Monday, December 23, 2019

David Henderson: The Prince of Adirondac

Henderson MonumentIt was June and I was ensconced in the Adirondack Museum library, fortuitously avoiding an unusually muggy early summer afternoon.  I had gone there to do a little research for a work of historical fiction that I thought I might write.  By then my interest in Adirondack history was in full thrall, which made holding the document I had been presented by librarian Jerry Pepper something close to a religious experience.

It was an original letter, written in 1826, well preserved though the paper was a bit brittle and slightly darkened with age.  The script was beautiful; fluid and robust but not embellished or overly fussy.  The writing was sincere, filled with a youthful wonder and spirit of adventure but at the same time composed with a powerful energy and purpose.  Its tone was mellifluous, phrased but unforced, the work of a superb natural writer.  All in all it was – and is – a remarkable document, a singular account of a journey from the early written history of the Adirondacks.

Many have read an abridged version of David Henderson’s account of his initial exploration of the ore beds in the heart of the High Peaks.  A staple of the Adirondack Reader from the very first edition and excerpted or printed in its entirety in several other collections, Henderson’s letter to primary investor Archibald McIntyre details the prospecting party’s journey to the ore beds lying along the young Hudson River, guided by Abenaki Lewis Elijah Benedict.  Among other things it contains the first written description of a passage through Indian Pass, rendered vividly by Henderson’s prose.

I myself had read the reproduction of Henderson’s letter a dozen times, upon each reading captivated by his gift for storytelling.  Now to hold the original in my fingers, to feel physically close to the man himself, his quill pen in hand, was emotionally moving in a way most understandable to those of us who have experienced the physiological pull, the mysterious ache in the gut and forehead that a historical artifact or place can create.  I lingered with the letter, my thoughts wandering as if in a dream state.  I remember having the sensation of a summer place carved out of the wilderness long ago, the scent of long grasses scythed and laying prone in the sun’s heat.  I so strongly wanted to meet the writer of this letter.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the McIntyre Works and eventual “Deserted Village” of Adirondac was the center of Adirondack activity for the middle fifty years of the nineteenth century and a destination of note for years thereafter.  In addition to the various proprietors the list of people of historic renown for whom Adirondac and the McIntyre Works played an important role or had an impact on their lives is a virtual “who’s who” of Adirondack lore: the famous guides John Cheney, Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps and Mitchell Sabattis; scientists and naturalists Ebenezer Emmons, William C. Redfield, James Hall, Theodore Roosevelt  and Gifford Pinchot; writers Charles Fenno Hoffman, John Burroughs, Richard Henry Dana, Seneca Ray Stoddard and Benson J. Lossing; entrepreneurs  Thomas Clark Durant and Henry Van Hoevenberg; painters Charles Cromwell Ingham , Thomas Cole, Charles Baker and Asher B. Durand; and surveyors John Richards, Reuben Sanford and Verplanck Colvin, to name but a few.  Of all of these people, David Henderson calls to me the most deeply.

Over the ensuing years I have learned a great deal about David Henderson and I have evolved from wanting to meet the writer to wanting to meet the man, a man fully realized in all his prodigious dimensions.  I would give a lot to be able to talk with him, to sit and converse on the steps of McMartin House, his home for several years.  His arc through the Adirondacks, though truncated by tragedy, was no less romantic or significant than any of these other luminaries of the region’s history.

David Henderson was a Scotsman, a friend of the Mcintyre family who married Archibald McIntyre’s daughter and thus became a member of the family.  He was never a big money investor in the McIntyre Works but his enterprising spirit and optimistic fortitude became increasingly called upon to lead the enterprise.

The discovery of the ore beds occurred in 1826.  The first earnest effort to construct a mining works commenced in the early 1830’s.  Initial attempts to produce marketable ore in quantity were frustrated by a variety of challenges ranging from the remoteness of the location to problems with processing the ore.  Numerous ups and downs led to the site being all but abandoned by the mid-1830’s.  It was only State Geologist Ebenezer Emmons’ geological survey of the Adirondacks conducted in 1837 (using Adirondac as a base) and his subsequent actions to champion what he saw as the unrivaled possibilities of the McIntyre ore beds that gave investors renewed confidence to commit to a major effort to achieve success.  Throughout the early difficulties Henderson had provided leadership, ideas and a belief in the potential of the mines that rarely flagged.  Now, with this new momentum, Henderson accepted the position as Manager of the works and gave it his all.  This assignment consumed his energies for nearly nine years, from 1837 to September of 1845.

It is not my purpose to write a biographical sketch of David Henderson here, however allow me to share a few of his myriad talents and passions as you consider the larger canvass of a massive industrial effort in the midst of the Adirondack wilderness, one that ultimately came to failure.

Henderson was a key leader in many respects.  He traveled as far as England in order to find a way to make and market steel.  He led numerous efforts to find and/or divert water sources to the works, the results of which define to this day a good portion of the streams and water bodies we know in the High Peaks region including Lake Colden, Flowed Lands, Calamity Brook and Pond and of course the lake that bears his name, Henderson.  Though not a trained scientist he conducted his own chemical experiments with McIntyre ores in an attempt to understand the nature of the impurities that were proving to be serious impediments to the working of the iron.  He doggedly pursued new markets, including the US Army.  He was an excellent manager of accounts who made the most of the money with which he had to work.  He kept a regular correspondence with the proprietors and he managed the affairs of an operation that had grown to dozens of workers and multiple locations.

