Thursday, December 17, 2020

Mount Marcy: The Name, The Climb, The Legacy

The first known ascent of Mount Marcy occurred on August 5, 1837 when a team of New York State Geologists, led by Ebenezer Emmons, spent a glorious five hours on top of the peak.

But it was not Emmons that best described what his team saw that day. Instead, it was his intrepid guide, John Cheney, that historians most often quote. Looking out over the vast range of mountains and lakes below them, Cheney observed, “It makes a man feel what it is to have all creation placed beneath his feet.” What Emmons did make note of on that brilliant August day was the presence of ice patches up to a half-inch thick scattered about the summit. Still, the lead geologist for the New York State Survey could not comprehend the existence of huge boulders, or erratics, that were left behind by glaciers. Emmons thought at the time that they were there as a result of a biblical-type flood.

Early surveying

Emmons had been contracted by the State of New York to inventory the natural resources of the Great Northern Wilderness. His Natural History Survey included some of the country’s most prominent scientists and they had high hopes of discovering vast new reserves of coal and other minerals. The treasures that Emmons discovered, however, where not exactly what Governor William Marcy had expected. The real treasure found in these great north woods ultimately came in the form of a park, not as a saleable commodity. 

The treasure that is today the Adirondack Park was not always thought to be park-like. Prior to the 1830s the northern New York Wilderness was largely considered a desolate wasteland. Furthermore, it was thought that the Catskills were the highest mountains in New York State. Emmons quickly found that this was not the case; twenty-nine of the highest peaks in the region were higher than the loftiest Catskill peak. Emmons estimated the highest peak in the state to be over 5,000 feet and when that figure was disputed, he immediately contacted University of Vermont mathematics professor, Farrand Benedict, who calculated the elevation to be 5,344 feet. Thirty-six years later a second Natural History Survey confirmed Benedict’s calculations. Today, Mount Marcy’s official elevation varies less than one-foot from those calculations taken nearly 150 years ago.

Emmons and his men agreed to honor the man that made the survey possible by naming the state’s highest peak after Governor William Learned Marcy. While Marcy never set foot on the mountain named after him, Emmons knew the governor to be “a reader, an explorer, and a dreamer” at heart. According to his biographers, Marcy was one of the most important men of the nineteenth century. In addition to serving three terms as governor of the Empire State, Marcy was at various times, Secretary of State in the Pierce administration, Secretary of War in the Polk cabinet; he served as Supreme Court Justice, and he narrowly missed his party’s bid for President of the United States.

Naming the peak after Marcy just made sense. But it also led to some controversy. Many people thought that the Indian name, Tahawus, meaning cloud-splitter, was a better fit for the state’s highest mountain. After reading newspaper accounts of Emmon’s explorations in Essex County, author and poet Charles Fenno Hoffman was drawn to visit the region in September of 1837.  Despite having lost a leg in a boating accident at age eleven, Hoffman prided himself in his athletic abilities and could not be dissuaded from attempting the climb. He left the McIntyre Iron Works with his guide, John Cheney, and made it as far as Lake Colden on a wooden leg. According to Cheney, when Hoffman realized it was physically impossible to go on, “he sat down and cried like a child.” In his beautifully written description of Marcy, Hoffman inadvertently led readers to believe that the picturesque term Tahawus was the original name for the peak. But records show that Marcy was named by Emmons a full month before Hoffman first used the name Tahawus. 

In addition to naming Mount Marcy, Emmons also chose the name Adirondack, which he intended to stand for this cluster of high peaks, not the entire region. Now, the Mount Marcy area is referred to as the High Peaks and the park as a whole is known as the Adirondacks.

