The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Adirondack Park

Installation view of CLUI exhibit Adirondack: America's Notional Park.
Adirondack: America’s Notional Park opened at the CLUI Los Angeles exhibit space in November 2021, with maps and hundreds of captioned images on touchscreens describing the landscape of the largest park in the lower 48 states. CLUI photo

ADIRONDACK PARK IS AN ATTRACTIVE place, drawing millions to visit it every year. Conversely, with prisons, mines, timber harvesting, and hydro projects, all inside the park, there has been a lot of leaving going on in Adirondack Park, too. 

The park is sort of yin yang—half of it is protected forest land, supposed to be “forever wild,” and half of it is private land, where more than 125,000 people live and work. This makes for an interesting study, a kind of one-to-one scale microcosm of the USA, in aspiration, fact, and chronology, where wilderness, official historic sites, recreational activity, industry, and modern life are forced to get along together within the park’s perimeter, defined by a "blue line" drawn on state maps by park planners.

Map of Adirondack Park in New York

Trip on the Tourist Strip

Most people come to the Adirondacks on Interstate 87, a part of the federal highway system known as the Northway, that was built in the 1960s, connecting Albany to the Canadian border near Montreal. Travelers on this road no doubt constitute the vast majority of the millions of visitors to the park, even if they are on their way to somewhere else, and may be unaware of being there. 

The highway creates a distinct line dividing the eastern edge of the park from its more mountainous interior, to the west. It also provides easy access to the park from major metropolitan areas, and spurred the growth of the tourist economy that thrives there still. 

Adirondack Park sign on the Northway, Interstate 87
Sign on the Northway, Interstate 87. One of the ways to know if you are in the park or not is by the brown and yellow street signs, which replaced the green and white ones found outside the park. CLUI photo

The main drop off the interstate is at Lake George, both a lake and village, and still, after all these years, one of the great 1950s-style American family tourism centers in the country. There are tiki resorts, mini golfs, gift worlds, and even, they say, the last Howard Johnson’s in the country that still serves food. There are several theme parks in the Lake George region, inside and outside the park, including the Magic Forest, one of a half dozen such family attractions developed in the park in the 1950s and 1960s.

A number of these iconic attractions were made with the help of a designer by the name of Arto Monaco, who grew up in Elizabethtown, inside the park, and worked for Hollywood studios, including Walt Disney’s. Arto Monaco built the first Adirondack theme park, Santa’s Workshop, at the North Pole near Lake Placid, in 1949, and had a hand in the development of Frontier Town, the Magic Forest, and the Enchanted Forest, all within the park. He built and operated the Land of Makebelieve on his own property at Upper Jay, which opened in 1954 (a year before Disneyland opened in California). This closed in 1979, after destructive floods along the Ausable River, though pieces of the Land of Makebelieve were relocated to Storytown, which is now part of the Six Flags Great Escape amusement center, just south of the park, on the Northway. 

Among Lake George’s other attractions is a reconstruction of Fort William Henry, a British fort destroyed by French troops in 1757. The fort was reconstructed near its original site on the southern end of Lake George in 1955, part of the postwar tourism boom. Lake George, the largest lake in the Adirondacks, is in a historically important corridor, between Canada, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River, a busy place in colonial wars of the 18th century, when waterways were the primary means of conveyance, and these connected lakes, rivers, and portages were the Northway of its time. 

At the north end of the lake, 32 miles away, is Fort Ticonderoga, another reconstructed fort in this eastern side of the park’s territory. The fort is located where the La Chute River drains Lake George into Lake Champlain. Further north on Lake Champlain, near Port Henry, is Crown Point, where the ruins of of a French fort from 1738 are preserved next to the preserved ruins of a British fort built in 1759 (one the largest British forts ever built in North America). 

The Champlain Valley, with all of its forts and ports along Lake Champlain, was settled and developed long before Adirondack Park pushed its blue line perimeter out to the state line with Vermont, which runs down the middle of Lake Champlain. This great embrace of the park captured early tourist sites, too, like Ausable Chasm. Known as the Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks, Ausable Chasm is a two-mile-long gorge formed by the Ausable River. Though it has been a natural feature for thousands of years, it has been privately managed as an attraction since 1870, by the Ausable Chasm Company, which owns the land on both sides of the river, and restricts access to paying customers. 

The dramatic topography of the Ausable is an exception to the otherwise comparatively flat farmland of the Champlain Valley, the eastern margin of Adirondack Park. Across the dividing line of the Northway, the mountains rise, and the thickly settled areas dilute into occasional towns, usually at crossroads, next to lakes, surrounded by trees. It was these lakes, after all, which were the primary attraction for the early recreationists, and for most visitors still today.  

