed behind, “prostrated on his bed by sickness and unable to rise.”

Late on the following Tuesday, Amos Spofford was returning on the Carthage to Champlain Road where he had delivered provisions to a hunting party at Raquette Lake. Amos was proprietor of the Bostwick House in Lowville and a noted Beaver River guide in his own right. A weekly ad placed by Spofford in The Lewis County Banner for his hotel noted that “Guides always ready to attend Pleasure Parties to the Forests and Lakes.” Stopping in at the Rock Shanty, Amos found Orville Bailey “very anxious for the safety of his companion,” because Briggs by then had been “absent three days.” The ailing man pleaded with Amos: “Go and search for him.”

Leaving his teams there, Amos backtracked four miles to another shanty where he enlisted a guide and two hunters – Marcus Smith, Frederick Foster, and Horatio Stoddard – to join the search. Early Wednesday morning they set out and covered about eight miles without success. Then came the announcement anticipated by the title of the article: “They at last discovered the hat of the missing man together with his rifle, lying on the ice in Twichell lake.”

Winter had arrived in the Adirondacks in 1856, with some snow on the ground and a layer of ice forming on the lakes. Retrieving a body in a lake was no easy task under any conditions, but especially challenging with snow-covered ice. Here is their plan of action, narrated by the reporter word-for-word:

“They immediately set about building a raft, which when done and launched, they broke the ice through to a hole in the vicinity of where the hat and rifle lay. Fastening some strong fish-hooks to a pole, they soon succeeded in hooking into the clothes of the missing man and bringing his drowned body to the surface. Finding themselves unable to carry the body out to the road without more help, they made it fast to the raft by a rope and sank it in the water to secure it from becoming the prey of the wolves, there being a great many about the lake, and returned to the shanty.”

My pencil drawing (included above) depicts guide Amos Spofford pointing out on an actual winter scene of Twitchell to a hole in the ice, with nearby hat and rifle. Adding in the howl of wolves, we can imagine just how melancholy this scene was! Little wonder that Wallace memorialized this occurrence with his description of Twitchell Lake in his early editions, noting “It was the scene of the unfortunate drowning of Briggs Whitman, a trapping companion of “Uncle” O. Bailey, by accidentally breaking through the ice many years ago.”

It was now late on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 26th , about eight days since Bailey and Wightman had arrived for their fateful trip. After securing Wightman’s body from the wolves, Spofford and party returned to the Carthage Road to enlist more help. What the reporter tells us next is surprising:

“Mr. Spofford then procured the aid of eight sturdy hunters, who went to the lake on Saturday last, and returned to the [Rock] shanty on Saturday evening with the body of the deceased. A team being there in readiness, the body was conveyed to Lowville, where it arrived Sunday night at 12 o’clock, and is now at the Spofford House, awaiting the arrival of the friends of the deceased from Oswego Co., to receive it, they having been notified by Mr. Spafford of the sad fate of their husband father and brother.”

Apparently, the group of eight hunters- which may or may not have included the previous three, had just been to Twitchell Lake the previous Saturday. During and before the Sportsman Era (ca 1860 to ca 1890), Twitchell lake was noted both for deer hunting and trout fishing. The fact that the wagon carrying the body did not arrive at Spofford’s Lowville Hotel until Sunday probably means that it took two to three days to gather enough men to bear the body over the slippery, rugged terrain between the Lake and the Road. Once they arrived, Orville undoubtedly assisted with notification of the next-of-kin.

The Correspondent who covered this story for The Lewis County Banner posted his report in Lowville on Monday, December 1, 1856. Ironically, Briggs Wightman would have celebrated his 52nd birthday with his family and friends three days later, December 4th . In his final remarks, the reporter made one mistake, but offered a most fitting conclusion to this “Melancholy Occurrence”:

Briggs Wightman Gravestone“The deceased was a man much beloved and esteemed in the town where he lived. He was about 52 years of age and leaves a wife and child and a large circle of relatives to mourn his melancholy fate.”

The memorial to Briggs L. Wightman now stands in the Carley Mills Cemetery in Hastings, NY. Its inscription speaks to a life cut short: “Died Nov. 23, 1856, aged 51 years, 11 mos. and 27 days.”

This 1856 article is one of the earliest public mentions of Twitchell Lake. My last piece explored the earliest reference discovered to-date in Nelson Beach’s 1841 Journal, kept while laying out the Carthage to Lake Champlain Road.

I have dubbed Chauncey Smith “Dean of Guides,” for two reasons. According to Dawn Jackson pointed out of his nine children, six sons or sons-in-law became Adirondack guides! Charles and Marcus (who helped in the search for Briggs Wightman) followed their father into the Great North Woods. The other four wedded Chauncey’s daughters: Loosee Lewis marrying Anne, Hiram Burke marrying Ursula, and then Aretus Wetmore, and after he died James Lewis, marrying Maryett. These all guided in Beaver River country, with Chauncey, Hiram Burke, and James Lewis listed in Lewis County articles for taking parties in to Twitchell Lake. And then, Chauncey hosted thousands of sportsmen and women on their treks deep into the Adirondacks.

Guidebook author Edwin Wallace affirmed that a Twitchell descendant  – perhaps Charles (1845-1922) – cleared the trees which I believe Hiram used to erect the first shanty on Twitchell Lake.  That clearing was at the location where the Spofford search party discovered the body of Briggs Wightman. The networked relationships between sports, guides, and early historians like Wallace, are highlighted in this tragic, but also in some ways heroic, account.

