Monday, November 25, 2019

Tent Platforms: A History of Personal Forest Preserve Leases

Adirondack Tent Platform Design Many years ago my wife, our Newfoundland dog, and I paddled past what appeared to be many rather unnatural clearings on Long Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area. Here and there, partially underwater, I saw a piece of plastic water pipe or an old rusty pipe that might have been a dock support. They are the remains of tent platform sites.

In the early 1970s, these camps on “forever wild” New York State Adirondack Forest Preserve Lands were built on leases to private individuals. There were somewhere in the vicinity of 600 individual leases throughout the Adirondacks at that time.  Many tent platform leases were on Lower Saranac Lake, where there were 187 tent platforms leased in 1961, and on the various ponds that today comprise the St. Regis Canoe Area. There were also tent platform sites on such popular lakes as Forked, Seventh, Lewey, and Indian Lakes, along the Raquette River, and in many other areas.

Tent platform PermitIn essence, a private person could request an application for a permit to erect a “permanent” tent platform on Forest Preserve lands from the Conservation Department’s District Director or his representative. In the application there were several provisions to which the applicant needed to adhere. Such as the size of the platform, the size of the privy, the size of the fireplace, the set-back from the water, the size of the stone piers, etc. Docks could only be three feet wide and not exceed 20 feet in length. It was also required that each site have a sign stating that the site was State land and displaying the tent platform permit number.

The average size of a platform was 16’x20′ or 320 sq feet. However, there were some sites which had more than one platform. All refuse or trash was to be buried or transported off site (regulations frequently ignored). Gasoline-powered generators were not allowed (this was also often ignored) and the site could not be sold or rented to another party (also frequently ignored). Each lease was to be renewed on a yearly basis. Failure to renew could result in the site being offered to another applicant.

Early in the 20th century, NYS Conservation Department Commissioner George Pratt (1915-1921) wanted to recreational opportunities. He introduced the first lean-tos, a trail marking and mapping system, and developed the first public campgrounds. He also developed the tent platform leasing system allowing individuals to construct a standardized wooden platform with wooden sides, covered with canvas. In its first year (1916) there were 120 permits for tent platforms issued. Over the years the leasing program gradually grew.

During the 1960s the Adirondack Forest Preserve experienced a significant growth in outdoor recreation. More people were camping, hiking and canoeing. Many campers found that that the “prime” spots were already taken, “permanently” by tent platform leases. The biggest complaint was that the tent platform permitting system “was a special and exclusive privilege that constituted a ‘holding’ on State lands.”

In June 1971, the New York State Legislature created the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). Among its many recommendations would be the present land-use categories of Wilderness, Wild Forest, Canoe, and Primitive, phased in by 1975.  These new areas abolished “non-conforming uses” and with the new regulations, tent platforms had to go.

Some of the leaseholders had held their sites for over 75 years and there was considerable consternation among platform lesees. The Tent Platform Association was created and meetings were held at the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club (notably where early support for the opening of Forest Preserve land to snowmobiles had also been organized).

The Tent Platform Association (membership of over 100) was politically active. They lobbied the APA, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and local and state politicians. The Association argued tent platform lesees were valuable land and water stewards and they offered to increase their annual permit fee to $100.  Then DEC Commissioner Ogden Reid, with backing of the APA, held that tent platform permits would not be renewed beyond December 31, 1975. They advised lessees or sub-leaseholders should make arrangements to remove all personal property and the platform from the sites by that date.

Former Adirondack Tent Platform Site on Forked Lake

One of the last of the tent platform camps on Lower Saranac Lake was vacated in 1978. Many former permit holders had held out, appealing to the APA, the Governor, their legislators, and engaging in just plain hope. Several permit holders just walked away from their sites. The task of clean-up was left to DEC work crews, volunteers, and prison crews. Wood framing and decking and other combustibles, were taken onto the ice and burned. Metal such as stoves, sinks, beds, propane tanks, and more were sledded out by snowmobile. Most concrete piers were broken-up and the concrete and stone was scattered about or used for fire rings.

Many former tent-platform sites became primitive campsites. A few years ago remnants of these former platforms were still evident on Long Pond in the form of concrete fire hearths, pieces of plastic water pipe and metal dock supports. On Polliwog Pond there are still some concrete steps hidden in the woods. On Forked Lake there remain concrete piers where a tent platform once stood. If you know where to look.

Group sizes are now limited on Forest Preserve lands, and the maximum stay is three nights. It is still possible to obtain a “temporary revocable permit” through a local Forest Ranger for larger groups and extended stays, up to 14 days. These are usually granted to hunters, during times of non-peak usage in remote areas.

