A Very Brief History of the High Peaks Wilderness

The human history of the Adirondack High Peaks region is such a voluminous subject matter that it could easily fill an entire book. These mountains have been so scrutinized over the last two centuries that a wealth of source information exists, just waiting for a competent historian to come along and collect it all in a single narrative.

In this website format, however, the best we can do is to distill all those potential chapters into a handful of paragraphs, providing just a hint of what that hypothetical history book might cover.

Certainly, these jagged peaks – distinctive even among a 6-million-acre region studded with small mountains – have been a prominent landmark for as long as Homo sapiens has been inhabiting the eastern half of North America. According to tradition, the High Peaks marked the boundary line between the territories of the Iroquois people to the south and the Algonquins to the north, as acknowledged by the names of Iroquois, Algonquin, and Boundary peaks on today’s maps. Early travelers followed an “Indian trail” through a rugged mountain pass shadowed by towering cliffs – a feature called Indian Pass during the Romantic era of the early nineteenth century.

This perception of the mountains as a dividing line manifested itself in the colonial era when land speculators divided the New York wilderness into “Great Tracts.” For years these vast swaths of land, purchased and pried from their native owners by cunning agents working on behalf of the British Crown, were theoretical in nature, being too remote and rugged for the settlement expansions of the age. But their boundaries were indeed surveyed, and thus the first people of European descent to traverse the High Peaks were likely survey crews as early as the 1770s.

Indian Pass

In the nineteenth century two events conspired to make the region more well-known. One was the discovery of a major iron deposit in the southern foothills, which launched an ambitious enterprise that was perennially hampered by the lack of good roads penetrating the mountains. One rough road from this period traced an unlikely route through the foothills of the Dix Range; there were even plans to augment its use with a wooden railway. But operations at the mine came to an end with the sudden death of its manager, David Henderson, who succumbed to an accidental gunshot wound at what was soon bestowed with the ominous name “Calamity Pond.”

The other major event was the arrival of a hardy stock of Yankee settlers, who crossed Lake Champlain from Vermont to carve towns out of the wilderness of Essex County. Industrious and practical-minded, they harvested pine logs from the eastern foothills and built sawmills by the bushel. They named the mountains in their field of vision for how they appeared, or how they were best known; one such fellow is sure to have named Nippletop for its obvious anatomically-correct profile when viewed from the south.

When work at the mines began to dry up, some of these people took up other occupations. This included inn keeping and guiding, as the High Peak region was already nationally famous by the Civil War era. Although the first geological expedition didn’t occur until the astonishingly late date of 1837 – three decades after the Lewis and Clark expedition – the Adirondack Mountains quickly became the subject of literature and art. In these years the word “sublime” was often used to describe places like Indian Pass, implying these Romantic visitors sensed the presence of God in a landscape that probably seemed to them an untouched corner of Creation.

After the Civil War, sightseeing tourists began to arrive in places like Keene Valley. Some of these people – men and women included – were inclined to climb the mountains for pure sporting pleasure, but few were equipped to do so on their own. Thus the importance of the local hotels, such as the one operated by the Beede family in St. Huberts; not only did they offer rooms and meals, but guides in their employ blazed the first hiking trails and led their clients on mountain-climbing outings.

Soon a few of these guides became famous personalities in their own rights, made to seem larger than life in regional magazines and newspapers. The best example of this class was Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps, a Keene Valley resident with an almost proprietary attitude toward the mountains. Another guide, William B. Nye, will be forever associated with the “Hitch up, Matilda!” story as told by the photographer-turned-guidebook writer, Seneca Ray Stoddard.

Avalanche Lake

However, a decade of forest fires devastated much of the area from about 1903 through 1913. Not only were vast acreages of forest lost, especially near Chapel Pond, but so were the original trails – and at least one of the old hotels, Henry Van Hoevenberg’s Adirondack Lodge at Heart Lake. President Woodrow Wilson, who sometimes vacationed in St. Huberts, mobilized Army troops stationed in Plattsburgh to help fight one blaze in 1913.

The fires resulted in something of a “dark age” in terms of public recreation; the denuded landscape on some of the peaks disturbed the aesthetic sensibilities of some people for decades later, and an outbreak of thorny plant growth made trails through the burn zones a scratchy experience. But the fires also precipitated the last logging activities in the High Peaks, nearly all of which were conducted by the J & J Rogers Co. Its mill in Ausable Forks was mostly hungry for pulpwood – which is to say, spruce of practically any size – and their crews penetrated most of the Ausable watershed. This was a flurry of activity that lasted a relatively short time, but resulted in many lingering impacts.

Another legacy of the fires was the state’s perceived mismanagement of the Adirondacks in general. In 1911 the governor established a Conservation Commission to get a handle on the situation. The first priority was to establish a network of fire observation stations throughout the Adirondack and Catskill parks, but by 1919 the Commission was ready to tackle its next mission: expanding the Forest Preserve and promoting its use.

