Part 1 of 3
The High Peak of the Southern Adirondacks: A History of Crane Mountain
Part 1: The Lady of Crane Mountain
Part 2: The Paint Mine and the Tower
Part 3: Paul Schaefer’s Winter Ascent
Although its summit elevation of 3254 feet falls well short of the Adirondacks’ highest peaks, few mountains present a profile as stunning as Crane Mountain. It rises over 1900 feet above the nearby hamlet of Thurman, with steep, rocky slopes on its southeastern and southwestern faces. Except for Huckleberry Mountain, which huddles nearby like a child following close behind its mother, this peak stands apart from all of its closest neighbors. The combination of exposure, ruggedness, and natural beauty distinguishes Crane and earns it the reputation of being “the high peak of the southern Adirondacks.”
The mountain was named Crain’s Mountain in 1772 in honor of the surveyor Moses Crain, although according to lore its aboriginal name was Moos-pot-ten-wa-cho, or “thunder’s nest.” As early as 1813 it was recognized as being “rich in mineral treasures,” specifically iron ore “and a pigment for paint of various colors.” For well over a century it was presumed to be the highest peak in Warren County, until Verplanck Colvin determined that Gore Mountain was several hundred feet higher in 1877.
Farming settlements grew in the valleys all along its foot, including Johnsburg to its north and Thurman to the south. At the heart of the community between Crane and Johnsburg was the Wesleyan Methodist Church built by the Rev. Enos Putnam in 1859. Putnam was a staunch abolitionist who used an old log house next to his parsonage as a “station” on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves on their journey to Canada. Enos and his wife Sybil had five children of their own, and two that they adopted; the second adoptee was Eliza Putnam, nee Lucia Newell, whose father had drowned on a Hudson River log drive. The Putnam family lived in a frame house that they painted red with pigment from Crane’s “paintbed.”
Eliza Putnam later married the lumberjack Frank Oliver; she bore their first child, Julia Elizabeth Oliver, at her parent’s home in 1879. The Olivers were not wealthy, and they moved frequently—first to a farm east of Olmstedville in 1881, which they rented from Frank’s aunt; and then to Chestertown in 1886, where Frank took up lumbering and carpentry work. But beginning in 1887, young Julia was sent by her parents to live with a series of relatives when her father’s poor financial judgment, as well as instances of sickness and injury, stressed the family’s resources. Julia would not return to live in Chestertown until 1892, when she was twelve years old.
Her first stop was the home of her uncle Rev. Francis Putnam, where she lived from 1887 to 1889. Francis was one of the sons of the late Enos Putnam, and he owned a small farm that he had cleared and built with his sons located in the hills above Mill Creek at the very foot of Crane Mountain. It featured a barn, carriage house, shop, and sugar house. The Putnam farm was so close to the mountain that there was a spot not far from the house where the slope rose “straight as a wall from the terrain so that one may stand straight and lean against it.” Here, from the ages eight through ten, Julia Oliver guided summer visitors up to the summit for twenty-five cents a party. She developed a deep personal knowledge of Crane that allowed her to show her clients all of the mountain’s most distinguishing features, including the cave at its foot where Putnam Brook disappears into the ground, the places where the yellow lady’s-slippers grew, and a cave located near Crane Mountain Pond where campfires could be lit.
After her years at the Putnam farm, she lived briefly in North River with another uncle, Jacob Davis, and then in Griffin, the tannery town on the East Branch Sacandaga River. There she stayed with a third uncle, Erastus Griffin, a veteran of the Civil War. Since he returned from the woods to his log home only on weekends, she and her cousin, Lena, were free to explore the settlement on their own. They “ran wild through the country,” meeting “many Adirondack characters my family did not know.”
These experiences in the Adirondack woods prepared Julia for the time at age sixteen when she worked for her father at what would prove to be his last lumber job. After teaching school for sixteen weeks for a small district between Chestertown and Warrensburg, she joined her father where he was overseeing a logging operation in the vicinity of Kellum Pond, between the Hudson and Schroon rivers. She helped by skidding logs with her bay gelding horse, Billy. This involved dragging the logs—which were bound for the mills at Glens Falls—across the snow from the job site to a skidway located beside what is now US 9.
In 1896, however, Julia’s life took an abrupt and profound turn. At age seventeen she married Matlock Foster, a native of Chestertown who was then an insurance agent living in Rochester, and changed her name to Jeanne Robert Foster. She was suddenly a young woman with a social position and the freedom to pursue her cultural interests—and she exploited these opportunities to their fullest. She studied and performed in plays, did page layouts for the fashion section of the New York Sunday American, and posed for some of the era’s leading illustrators—including Charles Dana Gibson, famous for his “Gibson Girls,” and Harrison Fisher, who turned Foster into the “Fisher Girl.”
In Boston she studied philosophy under William James and became a reporter for the Boston-American; in New York she wrote poetry critiques for the American Review of Reviews. She published two books of her own poetry in 1916. It was through the Review of Reviews that she came in contact with John Butler Yeats, the Irish portraitist, with whom she became close friends. She also befriended John Quinn, the art patron who brought Foster into contact with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and André Derain. She socialized with the writers William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford.
But the former Crane Mountain guide and log skidder also returned annually to the Adirondacks, where she continued to feel a connection to the rugged landscape and the people who sought a living there. When John Butler Yeats died in 1922 she arranged for his burial in Chestertown, next to the Foster family plot. Quinn accompanied Foster on an ascent of Crane Mountain in 1923, the year before he died. Throughout her life she would support causes to preserve the Adirondack wilderness, and her last book, published posthumously in 1986 as Adirondack Portraits: A Piece of Time, offered an intimate glimpse into the lives of the people she had once known, when she was the child of a poor family living in northern Warren County.