Posts Tagged ‘Keeseville’

Monday, September 20, 2010

Keeseville’s Thomas W. Symons, Part I

In 1847, Thomas Symons operated a book bindery in the village of Keeseville, offering ledgers, journals, receipt books, and similar products. Rebinding of materials was much in demand in those days, a service that helped expand his clientele. While Thomas, Sr., was successful in building a business, his son, Thomas, Jr., would play an important role in building a nation.

Thomas William Symons, Jr., was a Keeseville native, born there in 1849. When he was a few years old, the family moved to Flint, Michigan, where several members remained for the rest of their lives. His younger twin brothers, John and Samuel, operated Symons Brothers & Company, the second largest wholesale firm in the state. They became two of Michigan’s most prominent men in social, political, and business circles.

Thomas chose a different route, completing school and applying to the US Military Academy at West Point. After acceptance, he proved to be no ordinary student, graduating at the top of the Class of 1874. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, and served at Willett’s Point, about 50 miles south of West Point. After two years, he was ready for some field work, and his timing couldn’t have been better.

Symons was assigned to join the Wheeler Expedition under fellow West Point alum George Wheeler. The travels of explorers Lewis & Clark and Zeb Pike are better known, but the Wheeler Expedition is one of four that formed the nucleus of the US Geological Survey’s founding.

The engineers, Symons among them, not only explored, but recorded details of their findings. The land encompassing Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah was surveyed using triangulation, and more than 70 maps were created. Their studies on behalf of America’s government produced volumes on archaeology, astronomy, botany, geography, paleontology, and zoology. The possibilities of roads, railroads, agriculture, and settlement were addressed.

The experience Thomas gained during this work was invaluable. In 1878, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. In 1879, Symons was appointed Engineer Officer of the Department of the Columbia, and was promoted to captain in 1880. Similar to the work he had done under Wheeler, Thomas was now in charge of studying the area referred to as the “Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest,” focusing on the upper Columbia River and its tributaries.

Much of the land was wilderness, and the job was not without danger. The American government was notorious for breaking treaties with Indians, and groups of surveyors in the region were driven off by angry natives who said they had never sold the rights to their land.

Symons was a surveyor, but he was also an officer of the military. Leading a company of the 21st Infantry from Portland, Oregon, in Washington, he faced off against 150 armed warriors. The situation was potentially disastrous, but Thomas listened to the concerns of the Indians, learning their histories and beliefs. Bloodshed was avoided as Symons skillfully negotiated a truce, allowing him to survey from the Snake River north to the Canadian border, unimpeded.

Much of the upper Columbia study was conducted in a small boat carrying Symons, two soldiers, and several Indians. His report provided details of the region’s geology and history, a review so thorough, it was published as a congressional document. Combined with his earlier surveys of Oregon, it made Symons the government’s number one man in the Northwest.

Whether or not his superiors agreed with him, Symons addressed the Indians’ issues in prominent magazine articles, sympathizing with their plight. Few knew the situation better than Thomas, and he freely expressed his opinions.

Besides exploring and mapping the Northwest, he chose locations for new army outposts, built roads, and carried out military duties. He also became a prominent citizen of Spokane, purchasing land from the Northern Pacific Railroad and erecting the Symons Building, a brick structure containing commercial outlets and housing units. (A third rendition of the Symons Block remains today an important historical building in downtown Spokane.)

Thomas’ proven abilities led to a number of important assignments. In 1882, he was placed on the Mississippi River Commission, taking charge of improvements on the waterway. In 1883, the Secretary of State asked Symons to lead the US side of the joint boundary commission redefining the border with Mexico. Surveying, checking and replacing border markers, and other work was conducted while averaging 30 miles per day on rough ground in intense heat. For his efforts, Thomas received formal thanks from the State Department.

He was then sent to Washington, D.C., where he worked for six years on city projects, principally the water supply, sewage system, and pavements. He also developed complete plans for a memorial bridge (honoring Lincoln and Grant) connecting Washington to Arlington, Virginia. (A modified version was built many years later.)

Symons’ next assignment took him back to familiar territory, the Northwest. Based in Portland, he was given charge of developing river and harbor facilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. He did primary engineering work on canals, including one in Seattle that remains a principal feature of the city, and planned the tideland areas for Ballard, Seattle, and Tacoma harbors. Seattle’s present railroad lines and manufacturing district were included in planning for the famed harbor facilities.

On the Pacific coast, Thomas’ work on the world-renowned jetty works at the mouth of the Columbia River was featured in Scientific American magazine. He also provided the War Department with surveys and estimates for harbor construction at Everett, Washington.

Next week: Even bigger and better things, including historic work in New York State.

Photo Top: Thomas Williams Symons, engineer.