Illustrations: NYS Conservation Department, “Typical Standard Tent Platform & Frame” (1956, courtesy Adirondack Mountain Club archives); Tent Platform permit sign #1386 (courtesy Joel Reber, Lewey Lake); and a former Tent Platform Site on Forked Lake (Mike Prescott photo).

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Mike Prescott is a former history teacher and secondary school principal who found a new retirement avocation in paddling Adirondack waters and exploring their history.

Mike is a New York State Licensed Guide, and also volunteers with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the Raquette River Blueway Corridor, the New York State Trails Council and with the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Feel free to contact him at mjpaddler@gmail.com





13 Responses

  1. Mike T says:

    I was just a kid, paddling by and fishing with my uncles and father in the 60’s, and clearly remember passing by a tent platform. Even as a lad, I remember thinking “what a pigsty!”. Half submerged LP tanks, rusted out refrigerators, charcoal grills scattered about.
    Many years later, I paddled by the same spot, and realized it was the same pigsty that I saw as a kid. This was on Little Long Pond, at the nicest campsite on the pond!

    I’m ever thankful that those platforms and their lengthy “leases” have been eliminated.

  2. James Bullard says:

    I can remember driving by Mountain Pond, now a side road off Rt 86, in the early ’60s and seeing a tent platform on the point of land that is now a favored camping spot. It was more cabin than tent with wooden sidewalls, doors, windows, and canvas stretched over the rafters for a roof.

  3. Chad says:

    I had no idea these existed. A few years ago I found concrete piers and fireplace left behind on Lewey Lake. I assumed it was from a cabin because there was also a full sized refrigerator that was clearly just pushed off the platform. Thanks for this interesting article.

  4. Tom Bebee says:

    All refuse or trash was to be buried or transported off site (regulations frequently ignored). Gasoline-powered generators were not allowed (this was also often ignored) and the site could not be sold or rented to another party (also frequently ignored).

    Big surprise.

  5. Marc Wanner says:

    For much more on the tent platforms, including a list of all the permit holders on Lower Saranac Lake in 1961, and several separate pages on individual sites, see the Historic Saranac Lake wiki at https://localwiki.org/hsl/Platform_Tents

  6. Paul says:

    Now the other side of the story…..

    Now if you want a “camp” on a lake like Lower Saranac you better be pretty loaded money wise. I know a number of people who had very nice tent platform camps there that were very neat and well kept. They were a good opportunity for a family of very modest means to have a camp on the lake.

    Rather than fix a few problems that they had the solution was to kick them out and burn them up.

    The islands camp grounds are now a cash cow for the state. Wirth some people just paying for long periods of time and camping on and off. Nice if you can afford it. Your own private campsite.

    • John Warren says:

      It cost like $25 a night. In the past the people you’re expressing fake concern for would have never been able to reserve a spot.

    • Marc Wanner says:

      “…some people just paying for long periods of time and camping on and off.”

      Well you can’t reserve more than two weeks, and you’ve got to be pretty lucky to score a full two weeks in prime camping months, so it’s a wild exaggeration to say that money can buy you your own private campsite. And that’s exactly what the platform tent system gave the lucky few for a dollar a year.

      I don’t blame anyone for missing the good ole days if their family was one of the lucky ones, but you’d have to admit that a whole lot more people are able to camp on the lakes now, especially in the St. Regis Canoe Area where money won’t buy you ANYTHING — it’s first come, first served. What could be fairer than that?

  7. Wally Elton says:

    Interesting story; always good to know the history and how conditions have changed.

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    To me, John Warren hit the nail on the head. Things were a tad loose in the “Old Days”, but the NYSDEC Rangers did keep the careless ones in line so to speak.

  9. Keith Gorgas says:

    I spent my first 18 summers in a tent platform on Lower Saranac Lake. My experience was perhaps different from some who wrote here. My grandparents used the place to teach us needed and helpful life lessons. The need to love and respect the land and water was drilled into us. The camp and the grounds were to always be kept in ship-shape. We learned to harvest birch bark only from dead and down trees. We learned to safely use tools and to leave only footprints. We were taught boater safety and manners and to catch, clean, and cook fish. We rescued stranded boaters and on several occasions provided shelter for canoeists caught in storms. From what I observed, most of our neighbors practiced the same stewardship we did. I believe that my siblings and cousins feel the same deep rooted love for the Adirondacks that we learned in those halcyon summers on Lower Saranac, as I moved full time to Saranac Lake 25 years ago and the rest of the crew returns yearly with several more generations. I consider myself very blessed to have had that opportunity,

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