One of the most interesting chapters in the history of New York’s Adirondack Park concerns the struggle for power over the construction of highways, and a really fascinating example of one of these battles, which transpired between activists and powerful, well-moneyed interests, took place at Lake George in 1923.
That was the year state legislators in Albany passed a bill to create a Lake George Park. At the time, the Adirondack Park boundary was far less extensive than it is today, falling well short of Lake George and its surrounding mountains. This new entity would be a separate park incorporating the storied lake and much of its watershed.
Along with this designation came $75,000, which was earmarked for the purchase of land on the Tongue Mountain peninsula, a rugged range that towered over the lake’s midsection. The state also established a Council of Parks at the same time, populated with a long list of prominent men and women from all over the state — people known to have a desire to protect and preserve state parks.
Although many historians might not be familiar with the events at Lake George, they are likely to know about the well-publicized controversies in the 1920s over the parks and parkways on Long Island, which pitted wealthy landowners against the general public and generated heated political debates. Robert Moses, often referred to as the “power broker” in New York politics, was at the center of all the action.
In 1923, Moses recognized an opportunity to take over the reins of state power concerning parks. He became Secretary of the State Parks Council, and thus controlled decisions about spending for all of the state’s highways and playgrounds, as well as land acquisitions. Here is a description of his modus operandi, from Robert Moses: The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro (1975), p. 167.
Politicians failed to grasp the new reality until too late. By the time they finally realized – one can see the realization growing in their correspondence of 1927 and 1928 – that a new organ of state government was being created that would dispense yearly millions of dollars in construction contracts and thousands of jobs, Moses had the state park system too firmly in his control for it to be pried loose. He would remain president of the Long Island State Park Commission and Chairman of the State Parks Council until 1962, and during the thirty-eight years of his reign over state parks these parks would, even as his activities expanded into other fields, be a constant source of power that he would use to expand his influence in other fields.
In politics, power vacuums are always filled. And the power vacuum in parks was filled by Robert Moses. The old park men saw beauty in their parks. Moses saw beauty there, too, but he also saw power, saw it lying there in those parks unwanted. And he picked it up — and turned it as a weapon on those who had not thought it important and destroyed them with it. Whether or not he so intended, he turned parks, the symbol of man’s quest for serenity and peace, into a source of power.
By 1923, John Apperson, a self-appointed watchdog and activist, was preparing himself for a power struggle. He had been studying the law and the practice of political maneuvering in Albany, and had already earned a reputation for bold leadership by energetically organizing volunteers to protect the islands at Lake George from erosion and from illegal squatters. He was a proponent of the Lake George Park proposal.
Apperson had come north from Virginia in 1900, becoming an engineer at General Electric in Schenectady. He was an outdoor enthusiast and developed a reputation as a sort of pied piper, organizing excursions throughout the park and becoming an expert in camping, skate sailing, and skiing. Many of his camping friends helped him start a project to protect their favorite camping site, Dollar Island, by hauling rocks and building rock retaining walls around the shores. Erosion, caused by the ever changing water levels caused by the careless operation of International Paper Company’s dam at Ticonderoga, had been threatening to wash away entire islands. In 1917, his efforts had paid off, with the state setting aside $10,000 for the ongoing repair of the island shores, using a process called riprapping.
In 1920, Apperson purchased property in Huddle Bay — the old Lake View Hotel — along with two other buyers from Schenectady: William Dalton and G. Hall Roosevelt, brother of Eleanor Roosevelt. This purchase gave him a base of operations where he could store his boats, thus making it easier to reach the islands in the Narrows.
After leading an effort to pass legislation to support the State’s purchase of land on Tongue Mountain and Northwest Bay, he found out (from his friend, Sen. Ellwood Rabenold) that politicians were planning to build a parkway around the steep shores of Tongue Mountain — a proposal that very much alarmed him.
Apperson sprang into action. He realized he needed to act fast to prevent such a foolish and crazy proposition, so he came up with a scheme of taking the Governor and other officials on a boat ride, showing them the spectacular scenery so they could see exactly what sort of construction was being proposed for Tongue Mountain. It just so happened that many of those important officials were planning to attend a big political gathering at the Fort William Henry Hotel, and Apperson personally invited several of them to visit him at his camp in Huddle Bay, hoping to persuade them that this parkway on Tongue Mountain was a terrible idea.
This invitation was a characteristic example of his Southern hospitality. Here are some letters from the Apperson files, mentioning the flurry of activity around the Governor Al Smith’s visit, which was also attended by Robert Moses and several other dignitaries. Fortunately, Apperson was careful to save originals and carbon copies of the letters he sent and received, so we can have a look back and read exactly what was being said.
August 20, 1923 – Robert Moses (New York State Association) to JSA
Dear Mr. Apperson:
Thank you for your invitation. It seems now that the Lake George visit will be on Friday and not on Thursday — Friday at 1:30 at the Fort William Henry Hotel. Senator Strauss is going up and I am not yet sure of Senator Rabenold. Mr. Myers will also be there. Quite probably Senator Straus and Mr. Myers will be glad to take advantage of your invitation. Maybe Colonel Greene will join them. Could you leave it open until Thursday? I might say that none of these people are interested in the various events which are planned between the Saratoga and Lake George visits – that is, they plan to drop out after the Saratoga visit and then rejoin the whole party at Lake George. I do not know how they could spend the intervening time better than at your camp.