Photo Bottom: Modern version of the Symons Block in Spokane, Washington.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Exotic Wildlife: Gators in the Adirondacks

In 1999, Fox 2000 Pictures released the film Lake Placid. Despite the title, the story takes place on fictional Black Lake in Maine. The folks at Fox apparently figured the name of an internationally renowned Olympic site in New York might attract more attention than Black Lake, which was, after all, placid, just like the title said. Except for those times when a giant killer crocodile was thrashing on the surface, gulping down humans for lunch.

It was hard to tell which was less believable: that Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, and the legendary Betty White would sign on for such a project; that a movie based on such a far-fetched concept could make money; or that a member of the order Crocodilia could be found on any lake within 700 miles north of the Carolinas. If you’re a betting person, which is/are true?

The answers: Yes—Fonda, Pullman, and White (plus Oliver Platt and Brendan Gleeson) played the major roles in the movie. Yes, it earned money—nearly $32 million, enough to spawn Lake Placid 2 in 2007, and Lake Placid 3, scheduled for release on June 26, 2010. And yes, members of the order Crocodilia have lived recently in the north woods. All bets are winners!

The gator of Mirror Lake existed, appropriately enough, in the village of Lake Placid, and it scared the heck out of some very surprised tourists. I was once an avid fisherman, and before you take a fisherman’s word on something as ridiculous as this, it’s probably best to seek a higher authority, say, the New York Times. In 1903, they ran a story titled “Alligator in Lake Placid.”

That was two decades before “Lake Placid South” (Lake Placid, Florida) came into existence, so rest assured, the story applied to Lake Placid in the Adirondacks. The tale in the Times began in early 1903 when the Stevens brothers, proprietors of the famed Stevens House, learned the answer to that age-old question, “What do you give someone who has everything?” The obvious answer: a reptile from the tropics, given to them as a gift by a friend who was returning from Florida.

A young alligator became the newest addition to the hotel’s amenities (deterrents?), housed temporarily in a bathtub. Around May, when ponds were open and the snow was melting, they made a decidedly non-tropical decision, releasing the gator into Mirror Lake. Frigid nights brought ice to the lake’s shallows, leaving only the slightest hope for the gator’s survival.

A few weeks later, on a warm, sunny day, appeared the oddest of sights at Mirror Lake—an alligator catching some rays on the beach. Because of its size, the gator posed little threat to humans, and the Stevens had a new attraction for patrons and curious northerners who, in the summer of ′03, hoped to glimpse the elusive newcomer.

Imagine the surprise of visitors a year later, innocently walking the shoreline of Mirror Lake in early summer, and stumbling upon an alligator! They reported their amazing find to management, who explained it was merely the Stevens’ family pet. (We can assume the Stevens housed it for the winter, but in warmer climes, gators can survive the cold in underground dens. Lake Placid’s temps would have provided a stern test of that system.)

Though the whole story seems like a once-in-a-lifetime tale, especially for those of us familiar with Adirondack wildlife, the Mirror Lake gator was not as unusual as you’d think. Similar incidents have occurred from Malone to Keeseville, and Ausable Forks to Ticonderoga. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became fashionable to have exotic pets, and many small alligators were among those carried home from Florida to the Adirondacks. Most of them were less than two feet long. Some escaped from their owners, while others were released into the wild.

It’s unclear what became of the survivors, like the Mirror Lake alligator or the many pets kept by private individuals. Or the one at the Lake Placid Club in 1933. That’s another story that defies belief. George Martin, the swimming instructor at the club, captured (with help) a seven-foot alligator from southern Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. They wrapped the reptile’s huge jaws in wire and prepared to take him north.

How do you transport a 7-foot alligator 1,000 miles? By George’s reckoning, you crate it, lay the crate on the car’s running board (most cars had them back then), lash the gator’s tail to the car’s rear fender, and hit the road. Though the wires around his jaws were snipped, the animal refused to eat, but they did make frequent stops at gas stations to water him down. He was christened “Mike,” and the club made plans for a facility where the animal could spend the winter. In the meantime, he was kept among Jacques Suzanne’s menagerie about a mile south of the village.

On a few occasions in the North Country, folks have unexpectedly stumbled upon alligators, and it’s hard to imagine the shock of the moment. Unfortunately, the reaction was uniform: kill it. A young boy from Malone, startled with his find (an 18-inch gator), dispatched it with a rock.

Another alligator’s death begs the question “Why?” The story was reported in the Wells area in late October 1957. Two bow hunters were hoping to bag a buck, but they spied a 32-inch alligator treading water near a beaver dam. One of the men put an arrow into the gator just behind the head, killing it. It was assumed to have been a released pet surviving on its own. No one knew how long it had been there, or if it had denned and somehow weathered the previous winter. (Not likely.)

Back in 1924, a young gator in Keeseville survived as a pet for three years until a couple of barn cats settled a longstanding feud, dragging it from its tank, killing it after an intense battle, and partially devouring the carcass before the owners drove them off.

