Sunday, November 22, 2020

HISTORICAL PROFILE: Coon Mountain of Westport

Continuing my hikes and bushwhacks to various peaks in the Adirondacks and exploring their history,  I paid a visit to Coon Mountain in the Town of Westport, Essex County. From the trailhead located off a dirt road called Halds Road, I made the short, 0.7-mile hike along the leaf-littered trail to the bare-rock lookout point. From the lookout, I found a nice view of Lake Champlain and North West Bay (below), and the Green Mountains of Vermont across the lake. I should note that the true summit of Coon Mountain is about 0.25-miles north-northwest of the lookout point and requires a bushwhack to get to.

The trail and the peak are in the Coon Mountain Preserve, which is owned by the Adirondack Land Trust, an independent nationally accredited nonprofit. I will elaborate on how the Adirondack Land Trust came to acquire the land on which Coon Mountain resides.

Kiosk at the trailhead for the Coon Mountain Preserve.

A History of the Name

According to a brochure from the Adirondack Land Trust that I picked up at the trailhead, the peak was supposedly named for an early settler, William Coon, although they admit further research is being done regarding this.

Over the course of my research, I have come to doubt this claim. First, there is no “Coon” or similarly named residence which appears in the vicinity of the peak, let alone the Split Rock Patent (the ancient lad tract the peak resides on), on any of the nineteenth-century residential maps.

I examined census records for the Town of Westport as well as Essex County. I cannot find a record of anyone with a surname of “Coon” (or similar) residing in Westport in the nineteenth century. William Coon was an Essex County resident but did not reside in Westport. According to H.P. Smith in his 1885 work “History of Essex County,” when the Town of Ticonderoga was formed in March 1804, having been split off from the Town of Crown Point, the first town meeting of Crown Point following the split was held at the house of William Coon.

The only source I could find explaining the possible origin of the name of Coon Mountain is in Caroline H. Royce’s 1904 classic “Bessboro: A History of Westport, Essex Co., NY.”  Royce writes:

“A spur of the Split Rock range to the westward, its base washed by the Boquet River, is Coon Mountain. Its name is descriptive even now, as it is not at all uncommon for a raccoon to be killed within its shadow.”

The earliest mention I could find of Coon Mountain, in writing, is in the 1888 edition of “The Sportsman’s Guide to the Hunting and Shooting Grounds of the United States and Canada.” The earliest map I could find with the peak denoted is the 1894 edition of the Port Henry, N.Y. U.S.G.S. quadrangle. The peak is depicted yet not named in the map of the Town of Westport, in the 1876 Essex County Atlas.

The bare-rock lookout off Coon Mountain, where the trail ends.

Where William Gilliland Met His Fate

When it comes to famous figures of the Adirondacks, William Gilliland (1734-1796) is someone of note! Unfortunately, there is not enough space (nor time, on my part) in this historical profile to elaborate on his legacy. While I shall be brief, I encourage the reader to delve more into his legacy by going here and here, or reading Winslow C. Watson’s 1863 classic “Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley.”

Gilliland was an eighteenth-century pioneer who immigrated from Ireland to New York around 1754. He grew to become a wealth land-owner who eventually founded the towns of Willsboro, Westport, and Elizabethtown in Essex County. Willsboro was named in honor of Gilliland, whereas Elizabethtown was named for his wife, Elizabeth. Westport was originally known as Bessboro, named for his daughter, Elizabeth.

Around February 1, 1796, Gilliland made the trek across iced-over Lake Champlain to visit his friend, Platt Rogers, at Basin Harbor. Basin Harbor is on the eastern side of Lake Champlain, about 3.5 miles east of Westport. While returning home following his visit, he apparently lost his way and wandered in the wilderness in the southern extent of the Town of Essex. Gilliland succumbed to the frigid cold of winter and gasped his last breath somewhere at the northern base of Coon Mountain. In his 1905 classic “Pleasant Valley: A History of Elizabethtown, Essex County, New York,” George L. Brown wrote, “After his strength failed him so that he was unable to walk, he dragged himself along until the flesh was worn from his hands and knees.”

Gilliland is interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Willsboro, Essex County. There are many New York State historical markers dedicated to Gilliland, which can be seen here.

Coon Mountain Bill

“Coon Mountain Bill” – such was the nickname of local Adirondack author William Merriam Rouse (1884-1937). William was born in 1884 in Albany and relocated to Westport sometime between 1920 and 1930. From 1913 to 1930, he was a prolific writer of short stories (aka pulp fiction) which appeared in various magazines such as “The Argosy” and “Munsey’s Magazine.” To access William’s short stories, go here, or purchase Miriam DuBois Babcock’s 2006 book “The Pulps, the Adirondacks and Coon Mountain Bill.” Babcock’s book is a collection of William’s short stories.

He established a camp at the base of Coon Mountain, which was visible from the state road to the east. It is said that he wrote many of his best stories at his camp. Thus, it comes as no surprise that many of his stories centered around Coon Mountain and a long-gone road called Bildad Road, which I believe was east of the mountain. Some of these stories were:

  • “The Thirty-Seven-Fifty Dog” (1916)
  • “The Empty Pitcher” (1920)
  • “The Madness of Sam Montgomery” (1923)
  • “The Mystery Bird” (1931)

William died on February 14, 1937 at the age of 52. He is interred at Riverside Cemetery in Wadhams, Essex County.

A portion of the NYS DEC’s map of land tracts in the Adirondacks, which shows the location of Coon Mountain (“MT. COON”) in the Split Rock Patent (Source: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation)

The Coon Mountain Preserve

In 1943, the M.F. Pratt Lumber Company traded the land for more productive timberland, which had been donated by Peter S. Paine, Jr. According to the Adirondack Land Trust’s website, the Coon Mountain Preserve was acquired via an “innovative land swap in 1991. A generous landowner donated 275 acres of forestland in the Town of Chesterfield to the Adirondack Land Trust. The Land Trust then exchanged that tract for 246 acres on Coon Mountain—land that is ecologically rich but marginal from a forest-products perspective. Over the years the preserve has been expanded to 378 acres.”

In July 1996, the ALT dedicated an interpretative trail up to the Coon Mountain lookout. This is the 0.7-mile trail I hiked on Saturday.

Use in State Surveys

I could not find any evidence that Coon Mountain was leveraged in Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack Survey, or other subsequent surveys. The elevation of the peak was determined to be 1,015 ft via triangulation by the U.S.G.S. around 1895.

Photos by John Sasso

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John Sasso

John Sasso is an avid hiker and bushwhacker of the Adirondacks and self-taught Adirondack historian. Outside of his day-job, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." John has also helped build and maintain trails with the ADK and Adirondack Forty-Sixers, participated in the Trailhead Steward Program, and maintained the fire tower and trail to Mount Adams.




2 Responses

  1. Steven Antinozzi says:

    Hi John, nice story. This is an awesome loop, very well built trail with excellent views of Lake Champlain.

  2. barry regan says:

    Hi I noticed a gap in ownership from 1943 to 1991. My parents Edward and edna Regan owned 96 acres of coon mountain in the 60’s they purchased the John hald residence and horse farm. I spent many days and nights in the woods exploring the area as a young youth if you would be interested in some story telling about growing up on the mountain please e mail me great article and it shows the great hardships of settling this region of the adirondacks

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