Land O’ Lakes 
There are thousands of lakes in the Adirondacks—some say 3,000, depending on what you consider a lake to be. There are certainly several dozen of what could be called major lakes, the ones that attract the most visitors, and development. Among them is Lake Placid, which is better known for the village that grew up next to Mirror Lake, one of a few adjacent and placid lakes in the town of North Elba. Early recreational tourism in the Adirondacks was often enabled through private clubs, which owned land, ran lodges, and coordinated events. The Lake Placid Club was among the most effective at promoting events, which eventually led to the area’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, twice. 

The effectiveness of the Lake Placid Club, founded in 1895, was largely due to its well organized and meticulous (and anti Semitic) founder, Melvil Dewey, who is better known for his decimal system for library classification. In 1926 he established a second club community in Florida, which he called Lake Placid, too, where he died in 1931, just before the 1932 Winter Olympics opened in Lake Placid, New York. 

The 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics held in the Lake Placid region have had a lasting effect on Adirondack Park, through increased development for housing and hotels, and for the tourism that continues at the venues established for the Olympics. Today the Olympic Regional Development Authority manages the Olympics legacy sites, including ice rinks and the Olympics Museum in downtown Lake Placid, along with the massive bobsled track and ski jumping complex, with its two 300-foot-tall towers looming above the trees. 

The Olympic Regional Development Authority also owns and operates Whiteface Mountain, the fifth tallest peak in the state, which was the main venue for downhill skiing events during the Olympics. It is one of two major ski hills in the park. It is also the highest place you can drive to in the park, with a road leading most of the way to its summit. The last 276 of its 4,867 feet can be travelled in an elevator, which runs in a shaft bored through solid rock from the parking lot level.  

View of Lake Placid from the summit of Whiteface Mountain
View of Lake Placid from the summit of Whiteface Mountain, the fifth tallest peak in the Adirondacks. A road brings visitors to a parking lot close to its summit, where an elevator is available to go up the last few hundred feet to the top. CLUI photo

A few miles deeper into the park from Lake Placid is Saranac Lake, another town settled in a group of lakes. The town was the epicenter for tuberculosis care, a major attractive and development draw for the Adirondacks. Several large tuberculosis hospitals were built in the early part of the 20th century, including a federal hospital for tubercular war veterans at Tupper Lake, and a big state hospital at Ray Brook, which was turned into Olympic housing, and is now a prison.

Saranac Lake became one of the nation’s centers for TB care because of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who in 1873 came to the Adirondacks, seriously ill with tuberculosis. He found the mountain air to be curative, and decided to stay, and to help others recover from the disease as well. In 1884 Trudeau established the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium, which over the years expanded into an enterprise with dozens of cure cottages and administration and hospital buildings, on a hillside north of town. 

The discovery of effective antibiotics in the late 1940s ended most cases of the disease, and Trudeau’s sanitarium closed in 1954, and is now a mostly unused relic. Dr. Trudeau’s lab was located in downtown Saranac Lake, and is now a museum. His great grandson, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, grew up in Saranac Lake, and still designs the posters for the city’s annual winter carnival. 

One of the cottages at Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium
One of the cottages at Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium, a tuberculosis care center that was once a major Adirondacks attraction. CLUI photo

The lakes around the town of Saranac Lake became some of the fanciest camps in all of the Adirondacks. One cluster, on Lower Saranac Lake, was developed by wealthy Jewish families, who were not welcome in many hotels and resorts, such as the Lake Placid Club. These camps include the Guggenheim compound, and the Knollwood Club, built in 1890, where many famous figures visited regularly, including Albert Einstein, who was there when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. 

Upper Saranac Lake was very fashionable, too, and has several great and grand camps, including William Avery Rockefeller II’s Camp Wonundra, which is now called The Point, and is a resort “where wilderness meets luxury,” at a cost of $30,000 a night. 

North of Upper Saranac Lake are the St. Regis Lakes, with some of the most exclusive and exotic Great Camps in the Adirondacks. This is largely due to the Paul Smith’s Hotel, which was built on Lower St. Regis Lake in the 1860s, and became the most fashionable place in all of the Adirondacks. High society visitors to the hotel often were inspired to build their own camps, and local land owners, including the owner of the hotel, often sold them land, set up builders, and supplied lumber. Smith eventually ran the electric company, too, generating power from his mills at the dam at Saranac Lake. 

The hotel burned down in 1930, and is now the site of Paul Smith’s College, a small private college with a focus on the environment of the Adirondacks, and hospitality management. 

Upper St. Regis Lake’s distinctive Great Camps include Camp Longwood, Camp Wild Air, and Camp Katia, with its circular cobblestone boathouse. The largest and most legendary of the Great Camps on the St. Regis Lakes is Topridge. Owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post (whose other homes included Mar-a-Lago, Florida), Topridge grew to have 68 buildings, with a funicular to bring guests up to the camp from the five-bay boathouse on the lake. Post gave Topridge to the state of New York, which tried to open it to the public, unsuccessfully. It was sold and is now owned by Harlan Crow, a real estate magnate from Texas, who is on the board of the Enterprise Institute, and is said to be a good friend of Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas. 