But not all the alligators in the Adirondacks met tragic ends. Some were part of a traveling show associated with the Seminole Indians of Florida. Virtually every Florida carnival and sideshow featured alligator wrestlers, and among the best was George Storm. In the 1950s, a complete Seminole village was set up at Michael Covert’s hotel in Wilmington, and part of the daily show that summer was Storm performing his specialty.

Considering the unknown fate of Lake Placid’s alligators, their known proclivity for longevity, and the movies by the same name, it might be a good idea during the Ironman Triathlon to count swimmers going into Mirror Lake as well as those coming out. Just in case.

Photo Above: Poster from the first Lake Placid movie.

Photo Below: The Stevens House as it looked when it hosted the alligator.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

DEC Revises Adirondack Campground Closure Plan

The DEC has announced that under the new plan, it will operate four of six campgrounds previously slated for closure for shortened seasons, from June 26 through Labor Day. In addition, after partnering with local officials, DEC will substitute one Piseco Lake-area campground in Hamilton County on the closure list for another. At the campgrounds that will remain closed, DEC will allow use of its hiking and horse trails and climbing routes.

In DEC’s own words:

“New York is facing tough economic times and closing campgrounds was not an easy choice. With the help of local officials, DEC has devised a way to soften the impact,” Commissioner Grannis said in a press relase. “Each of the targeted facilities historically suffered from low occupancy over the course of a full season. By shortening the season, we can open the campgrounds during traditional peak occupancy periods. This plan will help local tourism and provide opportunities for affordable getaways while still reducing our annual operating costs.”

The revisions for the 2009 season are:
In the Catskills

Beaverkill, Roscoe, Sullivan County.

The campground will be operated under an abbreviated season – from June 26 through Labor Day. DEC will operate the facility with assistance from Sullivan County, upon adoption of a cooperative agreement.

Bear Spring Mountain, Walton, Delaware County.

The previous decision to close the camping area within this facility remains in effect. However, numerous horse and hiking trails and associated trailhead parking areas at this popular Wildlife Management Area will continue to be available for public use. There will be no fee for parking.
In the Adirondacks

Point Comfort, Arietta, Hamilton County.

The campground will be operated under an abbreviated season – from June 26 through Labor Day. However, DEC will not open Poplar Point, which is also in the Piseco Lake area, for 2009. DEC will explore options to work cooperatively with Arietta officials to continue to potentially offer a day-use facility at Poplar Point in future years.

Sharp Bridge, North Hudson, Essex County.

The campground will be operated under an abbreviated season – from June 26 through Labor Day.

Tioga Point, Raquette Lake, Hamilton County.

The campground will be operated under an abbreviated season – from June 26 through Labor Day.

Pok-O-Moonshine, Keeseville, Essex County.

The previous decision to close this facility remains in effect. Hikers, rock climbers and other recreational users will be able to access hiking trails and climbing routes by parking in the entrance area. No fee will be charged for parking.

DEC will work closely with ReserveAmerica, the state’s camping reservation service contractor, to contact visitors whose reservations were previously cancelled, to offer them their original reservations and to re-open the camping site inventory to them before it is made available to the general public. DEC will cover the cost of the reservation fees to lessen the impact to the visitors that will be affected.

DEC is responsible for managing 52 campgrounds and 7 day-use areas in New York’s Adirondack Park and Catskill Park.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

Roundtable to Discuss Interviewing and Oral History

The Clinton-Essex Counties Roundtable will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 9, 2009 at the Northern New York American Canadian Genealogy Society, Keeseville Civic Center, 1802 Main St., Keeseville. The topic will be “Community Scholars Training: Interviewing & Oral History” and will be presented by Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY) Executive Director Jill Breit.

Breit will share examples of successful oral history projects and demonstrate the many ways interviews can be used for different outcomes. She will focus on how to organize an oral history project, the basics of an oral history interview, the importance of field notes and follow-up interviews, recorders and other equipment for collecting oral history.

There will also be a tour of NNY American Canadian Genealogy Society Library and the Anderson Falls Heritage Society. Lunch will be provided at a cost of $5.00, payable at the roundtable.

The roundtable is provided free of charge to the public on behalf of the Northern New York Library Network, Potsdam, and Documentary Heritage Program. To register for this event contact the NNYLN at 315-265-1119, or sign up on-line at www.nnyln.org and click on “Classes.”


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Seven Human Made Wonders of the Adirondacks

In no particular order, Adirondack Almanack’s list of Seven Human Made Wonders of the Adirondacks. Our list of the Seven Natural Wonders can be found here. Feel free to add your comments and suggestions.

