Sometime in the later half of the 1810s, hunter, trapper, and hermit David Smith set up his camp on Beaver Lake, far from civilization of any kind. Beaver Lake is located deep in the wilderness near the western border of the Adirondacks, about half way between Lowville and Tupper Lake, inaccessible by any road.
Legend has it that his young wife, whom he loved dearly, died early in their marriage and, “her untimely death sent him a hermit into the depths of this forest, where he could brood in solitude and silence over his great grief.” There he lived for several years until passing hunters disturbed his seclusion and in 1820, he moved twelve miles further into the wilderness to Stillwater. For ten years, Smith lived there in a crude shanty, until once again he was disturbed by passing hunters and fishing parties.
Seeking solitude, he moved again up Beaver River to an unnamed lake that later came to be known as Smith Lake. There he continued to hunt, fish, and trap and wore wild animal skins with the fur facing out, making him look like one of the wild animals that he hunted for his own livelihood. Eventually, fishing parties began to encroach on his privacy at Smith Lake, and frustrated by the intrusion, sometime around 1844, Smith moved away, but this time he was never seen or heard from again.
Another hermit, George Muir, who lived on nearby Gull Lake, took up residence at this location shortly after David Smith left and in the 1870s Lamont’s Rustic Hotel was opened there, which catered to wilderness travelers and tuberculosis patients. Adirondack surveyor Verplanck Colvin, who frequented the hotel, called it “a comfortable woodland hotel…with semi-rustic grounds.”
Enter a millionaire
Then, in 1890, a wealthy New York City businessman, William Seward Webb, who had settled in Vermont and built the extensive Shelburne Farms near Burlington (now the Shelburne Museum,) took an interest in the Adirondacks and, with the help of his wife’s $5 million inheritance, purchased 144,000 acres in northern Hamilton and Herkimer counties. His plans for the land included the construction of the first railroad through the Adirondack Mountains from New York City to Montreal, Quebec.
Many advised him against undertaking this enormous project, including his rich and influential father-in-law, William H. Vanderbilt. The construction of the St. Lawrence and Adirondack Railway was accomplished in only eighteen months by using outside labor consisting of Polish and Irish immigrants, French Canadians, St. Regis Indians, and a workforce of one hundred Blacks from Alabama and Tennessee. Being familiar with the harsh, sub-zero temperatures and nasty Adirondack black flies and punkies, local residents wanted nothing to do with the construction project.
Widespread controversy arose, and claims of “Adirondack Slavery” were charged when mistreatment of workers was reported. Some observers witnessed African Americans with frozen feet, crying out in anguish, while being transported to the work sites in open sleighs. Another report claimed, “There’s a Negro buried under every tie of Dr. Webb’s Railroad.”
A Great Camp and other development
Once the railroad was built and Smith Lake became easily accessible, Webb changed its name to Lake Lila, in honor of his wife, and began construction of Forest Lodge on the lake’s west shore; it was an Adirondack Great Camp on what came to be known as Nehasane Park. Nehasane is the Indian word for ‘beaver crossing river on log.” The lodge was designed by the famous architect Robert Robertson. Robertson was known for his work on several New York landmarks, including the 15 Park Row Building, the tallest building in the world from 1896-1908, the Santanoni Great Camp, and Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Forest Lodge included more than eighty structures and the property had several small train stations, which by agreement with the railroad company, would allow only the Webb’s family and personal guests to access the Nehasane preserve.
Webb’s love of wildlife prompted him to devote 10,000 acres (more than fifteen square miles) to a fenced in wildlife refuge for native deer, imported elk, moose, black-tailed deer, and other smaller fish and game. An additional 40,000 acres of wilderness was reserved for hunting for Webb and his friends and guests. For a short time Webb allowed the general public to hunt and fish on another part of his property by special permit that included strict regulations, but abuse of these guidelines caused him to curtail such permission.
Webb enlisted the help of Gifford Pinchot, future head of the U.S. Forestry Service under President Theodore Roosevelt, to implement modern techniques of scientific management on his forest preserve, but ignored his advice that it should be used for productive capital gain. According to Muncey’s Magazine, “The idea of the Webb preserve is the protection and propagation of wild game for sport’s sake only; but from the fact that Dr. Webb is disposed to assist in tree-stocking public lands, it assumes a more generous character than other similar preserves can claim.”
Lake Lila today
Webb’s family and friends enjoyed the estate until his death in 1929, when it was passed on to his heirs. As time went on Forest Lodge and Nehasane preserve was used less and less and became too costly to maintain, so in the 1970s a complicated agreement was reached to sell the property to the Adirondack Nature Conservancy. Then in 1979, this estate was turned over to the state of New York for public use, and the buildings were destroyed. In 1997 Nehasane became part of the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area.
Lake Lila, with 1,400 acres of surface area, seven islands and a nine-mile shoreline, along with Mt. Frederica, named after the Webb’s daughter, is one of the Adirondack’s crown jewels. A breath-taking view of Lake Lila and the Adirondack high peaks is afforded from the top of Mt. Frederica.
Lake Lila is accessible by kayak or canoe from a NYS public boat launch on Lake Lila Road, approximately 26 miles south of Tupper Lake. From the parking lot hikers, skiers, and snow-shoers can reach the trailhead to Mt. Frederica and the former site of Forest Lodge via a 5.6 mile trail. There are 24 primitive tent sites for camping on Lake Lila. See the NYS DEC website for more information on outdoor recreation opportunities in the William C. Whitney Wilderness area.
Photos from top: View looking east over Lake Lila from Mt Federica. Photo by Russ Hartung. Forest Lodge circa 1902. The Forest Lodge site is now occupied by an open field with several primitive campsites. Picture from Adirondack Life September/October 1979. Lake Lila at Sunrise, photo by Gary Peacock.