One of the busiest and most effective developers of upper-class rustic great camping in the Adirondacks was William West Durant. Some consider him the father of the Adirondack Style, for a series of unique and influential camps he built in the region over a 25-year period, purchased by wealthy and socially prominent families, like his own. 

William West Durant was the son of Thomas C. Durant, the notorious railroad magnate, who as the VP of Union Pacific, drove a golden spike into the first transcontinental railroad connection at Promontory, Utah, in 1869. Amid funding and bribery scandals he moved on from Union Pacific to focus on his railroads in the Adirondacks, where he owned more than half a million acres of land. 

Thomas C. Durant asked William West Durant to help develop the land, by making it a fashionable place for wealthy friends and associates to spend their summers. The first camp the younger Durant built, in 1876, was called Pine Knot. It was located on family land at Raquette Lake, and celebrated the natural patterns of the wood (including its knots). William West Durant continued to refine this baroque rustic log and twig work at Pine Knot over the dozen years during which his family used and expanded the camp, and at other camps he built nearby. 

His father died in 1885, and William West Durant continued his building spree, while managing battles over the estate with creditors, and his sister. In 1895 he sold Pine Knot to the railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington (whose Central Pacific Railroad had met Thomas Durant’s Union Pacific head on at Promontory, in 1869). Huntington died at Pine Knot in 1900. 

From 1890 to 1892 William West Durant built Camp Uncas, located on its own private lake, near Raquette Lake, and sold it to J. P. Morgan, in 1896. Durant built his third Great Camp, Sagamore, on another private lake nearby, from 1895 to 1897. He sold it to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, in 1901. 

William West Durant was active in bringing visitors to the region in many other ways, by selling land to wealthy people, and by operating ferries, railroads, and carriageways that made getting to wilderness camps in high style even easier. Despite his influence, and his influential supporters, what remained of his father’s estate ended up going to his sister, and he was bankrupt by 1904. 

He managed a local hotel for a while, then moved away, and died in New York City in 1934. A marshy lake, not far from his epicenter at Raquette Lake, was named in William West Durant’s honor, and a roadside turnout next to the lake has a rock with a plaque that acknowledges his contribution to the region’s identity.  

Raquette Lake
Raquette Lake is where some early influential writers and Great Camp developers spent their time in the Adirondacks. CLUI photo

Interpretation in the Park 
Stories of the Adirondacks are told through scattered monuments and historical signs by the roadside. In addition, there are a few interpretive centers that focus on natural history, as well as an elaborate nature museum called the Wild Center, in Tupper Lake. The Adirondack History Museum is in a former school in Elizabethtown, on the east side of the park, and the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center is a seasonal public museum north of Saranac Lake that describes the native cultures and communities of the area. 

Adirondack History Museum
The Adirondack History Museum in Elizabethtown, one of a few museums in and about the Adirondacks. CLUI photo

And then there is the Adirondack Experience. First known as the Adirondack Museum, it later acquired a more site-specific name, Adirondack Experience, The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake. The museum opened in 1957, and has since evolved into one of the most elaborate and sophisticated regional museums in the country. The museum’s 121-acre grounds include 20 exhibit buildings and themed halls dedicated to particular aspects of the region (boating, logging, Great Camps, etc). 

The museum is on the site of a former hotel, and overlooks Blue Mountain Lake, one of the large scenic lakes in the Adirondacks that drew early tourists and Gilded Age great campers to the region, including the founder of the museum, Harold K. Hochschild. 

Hochschild is a major figure in the development of the modern Adirondack Park. In addition to founding the Adirondack Museum, he was chairman of the state commission that established the Adirondack Park Agency in 1972, the entity that regulates development on private land in more than half of the park. He was interested in the park’s past as well as its future, and wrote a book called Township 34, about the history of the middle part of the Adirondacks, where he had been recreating since childhood, at his family’s summer estate, next to Blue Mountain Lake. 

The estate, called Eagle Nest, has been in Hochschild’s family since 1904, and covered thousands of acres, with several large camps, including one built by William West Durant, and another by William Distin, a local romantic architect who carried on in the Adirondack style. The family fortune came from the American Metals Company, a mining and refining company founded by his father, which Harold Hochschild later took over as president. AMCO became AMAX, and developed some of the largest mines in the USA, including the Climax molybdenum mine in Colorado, still going strong after more than a century. 

Part of the Eagle Nest property is now the Blue Mountain Center, a residence program for artists, writers, and activists, established by Harold Hochschild and his son, Adam (who was a co-founder of the progressive Mother Jones magazine). Former residents include Bill McKibben, who wrote The End of Nature, and became one of the nation’s most outspoken environmental activists, whose ideas and likeness loom large in the exhibit halls of the Adirondack Experience.  

