Monday, June 20, 2022

John Apperson – Inspired by John Muir’s Battle Over Hetch Hetchy

Family-cooking-near-Main-Camp

Scholars are finally beginning to recognize the significance of Lake George as the site of a prolonged environmental struggle, inspired by John Muir and the Sierra Club, in 1913, when they tried to block the construction of a dam in Yosemite National Park. In New York State, a young engineer at GE, John Apperson, was paying close attention to the national debates over Hetch Hetchy. He believed that the International Paper Company, with its dam at Ticonderoga, was damaging the beautiful islands in the Narrows of Lake George. Within weeks of the disappointing vote over Hetch Hetchy, Apperson took action, and began representing the Schenectady Conservation Council, in Albany, and taking part in the legislative debates concerning New York’s forests and wild places.

He soon made friends with leading figures and served on key committees. He found kindred spirits there, and eagerly absorbed many ideas, legal doctrines, and political strategies that would help his efforts to try and secure funding for his projects at Lake George. By the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1915, he had become a leading voice for protecting the “forever wild” clause, then known as Article 7, Section 7 of the New York Constitution.

At first, Apperson did not have a strategy for addressing the problems relating to the operations of the dam at Ticonderoga, but he made a point to get introduced to most of the wealthy landowners at Lake George. Archives show a friendly exchange of letters between Apperson and William K. Bixby, George Foster Peabody, Mary H. Loines, and George O. Knapp. They all wanted the lake to be kept peaceful and quiet. In a letter from Mary Loines, she expressed her concerns about having the southern end of the lake become another Coney Island.

3 Pierrepont Place

Brooklyn, New York

January 13, 1922

Dear Mr. Apperson,

Here is a startling paragraph I cut out of the Warrensburg paper last week.  It was mislaid and I did not find it till after Hilda’s letter had been mailed.  It would be terrible to have that end of Lake George any worse than it was last year.

Here are some of the problems he noticed, and some of the actions he took to address them:

  • Problem – Erosion of topsoil on state-owned islands; Solution – recruit friends to help with riprapping (hauling rocks and building protective walls).

  • Problem – Squatters on state-owned islands (families were building permanent camps and erecting no tressing signs); Solution – gather information about each island’s ownership, inform state officials about the illegal trespassing, and assist state officials in having the “camps” removed.

  • Problem – Proposed highway to be built along the shores of Tongue Mountain; Solution(s) – propose legislation to establish a Lake George Park as well as funding to allow the state to purchase property from landowners on Tongue Mountain

  • Problem – Commerical Development and Logging Interests – Solution: get organized – join clubs and organizations, and try to influence leadership in each of them (i.e. the Adirondack Mountain Club, Lake George Association, American Canoe Association, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks);

Much of John Apperson’s story remains obscure, hidden deep in the archives, but the long lasting effects of his efforts to preserve the islands at Lake George are finally coming to the attention of scholars, journalists and historians.  Ellen Apperson Brown, Apperson’s great niece, published a book in 2017, entitled John Apperson’s Lake George. Later that same year, Rob Fischer produced a wonderful video called Saving Lake George. Having spent more than twenty years becoming an expert in all of those hard-fought battles, having obtained copies and originals of hundreds of her great uncle’s papers, Brown is eager to find a good home for her library of books and her personal archives.  She has transcribed over 1,200 letters and loaded them onto her very innovative website, www.adirondackactivism.com, thus making all those letters readily accessible to students. She has also posted biographical sketches of many of the famous people (such as FDR, Al Smith, Irving Langmuir, George Foster Peabody, and Robert Moses) as well as descriptions of the organizations he founded, the specific property he protected, and the many legal battles they had to fight. Her collection of archives includes letters and photographs that have never been shared or published before.

Union College and the Kelly Adirondack Center are home to about 44 cubic feet of Apperson’s documents and photographs, as part of the Adirondack Research Library.  Because of the enormous size and scope of the holdings there, including Paul Schaefer’s huge library, Brown is hoping to place her personal collection of documents and books with some other institution, perhaps a college library, that might like to provide their students’ access to this rich vein of information, giving them a chance to start exploring the early years of the preservation movement in New York’s Adirondack Park, starting with John Apperson.

She hopes that professors (perhaps of Political Science, or Environmental History) at some college or university could persuade the librarians and archivists to initiate a conversation with her, and explore the possibilities of welcoming the acquisition of her books and papers, representing such an important chapter of New York’s preservation history. She would love to offer her knowledge and skills as a curator, too, and hopes students would be interested in helping her expand and further develop her website, and perhaps enjoy exploring the development of other websites, or digital archives, based on other archival collections. The possibilities are endless, and exciting!   

Please get in touch with Ellen Brown and let her know if you have any suggestions, at [email protected].

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