100 years later, enter Grace Hudowalski

To celebrate the centennial of Emmon’s historic first ascent of Mount Marcy, a group of 200 hikers gathered together on top the state’s highest peak on August 5, 1937. Among the celebrants was Grace Hudowalski, who climbed Mount Marcy for the first time in 1922, when she was only 15 years old. Grace was the first woman to climb all 46 high peaks (46er #9) and after the Marcy climb, she recalls, “It was tough. I was on all fours sometimes. I didn’t think I was going to get there.” But she did, and from that point on, she continues, “I never talked about anything but mountains. I talked about them. I wrote about them. I gave speeches about them.” She eventually founded the Troy chapter of the 46er’s with her husband, Ed, and worked tirelessly for decades to promote and protect the Adirondacks.

In a 2004 interview with NCPR’s Brian Mann, Grace said, “I think that the smartest thing that I ever did about the mountains, was gradually get people to write about what they saw, how they felt. It’s just like folklore. At that time folklore was nothing, just a story. And yet they’re stories that keep a person alive later on. That add [sic] to your life. It makes it special.” In 2014, the Adirondack High Peak ‘East Dix’ was renamed ‘Grace Peak’ in her honor.

The Mount Marcy centennial celebration included a live 15-minute radio broadcast hosted by the General Electric Company out of Schenectady. Over 500 pounds of equipment, including a 350-pound gas-powered generator, were hauled up the steep 7-mile mountain trail. It had rained heavily the day before and, in places, the mud was up to the knees of both men and the two horses that pulled the heavy equipment on a logging sled for the first mile. Then the ropes broke and according to crew member Seaver Fay, “We had to carry the equipment the rest of the way on our backs. It just took brute strength and ignorance.” 

Once on top, the generator started on the second pull and forty-five minutes before the ceremony began, the system tested out ok. The short-wave signal was transmitted to Lake Placid and fed into a wire line to radio station WGY in Schenectady, where seconds into the broadcast, the signal went dead. Unaware that the broadcast had failed, the speeches and other festivities continued on and a bronze plaque was unveiled on top of Marcy, which includes the names of those who supposedly made the first ascent.

A popular climb

Today, Marcy is the one of the most climbed peaks in the Adirondacks and it is not uncommon to encounter dozens of other climbers en route or at the top of the mountain. According to the Adirondack Mountain Club, 2016 saw the largest number of hikers on the summit of Marcy in a single day. On Labor Day that year 389 hikers climbed the state’s highest peak. In 2020, 357 hikers were recorded on the summit in a single day, two different times. In fact, over 300 hikers reached the top of Marcy seven times in 2020; 3 times in July and August and 4 times this fall. And that was without Canadian hikers, which can account for more than 18% of hikers on weekends. (The COVID pandemic caused the border to be closed on March 18th). 

In 1989, rising concerns over the delicate alpine habitat, overcrowding, and erosion led to the introduction of the Summit Stewardship Program, a partnership between ADK (Adirondack Mountain Club), the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). Their focus was three-fold: mountaintop education, hands-on conservation and alpine research. Thirty years later, the issues remain the same, but added to the mix is the increasing trailhead parking problem. In June of 2020 the DEC released a 43-page interim report that addresses these issues: Recommendations for Managing Recreation-related Impacts in the Adirondack Park and Building a Culture of Wildlands Stewardship. Recommendations include a High Peaks dedicated website, search engine optimization for the Adirondacks, parking enforcement, education and limits on use. To help ease overcrowding and alpine damage on Marcy and other High Peaks, the report also directs its readers to great, under-used alternative hikes and activities elsewhere in the park.  

Another wonderful resource is provided by Protect the Adirondacks: consisting of50 terrific hikes from across the Adirondack Park outside of the High Peaks that offer hikers great rewards from stunning views and experiences in different terrains that showcase the vastness and diversity of the Adirondack landscape.” The hikes are categorized by county and each one has a detailed description, directions to the trailhead, a downloadable map, and lots of pictures.

Photo credits:
Emmon/Hoffman from Wikipedia

Verplanck Drawing of Marcy. From: Adirondack Almanack (Dave Gibson article March 15, 2020)

Grace Hudowalski, Adirondack Almanack  (May 30, 2017)

Marcy Hiker Chart. Courtesy: Adirondack Mountain Club

Marcy from Morrisonville. Courtesy: Russ Hartung Photography 



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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. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Thank you, Gary. I enjoyed reading this.

