Murder in the Adirondack wilderness is rare; unsolved murders even more so. After more than a century, the mysterious death of Orrando P. Dexter continues to be a topic of conversation and is part of the region’s legacy that perplexes and mystifies local residents and visitors alike.
Dexter Park is a private preserve, located five miles from the northern border of the Adirondack Park, near St. Regis Falls, about 37 miles northwest of Saranac Lake. The rich history of this property began in the late nineteenth century when Dexter, a wealthy New York attorney, purchased nearly 10,000 acres surrounding the pristine, 200-acre East Branch Pond.
In the late 1800s, Dexter constructed a $50,000 Adirondack reproduction of the German artist Albrecht Dürer’s Nuremberg home and named it Sunbeam Lodge. He built a guesthouse (in which no one ever stayed,) a boathouse, barn, carriage house, and several other outbuildings, and renamed the East Branch Pond after himself. Like many other owners of exclusive Adirondack preserves, he posted and fenced in his entire property.
Within a few years he had angered and alienated all of his neighbors. Lumbermen, fishermen and hunters, who had previously used the land for their livelihood, or access to market, retaliated by cutting holes in fences, removing signs, and illegally hunted, fished, and logged on the estate. For thirteen years, Dexter battled his neighbors, often engaging in lengthy lawsuits that brought little progress for either side.
Dexter vs. Alfred
Dexter’s main nemesis was the irascible, wealthy local lumber baron, Joe Alfred, who had the financial means to fight back by using many of the techniques that Dexter utilized. For example, in 1890, when Dexter sued Alfred for trespass, the latter was able to use his influence to change venues from New York City to the local (more friendly) court system in nearby Malone, NY.
In response, Dexter threatened to “employ a hundred shotguns,” and created a manmade “blowdown” across Alfred’s route that he used to transport lumber. Alfred went around the obstruction and legally managed to have Dexter’s road proclaimed a public highway. Dexter responded by building a house in the middle of the road and employed armed mercenaries to patrol it.
Next, Alfred dammed the outlet to Dexter Lake and flooded over one hundred acres, prompting Dexter to dynamite Alfred’s dam. This type of activity continued for over a decade and involved not only Joe Alfred, but many other members of the community, keeping the court system, newspapers, and local gossip buzzing throughout the period.
During Dexter’s early years in the Adirondacks, his reclusive lifestyle allowed for limited outside contact. “He was not very fond of companionship.” But in the summer of 1903, as the large number of lawsuits and confrontations become increasingly bitter, his hatred for north-country natives became even more apparent. He “displayed great distaste whenever it was necessary to deal with them.” Threatening letters caused him to increase his security and whenever he left his estate, Dexter was accompanied by two armed guards.
A mysterious end
On the afternoon of September 19, Dexter began his daily ride into Santa Clara to collect his mail. Before reaching the intersection of Dexter Lake Road and Blue Mountain Road, estate overseer Azro Giles, and stableman Bert Russell rushed to his aid after hearing two gunshots from an unseen assailant. Dexter lay dead on the ground, a bullet having passed through his body, just below the left shoulder.
Upon hearing of his son’s death, New York City newspaper magnate Henry Dexter released a statement that claimed, “he was practically certain he knew the man who murdered his son,” and placed “a large sum in the hands of his lawyer to prosecute” a search for his son’s killer. He also offered a large reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. One local newspaper, the Malone Farmer, put up a five thousand dollar reward for information on the case.
But the extensive national media coverage seemed to embarrass North Country newspaper editors and their readers. Local coverage focused less on the murder and more on defense of the North Country residents, while the national papers “feasted on the social conflict implied in the crime…and reflected the intensity of feeling that existed between natives and outsiders.” Some local newspaper editors, concerned about the negative impact on Adirondack tourism, tried to explain away the “class hatred” by referring to a statement that Orrando Dexter himself made: “There’s no danger of violence…things like that don’t happen here.”
Orrando’s father hired Pinkerton detectives from New York and Boston for his own private investigation, but seven years later, at the time of his death, the crime was still unsolved. A stipulation in Henry’s will provided for higher and higher rewards. Even a $50,000 reward did not break the silence surrounding the murder. Some North Country residents, according to Frank P. Stockbridge, star reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, asserted that, “We all knew who killed Dexter and why, but we never dared print it.” Indeed, Stockbridge claimed that the Franklin County district attorney informed him, “It was a popular murder, and we folks have got to live around here the rest of our lives.”
In the spring of 1940, a newspaper article claimed that an 81 year-old guide, on his deathbed in Malone, told a local woman the name of Orrando Dexter’s killer. Even though the award money was still being offered, she never came forward and the case remains unsolved to this day.
The estate changed hands several times over the next several decades and all was quiet and peaceful on Dexter Lake. Then, in 1994, country music star Shania Twain purchased the property. Twain and her husband got into trouble with the Adirondack Park Agency for filling in wetlands and not having proper building permits. They eventually moved to Switzerland… But that’s a whole other story.
Images from top: Map of the estate from the St. Lawrence County Historical Society; photo of Orrando Dexter courtesy of the New York Historical Society Museum and Library; Illustration of the shooting from the St Lawrence County Historical Society; locator map provided by Gary Peacock/Vanderwalker Collection.