Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fort Ticonderoga’s King’s Garden Opens

The King’s Garden at Fort Ticonderoga opens for the season today, June 1 with the colors of the bearded iris and other early blooming perennials and annuals. The garden celebrates the history of agriculture on the Fort Ticonderoga peninsula with tours, programs and special events throughout the season. Opportunities include hands-on family programs, adult learning, daily guided tours and quiet strolls through the scenery, volunteer initiatives, and a garden party.

The first program in the King’s Garden Workshop Series on herbs takes place on Wednesday, June 8th at 1:00 PM – Nature’s Wild Herbs Discovery Walk with local herbalist Nancy Wotton Scarzello. » Continue Reading.


Monday, May 30, 2011

Civil War in the North Country: Macomb’s Regiment

With the arrival of Memorial Day in this, the year marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, there is a North Country native who served with particular distinction in the 96th Infantry. The 96th, often referred to as the Plattsburgh Regiment (and sometimes Macomb’s Regiment), was recruited from villages across the region, spanning from Malone to Plattsburgh in the north, and south to Ticonderoga, Fort Edward, and Warrensburg.

Among those to join at Fort Edward was 23-year-old Lester Archer, a native of nearby Fort Ann. Lester enlisted as a corporal in December, 1861, and for three years served with hundreds of North Country boys and men who saw plenty of combat, primarily in Virginia.

In June, 1864, Archer was promoted to sergeant amidst General U. S. Grant’s heated campaign to take Richmond, a critical Confederate site. Guarding Richmond several miles to the south on the James River was Fort Harrison, a strategic rebel stronghold.

To divide Lee’s troops, a surprise attack was launched on Fort Harrison on September 29. The men of the 96th were among those who charged up the hill against withering fire, successfully driving off the fort’s defenders and assuming control. As the fort was being overtaken, a Union flag was planted by Sergeant Lester Archer, emphatically declaring victory.

Until Harrison fell, it was considered the strongest Confederate fort between Richmond and Petersburg, 25 miles south. Lee’s forces regrouped to launch several bloody efforts at recapturing the vital site, but the North stood their ground, protecting the prize.

Union General Burnham was killed in the battle, and in his honor, the site was temporarily renamed Fort Burnham. More than 800 soldiers were buried nearby at what is now known as Fort Harrison National Cemetery.

The 96th remained in the vicinity of Fort Harrison for three weeks, and in late October, an assault was launched against Fort Richmond at Five Oaks. The result was a bloody, hard-fought battle, with both sides claiming victory, but both suffering heavy casualties. Many North Country soldiers were killed or captured. Just three weeks after heroically planting the Union flag atop Fort Harrison, Sergeant Lester Archer was among those who perished at Five Oaks.

On April 6, 1865, Archer’s exceptional efforts were officially acknowledged. The highest US military decoration for valor was conferred upon him with these words: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (posthumously) to Sergeant Lester Archer, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 29 September 1864, while serving with Company E, 96th New York Infantry, in action at Fort Harrison, Virginia, for gallantry in placing the colors of his regiment on the fort.”

President Lincoln himself would die just nine days later.

Photos: Above, scene at Fort Harrison, Virginia, 1864; below, Lester Archer.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Spencer Boatworks Fire Recalls 1919 Blaze

The fire that claimed Spencer Boatworks’ storage building on the Bloomingdale Road north of Saranac Lake early Saturday morning destroyed an untold number of antique boats from around the Tri-Lakes region.

The monetary loss at a storage facility renowned for its restoration of and care for rare wooden motor boats—Fay & Bowen, GarWood, Hacker Craft, Chris-Craft, as well as their own designs—could be incalculable. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fort Ticonderoga Offers ‘Art of War’ Exhibiit

Fort Ticonderoga’s newest exhibit, The Art of War: Ticonderoga as Experienced through the eyes of America’s Great Artists brings together for the first time in one highlighted exhibition fifty of the museum’s most important artworks. Fort Ticonderoga helped give birth to the Hudson River school of American Art with Thomas Cole’s pivotal 1826 work, Gelyna, or a View Near Ticonderoga, the museum’s most important 19th-century masterpiece to be featured in the exhibit. The Art of War exhibit will be through October 20 in the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center exhibition gallery.

The Art of War exhibit includes paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and several three-dimensional artifacts selected for their historical significance and artistic appeal. Artists whose works are featured include Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Charles Wilson Peale, and Daniel Huntington among many others. As reflected in the exhibit, 19th-century visitors to Fort Ticonderoga included some of the greatest artists of the period who found inspiration in Fort Ticonderoga’s epic history and exquisite landscape.