Whiteface Memorial Highway
Although Lake George’s Prospect Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway deserves honorable mention, the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway deserves a spot on our list of wonders. Considered a test case for both the New Deal Works Progress Administration and the constitutional protection of the Forest Preserve, construction began in 1929 (after passage of the necessary amendment) and eventually cost 1.2 million dollars. The completed road, an eight-mile climb (at 8 percent average grade) from the crossroads in Wilmington, comes within 400 feet of the summit of the fifth highest mountain in the Adirondacks. New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt announced at the groundbreaking that a “distinguished French engineer” had driven the road and told him, “I, of course, know all of the great mountain highways of Europe. There is no highway in all of Europe which can compare for its engineering skill, for its perfection of detail, with the White Face Mountain Highway of the State of New York.” When the road was completed, F.D.R. (by then President of the United States) officially opened the route on July 20, 1935 and dedicated it to the “veterans of the Great War.” In his closing remarks F.D.R. said “I wish very much that it were possible for me to walk up the few remaining feet to the actual top of the mountain. Some day they are going to make it possible for people who cannot make the little climb to go up there in a comfortable and easy elevator.” The result of F.D.R’s desire is the 424-foot tunnel into the core of the mountain that ends in a elevator which rises 276 feet (about 27 stories) to the summit.

Fort Ticonderoga
Although the earliest archeological evidence of Indian settlement dates to 8,000 B.C. (and Native Americans were planting crops there as early as 1,000 B.C.), the first fort built there by Europeans was Fort Carillon constructed by the French in 1755-1758 during the French and Indian War. It’s location at the narrow strip of land between Lake Champlain and Lake George meant that the fort, called the “key to the continent,” controlled the northern portion of America‘s most important north-south travel route through the earl 19th century. Its impressive placement atop the cliffs and its European design kept it from being taken by an overwhelming British force under General Abercromby in 1758. It was taken the following year under General Amherst and again on May 10, 1775, when Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys surprised the sleeping British garrison. It was retaken by the British in July 1777 by General Burgoyne who managed to place cannon on Mount Defiance overlooking the fort. In 1820, William Ferris Pell bought the ruins and in 1908 Stephen and Sarah Gibbs Thompson Pell began restoration. The following year it was opened to the public (President Taft was on hand) and in 1931 Fort Ticonderoga was designated a not-for-profit educational historic site managed by the Fort Ticonderoga Association.

The Adirondack Museum
Some day the Wild Center in Tupper Lake may make this list, but until then the Aidirondack Museum owns the title Adirondack wonder. The brainchild of mining baron Harold Hochschild, the museum has recently reached its 50th year preserving the heritage of the Adirondacks. Although it began as a small endeavor it has become a must see attraction of 32 acres and 22 buildings. Nearly 3 million visitors have seen the exhibits on mining, logging, boating, recreation, and the environment and culture of the Adirondacks. It is the single largest collection of Adirondack artifacts, including thousands of books (60 published by the museum), periodicals, manuscripts, maps and government documents, over 2,500 original works of art, 70,000 photographs, 300 boats and wheeled vehicles, and a large collection of rustic furniture, art, and architecture. Highlights include the Marion River Carry Railroad engine passenger car and the carriage that brought Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to North Creek the night President William McKinley was assassinated.

North Country Public Radio
Founded at St. Lawrence University and now celebrating their 40th year, today’s North Country Public Radio is a network of stations broadcast from 30 fm transmitters and translators from the Canadian frontier to Western Vermont and south into Hudson Valley. Its regional and national news, public affairs, and music programs have become a part of Adirondack culture in a way that gives NCPR a place on our list of Adirondack wonders. Whether its a ham dinner in Placid, a lost dog in the Keene Valley, a fire in Pottersville, or a political event in Saranac or Tupper, NCPR reaches over, around, and seemingly through the mountains and into our homes in ways nothing else in the North Country does. That’s a wonder in itself.

Keeseville Stone Arch Bridge
Workers building the historic Stone Arch Bridge over the AuSable River on Main Street in Keeseville had a close call in 1842. The bridge of native stone, believed at the time to be the largest such bridge in the country, was being built to replace the original wooden structure erected in 1805. The men had completed the first course of stone including the keystones and had nearly finished the second course when a violent storm blew in. Just as more then 30 men fled the storm’s heavy rain to a wooden shed on the bank of the river, the entire bridge collapsed into the AuSable with a thunderous crash said to have shaken buildings as far away as Port Kent. Since then it’s done quiet service. Rehabilitated in 2000 and now carrying more than 5,500 vehicles a day, the bridge still stands as a testament to Adirondack engineering. Its total length is over one hundred feet with 90 foot stone arch span.