The Eagle Nest at the Adirondack Experience museum
A vessel named Eagle Nest is among the specimens in the Boats and Boating hall in the Adirondack Experience museum. This boat was owned by the Hochschild family, members of which founded the museum, and still visit their property near Blue Mountain Lake. CLUI photo


The first dam at the town of Old Forge, in the southwestern Adirondacks
The first dam at the town of Old Forge, in the southwestern Adirondacks, was constructed in 1810 to power an iron forge. The dam’s usefulness in regulating the flow for log drives in the Black and Moose Rivers was soon apparent. In 1880 the dam was raised by two feet, merging the first five lakes of the Fulton Chain into one interconnected lake, up to the sixth lake, where a dam had been constructed the year before, to replenish the Black River for water that had been diverted to feed the Erie Canal. CLUI photo

Water Logging 
Timber extraction transformed the Adirondacks more than anything else, and its effects gave rise to the movement to establish the park. In 1850 New York harvested more timber than any other state, and Albany was the biggest lumber port in the nation. Most of the timber came from the Adirondacks, floated along one of a dozen or so rivers that flow off the raised geologic dome of the Adirondacks to the St. Lawrence or the Hudson River. Hundreds of dams, large and small, backed up waters so that logs could be floated in seasonal log drives to downstream mills and markets. Most of the major lakes in the park are incidentally constructed remnants of the industry, and the park’s drainage is still controlled by hundreds of dams, now modernized and maintained. 

Great Sacandaga Lake, in the southern part of Adirondack Park, is the second largest lake in the Adirondacks (after Lake George), and was created in 1930, when the Sacandaga River was flooded by the Conklingville Dam. The dam was built to control flooding on the Hudson, but more than a thousand people were forced to move from their homes along the Sacandaga River, and several historic communities were flooded. The dams of the Sacandaga make electricity, too, as do dozens of other dams in the Adirondacks that have small hydroelectric plants. A total of around 260 megawatts of power is produced inside the park. 

The Oswegatchie River, in the western part of the park, is one of the longest rivers in the park, flowing for 137 miles before joining  the St. Lawrence. It originates in the hills and lakes of Ne-Ha-Sa- Ne, a private park within the Adirondacks, amassed by William  Seward Webb. Webb, whose wife was the daughter of William H. Vanderbilt (eldest son of the Commodore, and the wealthiest person in the country), built many of the railways that brought people to the Adirondacks, including the one that brought him to the doorstep of Forest Lodge, his camp on this private 188,000-acre park within the park. In 1892, when Adirondack Park was established, this was the largest of 40 or so private reserves in the park. 

After leaving the preserved wilderness of the Webb property, the Oswegatchie River is massively flooded by a major logging company dam, at Cranberry Lake. Log drives began on this part of the river around 1854, and the dam was built in 1867. When the dam was raised by another five feet in 1910, it formed the 135-square mile Cranberry Lake that is there today, the third largest lake in the park. Logs were floated down the river and across the lake to the Rich Lumber company mills at Wanakena and to the Emporium Forestry Company, which operated one of the largest lumber mills in the Adirondacks. The mill opened in 1917, and included a large railyard terminus for the company’s extensive logging railroad network. The mill and railway closed ten years later, and few traces remain, except at the town of Cranberry Lake, which occupies the mill site. 

The Oswegatchie River flows out of the dam and Cranberry Lake, and within a few miles is backed up again by another dammed lake at Newton Falls, built to extend the flowage for log drives, and to power a mill that opened in 1894. The lumber mill grew into a major paper mill, which was purchased by McGraw Hill and its partners in 1920, to supply paper for magazines. It employed hundreds of local residents. Wisconsin-based Appleton Papers bought the mill in 1996, and closed it in 2000. The mill reopened briefly in 2007 as the Newton Falls Fine Paper Company, and was the second to last functioning paper mill in the park when it closed for good in 2011. After the plant, the Oswegatchie River flows over the second dam at Newton Falls, and through more logging lakes and four hydro electric dams, before leaving the park. 

The closed Newton Falls paper plant, on the Oswegatchie River
The closed Newton Falls paper plant, on the Oswegatchie River, in the northern end of Adirondack Park. CLUI photo

The Raquette River is the second longest Adirondack river, after the Hudson. It originates in the hills around the Adirondack Experience, The Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, then flows north for 146 miles, into the St. Lawrence. The Raquette River drainage includes some of the scenic undammed lakes in the middle of the park, like Raquette Lake and Long Lake, then becomes the most dammed river in the park.  