Regional photographic artists such as Seneca Ray Stoddard recorded Ticonderoga’s ruins and landscapes over the course of twenty years. Many of his photographs were published in area travel guides and histories during the last quarter of the 19th century, keeping alive Ticonderoga’s place in American history while documenting early heritage tourism.

The Art of War uses the artworks to present the story of the Fort’s remarkable history and show how its history inspired American artists to capture its image and keep Ticonderoga’s history alive. The exhibit will graphically tell the history of the site from its development by the French army in 1755 through the beginning of its reconstruction as a museum and restored historic site in the early 20th century.

The Art of War: Ticonderoga as Experienced through the eyes of America’s Great Artists is organized by Christopher D. Fox, Curator of Collections.

Illustration: Gleyna, or A View Near Ticonderoga. Oil on board by Thomas Cole, 1826. Fort Ticonderoga Museum Collection.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Adirondack History Center Opens, New Exhibits

The Adirondack History Center Museum in Elizabethtown, Essex County, is opening for a new season beginning on Saturday, May 28. The museum will be offering some new exhibitions including What do You Want to Do? that focuses on the Brewster Memorial Library’s collection of old recreational brochures related to Essex County’s past attractions.

The Human Face exhibit highlights paintings of local people from the past, emphasizing the human presence within one of the Adirondack Park’s most fascinating corners. Opening on Saturday, July 23, is the new permanent exhibition, Worked/Wild. Through artifacts, photographs and stories that examine a wide spectrum of community life, this new exhibition explores the dynamic environmental and social structure of our region.

The museum is located at 7590 Court Street, Elizabethtown. It is open every day from 10am -5pm. For more information contact the museum at 873-6466 or visit the website at www.adkhistorycenter.org.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Adirondack Museum Opens for the Season

The Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, New York will open for the 54th season on Friday, May 27, 2011. This season, the museum opens two new exhibits and also introduces a host of family activities and special events.

The Adirondack Museum’s two new exhibits – “The Adirondack World of A.F. Tait” and “Night Vision: The Wildlife Photography of Hobart V. Roberts” – showcase two very different, yet complimentary, visions of the region.

“The Adirondack World of A.F. Tait” features paintings and prints depicting life in the Adirondack woods-images of hunters, sportsmen, guides, and settlers, that include a wealth of historical detail. Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait was the classic artist of Adirondack sport. From the objects Tait worked with to Currier and Ives prints and finished oil paintings, the exhibit showcases Tait’s artistic vision and skill and highlights the region’s beauty and character.

“‘The Adirondack World of A.F. Tait’ looks at the life and work of this most quintessentially Adirondack artist,” said Chief Curator, Laura Rice. “This exhibition represents a rare opportunity to see some of Tait’s most important works, including a few from private collections which are rarely, if ever, on exhibit.”

“Night Vision: The Wildlife Photography of Hobart V. Roberts” focuses on the work of one of the nation’s most recognized amateur wildlife photographers in the first decades of the 20th century. The “Night Vision” exhibit features approximately 35 original large-format photographs of Adirondack wildlife. Roberts’ cameras, equipment, colored lithographic prints, hand-colored transparencies, published works, and his many awards will also be exhibited. Roberts’ Adirondack wildlife photographs represent an important breakthrough in science and the technology of photography. His work has been published in Audubon Magazine, Country Life, Modern Photography, and The National Geographic Magazine.

The Adirondack Museum has planned a full schedule of family activities, hands-on experiences, special events, lectures and field trips for all ages. Programming for families in 2011 has expanded to include an Artist in Residence program, and a collaborative canvas where visitors can help paint an Adirondack landscape.

This summer, the museum has a special new event to kick-off summer for families -“Familypalooza” – on July 9. Familypalooza will include a bounce house, music show by Radio Disney, kayaking and paddling demonstrations on the museum’s pond, costumed animal characters, food, face painting and more. Children age 17 and under will be admitted free of charge for the day. Families will also enjoy “The Adirondacks Are Cookin’ Out!” – a tribute to food prepared with smoke and fire – on July 28, and Dog Days of Summer on August 6.

Two special exhibits will also return in 2011. The Adirondack Museum celebrates food, drink, and the pleasures of eating in the Adirondack Park in, “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions.” The exhibit shares culinary stories and customs, and a bit about local celebrity Rachael Ray. “Common Threads: 150 Years of Adirondack Quilts and Comforters” includes historic quilts from the museum’s textile collection as well as contemporary comforters, quilts, and pieced wall hangings.

The Adirondack Museum has introduced some lower admissions prices for 2011. The admissions prices are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors (62 and over), $12 for teens (13-17), $6 for kids (6-12) and free for those 5 and under. Admission will be free for members and all active military every day. Reduced group rates are also available.

