Thursday, November 12, 2020

HISTORICAL PROFILE: Balm of Gilead Mountain

A few years ago, I added a short history of Balm of Gilead Mountain, located in the Town of Johnsburg on the eastern side of Thirteenth Lake. While revisiting the peak with a couple of folks yesterday, I found more questions coming up that were not addressed in my short historical profile (which I had added to my larger profile of Peaked Mountain). I decided to make Balm of Gilead Mountain its own historical profile and elaborate more on its history, especially its name origin.

The rocky lookout of Balm of Gilead Mountain, where the trail ends.

Balm of Gilead Mountain is almost 3.5 miles northwest of Gore Mountain and its unique profile is clearly seen from the western shore of Thirteenth Lake. The trail does not go to the true summit but to a wonderful lookout on a false summit that is 0.3 miles north of the true summit. The lookout is a bare-rock, partially-open cobble that provides a great view of Thirteenth Lake, Little Thirteenth Lake Mountain, Hour Pond Mountain, Bullhead and Puffer Mountains, and other peaks to the northwest. The hike from the parking area at the end of Old Farm Road is a short, pleasant one.

In regard to the ancient land tracts and patents of the Adirondacks, Balm of Gilead Mountain is located in the northeast corner of Township 13 of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase, around Lot 38. In regard to State lands, it is in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness.

A History of the Name

The Balm of Gilead (Populus × jackii) is a hybridization from the balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), which is native to northern North America, and is common in swampy areas. It differs from the balsam poplar such that the blades of the leaves are much darker on the upper surface, and the leaves are more heart-shaped with coarser teeth. However, it is important to note that Balm of Gilead and balsam poplar have been referred to as equivalent in much of the literature. The physical description of the tree is given by the U.S. Forest Service as:

“Balm of Gilead is a medium-sized tree that can grow up to 70 feet tall. It has dark green leaves that are 3-5 inches long and 2-5 inches wide, egg-shaped, and pointed at the tip. Seeds ripen in early June, attached to a cotton-like substance that aids wind dispersal. The buds of Balm of Gilead are large, brown, resinous and strong-smelling. The bark of young trees varies from cinnamon brown to green, turning gray and deeply ridged as it ages.”

Balsam poplar

The leaves of the balsam poplar tree.

As for its uses:

“Resin from the buds is antibacterial, antifungal, and mildly analgesic. Balm of Gilead resin is an ingredient in cough syrups and first-aid salves, used to heal small wounds, cuts, and scrapes.”

A.B. Stout’s paper, “The Clon in Plant Life,” published in “Journal of the New York Botanical Garden (Vol. 30, No. 350, Feb. 1929, pp. 25-37) provides the most in-depth, detailed discussion of the history of the Balm of Gilead poplar that I have seen. Stout says the name “Balm-of-Gilead” was first applied to the balsam fir. In 1810, Michaux used the spelling “Balsam-of-Gilead,” which persisted, but Gray’s 1843 “Manual of Botany” used “Balm-of-Gilead.” The first connection of the name “Balm-of-Gilead” with the poplar is in Eaton’s 1817 “Manual of Botany,” but it was applied to a different species (Populus angulata). The etymology gets quite complicated!

According to Bill Ingersoll and Barbara McMartin in “Discover the South Central Adirondacks” (2014), the fragrance from this balsam poplar was noticed as far away as the hamlet of Christian Hill, thus inspiring the name for Balm of Gilead Mountain. It is unclear when the name for the peak came about, but as I describe in the next section, the earliest mention I could find of Balm of Gilead Mountain is in Verplanck Colvin’s 1873 report.

Biblical origins

The term “Balm of Gilead” does have, as some of you may have suspected, biblical origins. Its history is much too complex to cover here, but I will provide what I can (in the space and time available) from Fred Rosner’s 1995 book “Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud” (pp. 132-134). Gilead is a central region east of the Jordan River, and also the name of a town on the west bank of said river. Gilead is described in the Bible as pasture-land known for its spices. A medicinal called balm of Gilead is mentioned in the Bible and is a resin which exudes from the wood of the balsam tree. According to Rosner, the balm “is enumerated among the ingredients of the incense used in the Tabernacle as described in the Bible and the Talmud.”

“What is a balm?” I was asked. A balm is an aromatic resin which is used for medicinal purposes. In the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah exclaims, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? When then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”

USGS topographic map showing the location of the true summit of Balm of Gilead Mountain, and the trail to it.

Use in State Surveys

While passing through Johnsburg in the summer of 1872, the famed surveyor Verplanck Colvin made an ascent of the peak on August 15th to make angular measurements for his survey of the region. In his 1873 report, he referred to Balm of Gilead Mountain as “South Mountain.” He measured the elevation of the peak with a large compensated aneroid barometer at 1,917 feet. In his 1874 report, he referred to it by its current name, nothing “South Mountain” as its former name (and corrected the elevated as 1,953 feet).

Whether Colvin christened the mountain with this name or it is of local usage is unclear. Today, South Mountain is the peak 2.6 miles north of Gore Mountain. Colvin’s trusted assistant, Mills Blake, would climb Balm of Gilead on December 16, 1882.

The U.S. Geological Survey would later measure the elevation of the peak as 2,450 feet (sometime between 1895 and 1899, I suspect).

Photo at top: Panoramic view from the lookout of Balm of Gilead Mountain, where the trail ends. All photos courtesy of 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.

One Response

  1. Bill Mccarthy says:

    Great story John, thanks…got to hike it!

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