Water flowing over the dam at Henderson Lake is sometimes cited as the origin of the Hudson River. Others say the named river officially begins a few hundred yards further downstream, where this water meets Calamity Creek, coming down from Lake Tear of the Clouds. CLUI photo The first dam, called the Setting Pole Dam, was built to make flowage to float logs, and formed Tupper Lake, one of the larger lakes in the park. The town of Tupper Lake was built in a clear-cut next to the water, and became the largest lumber producer in the state in 1910. Today the town is a crossroads in the Adirondacks, for waterways, highways, and railways, and is a functional town, with an old VA hospital, the new Wild Center, and the closed Oval Wood Dish company plant, which once made clothespins, bowling pins, flooring, and popsicle sticks. 

While the Setting Pole Dam regulates the level of Tupper Lake, the Piercefield Flow Dam, a couple miles further downstream, is the first in a series of more than two dozen hydroelectric dams and plants on the remaining Raquette River’s drainage, most of which are owned and operated by the Brookfield Power company. Brookfield is an international real estate, asset management, and infrastructure company, based in Toronto, which operates almost 6,000 power generating facilities worldwide, 220 of them hydro. The company also has transmission towers, railways, pipelines, office towers, and container terminals, including at the port of Los Angeles. 

The Mighty Hudson River 

Water flowing over the dam at Henderson Lake is sometimes cited as the origin of the Hudson River. Others say the named river officially begins a few hundred yards further downstream, where this water meets Calamity Creek, coming down from Lake Tear of the Clouds.
Water flowing over the dam at Henderson Lake is sometimes cited as the origin of the Hudson River. Others say the named river officially begins a few hundred yards further downstream, where this water meets Calamity Creek, coming down from Lake Tear of the Clouds. CLUI photo

The Hudson River is the largest river flowing out of the Adirondacks, and was the largest single conveyor of logs harvested in the park. Logging along the upper Hudson River began in the 1700s, and saw mills were established along the river at existing towns, or at new ones, such as Newcomb, North River, and North Creek. Warrensburg, where the Schroon River meets the Hudson, was a major early mill town, as was Luzerne, where the Sacandaga River meets the Hudson. All of these mills are now gone. 

Most of the logs were sent further down river to what is today the bottom of the park, at Corinth, and beyond, to the next town, Glens Falls. At both of these locations today are the remnants of what was once the largest logging operation in the country. 

At Corinth, just a few hundred yards inside the blue line marking the park perimeter, the Hudson River meets the dams at Curtis Falls and Palmer Falls. Palmer Falls was one of the great scenic attractions on the Hudson. A hotel was constructed in 1864 to accommodate tourists coming to see the falls, and numerous paintings and postcards captured its majesty. Soon a major industrial operation, spanning from Curtis Falls to Palmer Falls, evolved into the largest pulp and paper mill in the USA, and one of the first plants to combine the process. 

The use of wood pulp for making paper transformed the logging industry, and the American landscape. Prior to this development, paper was made from cotton (including rags) and other plant fibers, and trees were used to make lumber and other things made of solid wood. In the Adirondacks, as elsewhere, the wood industry selectively culled the forests for softwoods, especially pine, fir, spruce, and other conifers, which were the best wood for most uses, such as building construction. Mixed forests, with coniferous and deciduous trees, hardwood and softwood, were more complex to harvest, and were more likely to be left alone. 

Paper making from wood pulp emerged in the late 1800s, and became widespread in the early 1900s, and many lumber milling sites evolved into paper mills. Wood for pulp was less about size and type of wood, so logging operations moved deeper into mixed forests, and operated with less selectivity, clearcutting larger areas. Also, prior to pulp, logs cut from the forests of the Adirondacks were cut to a standard 13-foot length, to meet the needs for lumber. With pulp, logs were cut to four-foot lengths, making them easier to transport out of the forest, and floated downstream. These changes reinvigorated the logging industry, enabling it to operate with greater efficiency, and abandon. The threat this posed to the forests of the Adirondacks is what compelled preservationists to pass the legislation to create the park. 

In 1898 the International Paper Company was formed to take over the pulp and paper operation at Palmer Falls, and more than a dozen other mills elsewhere. The company expanded the mill, building a concrete dam at the top of the falls, in 1914, which transformed the falls into an industrial artifact. By the 1960s the mill was one of the largest employers in upstate New York, with 1,750 workers. The mill closed in 2002, and was mostly demolished in 2012. The town of Corinth has not recovered from its closure. 

From its inception at Corinth, International Paper became the largest paper company in the world, and remains so to this day. It was one of the largest landowners in the Adirondacks, owning more than 320,000 acres in 1996. With the increased use of southern forests for pulp, and the room to make bigger and bigger plants, International Paper’s US operations moved south. It is now headquartered in Memphis. It still operates a large plant in Ticonderoga, on the edge of Lake Champlain, which makes pulp and paper from Adirondack trees, and is the sole remaining operating paper mill in the park. 