The museum is open May 27 through October 17, 2011, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 7 days a week, including holidays. There will be an early closing on August 12, and adjusted hours on August 13; the museum will close for the day on September 9. Visit www.adirondackmuseum.org for more information. All paid admissions are valid for a second visit within a one-week period.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Environmental Historian at the Chapman Museum

This Wednesday, May 25, at 7 pm, noted environmental historian John Cumbler will present a talk entitled Mills, Water Power Dams and the Transformation of the Environment at the Chapman Historical Museum in Glens Falls. The lecture is the first in a series of programs, funded in part by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, which expand on the themes of the Chapman’s current exhibit, Harnessing the Hudson: Waterwheels & Turbines, a history of waterpower on the upper Hudson River. The program is free and open to the public.

John T. Cumbler, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, has taught at the Univ. of Louisville since 1975, specializing in United States Environmental History and Economic History. Professor Cumbler is the author of numerous books including: Northeast and Midwest United States: An Environmental History (2005) and Reasonable Use: The People, The Environment, And The State, New England 1790-1930 (2001). In his talk he will explore the impact of industrialization on rivers and the history of how people have responded to that degradation.

The Chapman Historical Museum is located at 348 Glen Street, Glens Falls. The exhibit Harnessing the Hudson will be on view through September 25th. Public hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm, and Sunday, noon to 4 pm. For more information call (518) 793-2826 or visit www.chapmanmuseum.org.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Following The Masters at Chapel Pond Slab

The Adirondack Park doesn’t enjoy as much cachet in the rock-climbing world as, say, the Gunks and the White Mountains. A recent geology book written for rock climbers, for instance, fails to mention the Adirondacks in its chapter on climbing venues in the Northeast.

That’s OK. We can do without the crowds. But the fact is that the Adirondacks offer superb rock routes and a rich climbing history. On Sunday, Josh Wilson and I got a taste of both at Chapel Pond Slab.

Anyone who regularly drives Route 73 from the Northway to Keene knows the slab—eight hundred feet of bare rock that rises above the highway just south of Chapel Pond. It’s an excellent place for beginning climbers to learn how to do multi-pitch routes.

The guidebook Adirondack Rock awards five stars—its highest rating—to two of the six routes at the slab: the Regular Route and Empress. Both were pioneered, at least in part, by legendary rock climbers and both are rated 5.5 in the Yosemite Decimal System. By today’s standards, a 5.5 climb is considered easy. But when the system was created, back in the 1950s, the scale ranged from 5.0 to 5.9, so a 5.5 route would have been regarded as moderate in difficulty. Nowadays, the scale ranges up to 5.15, so a 5.5 is no big shakes.

The Regular Route evolved from another route, Bob’s Knob Standard (rated 5.3), that was first climbed by John Case in 1933. Case, a former president of the American Alpine Club, helped introduce European climbing techniques to the United States earlier in the century. Case’s route was the first on the slab. Over the years, climbers tried variations of the route and eventually developed the more interesting and more challenging line known as Regular Route. The two routes still share the same beginning.

Empress was first ascended in the 1930s by Fritz Wiessner, one of the best climbers of his generation. Among his many accomplishments, Wiessner “discovered” the Gunks and established a number of routes there. He also earned fame as a high-altitude alpinist. In 1939, he came within two hundred meters of K2’s summit—fifteen years before “the Savage Mountain” would finally be conquered (four men died on Wiessner’s expedition).

On Sunday, Josh and I followed in the footholds and handholds of these masters when we did Bob Knob’s Standard, Regular Route, and Empress—altogether about 2,400 feet of climbing. Usually, each route is ascended in six or seven pitches, or stages, but we climbed without a rope except for one wet pitch on Regular Route. Climbing sans rope (that is, without belays or protection) is not recommended, but it’s sometimes done on these routes.

Although I had climbed Empress twice before, I got a little wigged out on its celebrated fourth and fifth pitches. Both involve ascending long stretches of slab with almost no holds. The holds that do exist are Lilliputian bulges, ridges, or depressions. Essentially, you trust the rubber of your climbing shoes to keep you on the rock.

Josh finished the route first. I waited several minutes while he went to the top of Bob’s Knob to take photos of me ascending the final pitches on Empress. This gave me the opportunity to look down (at that point, I had climbed five hundred feet) and contemplate what I was about to do, mindful of a nasty fall I had taken on the Eagle Slide last summer.

When Josh gave me the OK to start, I stepped onto a small ledge on the slab and began searching for tiny irregularities in the rock on which to smear my soles. Starting up, I had to fight the impulse to rush over the rock to get out of danger as soon as possible. I knew I’d be safer if I proceeded carefully, deliberately. Still, I found myself hurrying toward the end.