    I admit to being confused by you noting that Emmons used “Marcy” before
    Hoffman used the name which Native Americans had used for who knows how long.

    • Gary Peacock says:

      Hi Phil,
      Thanks for the note. Always good to hear from you. I would not be surprised if I get slammed for my take on the naming of Marcy. But according to two highly respected sources (in my opinion): “Heaven Up-h’isted-ness!” and “Mount Marcy – The High Peak of New York,” by Sandra Weber, Tahawus was NOT a common name for the peak. It was bestowed upon the peak by Hoffman in an incredibly beautifully written piece that made people fall in love with the name. Hoffman never wrote that the mountain had been called Tahawus by local natives. Like many myths, the name took on a life of its own after his piece was published in the NY papers. And why wouldn’t it? It is such a beautiful word. (He also never mentioned that he never climbed the mountain). According to Dr. Arthur C. Parker, Tahawus was not a place name, but an abstract word of religion. Hoffman was an authoritative Indian scholar and antiquarian. So that might explain the origin for the name. For the full story…I highly recommend Weber’s book! Take care, Gary

      • John Tedford says:

        Wow!..thanks for your clarification as to the name tahawus. I, like Phil, had the same misinterpretation of the name. I look forward to reading more of your historical writings Gary! Namaste

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Great clarification, Gary. Thank you. I have had the wrong idea for a long time.

  3. Chris says:

    Thanks for this interesting history and usage update.

    It’s quite interesting to do the math and see, surprisingly, that average usage increase in the last 16 years has gone up by about an average of 5% a year.

    That’s less than what I would have thought given the press and the obvious parking and crowd pictures. I guess what’s really the problem is a “tipping point” more than a massive, recent surge.

    • Boreas says:

      I see usage as more of the frog in warm water analogy. Everything is minor until it isn’t.

      • Chris says:

        i.e. the “tipping point”

        But dealing with the difference between a massive increase and a slowing boiling pot requires two different management approaches.

        Understanding Marcy vs other places, particularly what might happen to them, is important. We have infrastructure built for 1970’s and – in a few places? – have been steadily (pre-Covid at least) been growing past them. The Marcy summit chart shows this is not a new phenomenon, but has been happening in plain sight for over a decade. The problem is not an unexpected, dramatic surge, but a failure to recognize and deal with the obvious.

        If this was a business’ cost chart and management ignored it, the “problem” would be on them.

        • Boreas says:

          I agree 100%. This has been happening for decades. If it weren’t for the unsafe parking issues forcing a reaction, I doubt it would even be talking about it.

    • Bill Ott says:

      5% per year. If you were making $200 per week in 1980 and received a 5% yearly raise, your 2020 weekly pay would be $1,340.95. Now, if you weighed 200 pounds in 1980, then if ………………..

  4. Great article, Gary! It is wonderful to read something that spans so many decades, and fills in the lives of individuals whose names and accomplishments have remained rather obscure. Thanks so much!

  5. Wong Hung Lo says:

    Always an enjoyable Hike!

  6. Bob Bender says:

    Thank you for this interesting article.
    I’d love to know the date of that Centennial celebration with the attempted broadcast through WGY in Schenectady. My
    father was Sports Director at WGY for a period of time. A lover of the ADK, multiple climber of Marcy and most of the 46.
    Even though we settled in south Florida my family returned to the Adk every summer eventually building a cabin on 50 acres near Vermontville.
    I don’t wish my question to be forgotten due to my ramblings this I’ll stop.

  7. Pastor Fuzz says:

    One feels closer to the lord at the summit

  8. Gary Peacock says:

    The date of the centennial was Aug. 5, 1937, exactly 100 years after Emmons & party climbed Marcy. It got a lot of coverage in the press. Lake Placid News, Press Republican, etc.