Remnants of the International Paper plant remain in the engineered cliff face at Palmer Falls, on the last stretch of the Hudson River, inside Adirondack Park.
Remnants of the International Paper plant remain in the engineered cliff face at Palmer Falls, on the last stretch of the Hudson River, inside Adirondack Park. CLUI photo

A few miles outside the park on the Hudson River, and a few miles upstream from Glens Falls, vestiges of the structures that once held the Big Boom together can still be found around the rocks in the river bed. First used in 1849, the boom was a dam made of floating logs chained together. The boom held logs driven out of the woods and down the river, held here so they could be sorted (logs were stamped with marks identifying the owner), and meted out to the mills downstream. During the peak year for log drives on the Hudson, in 1872, 18 logging companies sent two million logs downstream to the Big Boom. The last log drive on the Hudson, and the last of the drives in the park, was in 1950. By then, as now, logs culled from privately owned forest land in the park travel by roads and trucks. 


View of Tahawus titanium mines pits and piles with Mount Marcy in the background, with its head in the clouds, as usual.
View of Tahawus titanium mines pits and piles with Mount Marcy in the background, with its head in the clouds, as usual. CLUI photo 

Extraction on the Hudson 
Mineral extraction was an early activity in the Adirondacks, and continues to this day. There were dozens of iron operations in the  early 1800s, some of which grew into major underground and open- pit mines in the 20th century. Though all closed by the 1990s, their  effects on the landscape are continuous. These extractive industries, along with logging, established the conveyances and communities in the park, and altered its hydrology, all the way up to the slopes of Mount Marcy—the top of the Empire State. 

Lake Tear of the Clouds, a small pond on the slopes of Mount Marcy, is usually cited as the headwaters of the Hudson River (though there are higher sources for the streams that feed the river, and the named Hudson River actually begins miles downslope). Within a short distance after leaving the pond, its waters enter a network of diverted streams and reservoirs built to support the McIntyre Iron Works, a 19th century mine and smelter on the Hudson River. 

David Henderson was the principal engineer of the iron works, and one of the reservoirs, Henderson Lake, is named after him. He died in 1845, while scouting for the diversions of the rivers above the Hudson, when a gun in his backpack accidentally fired. The incident occurred on Calamity Creek (named after the incident) and a memorial monument was placed on the site by his family in 1850, at Calamity Pond. 

Despite his efforts and the sizable deposits of ore, the McIntyre Iron Works struggled to be productive, as it was so remote, and its ore was transported long distances over primitive roads to Lake Champlain. The operation ceased in 1857, leaving impressive ruins of its 1854 blast furnace in the woods, as well as a ghost town of a few dozen buildings. Some of the buildings were maintained and upgraded by the Adirondack Club, which leased the townsite from the owners of the mine in 1887. The club changed its name to the Tahawus Club in 1898, at a time when its lease from the mining company covered nearly 100,000 acres, and extended over the state’s highest peaks, including Tahawus, a romanticized native name for Mount Marcy, said to mean Cloudsplitter. 

The Tahawus Club gained some notoriety in 1901, when Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and his family were staying there while President McKinley was thought to be recovering from an assassination attempt two weeks earlier. Roosevelt was at Lake Tear of the Clouds, after descending from the summit of Mount Marcy, when he was summoned back to the city, in a fabled, hurried overnight carriage ride from Tahawus to the train station at North Creek, where he arrived at dawn and learned that McKinley had died, and he would be President. 

The 1854 blast furnace at the McIntyre Iron Works at Tahawus.
The 1854 blast furnace at the McIntyre Iron Works at Tahawus. CLUI photo

The Tahawus Club left the old town in the 1940s, and resettled in new buildings some miles away, where it still resides, with a clubhouse, 18 cabins, and 6,000 acres. The club was evicted because mining resumed on the old McIntyre Iron Mine property in World War II, nearly a century after it had ceased in 1857. This time it was not for iron, but titanium, an element found in the iron-rich deposits, used primarily to provide white pigment for paint. Titanium was  considered a strategically critical military material (for things like painting naval ships grey), and the operation was subsidized by the federal government, which built a railroad to the mine site from its previous terminus at North Creek. 

National Lead, the company that developed the mine with the government’s support, was one of the nation’s largest paint and coatings companies, extracting extensive amounts of lead at other locations. It was a diversified federal contractor, too, and operated a uranium processing plant for the Department of Energy in Fernald, Ohio. The mine was an open-pit operation and continued long after the war, transforming the headwaters of the Hudson into something else entirely. It closed in 1989, after 40 million tons of titanium had been extracted, forming two large pits, which are now flooded, and are among the deepest lakes in the Adirondacks. Lake Sanford, on the other hand, into which the Hudson once flowed, was used as a tailings dump, until it was filled in, becoming a desert of grey sand, with the Hudson River diverted around it. 