After finishing, I had a greater admiration for Fritz Wiessner. Yes, the routes he established are not especially difficult by today’s standards, but advances in equipment have changed the climbing game. Wiessner explored Chapel Pond Slab long before the era of sticky-soled slippers. In those days climbers wore leather boots. I suppose Fritz had on something of the sort when he first did Empress. I can’t imagine how he found the traction—and the nerve—to get up that rock.

As for protection, the old-school climbers hammered pitons into the rock instead of placing cams and aluminum chocks into cracks. And their ropes were made of hemp, not stretchy nylon. If the lead climber slipped, chances are the rope would break when it pulled taut. Hence, the motto of that time: “The leader does not fall.”

Do you think Empress is easy? Try climbing it in hiking boots.

Photo by Phil Brown: Josh Wilson on Regular Route.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Missing NYC Sport: Adk Guides Take The Stand

Suspicious circumstances had developed surrounding the disappearance of respected New York City businessman John C. Austin in July 1891. Two insurance companies who held life policies on Austin were deeply interested in his possible whereabouts. Neither had bought the story that Austin had drowned near Coney Island, leaving three small children fatherless. They believed a boat had picked him up and that Austin was now living and hiding out in the Adirondacks.

Colonel Edward C. James, a nationally renowned, colorful attorney represented the insurance companies. His opening statement was a classic. After building to a crescendo, James presented his climactic claim: “Gentlemen of the jury, I will show you John C. Austin as he is today, alive and well.” With that, he unwrapped a heretofore mysterious package, revealing a nearly seven-foot-tall cut-out likeness of Austin, taken from a hunting photograph.

The courtroom was stunned, and for the entire trial, the jury and a packed house of spectators were constantly confronted with a powerfully connected message. Facing them from a corner was the huge likeness of the missing man in hunting regalia, while in the courtroom sat a grand selection of Adirondack woodsmen dressed similarly to Austin, awaiting their turn to testify.

The plaintiffs appeared to have a tough case to prove, but their attorneys approached the trial from an angle that would elicit much sympathy. Pointing to Austin’s three young children strategically placed in front of the jury box, they presented their opening line: “The only question you are called upon to decide is whether the father of these three little children was drowned on July 4, 1891.” The intent was obvious, but no less effective.

Colonel James enjoyed some remarkable moments, shocking the court with the revelation that Austin, widely believed to be very well off financially, was in fact virtually bankrupt. He owed over $2500 (about $62,000 today) on various bills. Since his disappearance, Austin’s home had been sold for substantially less than its mortgage value. Days before vanishing, he withdrew $150 from the business (equal to $3,700 today). And on July 3, he had cashed a $400 check (equal to $10,000), even though his account to cover it held only a $2 balance.

The $400 check (he vanished on July 4—it was written on July 3 but postdated for July 7) had been cashed by his brother-in-law (Carruthers), who was stiffed for the full amount. Colonel James pointed out that Austin, a supposed pillar of society, apparently wasn’t so averse to fraud after all, having knowingly committed it against his own relative. It was powerful stuff.

The keystone of James’ case in support of those suspicious elements was what the media described as the “mountain flavor” of the courtroom. The effect was enhanced by the fact that many of New York’s “well-to-do,” including a number of top attorneys, frequented the Adirondacks as a favored getaway. Their interest in the Austin case was further piqued by the opportunity to see and listen to “their” guides speaking in court. Thus, the serious legal battle did contain a sideshow element.

When the time came for the Adirondack guides to testify, the defense suffered a serious setback. James Ramsay of Lowville said he had known Austin for many years and had delivered him to Crystal Lake in Lewis County just a month after Austin’s disappearance from Manhattan Beach.

However, Ramsay recounted conversations they shared regarding Austin’s recently deceased wife and the status of his children. During intense cross-examination, the details he had provided were shredded due to inconsistencies. The plaintiffs’ attorney suggested that Ramsay’s statements bordered on perjury, delivering a strong blow to the defense case.

Other guides, however, acquitted themselves quite well before a thoroughly pleased audience, some of whom recognized the mountain men by sight. Certain testimony, like that of Charles Bartlett, helped undo the damage from a day earlier. Much was made in the media of the visitors from the mountains and their service in court (their rough appearance was also noted). Colonel James, himself a North Country native (from Ogdensburg), was appreciative of their efforts.

Bartlett was followed by a parade of fellow guides who insisted they knew Austin and had spent time with him. He was said to have stayed for a while at Eagle’s Nest on Blue Mountain Lake. Some described his behavior at the Algonquin Hotel on Lower Saranac Lake, where he displayed outstanding skill on the billiard table. Austin was, in fact, known in New York City as an excellent pool player—one witness had played against him a day or so before he vanished.