Although little is known of Henderson before his involvement with the McIntyre enterprise, he was renowned for his pottery business in Jersey City which was considered the best in America at the time.  His company was innovative, pioneering both the use of molds as well as transfer printing for mass production of quality pieces.  Much of this work went on even as he became more deeply involved in the iron mine.

His business acumen and determination earned David Henderson great credit but it was his personal and human qualities that made him beloved and that most commend him all the way to the present.  Not least was his talent as a writer and his eye for the beauties of the Adirondacks.  His descriptions of Indian Pass, the Preston Ponds, the East River and Hanging Spear Falls are absorbing and ripe with imagery.  But there was much more than writing.  He was quite talented as a pen and ink artist. He was an excellent amateur musician.  More than one account, including some of his own, describe his regular fiddle playing for the men.   He was consistently written of as warm and possessing a great sense of humor.  His care for the people under his employ and his love of family shine through in his letters.

David Henderson liked to play the lottery.  He took the common – and unpleasant – medicines of the day relied upon by his Scotch brethren but wrote that he suspected they would soon be proven ineffective and unnecessary.  He was fascinated with moose and coveted a pet moose.  There are accounts of time wasted by guides and hunters in an effort to satisfy this urge.  He loved his children and made no secret of it.  He feared and disliked firearms.

This last observation is an irony, of course.  More famous to most casual students of Adirondack history than his wonderful 1826 letter is the story and manner of David Henderson’s death, which occurred in September of 1845.  It was the result of an accidental gunshot wound from his own pistol, a fatal hit that he received while on a search for yet more water sources to drive the machinery of the Works.  The tale of his ill-fated trip to Duck Hole – now Calamity Pond – and the shooting and its aftermath is available in many accounts in print.

Had David Henderson lived and his tremendous energy and leadership carried forward, one imagines that the McIntyre Iron Works might have achieved success.  What that would have meant to the eventual destiny of the Adirondacks makes for fascinating speculation.  Even with his death and the ultimate demise of the McIntyre operation and the settlement of Adirondac, Henderson’s stamp upon  the history of the Adirondack Mountains is unquestionable, as is his noble spirit and humanity.

Any homage I can offer to the man whose letters I have held with such reverence cannot equal that of his children, embodied in the marble monument still standing with serene import at Calamity Pond.  Its words, engraved more than a hundred and sixty years ago, are still plainly readable:










Photo of Henderson’s Monument courtesy Lee Manchester.

This essay first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack on July 20, 2013.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

4 Responses

  1. Great piece, especially the graph speculating on how the Adirondacks might look today had Henderson lived. This question tears me apart, because, as you convey, he was such a fascinating human being—but his interests conflicted with the interests that many of us champion today. You can’t help but root for Henderson, but had he succeeded there might be mountains of tailings throughout the Peaks.

  2. Charles C. Morrison says:

    Beautiful writing job, Pete, with a lot of feeling. I can see that you would love to transport yourself back in time and get to know Henderson and all of those good folks.

    There was only one marginally economically viable concentration of iron ore, not likely to be found in other places in the Adirondacks, that provided the basis for the MacIntyre Mine. Even so, the difficulty of separating the ilmenite mineral impurity from the iron, plus transportation costs, killed the mine all too soon in 1855.

    Similarly, there was only one place, Tahawus,where the ilmenite was sufficiently concentrated to be commercially mined by National Lead from 1941 to 1982. The cost of removing the iron impurity from the ilmenite ore added to the cost of the product and helped to kill that operation, although there were other factors that helped, such as overseas competition where better grades of ore were available. The ilmenite deposits and the piles of waste rock (they are not tailings)taken from the open pits next to the Hudson River at Tahawus are unique. If Henderson had lived, opening other iron mining operations was not really a likely option and ilmenite, a source of titanium, was away in the future. Perhaps he might have gone back to ceramics in Jersey City – or opened a “B & B”.

  3. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Loved your piece here, Pete. I had “bumped into” David Henderson’s name and tragic death in several of my research efforts on the Carthage to Lake Champlain Road planned and engineered by Nelson Beach our of Lowville or Watson, and of course, Verplanck Colvin’s amazing work across the Adirondacks.
    Your expression of holding that original letter of his from the early 1800’s is great, and I can relate to that, as I have been able to transcribe several old journals and field books, one of Nelson Beach’s from 1841 and one of a Frank Tweedy who worked under Verplanck Colvin on the Beaver River survey. Those surveyors were not as careful as you describe Henderson, in terms of his elegant script- they were probably hurried in the midst of a full day of surveying, and trying to get a quick record down in their book by candle light or kerosene lamp. I would say I was able to get about 90% of what they said, and with some knowledge of locations, people, and guides in Brown’s Tract, I had many an AHAH moment as I read through these historic documents. Both of them hiked around the lake where I have a cabin, Twitchell in Big Moose, NY, and having hiked a great deal in that region myself, I was able to read “between the lines” and figure things out. But it was more than that, being able to put myself “in the shoes” or boots of these men who were amazing in what they accomplished in those early days. I have done a lot with Verplanck Colvin in terms of his Western ADKS work, and have had that same sensation as you describe, wanting to sit and talk with the man, ask questions. Great piece. I am less familiar with the Easter Adirondacks, but appreciate learning more. Thanks,
    9 Twitchell Lake, Big Moose, NY 13331

  4. D. Mark Osta says:

    Everything Adirondack I love an want to learn more books about the struggles an successes.Spent wonderful times at Rondax lake at an abandon boys camp.
    Several winter climbingMts.Its better no bugs..the story just
    about David is great.
    Thank you.