Santa’s Workshop
Each year more and more of the region’s theme parks fade into oblivion. Those that have been lost include Old McDonald’s Farm (Lake Placid), The Land of Make Believe (Upper Jay), Frontier Town (North Hudson), Storytown (now the corporate Great Escape), Gaslight Village (Lake George), and Time Town (Bolton Landing). Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, NY seems the last of a breed and some of the remaining (and still operational in its original context) handiwork of Arto Monaco. Monaco was the local artist who designed sets for MGM and Warner Brothers, a fake German village in the Arizona desert to train World War II soldiers, and later his own Land of Make Believe (as well as parts of Storytown, Gaslight Village, and Frontier Town). Lake Placid businessman Julian Reiss’s Santa’s workshop opened July 1, 1949 and included a very early prototype petty zoo; it received its own zip code (12946) in 1953. A record daily attendance occurred in 1951 when 14,000 people walked through the gates. Julian’s son Bob Reiss took over the operation in the early 1970s, but the number of visitors has continued to drop with the park closing in 2001 only to reopen, hopefully for good.

Lake Placid Sports Complex

From the early competitions at the Lake Placid Club to the modern Olympic Training Facility, the sports complexes in and around Lake Placid have been bringing the sports world to our doorsteps for over a hundred years. Most are familiar with the stats: 12 awards in each the 1932 and 1980 games; Jack’s Shea two gold medals (the first American to win two gold medals at the same Olympics); figure skater-turned movie star Sonja Henie’s second of three consecutive Olympic gold medals, speed skater Eric Heiden’s five medal sweep (including one world record); “The Miracle” of 1980. After the 1980 Games, the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) combined under one management Whiteface, the bobsled, luge, cross-country ski and biathlon facilities at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, the Olympic Center, the speed skating oval, and the jumping complex. Since then ORDA has hosted hundreds of major national and international events, including world championships and world cup competitions in bobsled, luge, skeleton, alpine racing, ski jumping, speed skating, freestyle skiing and snowboarding. The Olympic Training facility opened in 1988 (one of only three in the country) and includes a 96-room dormitory that meets the needs of more than 6,000 athletes a year. The Lake Placid facilities are in one of only three communities in the world to have hosted two Winter Olympics, and that alone makes them an Adirondack wonder.

What do you think?

Fire away – let us know which Adirondack human and natural constructed things/places are the most significant, must-see attractions, marvels of engineering, historically important, or have other significance that makes them one of your top seven?

Remember – two lists – one for the human-made wonders, one for natural wonders.


Monday, October 8, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part Four

In Part One of Adirondack Snowmobile History, we traced the emergence of snow machines in the early 1900s. In Part Two we looked at the development of the personal sled that is so familiar today. Part Three followed the explosion of makes and models and the spread of snowmobiling throughout the Adirondack region with races, clubs, and dealers taking advantage of the boon in snowmobile sales that occurred from 1965 to 1970.

From the beginning some snowmobile riders and some folks concerned about the impacts of snowmobiles on the rural and wilderness environments began to debate the new outdoor sport. With 200,000 snowmobiles already traveling American lakes, fields, and trails in the 1966-1967 season and many more apparently on the way, government and environmental advocates began to address the possible impacts and attempt to responsibly manage them.

Snowmobile historian Leonard Reich noted that:

During the mid-1960s, snowmobile enthusiasts began to organize clubs whose activities were oriented toward safety, social events, and group activities such as festivals (“snodeos”), clearing, marking, and grooming trails, and trail rides (“snofaris” and “sno-mo-cades”) that could include as many as fifty sleds. One observer of a large nighttime ride recalled that “from a distance, their bobbing head-lights resembled a religious procession,” and in a way it was. Some clubs shipped their snowmobiles to distant sites, then flew or bussed members there for group touring.

In 1970, New York State began requiring riders to register their sleds with the Parks and Recreation Department’s Division of Marine and Recreational Vehicles. Registration forms could be had a local dealers, county clerks, Sheriff’s offices, and regional offices of the Department of Conservation. Registration cost just $5, although some sled riders complained at the cost despite the fact that events organized by local clubs often cost as much as $1 to $2 per sled. The 1970 regulations also required young riders to take a Young Snowmobile Operator’s safety course before riding alone.

Beginning in 1971, a number of governments across the United States and Canada began investigating the boom in snowmobiles in order to asses and mitigate their impacts. In 1971 Congressional testimony, Sno Goer magazine publisher Susie Scholwin voiced the freedom snowmobilers felt on their new machines:

Before snowmobiles, in northern Wisconsin] winters were something just “to be lived through.” Nice winter days on weekends brought the sleds, skis, toboggans, and general fun-in-the-snow. Nights were long and lonely. As were the weekends as a whole. Ice fishing on the lake was good, but the best spot was over a mile away. . . .

The winter of 1964 and early 1965 took on a different tone than those before [with our family’s purchase of a snowmobile]. Mom and dad loved it–the kids loved it. Winter was not the gloomy thing it had been–but each day was an adventure of its own. It was much easier to get “over to the other side of the lake” fishing. . . .