Among those who took the stand were Eugene Allen, Edwin Hayes, Robert King, Walter Martin, and Ransom Manning, all described as guides in the Saranac Lake area. Others included Hiram Benham, James Butler, Thomas Haley, Charles Hall, and James Quirk, offering convincing proof that Austin had perpetrated a fraud and was moving about in the mountains, avoiding detection.

The men described encounters with Austin at several well-known establishments: the Ampersand Hotel, Hatch’s, the Prospect House, Miller’s Hotel, and Bart Moody’s. Many of the sightings were by multiple witnesses. One of the biggest problems for the company case was the outright honesty of the guides, who frequently used “I don’t remember” when asked about details from the events of the past few years. They were being truthful, but hearing that statement repeatedly from witnesses helped suggest the likelihood of faulty memories.

When testimony ended, Colonel James offered a fine summation supporting the statements from many people who had seen Austin since his supposed drowning. Trull, the lead attorney for the Austin family, enamored himself with the crowd, making light of the guides’ claims chiefly by attacking Ramsay, who had made conflicting statements. By targeting the guide with the weakest testimony, Trull hoped to dismiss them as a group. He smiled at the weak memories of some, and dismissed as untruthful those who recalled the past with remarkable clarity.

He also ridiculed the idea that a man in hiding could wear “ … leggins’, slouch hat, corduroy trousers, duck coat … what a likely yarn! Dressed in this conspicuous manner … and he wanted to hide!” Trull’s voice fairly dripped with smiling sarcasm.

The analogy was actually warped (though he would certainly stand out in New York City, no man who dressed like that in the mountains would be conspicuous), but the erroneous concept was lost on the jurors—city men who routinely dressed in suits.

In the end, the jury was out only 23 minutes, returning to declare Austin dead. There were several moments of complete silence following the announcement, as if everyone were stunned.

Then, punctuating the victory, Trull revealed the major role that sympathy had played in the case. Turning to the jurors, he said, “Gentlemen of the jury, on behalf of my clients, the three little orphan boys left alone and helpless by John C. Austin, I thank you.”

Excused by the judge, the jury filed out, stopping only to offer Trull an unusual comment that was in keeping with the prevailing air of sympathy: “We want to contribute our fees as jurymen to the unemployed poor, and want you to arrange the matter with the clerk for us.”

The companies later dropped a plan to appeal, instead deciding to cut their losses and pay the settlement. Thus ended the court case over the insurance claims. But as far as the companies were concerned, that’s all that was settled. They remained convinced that Austin had successfully duped everyone and was alive, well, and soon to be much better off financially.

When the Austin family received the death benefit checks, they were at the same time relieved and angry—relieved to collect the amount in full, but angry with the section of the check that said, “Pay to the executors of the estate of John C. Austin, deceased.” The insurance company had drawn a line through the word “deceased,” emphasizing their belief that he was still alive.

Though Austin had been pronounced dead, his story wasn’t. Reports came in of more sightings, and two agencies asked for a bounty in exchange for bringing him to New York.

Barely a month after the trial ended, headlines reported that Austin was under surveillance by a detective in Toronto. Subsequent articles addressed the issues of his status. Having been pronounced dead, was he now safe? Could a country extradite someone who had been pronounced dead? Could the other country accept extradition of a deceased person?

The questions were put to Colonel James, who commented on the jury’s decision: “They did not seem to appreciate the evidence that was presented, and with one fell swoop, they killed Austin and rendered his children orphans. It was sheer murder, but they thought they were right. You may have thought I was jesting when I said that the jury killed Austin. It is not that.

“Actually, Austin is not dead, as this revelation proves. There is no reason to doubt the truth of the report. He is judicially dead in this country. As long as he stays in Canada, he is alive, all right. As soon as he crosses the border into this country, he drops dead—theoretically.”

That’s the last anyone heard of John C. Austin.

Photo Top: Manhattan Beach Bath House on right.

Photo Bottom: Headline from the Austin case.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

APA Honors Clarence Petty

The Adirondack Park Agency celebrated Arbor Day 2011 with a tree planting in honor of Clarence Petty. Petty was one of the first employees at the Adirondack Park Agency following a long career with the NYS Conservation Department. He served on the Pomeroy Commission (Inter-Legislative Committee on Natural Resources) and the Temporary Study Commission on the Adirondacks.