August 23, 1923 – Robert C. Masterson (Lake George Association) to JSA
My dear Mr. Apperson:
Several days ago I wrote to Mr. Robert Moses asking him to address the Lake George Association on Friday August 31st. I received a telegram in reply saying that Mr. Moses is with you. Will you be good enough to speak to Mr. Moses and urge him to speak to the association next week?
It would give me great pleasure if you might arrange to dine with me next Monday or Tuesday evening. Hoping that you may find it convenient to honor me and with all best wishes, I am,
Yours most faithfully,
Robert C. Masterton, Secy.
It is interesting to try and imagine what transpired during those few days while so many politicians, senators, and Governor Smith himself gathered in Bolton Landing. We do know that William K. Bixby, a wealthy philanthropist from St. Louis, offered the use of his large boat to carry everyone for a scenic tour of the lake. John Apperson had planned out every detail, and as the launch approached the Narrows he gave a little speech, pointing out to the governor how terrible it would be if there were a highway constructed “over there” (pointing at the steep, rocky slopes of Tongue Mountain). He whipped out some measurements and construction estimates (he was, after all, an engineer) about projected costs for such a project. Governor Smith was won over by Apperson’s remarks, and the plans for the highway were scrapped. Moses apparently saved face, and assured everyone that there was a better route for such a parkway anyway, one that followed the old existing road further inland.
One might wonder just how friendly Moses and Apperson had been up to this point, and whether each understood what the other man’s true intentions were. Moses must have been angry about Apperson’s interference with his plans, but he probably tried to hide his true feelings. Apperson, who was always a good judge of character, also had probably seen enough to understand that Moses was a powerful and devious foe. For the next thirty or more years, both men kept up a façade of friendly (or at least business-like) behavior. However, Apperson maintained a steady scrutiny of the actions of the various state officials, including Conservation Commissioners, knowing that Moses was pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Starting in 1921, Apperson became close friends with the Loines family of Northwest Bay, especially two of the daughters, Sylvia and Hilda. Both women enjoyed camping, skate sailing, and other forms of outdoor recreation. Mary Loines, a well-respected leader of the women’s suffrage movement, and her late husband, Stephen, had always been interested in preserving Northwest Bay.
Following the 1922 death of Russell Loines, who had been Mary’s only son, Apperson stepped in as one of her advisors. When Mary wrote a letter to the state officials offering to donate a parcel of land on the western shore of Tongue Mountain to be part of the NY Forest Preserve, she let Apperson have a copy.
August 24, 1923 – Mary H. Loines (Mrs. Stephen), Brooklyn, New York to New York State Park Commission
I shall be very glad to contribute to the Lake George Park now about to be created, a piece of land about 15 acres in extent, comprising the South East corner of Lot 27, and situated on the East side of Northwest Bay Creek, on the slopes of the Tongue Mountain Peninsula; in short, all the land I own on Tongue Mountain, providing that the adjoining land be purchased for the Lake George Park, and that in order to keep the wildlife in that region, no bridge shall be built across the Creek there nearer than one-half mile from its outlet into the lake.
For fifteen years or more we have been preserving this region intact and we should like to feel that it will be kept in the wild state for all time. Therefore as soon as I am assured that it will be kept wild I shall be happy to turn over the deed to this piece of land to the State of New York for the Lake George Park.
Yours very truly,
Mary H. Loines
Apperson was also given an opportunity to read the letter Mrs. Loines received back from Robert Moses. The powerful official thanked her for her gift of land, but otherwise ignored her stated conditions.
August 29, 1923 – Robert Moses to Mrs. Stephen Loines –
My dear Mrs. Loines:
I wish to thank you in behalf of our park committee for your very generous gift of the fifteen acres of land on the Tongue Mountain peninsula. The letter in which you announced this gift was turned over to the Conservation Commissioner who is the official agent of the state in this particular matter. Commissioner MacDonald said that he would communicate with you immediately and send you the form which must be filled out and which must accompany the deed to the property. If you happen to have an abstract of title, this will help also.
The Governor and others who were present at the luncheon at Lake George were very much pleased with your gift and that of Mr. Peabody. These gifts are particularly welcome because they help to give the program an auspicious start and to indicate that there is local support for the park and conservation measures, which we have proposed at Lake George.