There were races held, but they were something minor. . . . The important thing . . . was that more and more of the neighbors in the area were buying these fantastic little machines and, lo and behold–winter was turning into FUN! The little snowmobile had become a funmobile–one that made winter something to look forward to! Everyone in the area looked forward to weekends, with their picnics, trail-riding, exploring, scavenger hunts, and social gatherings. . . . Many in their fifties and sixties, who were not enthused about the muscular sport of skiing, found that the snowmobile was the answer to their dreams.

For their part of the debate, the dozens of snowmobile clubs in the Adirondack region began exercising their muscle. For example, the President of the Keeseville Trail Riders wrote to local papers in 1972 to remind riders that a $1.15 billion bond issue coming before voters in November would include $44 million for land acquisition in the Adirondacks, but he “doubts very much if any of this money would be used to acquire land for snowmobile trails.” In opposing the bond issue, the Trail Riders noted that their $5 registration fee was being used to build boating services in the Adirondacks.

Take your neighbor or friend or the fellow down the street who owns a boat, the fee to register it for three years is $3.00 and the state has built parking lots and boat launching ramps.

The economic argument was also put forward early:

Take a minute to think how much money this sport has brought to the North Country. We have Boonville over in the western part of the state where thousands come to view races on weekends. Then closer to our community we have our friendly neighbors, Schroon Lake, where the Chamber of Commerce is in the process of putting out our their winter brochure.

So you see everyone stands to gain either enjoyment, money or employment from this sport.

True or not (and their was some question about the actual impact of snowmobilers on the Adirondack economy, even in the boom years), the economic arguments of the clubs and their supporters found important allies in the local press and among the property rights and anti-government crowd. We’ll explore those conflicts in Part Five.

Return to Part One. Read the entire series here.


Friday, October 5, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part Three

In Parts One and Two we traced the emergence of snow vehicles from their earlier cousins, the automobile, the tractor, and motorcycle, and the development of the smaller more versatile nowmobiles popular today. That development led to some forty snowmobile manufacturers in the late 1960s and, eventually, an explosion in interest.

To help build a customer base, sled makers began traveling to winter events and showing their machines. Beginning in January of 1964, snowmobilers in Lake Placid organized one of the first annual “power sled meets.” The event was followed by Artic Cat’s first snowmobile derby in February 1964 in Eagle River, Wisconsin. The company invited all known snowmobile makers, and held dozens of races in front of a couple thousand attendees.

Snowmobile historian Leonard Reich noted:

Drag races, obstacle courses, and hill climbs provided thrills, and a “marathon” event of 22 miles demonstrated the reliability of the machines over long distances and difficult terrain. Soon, race derbies organized by towns, manufacturers, and distributors were taking place all over the winter landscape. Like its automotive precursors, the snowmobile industry used racing and other organized events to generate excitement, attract attention, and demonstrate the capability and reliability of its product. As the early automakers had said, “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday.”

The first International Diamond Trophy Snowmobile Championship held on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid in January 1967 was one of the first major snowmobile meets at a time when, as the Essex County Republican, reported: “At least three major power sled meets are scheduled for the Adirondack Park area, and a dozen or so lesser meets, although no sanctioning unit has yet organized the sport, and there is no official record keeping or planning.” Nonetheless, the Mirror Lake meet offered $1,000 in cash prizes and included a hill climb and downhill slalom. By the 1969-1970 season major races around the country could see purses as high as $25,000.

Other area meets in 1966-1967 included the Eastern New York Races at Lake George (about 125 registered sleds and a new Schaefer Cup trophy race), and another at Boonville where the New York State Snowmobile Championship was held (more than 100 sleds and the emblematic Adirondack Cup). Lesser races were held at Malone, Tupper Lake, Speculator, Schroon Lake, Chazy Lake, and Old Forge.

For the 1966-1967 season 100,000 copies of Johnson Motors’ “Fun Guide to Snowmobiling” were distributed to various dealers around the country which included facts about the sport and sources for trail information. By the end of the 1966-67 season there were about 200,000 snowmobiles in America and even the first magazine devoted to the new sport – Sno Goer, was published by an advocate for snowmobiling on public lands named Susie Scholwin. According to industry sources, the snowmobile industry rose from $3 million in sales in 1965 to $30 million in 1967.

With the boon in snowmobilers, came a local boon in snowmobile clubs. The Central Adirondack Association was organized before the 1966-67 season. By 1973, the Essex County Association of Snowmobile Clubs (ECASCO) included nine clubs from the county’s twelve towns: the “Keeseville Trail Riders,” “Bouquet Valley Snow-Drifters” of Essex Willsboro, “Crown Point RR&R Snowmobile Club,” “Lake Placid Snowmobile Club,” “Moriah Snowmobile Club,” Schroon-North Hudson Snowmobilie Club,” the “Adirondack Snowmobile Club” of Ticonderoga, “Mt. Valley Snogoers,” the Wesport area “Bessboro Ski-ters” and the “Lewis-E’Town Snow Machine Club.” Even “North Country Squares,” a dance group, was getting into the action by organizing weekly races at the Clinton County Fairgrounds in Plattsburgh.