Mr. Petty had a profound impact on the Adirondack Park and is considered one of the most influential environmentalists of the 20th century. » Continue Reading.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Adirondack Guides: The Missing NYC ‘Sport’

Adirondack guides from over a century ago are themselves part of the lore and history of the region. Their handling of city “sports,” coupled with their great abilities in the woods, provided the background for many a legendary tale. Guides were often strongly independent and shared a great affinity for the solitude of the deep woods. So what were nearly two dozen of these woodsmen doing in a New York City courtroom in the winter of 1893–1894?

They were present for the culmination of a terrific news story that had earned sustained coverage for more than two years. Dozens of American and Canadian newspapers followed the tale, which at times dominated the New York City media. A key component was its Adirondack connection.

The story centered on well-known businessman John C. “Jack” Austin, 38, of Brooklyn. Fit, trim, and very athletic, he participated regularly in team and individual sports. In industry, he was known to have enjoyed success, providing a comfortable, if not wealthy, existence for his family. Austin’s wife died in February, 1891, leaving him with three young children to raise, which he was doing with the aid of their very attentive housekeeper.

The afternoon of July 4, 1891, was like any other holiday in Austin’s life, with plans to attend the horse races or go swimming at Manhattan Beach. He kissed the children good-bye and went on his way, promising to take them that evening to the Independence Day fireworks.

Nearly nine hours later, the clerk at Manhattan Beach was performing the nightly check of the safe’s contents when he encountered an envelope bearing the name and street address of John Austin. For bathers visiting the beach, it was normal procedure to hire a bath room for changing clothes, and to deposit any valuables (wallet, cash, rings, watches) in envelopes provided by the facility. The owner received a numbered ticket which was later used to recover those goods.

After finding the envelope with Austin’s name on it, the clerk searched Room #391, where he found a coat, vest, shirt, hat, trousers, and underwear. In the pockets of the clothing were a case of business cards, a penknife, some keys, and some pencils.

Since it was nighttime and Austin’s personal belongings were still present, there was only one logical explanation: the owner likely had drowned. The clerk called for help, and in the presence of the bathing pavilion superintendent, the Manhattan Beach chief of police, and a fireman, the security envelope was opened.

Inside were items of varying value: a pocketbook containing a few dollars and some change; a ring with the letter S on it; and a lady’s gold watch and chain, studded with pearls.

The family was contacted and apprised of the situation. Joseph Austin (John’s brother), and Thomas Carruthers (John’s brother-in-law) positively identified the belongings as John’s, and a search was initiated. For two days, police and volunteers patrolled the water and the beaches, covering not only Manhattan Beach, but the nearby shores of Jamaica Bay, Plum Island, Rockaway, and Sheepshead Bay.

Veteran lawmen and experienced searchers knew what to do and where to look. Drownings were not uncommon off the shores of Coney Island, where tides and the prevailing winds routinely sent victim’s bodies to the shore sooner or later. Austin was presumed drowned, and alerts were issued to authorities on Staten Island as well as the New Jersey shore on the outside chance the body might surface there.

Over the course of ten days, nothing was found, which in itself stirred suspicions. Some suggested that a northwest wind had driven the body out to sea, but police and beach veterans knew better. Austin’s room, #391, had been rented at about 4:00 pm, and for several hours following, a strong flood tide had pushed inland. To a man, they recognized it as an unusual circumstance that Austin’s body had not washed ashore—if he had, in fact, drowned.

The family filed a claim with two insurance companies, where Austin’s coverage totaled $25,000 (equal to about $620,000 today). However, since no body had been recovered, one of the companies had already begun an investigation, despite the stellar public image of Austin as a respected, honest, hard-working family man. They wouldn’t be paying on the claim just yet.

A number of peculiarities, both large and small, were noted in the situation surrounding John Austin’s disappearance. He was known to be wearing a very valuable diamond ring, but only an inexpensive ring was found in the envelope.

The same was true of the lady’s watch that was found. Austin always wore his own watch, described as “a magnificent chronometer.” Friends and relatives said the valued watch was being repaired at a jeweler, but the insurance company discovered that the watch had been picked up on July 3, the day before he vanished. The jeweler’s shop was very near Austin’s office, but for some unknown reason, he sent a messenger boy with a check to pick up the watch.

It was also learned that John Austin patronized Manhattan Beach regularly and was well known to many of the workers—yet no one recalled seeing him on July 4. Further, on that day it was chilly and windy, reducing attendance to about 600 on a beach that often held many thousands of bathers. Despite the sparseness of the crowd, no employees could be found who had seen Austin.

Co-workers and partners confirmed that the missing man always carried plenty of cash, almost never less than $100. And yet the envelope of his belongings held just a few dollars.

He was also known to many as a very prolific and strong swimmer, often covering extreme distances. Drowning seemed an unlikely end for such a fit and able swimmer.