Images, from above: Pencil Sketch & Creation of Scene of the 1856 “Melancholy Occurrence” by Noel Sherry; Map of Adirondack Wilderness by W.W. Ely, 1879, Carthage Road Features Highlighted by Noel Sherry; Briggs Wightman Tombstone, 1856, Carley Mills Cemetery in Hastings NY.

Related Stories


Rev. Noel Sherry has pastored and taught in Massachusetts, is part owner of a log cabin on Twitchell Lake in Big Moose, NY, and is a life-long hiker, sailing enthusiast, and student of the Adirondack Mountains. He is a member of a History Committee working on documenting the story of Twitchell Lake. He has been married for 47 years to his wife Ingelise, with 3 young-adult children and 9 grand kids who all love the Adirondacks.




12 Responses

  1. Beth says:

    Nice article Noel! You did an amazing amount of research.

  2. Jim Fox says:

    A delightful read. Tough times in this neck of the woods, even for sports from away.

  3. Boreas says:

    Excellent article! Very interesting. Serious ice in mid-November and wolves – some things we don’t see much any more.

  4. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Hi Boreas, yes indeed. The wolves was a real surprise to me. I have heard coyotes and we have had bear visits at our camp on Twitchell, but no wolves or mountain lions. On the ice, after submitting my article I reflected on one thing- Briggs was planning to fish at Twitchell, so when he arrived, there was I think a solid layer of ice on the lake, and he thought it was safe to walk on. He walked out over deep water and took out his knife and began to carve a hole in the ice to “ice fish.” One thrust of his knife cut the ice he was kneeling on, and in he tumbled. His pack went in too, and is somewhere in the muck of our lake. His hat popped off as he tried to save himself. That is how I imagine it went down. Melancholy story. Thanks for your comment.

    • Boreas says:

      Noel,

      If he would have still been holding his rifle, perhaps it could have been used to keep from going through, or to chop his way back to shore. Sad story.

  5. Chris Wightman says:

    Thanks for a wonderful article. Since there aren’t that many Wightmans I did a little genealogy work for fun over lunch. Briggs Wightman is my 2nd cousin 5x removed. More importantly, Ancestry.com members with Briggs in their trees weren’t aware of this “melancholy occurrence”. Nor was the comprehensive Wightman genealogy reference from 1939. Each have his death listed as occurring in Hastings (unsurprisingly). I referenced your article to the site so now the members are little bit more enlightened on ancestor Briggs. A very enjoyable little search for me. Thanks again!

    • Noel Sherry says:

      Wow, Chris, GREAT to hear from you. You last name got spelled two ways back in the day, “Whitman” and “Wightman” as is in Ancestry.com and should be. I do a lot with Ancestry, and noted that there was no sign in the Whightman trees about what actually happened to him, but a note that he died in Hastings. My interest was Twitchell Lake, and this article popped up a year ago in a search of the NYS Historical Newspaper website. It was the earliest public reference to Twitchell Lake or Creek at that time, though I have found (and written about) Nelson Beach’s 1841 mention. I will email you separately with the original article from 1856, which I quoted from liberally. It is a very touching article, and my heart went out to Briggs’ spouse, raising two boys. Can’t imagine getting that news! So I reflected further on this and added a paragraph, which was too late to get published, but I think it describes how this actually went down. What Briggs did was incredibly brave, to return year after year to hunt and fish in this wilderness area. Here is my quote:

      “Winter had arrived in the Adirondacks in 1856, with some snow on the ground and a solid layer of ice formed on the lakes. How would Briggs have fished in those conditions? He would have had to venture out over deeper water and carve a hole in the ice. Assuming Briggs had a knife with his gear, he used it to carve out a hole and then one of his thrusts cracked the ice he knelt on and in he tumbled, gear and all- except for the rifle he had set aside. The hat must have popped off as he desperately struggled to save himself.”

      So in truth, somewhere in the muck of our lake is his backpack with knife, fishing gear, etc. If it is ever found I will contact you. I have hiked the woods around Twitchell by map and compass, and I used to do it with my brother or alone. I would not do that any more, because if something happens, I am in big trouble. He should not have ventured out without a buddy with wolves, bears, mountain lions, etc. He appears to have been a very experienced woodsman, hunter, and fisherman. I think the ice on Twitchell in last Nov was very solid, but if you get over an underground spring, which are common in this lake, the ice is thinner. He had to be making a hole in the ice to fish, when the ice broke he was standing. on.

      Erwin Wallace, author of the Adirondack Guides, is the one who documents the two projects these men did, building shelter for hunters and fishermen out there. To create the Rock Shanty back in that wilderness was no small task.

      Thanks for reaching out. I was moved by this story, and the loss to your family! Not surprising that his widow did not tell the story publicly about what actually happened.

      Noel

    • Noel A. Sherry says:

      Another quick point, Chris. These early sportsmen (and some women) often came home with a large quantity of venison and trout. A farmer like Briggs could lay up a good about of meat for his family for the winter in this way. I am not sure how they preserved it in those days, though in winter it could have just been frozen. I am sure that is how some of these hunters and fishermen “sold” their adventures to their spouses. Noel

  6. Roy Crego says:

    Interesting article with great detail. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming history of Twitchell Lake.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

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