Thursday, September 24, 2020

Hermits and a millionaire: The story of Lake Lila

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.


Stay informed about news and information about the Adirondacks by signing up for the Almanack’s daily news digest:

Related Stories

Gary Peacock grew up just north of the Blue Line in Chateaugay, NY where he became an avid camper, hiker and biker at a very young age. After he closed his Record Store in Plattsburgh, he took several long - distance bicycle trips in France and the Adirondacks before attending college at Plattsburgh, where he earned a degree in Adirondack History. This article is part of a series of papers he wrote while earning his degree.

24 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Interesting story! Thanks!

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Fascinating and fabulous piece. There were almost no white people in the Adirondacks in 1910 – 1920. Your post is written with clarity and insight, I suspect that a good deal of research went into giving us this information.

    Thank you very much.


    • Steve B. says:


      There were countless towns and settlements in the Adirondacks with “Anglo’s” or white people, living in them, in the 1920’s. Even as far back as the late 1700’s.

      What are you referring too ?.

  3. paul says:

    My wife had long wanted to visit an Adirondack Great Camp. We planned to hike into Nehasane the next spring after the state acquired the land and it was to be opened to public access. Unfortunately we learned that only two weeks before our planned departure, that the DEC had burned the lodge to the ground. We went anyway, but the access road was not open to vehicles yet. So we hiked with backpacks the entire distance (5 miles?) in and camped near the original lodge site, barely cool from the burn. Very sad. Several multi-story brick chimneys were still standing, with a fireplace on each former floor. This was her first experience of hearing beavers slap their tail on the water at night. She asked me who was throwing boulders in the water near our campsite. I visited a couple of years later to see that the site had been bulldozed flat to a smooth grassy rise near the shore.

  4. Scott Thompson says:

    Today the State has destroyed the great camp ( which was still VERY restorable) and the out buildings. The only remaining building is nearly on the ground. That was Webb’s private station and care takers lodge. Webb built the Railroad with as many as 4 thousand men; mostly immigrants, free men and Native Anericans. they were paid 10.5 cents an hour 10 hours a day 7 days. Housed in tents, fed game and fish and charged for any extras like work trains and better housing. Now here we go again after 3 major failures . $19.1 million TAX DOLLARS to start a rebuild.

  5. Mike T says:

    My Darling Bride and I camped on Lila in 1983 and paddled over to the great camp.
    We walked all through every floor, it’s was very cool. All of the outbuildings were still there…Farther down the tracks, the train station was still in good condition, again, we toured both floors.
    We returned the next season and all that was left were the chimneys. We spoke to the ranger, and he recounted the burning of the main lodge in March, telling us how much of the lake thawed near the fire.
    It certainly seemed to us that those buildings could have been preserved, in a similar fashion as at Santanoni.

    • Ed says:

      Did you and Your Darling Bride offer up your bank accounts to fund the preservation of those buildings ?

      • SCOTT S THOMPSON says:

        In Mike Ts defence, while you may be correct about the expense, I don’t recall the public ever being asked.while working for the RRin the late 70s we had interest from the Scouts and others in preservation but the State would not even come to the table. Later in th 80s our snowmobile club offered to preserve and improve the Lila station but were told it would be tresspass. Now after clear opposition, the State has contracted to restore a thrice failed RR at our expense. The State is not always known for doing the right thing.

        • Steve B says:

          Anybody’s guess how the DEC decides which buildings in a wilderness area get to stay and which get “removed”. The NY State definition of Wilderness means no man made structures can exist. They torched the interior Ranger cabin at West Canada yet maintained the facilities at Lake Colden, March Dam, Johns Brook and Raquette Falls. I believe the final decisions were some facilities they keep for “administrative” reasons. No doubt and IMP, they should have saved Nehasane for historic reasons.

  6. Edward Pitts says:

    I’d be interested to know your source for the information about David Smith. There appear to be no reliable first person accounts. Check out my article for the Adirondack Almanack called “Early Settlers of the Beaver River Country,” published 11/5/2017

  7. Robert Cummings says:

    It seems that ‘slavery’ is an issue in much of what’s written these days but ‘bondage’ came it different forms. The European and Asian labor force that was brought here and used by American businessmen, entrepreneurs, and the wealthy – throughout our country and for generations – were little more than slaves – bonded to their employers with all disregard for LIFE, health and working conditions than that of African slaves … the only exception was the length of the servitude – for many were whipped, beaten and cruelly treated – and even haphazardly buried – if not left along the wayside where they fell just the same! The building of our canals, tunnels, bridges, dams and our western railroads are prime examples of foreign labor dreadfully abused … and THIS is something that ALL Americans should never forget !

  8. SHane Holmes says:

    That land is a Wilderness Area now, and for that to be, those man made objects needed to be raized – based on the Forever Wild Clause

    • Steve B. says:

      They make exceptions in Wilderness area’s if the man made building/road, etc… is used for “administrative” use or some such. The interior Ranger and caretaker buildings at Marcy Dam, Lake Colden, Raquette Falls, etc…. as example. As well, somehow the DEC is exempt from the rule of no motorized vehicles in a Wilderness, when they use UTV’s on the Marcy truck road.

    • Boreas says:

      I believe DEC is more open to considering “historic” non-compatible structures now than when the policy was first implemented. The Gooley and Santanoni camp discussions come to mind. Another consideration, as was mentioned above, is who will maintain it and how accessible it is with any given land classification.

  9. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    I apologize for the errors in my prior post. I meant to note that in the time of 1810 to 1820 there were very few anglos living in the Adirondacks.

    Thank you, Steve for pointing out my 100 year typo.

  10. Mark Walp says:

    My brother and I moved to Chestertown in 1978. We had a high school chum whose family owned Nehasane, and during our first year in the Adirondacks, we had the privilege of driving north to visit Lake Lila. We stayed in a perfectly maintained large house that (we were told) was used by the children and their caretaker for only one month of the year. Deer crossed the lawn every morning, and there was a bald eagle on the lake. The fishing was incredible, and it seemed you could pull in a native brooky every time you dipped worm in water! We toured the main lodge and were shocked by the literally hundreds of mounted specimens — birds and mammals from all over the world and also many native specimens, many in elaborate groupings that rival in quality what exists at the Museum of Natural History in New York . I always thought it was a shame that the state destroyed the buildings after purchasing the park and still wonder what happened to all that taxidermy.

  11. Jim Lundrigan says:

    I’ve been there several times over the last 30 years I’m a avid hunter having arrived in Newcomb/Long Lake in 1965 as a senior in high school. I’m now a owner with three other high school friends of the Woodchuck Hunters Lodge in Long Lake. We still enjoy traveling & reading about the history of the Adirondacks. I love teaching my grandsons about the area

  12. Ray Mainer says:

    Shelburne Farms is separate from the Shelburne Museum. Both are worth a visit.

  13. Edward Pitts says:

    A little historical perspective: when Webb bought the property in 1891, he tore down two popular sportsmen’s hotels (Lamont’s and Muncie’s) and demolished a dozen or more other established free campsites. He posted the land against trespass, thereby ending decades of public use. He hired two dozen game protectors to assure no one but his rich family and friends could have access to any part of his huge preserve. He refused to allow anyone use of the train stations on his property except his family and friends. I, for one, am glad the Webb great camp is gone and public access to this beautiful part of the Adirondacks restored.

  14. Phil Fitzpatrick says:


    I don’t see an answer to Edward’s earlier post. Please, what are your sources of information about David Smith.

    Thank you.