Another possibility was floated: perhaps Austin had been hiding out while an imposter went to the beach on his behalf, used the changing room, and deposited the valuables (which had since been deemed not so valuable after all). That would explain why (in an unusually sparse crowd) no attendants had seen Austin. Maybe he hadn’t been there at all.

Many more suspicious developments spurred further investigation, expanding far from the confines of New York City. Austin’s three orphaned children were now living with his sister, who was a resident of Montreal, Quebec.

It was learned that their missing father was one of a great many city dwellers who frequented the Adirondacks for hunting and fishing expeditions. Since the Adirondacks were little more than an hour south of Montreal, investigators kept digging.

It was then ascertained that John C. Austin was no stranger to the North Country. To be more specific, a number of those stalwarts of the north woods, the Adirondack guides, claimed to have not only seen Austin since his supposed drowning, but had guided him in several areas, including the Saranac Lake region.

New developments caused further consternation. Of the two insurance policies which together were equal to well over $600,000 (in 2011), one had been secured by Austin on July 1, just three days before he vanished. And, after procuring the new policy, he had asked a secretary in the insurance office if it took effect at that very moment. It did seem an unusual query. With confirmation, he requested that the policy be sent to him ASAP. It was mailed that afternoon.

A few witnesses eventually came forth, claiming they had seen a man disappear while swimming well offshore on July 4. Skeptical detectives suggested another scenario. Since Austin was widely known as a powerful swimmer, they believed he swam a few miles out, where he was picked up by a boat and secreted for a time at the home of his good friend, Henry LaMarche, south of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, not much more than ten miles from Manhattan Beach.

LaMarche denied it, but his gardener and other employees stated emphatically that they had seen Austin with LaMarche in the days following the supposed drowning.

Following up on Jack Austin’s great love of the north woods, detectives found many Adirondack guides who had known him over the years and claimed to have recently seen him and/or worked for him. One of them provided a photograph, said to have been taken recently. It showed Austin in full hunting gear.

Confident now that this was a scam, the insurance companies denied the family’s claims, which were made on behalf of the children. Both sides had taken a firm stand, and the matter of whether or not John C. Austin was alive or dead would be decided by the courts.

Thus, in December, 1893, about twenty Adirondack woodsmen found themselves en route to New York City for an extended stay, courtesy of the insurance companies. They were to testify about their interactions with Austin and the range of his movements.

Next week: From the big woods to the big city.

Photo Top: Manhattan Beach, circa 1900.

Photo Bottom: Headline from the Austin case.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Chapman Opens ‘Harnessing the Hudson’ Exhibit

The Chapman Historical Museum in Glens Falls has opened a new major exhibition, Harnessing the Hudson, which explores the history of how people in the region have harnessed the renewable energy of the Hudson River from early sawmills to hydroelectric generators.

In 1903, the Spier Falls hydroelectric dam, located on the Hudson eight miles upstream from Glens Falls, began to produce electricity. Touted at the time as the largest dam of its type in the United States, the dam supplied electricity not only to surrounding communities but also to the large General Electric plant in Schenectady 50 miles away. The dam quickly became part of a network of power plants and transmission lines that supplied power for factories, transportation and lighting in the Capital region.

The brainchild of Glens Falls attorney, Eugene Ashley, Spier Falls was a project that captivated the interest of people far and wide. They were familiar with water power, but electricity was a very new phenomenon at the beginning of the 20th century, and many people were not convinced of its potential. Little did they suspect how much it would change their lives.

The exhibit features archival materials and artifacts principally from the Chapman’s Spier Falls collection but also from other regional archives. Of particular note are photographs provided by the Schenectady Museum and Science Center, which houses thousands of images that document the history of GE and the development of electricity. For those unfamiliar with the physics of water power, a hand-cranked generator and other interactive elements provide greater understanding of the science involved.

In conjunction with the exhibit, which will run through September, the museum plans to hold a series of public programs relating to the theme of Harnessing the Hudson. These will include talks about the history of hydropower on the upper Hudson, the development of the electric grid, a driving tour of mill sites, and kayak tours that explore the river ecology around Spier Falls.

This project is supported by: Brookfield, The Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation, the Waldo T. Ross & Ruth S. Ross Charitable Trust Foundation, National Grid, the New York Council for the Humanities and general operating support from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.