As to the condition, which you mentioned, I do not think that it will be necessary to state this in the gift to the state because there is now a unanimous agreement on this subject. The highway and conservation commissioners conferred with the Governor and with our committee on this subject, with the Senator from the Lake George district and others. They are all agreed that the plan proposed by the highway commissioner, Colonel Greene, for a road over Tongue Mountain somewhere near the present military road, should be carried out and that it is not practical to have a road around the front of Tongue Mountain and not desirable to have a bridge from your property across the creek at the end of Northwest Bay. Personally, I had previously thought that it might be desirable to have a road running in a little way over Tongue Mountain but running over state land. I can now see that the road over the mountain will satisfy all purposes. At the top of Tongue Mountain where the road crosses, Colonel Greene suggests a scenic road about two miles long, running in a circle on the top of the mountain and affording very fine views. This scenic road would only be a gravel road. We also have in mind some foot-paths on the top of the mountain, but this is a development that need not be considered until later on. Colonel Greene and I spent the evening on Friday with Senator Ferris at his camp in Ticonderoga and the Senator now agrees to the program above mentioned and has abandoned all ideas of a road around the front of Tongue Mountain or a bridge crossing the creek. The Governor fully approves of the plan.
Thanking you again,
Very truly yours,
Robert Moses, Secretary
It became quite a challenge for Apperson to assist the Loines family in their dealings with the State of New York. Even though the terrible idea about constructing a road around the steep slopes of Tongue Mountain had been successfully thwarted, there remained a long struggle afterwards to decide where exactly the road should go. It became a source of considerable disturbance and anxiety on the part of Mrs. Loines and her daughters.
Four years later, in 1927, Apperson was still working closely with Hilda Loines to try and make sure that the state road was constructed properly, with some courtesy toward the Loines family. Hilda wrote to describe what was happening.
June 9, 1927 – Hilda Loines to JSA
I am writing to ask if you will use your influence to keep the Conservation people from bothering Mother this summer about the land in Lot 11 – She has not been well lately, and Sylvia has been so badly on edge that Mother was nearly exhausted when she left the lake. The State road has turned our place upside down, as you know, and for the State to force us to give up our one or two good sized remaining pieces of arable land is, I think, carrying things too far.
Wilson Powell thinks we have done enough for the State at present and if Mother can have a comparatively peaceful summer at the lake, I shall be thankful. As you know, the land is as safe in our hands for the present as in the State’s and we need it worse than they do. As for the boundary – it is only the land in lot 11 east of the brook, whose boundaries and title are uncertain, and that land we have given to the State at their request, in order that they may settle those questions.
When we endorsed the state park and gave our efforts and also the land on Tongue Mountain, we did so in the belief that the policy of the state parks was to protect the private owners as well as to afford the public a place for recreation and sport. The feeling has been rather general that this promise has not been kept.
In consideration of all that Mother has done, do you not think that the State in turn owes her consideration, and can wait until we have time to readjust the farming, which has been so much upset by the road construction?
I am sure that you will want to do all that you can for her this summer, and not make her feel that it is impossible for her to take any comfort in the Lake George place anymore.
Just a few weeks later, Moses reported to Apperson about the work being done, and took the opportunity to criticize and complain about some of the wealthy landowners. Perhaps he did not realize that Apperson was working hard to help the Loines family, or perhaps Moses was being deliberately mean-spirited by expressing himself this way. Special note: this may be one of the first times that Moses uses the term “eminent domain,” concerning the acquisition of land at Lake George.
As it turned out, Apperson and his allies at Lake George eventually won the day and defeated the insidious control of Robert Moses. Suffice it to say that because of his efforts, as well as that of his loyal allies, most of Northwest Bay, Tongue Mountain, Paradise Bay, and about ten miles of the Eastern shore (including Black Mountain Point) were eventually turned over to the State or to a land conservancy.
Moses tried to leave a record proving that he was the hero, and that without his efforts most of Lake George would have been taken over by amusement parks and unattractive development. There is a troubling passage in Robert Caro’s book (mentioned above) that gives Moses credit for “saving Lake George.”
Lake George p. 239
Luckily, many of these men were the old park patriots. The state had never bothered to buy a single foot of Lake George’s hundreds of miles of shores. Lumbermen had stripped the surrounding mountains of their softwood forests and were starting on the hardwoods. The denuded soil was being washed away by rains. But midway along the lake a branch of water jutted out to the northwest, and of the eleven thousand virgin acres on the tongue of land thus formed – most of it called Tongue Mountain – six thousand were owned by a group of wealthy men who were also public-spirited. He persuaded them to donate their land to the state. The remaining five thousand acres on the tongue were owned by a family that was about to sell it to a lumbering company, but the family’s attorney was Captain N. Taylor Phillips, a key figure in that stronghold of park patriots, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. Working through Phillips, Moses persuaded the family to lower its asking price from forty dollars per acre to fifteen – and when he bought the whole tract, he had succeeded in preserving for posterity a substantial part of the Lake George region for a total cost of $75,000.
According to the correspondence in the Apperson archives, there is little truth to this version of the story. I hope soon to publish more stories that will back up my claim, that John Apperson deserves recognition for persuading the legislature to authorize the $75,000 for purchasing land on Tongue Mountain, for finding families and individuals to form a sort of preservation community in Turtle Bay, for fighting against the construction of two story boat houses, for leading the litigation called the Lake George Water Trespass Case, and for finding powerful advocates (like FDR and George Foster Peabody) to persuade George O. Knapp and his son, William, to sell the land on the eastern shore to the State.
John Apperson had a certain kind of power that Robert Moses never had: the pure power that springs from love, a commitment to justice, and the joy of putting up a really good fight!