In 2003, after years of negotiations, the Open Space Institute, a nonprofit conservation organization, purchased the non-industrial parts of Tahawus Tract from National Lead, including the old ghost town site (known to most as the Upper Works). The old forge and the MacNaughton Cottage, where Roosevelt stayed in 1901, were preserved, and the rest of the old town was torn down. The dead end of the road at the former mine site is now the trailhead for hikes up Mount Marcy (via Lake Tear of the Clouds) and to places like Henderson Lake, which had been privately owned since 1826 but is now open to the public. Of the 10,000 acres purchased by the Open Space Institute, 6,000 are being co-managed with the state to maintain and improve public access to natural areas, and 3,500 acres will remain as working forest. 

The 1,200 acres of the modern titanium mine site remain in private hands, one of the few industrially zoned locations in the park. Its mountains of sand, crushed rock, and slag are being sold as aggregate by its new owner, Mitchell Stone Products, which purchased the property from National Lead a few years ago. National Lead, meanwhile, has been reduced to a holding company, based out of an office park in Dallas, dealing with remaining lingering litigation and other effects from its storied existence as the nation’s largest lead company. 

A sign lingering from the days when National Lead (NL Industries) operated its titanium mine at Tahawus.
A sign lingering from the days when National Lead (NL Industries) operated its titanium mine at Tahawus. CLUI photo

More Adirondack Extractions 
There are dozens of other aggregate pits and sand pits throughout the park, used for construction projects in the region, and typical of what is found across the country. Other rock and stone material has been extracted from the park for more than a century as well, and continues to this day.

One unique operation is at Willsboro, on the east side of the park, which is the only domestic sources of wallastonite. Wallastonite is a mineral composed of calcium, silicon, and oxygen, with properties that make it useful in plastics, paints, ceramics, and adhesives. It was discovered and extracted near here, at the Fox Knoll mine. This site has been mined since 1943, originally by the Cabot Company, and produces around 100,000 tons of the material per year. The mine is now owned by Imerys, a global mineral company based in France, with historical roots in the Rothschild family’s non-ferrous metal mines. The company has grown through acquisitions of other non-ferrous, performance, and specialty material mines, extracting corundum, feldspar, quartz, kaolin, talc, perlite, and bentonite. Imerys has 40 locations in the USA, but this is its only wallastonite mine in the country. 

Another uniquely Adirondack material extracted within the park is garnet, locally mined by the Barton Mines Company since 1878. The garnet they extract is an especially hard rock with a coarse crystal structure that makes it useful as an abrasive medium. The original garnet mine is on the backside of Gore Mountain (the second largest ski resort in the Adirondacks). The mine was a major domestic source for garnet used to make sandpaper, and abrasives for polishing glass, including lenses and optics during World War II, and color television screens into the 1980s. A long open-pit formed over a century of extraction, before the mine closed in 1982. Once the largest garnet mine in the world, its life continues as a family rock hound site. 

By the time the original mine closed, the company had opened a second mine nearby, the Ruby Mountain Mine, which continues to operate to this day, furnishing garnet that is used mostly in waterjet and blast media cutting and shaping technologies. The mine was the source for the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower, the replacement for the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. 

The largest extraction pit in Adirondack Park is at the Benson Mines site, in the northwest corner of the park. The flooded pit is two miles long, and once was the largest open-pit magnetite mine in the world. Industrial activity started here in the early 1800s, as one of the many small iron ore deposits in the Adirondacks that were mined periodically over the next century. Operations ramped up during World War II, when the federal government’s Defense Plant Corporation built a production plant there to supply iron ore sinter to steel plants in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, by rail. 

After the war, the plant was sold back to the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, and the operation continued to grow, reaching a peak in 1960, with a thousand employees. The mine closed in 1978, leaving the two-mile-long pit to fill with groundwater, and more than a thousand acres of tailings spoils. In the 1980s oil was detected in an adjacent river, and a 1,000-foot-long, 15-foot-deep plastic-lined trench was built in an attempt to keep contaminants  contained. When it failed to do so, the plant site became an EPA cleanup site, in 2013, and remediation continues. 

Covering 3,000 acres, the site is now one of the largest industrially zoned areas of the park. Mitchell Stone owns some of the site, and has an aggregate business there, as it does at Tahawus. 

At the northeast end of the park is another large iron ore production center, Lyon Mountain, where mining was contained underground, to a depth of 3,500 feet, in some of the deepest mines in the northeast. The principal mine shaft and processing site is on the hill behind town, where just a few abandoned buildings remain, fenced off and overgrown. The mines operated from the late 1800s to 1967, and were mostly developed by the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company, which was later acquired by Republic Steel. Its ore was used in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  

The headframe for the modern underground iron mines of Lyon Mountain, at the northeast corner of the park.
The headframe for the modern underground iron mines of Lyon Mountain, at the northeast corner of the park. CLUI photo

The company town had a population of 3,000 at its peak, after World War II, and dropped to around 300 after the mine closed. The empty high school was turned into a prison, but in 2011 that closed too. A mile from town, a hoist tower over a mine shaft is now part of an RV park, and is used as a cell tower. Ore sand and slag piles can be found scattered around the town, sometimes overgrown, sometimes not. 