Until this time, the mountains had been owned by various companies and private clubs, including the Ausable Club’s spectacular Adirondack Mountain Reserve in St. Huberts. The state’s first acquisition effort in 1919 was Mt. Marcy itself, a project that supporters billed as “Victory Mountain Park” as a tribute to the victorious soldiers returning from war-torn Europe. Then, once added to the public domain, the Conservation Commission began the first large-scale project to manage the area for recreation: marked trails, signed junctions, and standardized lean-tos at equidistant locations – all intended to accommodate the new breed of weekend visitors, equipped with topographic maps and liberated by automobile ownership. The age of the guide was over.

Porter Mountain Trail Junction

These old trails and shelters were laid out to encourage as much use as possible. Some approximated the traditional axe-blazed trails of the prior generations, and some availed themselves of the corduroy logging roads left behind by J & J Rogers. Sustainability was not a concept anyone had considered, or even deemed a problem; visitation rates during the 1920s were probably quite modest by today’s standards.

Among this new generation of wilderness hikers were two Jewish brothers from New York City and their family guide: Bob Marshall, George Marshall, and Herb Clark. The young brothers, concerned that America was on the threshold of losing its wilderness forever and inspired by the adventurous explorations of the prior century, hatched the plan to climb all of the highest peaks. Their criteria for what constituted a “High Peak” could not have been rigidly defined, because their hiking list was subject to several revisions. But over the course of several years the trio “bagged” a set of forty-six summits, all of them believed at the time to be higher than 4000 feet in elevation. In several cases, Clark and the two Marshalls were likely the first known ascents.

This might have been a non-event – a personal stunt of no interest to regional history – had Bob Marshall not written about their exploits in what became the Adirondack Mountain Club’s first-ever guidebook. Success breeds imitation, and by the 1930s some hikers from Troy, NY organized a club whose membership requirement was climbing all forty-six of the peaks listed in Marshall’s book.

Herbert Brook on Mt Marshall

To be fair, becoming a “46-er” would’ve been a remarkable feat at the time; many of the summits had no trails, and getting around was far more of an ordeal. Successful completions remained somewhat rare for the next two decades, and were almost curtailed during World War II and in the aftermath of a 1950 hurricane. Nevertheless, some of the old-school 46-ers reacted in shock and horror as herd paths began to appear along the traditional bushwhack routes, the old corduroy-surface trails began to fail one by one, and as piles of empty cans accumulated behind every lean-to.

By the late 1960s, during a period of increasing environmental awareness, people began to first acknowledge that the High Peaks were not being sustainably maintained. Each generation is informed by the generation before it, and even these nascent environmentalists had inherited some bad habits from their predecessors. For instance, it had once been the officially recommended practice to bury discarded cans of food, but waste was now accumulating faster than tin and aluminum could corrode into dust. Even Anne LaBastille, long regarded as an Adirondack figurehead for both environmentalism and feminism, included a photo of herself camping atop the alpine summit of Algonquin in her bestselling book, Woodswoman.

There were likely several factors in this sharp rise in visitation, including not just public interest in the outdoors in general, but also the opening of Interstate 87 (the “Adirondack Northway”) and an inventive array of new outdoor gear. But the results were the first “crisis” in High Peaks management. The wilderness designation in 1972 was envisioned as one way to address the problem, in that it came with a hard limit on the types of facilities that might be developed. Some people, on the other hand, theorized that the prior efforts of the Conservation Commission (later renamed the Conservation Department, and finally the Department of Environmental Conservation) to promote the High Peaks for recreation had produced unintended consequences.

One of the early efforts to restore wilderness conditions focused on cleaning up the garbage piles and promoting DEC’s new “Carry In, Carry Out” philosophy. Farther upslope, a naturalist named Ed Ketchledge raised the alarm about the fragile alpine vegetation found on a handful of the highest summits. Concerned that an entire ecosystem found nowhere else in the state was about to become trampled out of existence, “Ketch” pioneered the program that would become today’s Summit Stewards.

Mount Marcy Summit

The trails were yet another problem. Originally cut decades ago as soft-treaded woodland paths, or as antique roads paved with corduroy (small logs placed widthwise across the road’s surface), few had withstood the ages. Those on the drier slopes facing Keene Valley probably fared better, but those in the southern slopes, where there were no clubs to sponsor their routine maintenance, entered the twenty-first century as disasters. Constant foot traffic is one aspect of the problem, certainly, but the physical nature of the trails and their natural setting cannot be discounted either.

Old Corduroy Road

Thus perception of the High Peaks region has grown from that of a sort-of “No Man’s Land” between two Indian nations in the eighteenth century; to an undisturbed corner of God’s Creation as the Romanticists believed in the nineteenth century; to a feat to be “conquered” and a playground to be promoted, as was the policy for much of the twentieth century; to that of a protected landscape in the twenty-first century that, to put it euphemistically, suffers from too much love.

But as new visitors continue to arrive in record-setting numbers, now overwhelming trailheads in addition to the antique trails themselves, one has to wonder:

Do any of these newcomers feel any connection with the generations who came before?

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