Snowmobile dealers were spreading throughout the region by 1970 when the Essex County Republican newspaper saw fit to publish a special snowmobiling section. In Peru, auto dealer Truman Davis sold Ski Doos based at the Stanley-Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Plattsburgh. Also in Plattsburgh, Jim Manley’s Welding and Repairs sold Skiroule; in Jarvis Falls, Jarvis Auto Parts sold Polaris; Ray’s Mobile Service in Keeseville usually sold chainsaws, but now also sold Allouette sleds; in Elizabethtown Dick Burpee’s Outdoor Power Equipment sold Artic Cat, Elizabethtown Builders sold Sno Jet and Artic Cat, and Norton Insurance Agency advertised snowmobile insurance.

Along with the spread of snowmobiles in the late 1960s there also emerged the first rumblings of those concerned that the noise, new trails, and detrimental effects to the environment were something to be concerned about. But as we’ll see in Part Four, just as it appeared that snowmobiles would conquer the Adirondack environment the bottom fell out.

Read the entire series here.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part Two

In Part One of Adirondack Snowmobile History, we looked at the emergence of the “motor sleigh” in the early 1900s with experimental models that included half-tracks, airplane props, and converted Model A Fords. As snow machines became more widely known and began being used by government agencies, utilities and lumber companies, local experimenters began building their own variations. The 64 snow mobiles (by then already being called by that generic name) registered in New York State in 1935 were all large vehicles that held several passengers.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier, who had been experimenting with rear engine designs since he was teenager, came forward in 1935 with the B7, a seven passenger enclosed snow vehicle. It’s sucess was short-lived. When snow removal on roads became widespread in the late 1940s, Bombardier turned primarily to more general overland tracked vehicles. But while Bombardier and others were focused on making bigger snow machines, others had also been making independent progress on smaller, more versatile, auto sleighs using increasingly available small motors on more traditional (though now steerable) sleigh and bobsled runners.

In 1920, Lewis Newton, the owner of a Hudson Falls bicycle shop, announced that he had “perfected and auto-sleigh which attains nearly fifty miles per hour and can be operated with absolute safety.” Newton mounted two Thompson motors on a specially constructed bobsleigh and rigged a motorcycle wheel with a skid chain; the crank was kick-started. Some of the several he made may still be hiding out in Warren or Washington county barns.

In the late 1920s, Wisconsin outboard-motor dealer Carl Eliason hand-built about forty smaller snow machines (his patent is shown below). It was these that were copied by agricultural machinery manufacturer Polaris Industries’ when they developed the “Pol-Cat,” which was introduced in 1954. The Pol-Cat was followed closely by Bombadier’s “Ski-Doo,” which went on sale in 1959. Then when Edgar Hetteen (founder and president of Polaris Industries) had a falling out with his partners in 1960 he left to create the Polar Manufacturing Company which produced the “Artic Cat” in 1961. Although thirteen American patents were issued between 1927 and 1962, and by 1970 there were several dozen snowmobile companies, the still relatively small snowmobile market was dominated by these three companies: Polaris, Bombardier / Ski Doo, and Artic Cat.

Leonard Reich, who has written on early snowmobile history in the journal Technology and Culture, noted that what happened next depended largely on the role of motor boat dealers:

Northern marine outlets were an obvious place to sell snowmobiles, and many early dealers came from the ranks of boating businesses looking for a line to carry them through the fall and winter. In fact, outboard- motorboating served as a model for the developing snowmobile industry. The first outboard motor was manufactured in 1911 by Ole Evinrude, and the industry progressed slowly until after the Second World War. Outboards were usually installed on rowboats or on hulls originally designed for inboard power, which limited their capabilities and constrained the market. With the introduction of inexpensive fiberglass boat construction and light planing hull designs during the 1950s, at a time of national prosperity, rapid population growth, and television marketing, outboard-motorboating became extremely popular and dramatically changed summertime recreation patterns on lakes and rivers. Now, a mechanical whine split the summer’s natural sounds, transforming in its wake the search for relaxation to a powered pursuit of recreation. Many snowmobile dealers and buyers had their first introduction to motorized recreation through motorboating, and snowmobile salesmen often used the analogy in making the sale. Snowmobile purchasers were more than twice as likely as the general population to own motorboats.

The ready made market notwithstanding, snowmobile purchases were limited by the number of sleds produced and more importantly, by the number of people who thought they were worthwhile. Arctic Cat sold just 20 sleds in their first year (1961), and 700 the second. Bombardier produced 225 the first year (model year 1960); 700 in 1961; 2,100 in 1962; 5,300 in 1963; 8,500 in 1964; and just 13,300 for all of the United States and Canada in 1965. Advertising at first targeted fish and game officers, foresters, trappers, missionaries, prospectors and utility companies, but by 1965 had began to serious shift to the outdoor thrills market. The number of makers also multiplied with, according to historian Leonard Reich, “Trail-A-Sled in 1961, Moto-Ski and Skiroule in 1963, Sno-Jet and Johnson Skee Horse in 1964, Rupp, Fox-Trac, Hus-Ski, and Polaris (with a Ski-Doo-like model) in 1965. By the end of 1967 approximately forty makes had come to market.”