The exhibit will be on display at the Chapman Historical Museum through September 25, 2011. The museum is located at 348 Glen Street, Glens Falls, NY. Public Hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm, and Sunday, noon to 4 pm. For more information call (518) 793-2826

Photo: Construction workers installing a 12’ diameter penstock at Spier Falls Hydroelectric Dam, 1901.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Adirondack Lost Ski Area Book Forthcoming

Author Jeremy Davis of Saratoga Springs recently announced he has begun work on a new book to be titled Lost Ski Areas of the Adirondacks. The new volume, Davis’s third in the series, will be published by The History Press, and will focus on the 50-60 lost ski areas in the region. Davis touched upon some of the fascinating history of these ski areas when I chatted with him back in January.

“The Adirondacks are filled with the ghosts of former ski areas,” Davis said. “They range from the first J-bar in New York State in Lake George, to short rope tows at hotels in Lake Placid, to large planned resorts that were never completed like Lowenburg near Lyon Mountain.”

Lost Ski Areas of the Adirondacks will be written over the course of the next 12 months, according to Davis, and is expected to be in print in the late summer of 2012. Davis says that he has already been researching areas, locating photos and maps.

The book is expected to be a bit different than Davis’s previous two books (Lost Ski Areas of the White Mountains and Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vemont) in that it is expected to have fewer photos and maps, but more background information and personal stories. Davis said that he will define the Adirondack region as within and “slightly outside” the Blue Line, including areas that were marketed as Adirondack ski areas.

If you skied at a lost area in the Adirondacks and would like to share a memory, or if you have any photos, contact Davis at nelsap@yahoo.com. Additional information can be found at the website of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (NELSAP).

Photo: Paleface postcard courtesy www.teachski.com.

Jeff Farbaniec is an avid telemark skier and a 46er who writes The Saratoga Skier & Hiker, a blog of his primarily Adirondack outdoor adventures.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Program on Crown Point Cannons Offered

Where, in the Lake Champlain region, was the richest trove of artillery pieces at the time of the outbreak of the Revolutionary War? Most published histories, including those used in the classroom, overlook the largest British fort ever built in North America – Crown Point. At 7:00 pm, May 12th, artillery expert Joseph M. Thatcher will present a free public lecture inside the museum auditorium at the Crown Point State Historic Site on the little-known but fascinating topic of “The Cannon From Crown Point.” » Continue Reading.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Lake George Marine Railway Headed to Historic Registers

To the casual observer, the Lake George Steamboat Company’s marine railway near the foot of the lake is unlikely to conform to any preconceived notion of a historic site.

Built in 1927 by Crandall Dry Dock Engineers, it’s a utility, used to haul vessels in and out of Lake George for repair, maintenance and storage.

But in the 19th century, almost every harbor on the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada had similar railways, almost all built by Crandall Dry Dock Engineers; the Crandall railway at Hart Bay is, according to New York State’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, among the few that remain intact and in operation today.

The New York State Board for Historic Preservation has, therefore, recommended that the railway be added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

The Board cast its votes when it met in March in New York, where it recommended adding thirty nine sites to the registers, including Fort George in Lake George.

“These nominations reflect many of the varied commercial, agricultural, political and social movements that have shaped New York State,” said Rose Harvey, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “Bringing recognition to these properties will help us to preserve and illuminate important components of New York State history.”

According to Bill Dow, president of the Lake George Steamboat Company, the entire marine railway complex, which includes 390 feet of track under water, the cradle and the gears in the small frame head house, was nominated for the registers.

“Without the marine railway, the Lake George Steamboat Company could not have continued to operate through the Depression and the post-War eras,” said Dow.

According to Dow, the railway was constructed to haul the Sagamore from the lake for repairs.

On July 1, 1927 the Sagamore rammed the point of Anthony’s Nose, and began to sink. The captain, John Washburn of Ticonderoga, ordered that the hole in the hull be stuffed with mattresses. He then sailed her into Glenburnie, where she discharged her passengers, and then beached her in a small cove. After repairs were made at Hart Bay, she was refurbished, launched again in May 1928, and sailed for another five years.

According to the State Board of Historic Preservation, the Crandall Marine Railway complements the Lake George Steamboat Company’s Mohican, which was placed on the registry of Historic Places two years ago.

“Together, the railway and the excursion boat recall the nearly two century history of pleasure boating on one of the Adirondack Regions’ largest and most popular and accessible tourist destinations,” the State Board noted.

The Lake George Steamboat Company is now preparing an application to place the former Lake George train station on the registers of historic places.

Like the Steamboat Company, the station was owned by the D&H railroad, which built the station in 1909 in the same Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture as its nearby hotel, the Fort William Henry.

“The Lake George Steamboat Company represents America, or the America of the past, as few companies do,” said Bill Dow. “We feel a responsibility to honor that past by preserving our legacy.”

Photo: Mohican at marine railway.

For more news from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror or visit Lake George Mirror Magazine.


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