Another major iron mining region is located at the eastern edge of Adirondack Park, around the town of Moriah. In the 1870s underground mines here produced close to ten percent of iron ore in the USA, supplying the iron works at Troy, New York, and beyond. The mines were accessed through a number of shafts, except where the ore body was closest to the surface, such as at Open Pit 21, now a flooded pond behind a fence between the communities of Mineville and Witherbee. 

Port Henry, on the shores of Lake Champlain, a few miles from the mines, became a major industrial port in the late 1800s, with blast furnaces, shipping terminals, and railroads, processing and distributing iron from the mines. The furnaces closed by the late 1930s, and have been removed, leaving a shoreline extended and altered by tailings. Today the former Witherbee-Sherman Mining Company headquarters is occupied by the Moriah town offices. Looming over town is Ledgetop, the vacant Richardson Romanesque mansion built in 1880 by Walter Witherbee, owner of the Witherbee-Sherman Mining Company. 

The 1880 mansion at Ledgetop
The 1880 mansion at Ledgetop was built by the owner of the mines around Moriah, the largest 19th century iron mining operation in the Adirondacks. The mansion, now empty and mostly gutted, was transformed over the years by subsequent owners, such as the American Legion and the Knights of Columbus. It is located in Port Henry, a town on Lake Champlain, inside Adirondack Park. CLUI photo

Republic Steel took over the Witherbee-Sherman mines in 1939, expanding and modernizing the facilities during and after World War II. Production peaked in 1953, when more than two million tons of iron ore were excavated and processed. Operations ceased in 1971, leaving piles of slag, and sinkholes collapsing into mineshafts. Most of the direct evidence of a century of underground mining in the region around Moriah, such as the mills, shops, warehouses and headframes, have been removed or overgrown. Beneath the surface, however, are miles of mineshafts, containing locomotives and other equipment, suspended in a flood of groundwater. 

Briefly in the 1980s, Rhone Poulanc operated a rare-earths mine at the former Republic Steel separator plant in Moriah, much of which remains on site, now overgrown in the woods. The Fisher Hill Mine site, at the northern end of Mineville, was purchased by the state, and turned into the Moriah Shock Prison in 1989. Today around 200 minimum security male inmates are incarcerated there, mostly serving terms for drug offences. As part of the shock program, sentences are reduced in place of an intensive rehabilitation program. 

Fortress Adirondack 
Incarceration is one of the major industries in the Adirondacks. There are two dozen prisons in the region, some just outside of the park perimeter, and some within the blue line of the park. The largest is the Clinton State Prison in downtown Dannemora, inside the northeast corner of the park. Clinton is the biggest maximum security prison in the state, with around 1,000 employees and close to 3,000 inmates. Originally built in 1844 to supply inmates to work the iron mines at Lyon Mountain, the prison was soon expanded. The 60-foot-high walls, built in 1887, dominate the village. Next to it is a second complex, in a former state asylum. 

Clinton State Prison
Clinton State Prison, one of a few prisons in the Adirondacks, gained some notoriety for a 2015 manhunt for two prisoners who escaped with the help of some of the guards. The incident was featured in the TV mini-series, Escape at Dannemora, written by Michael Tolkin, and directed by Ben Stiller. CLUI photo

Also in the park, in the community of Ray Brook, outside of Saranac Lake, is the Adirondack Correctional Facility, which opened in 1900, originally as a state-run tuberculosis sanitarium. Its Victorian buildings were later used as housing for the 1980 Olympics, after which it was turned into a medium security state prison with a capacity of around 800. In a separate, modern compound just south of it is the Saranac Lake Correctional Institute, a medium security federal facility, which also opened after the 1980 Olympics, and houses around 800 male inmates. North of the prisons is the administrative and executive center for Adirondack Park, with the State Police, Department of Environmental Conservation, and the headquarters for the Adirondack Park Agency. 

Just as prisons tend to be developed on the outer fringes of places, so too do defensive fortifications. Plattsburgh Air Force Base, just shy of the Canadian border, was an atomic age rampart, protecting the US from a Soviet (or Canadian?) air attack from the north. While the base, on the shore of Lake Champlain, is outside the park’s blue line, six of the 12 intercontinental ballistic missile silos that surrounded it are inside the park. Built in the early 1960s, these Atlas missile silos, with underground launch control centers, were decommissioned in 1965, and most are now in private hands. They were the only ICBM silos east of the Mississippi, and made Adirondack Park, at one time, the most powerful park in the nation. ♦

Atlas Missile Silo number 556-4
Atlas Missile Silo number 556-4, one of six intercontinental ballistic missile silos built inside Adirondack Park in the 1960s, is now occupied by artists. CLUI photo