Among the early snowmobile dealers in the Adirondacks were George Moore Truck and Equipment Corp., in Keeseville whose first advertisement in 1965 claimed that their Ski-Doos “provide entertainment for all ages as it bounces over snow drifts, climbing and descending hills with ease. It has also proved its worth as a traveler on ice for fishermen and into the dense forests for hunters.” By the 1967-68 season they had secured the statewide distribution and were advertising for new dealers to join the ranks. “Snowmobiles, fast moving, profitable,” their advertisement read, “the snowmobile boom is underway… here is the opportunity to get in on this money-making fun market…to sell the nation’s hottest recreation machine.” Artic Cat, whose nearest sales room was Rochester, had to wait until 1970 before it would see an Adirondack shop.

In Part Three we’ll investigate the explosion in the snowmobile market in the Adirondacks, the organization of the area’s first clubs and races and their impact on the marketing and wider distribution of modern snowmobile.

Return to part one here. Read the entire series here.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bridge Collapse Recalls Historic Adirondack Disaster

The recent collapse of the bridge spanning the Mississippi River at Minneapolis brought to mind the tragic history of similar events in the Adirondacks.

Workers building the historic Stone Arch Bridge (photo above from the late 1800s) over the Ausable River in Keeseville had a close call in 1842. The bridge of native stone, believed at the time to be the largest such bridge in the country, was being built to replace the original wooden structure erected in 1805. The men had completed the first course of stone including the keystones and had nearly finished the second course when a violent storm blew in. Just as more then 30 men fled the storm’s heavy rain to a wooden shed on the bank of the river the entire bridge collapsed into the Ausable with a thunderous crash. The tremendous crash was said to have shaken buildings as far away as Port Kent.

Delays in the construction of the bridge caused by the collapse inadvertently caused a more tragic accident that same year. On local militia “muster day,” September 13, 1842, the unfinished bridge caused the Essex County militia to cross a smaller swinging bridge (supported by chains) nearby. The bridge was filled with bystanders as they marched across in lock step. It’s believed the overloaded bridge combined with the stamping feet of the marchers caused the bridge to collapse into the churning river below. Local newspapers reported that nine people were drowned, and four later died of exposure. Two boys, Richard Pope and Richard Peabody, were swept over a nearby dam with their arms around each other and were among those drowned.

A similar accident twice befell the men building what was then longest bridge in the world (3,239 feet) over the St. Lawrence River at Quebec. As one of the enormous spans was being raised from pontoons, it gave way and crashed into the river taking with it fifty men. Observers said the central span, weighing more than 5,000 tons, buckled at the center before it fell. At least five were killed. The accident occurred in 1916, but just nine years before a similar accident on the same bridge killed 70.In the spring of 1931 the Whallonsburg bridge, which carried much of the Albany-Montreal traffic over the Bouquet River in Essex County, collapsed while Robert O’Neil of Willsboro was crossing. O’Neil’s car fell nearly twelve feet but he escaped uninjured. The bridge’s steel trusses slipped from one of its abutments. The next day four boys were sitting on the railing of the wrecked bridge when it gave way and they went into the water. Kenneth McDougall was knocked unconscious from a serious head injury but the others escaped relatively unharmed. The photo at right shows the new abutments, made of rough quartzite from Champlain Stone.The 1842 Chain Bridge Collapse ranks among the deadliest accidents ever in the Adirondack region. Read more about the others here.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Historic Crimes

Regular readers know that ADK Almanack likes history, especially since we’re doomed to repeat it. That’s why we simply can’t believe that the powers that be will allow the historic Adirondack Railroad to be ripped up for scrap by corporate killer NL Industries (NCPR Report). Actually, we can believe it. Just take a look around – everywhere there are historic sites destroyed for little profit (if any). On Schroon Lake in the 1970’s the State of New York simply burned down the historic Scaroon Manor, there’s nothing left of that great historic hotel except what remains of the abandoned beach.

Cemeteries really get our blood boiling, like the Old Burying Ground in Keeseville that has been abandoned and vandalized over the years – or the Dresden Station Cemetery on Route 22 in Washington County that has been so neglected and overgrown that while hacking through the brush on a recent visit we noticed a buried stone, completely buried, face down, and when we turned it up, we discovered it was the grave of a Revolutionary War Veteran – we wonder what the graves of Vietnam or Iraq War vets will look like when they become history. » Continue Reading.


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