  9. Phillip says:

    Simply Amazing!

    Tewawe’éstha was not “discovered” By Emmons nor was he the first to asent. That was done many times, by many, hundreds of years before Emmons.

    Why one man would think his name worthy of a mountain is beyond me.

  10. Tony Goodwin says:

    Great story, especially with the photo of Hoffman paired with that of Emmons. Good to remind people about the actual naming history of the peak. I and a number of other members of ATIS climbed Marcy for the Sesquicentennial in 1987. We went up via the route followed by the first ascent party – a bushwhack up the upper reaches of the Opalescent River between the Lake Arnold Trail and the Van Hoevenberg Trail at the Plateau Lean-to site. There we were joined by another ATIS group that had ascended from the Upper Ausable Lake. There was also a group of Boy Scouts celebrating the event by dressing in period (1837) clothing and assuming the identity of the different members of the first ascent party.

    I believe that the horses managed to get the radio equipment as far as the site of the former upper Plateau Lean-to. Then, it was still a steep mile that the equipment had to be carried on backs.

    According to Russell M.L. Carson, the name “Tahawus” came from the Seneca language, a tribe located near present-day Rochester that would never have ever come close to even seeing Marcy. In addition to bestowing the romantic name “Tahawus”, Hoffman also changed “East River” to “Opalescent River” and “East River Falls” to “Hanging Spear Falls”.

    • Gary Peacock says:

      Thank you for this, Tony. I’m curious to know about how many people were on Marcy when you climbed for the Sesquicentennial in ’87.

      • Tony Goodwin says:

        Most of those on the summit were just the numbers one would expect for a sunny day in August – at least by 1987 standards. I think that it was only the two ATIS groups that totaled about 15 plus the 10 or so scouts that were there for the commemoration.

        The idea for the commemoration came from Laura and Guy Waterman who at that time were working on their magnum opus, “Forest and Crag”, which charts the history of Northeast climbing and trail building, starting with Darby Field on Mt. Washington in 1642. It was Guy’s idea to bushwhack up the Opalescent. As we approached Plateau, Guy thought the group would have headed straight for the summit ridge. I thought the group would have stayed in the taller trees as long as possible. So the group split, with the majority opting to go with me to the trail rather than fight through the cripplebrush.

  11. Willard A Bruce says:

    FYI, Ebeneezer Emmons, Gov. Marcy, Archibald McIntyre, (McIntyre blast furnace), his two son in laws David Henderson (Henderson Lake) and James McNaughton (McNaughton cottage) are all buried at Albany Rural Cemetery. Ditto Arthur Masten (the Masten house), also the entire Santanoni Pruyn family. I did a tour for AARCH last year. If you are ever interested, get in touch by e-mail…….

    • Gary Peacock says:

      Willard, I would be interested in a tour. At some point I will be doing a story on McIntyre/Henderson and the mine. So much history there.

  12. Gary lacourse says:

    growing up in Tahawus,NY I had many trips up Marcy. there were two trail heads that I could use that started withing walking distance of our house. I believe the east river trail has a newer trail head. the trail starting att the deserted village of aduredondak bypasses the flowed lands. a new dam was built at flowed land while I was a teen. one of the big events of a trip to flowed land was a swim. you had to swim a s fast as possible to keep the blood suckers fro attaching to you. another site missed was hanging spear falls. from the top it looked like the water was shallow. the cear water madw the rock bottom did not look like it nwas deep enough to dive from the top. water was plenty deep enough

  13. Susanne(Coolidge) Chase says:

    I lived in Tahawus ages 4-13. WONDERFUL childhood❤/ABSOLUTELY beautiful surroundings❤?- Great article?

  14. Willard A Bruce says:

    Check back with me in the Spring. Albany Rural has two feet of snow on the ground right now. BTY, James Hall, the other NYS geologist that was involved in the early 1800’s is also at the Rural.

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