Camp owners at Twitchell Lake in the Adirondacks have made a tradition of hiking the seven-mile trail north to the isolated hamlet of Beaver River for an annual Octoberfest celebration.
On our 2007 excursion, I stopped at a large stone with a bronze plaque reading: “In Tribute to Verplanck Colvin (1847-1920), Land Surveyor, Founder and Champion of the New York State Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park, remembered by his friends and admirers on the Centennial of the Adirondack Park, May 20, 1992.”
At the time I remember imagining this legendary figure tracking his way through the uncharted Adirondack wilderness. Only recently did I discover that on one of his expeditions Colvin and crew tramped north from the Fulton Chain of Lakes to Beaver River and on the way stopped in Big Moose to explore and sketch Twitchell Lake.
Colvin’s fourth survey season, and one of his most challenging, was stalled by funding debates in the New York State Legislature. Severe winter storms had knocked down many of his observation stations. Several years of drought sparked forest fires which threatened to obscure the all-important work of triangulation. Colvin already had a rough map of the High Peaks region in hand, plotting lakes and peaks via Pythagorean rules, using a known survey line laid out by transit and benchmarks from Lake Champlain to Mt. Marcy. He left Albany for his field work in June, 1876.
One of Colvin’s focuses for the 1876 season was his “Western Division,” which he had last visited in 1873. He hired surveyors Squire H. Snell of Martinsburg, NY, and Frank Tweedy of Plainfield, NJ, to extend that “rolling hypotenuse” all the way from Raquette Lake to Lowville (and eventually to Marcy), employing the standard method of “leveling with level and rod” (see Colvin’s Seventh Annual Report, 1880).
The survey team were also charged with locating and mapping old purchase lines like that of the John Brown Tract’s and Totten & Crossfield’s Purchase, and county lines for Hamilton and Herkimer, to make it possible to add these older boundaries to his new map. For October he planned to rendezvous with Tweedy on the Carthage to Champlain Road beside the Beaver River, which up to that time was just a dotted line on the map. The following comments from this later Report illustrate Colvin’s ambitious plans for that season:
“After inspecting the field-books of this and the other parties, making the necessary arrangements for another absence, and the clearing up of accumulated correspondence at Albany, I took the field again in October, determined to extend the triangulation, at least as far westward as the Bald mountain, on the Fulton chain of lakes of Moose river; and at the same time to make a reconnaissance and exploration of the peculiarly wild region to the northward and southward of the Fulton chain.”
Failure to locate the Herkimer-Hamilton County line crossing Fourth Lake and the inability to plot its islands or shore stations using the newly built tower on Mount St. Louis or Bald Mountain (see lithograph), Colvin made a sudden change of plans:
“I now resolved to take advantage of the present storm – interrupting the triangulation – to march northward across the wilderness to Beaver River, and inspect the work of the party now engaged in extending the survey of that stream… taking with me two guides and rations for one week.”
Colvin’s lead guide Jack Sheppard had a camp on 4th Lake’s Pine Point and his second leading guide was noted hermit Alvah Dunning of Raquette Lake. Together they reached Great Moose (or Big Moose) Lake on the eve of October 14th, sketching Bub’s, Moss, and Dart Lakes on the way.
The next morning, they discovered a new body of water unknown to the maps, just east of Twitchell Lake, naming it “Hackmatack pond,” another term for the tamarac trees abundant on its shoreline. Picking up an old trapping-line trail, they then reached Twitchell Lake at noon near an inlet on its northeast end. Intent on meeting his Beaver River party by evening, Colvin recounted in his journal what became new obstacles for this 1876 survey season:
“Went around the end [of Twitchell Lake] – finding several trails – don’t follow the first ones but find one leading N.W. & take it. Then ensues a long weary march over a snowy country – logs & brush & icy snowy slippery – Enormous quantities of fallen timber – Here the spruce forest has evidently been earlier attacked by the malady, or beetle which killed the many spruce trees in Cedar River & Red Horse valleys.”
Forest damage from this insect attack added to the widespread windfall Colvin attributed to “furious hurricanes” of the previous season, both making for a “long weary march” of six miles to and from Beaver River.
The adventures prior to the crew’s return to Twitchell on the 19th make for exciting reading. Colvin sketched reconnaissance maps of Pepperbox pond, Sunshine pond, Moshier ponds, and Wood’s Lake, the first two new discoveries. He set up an observation station atop another Bald Mountain that hugged the west shore of Smith’s Lake, now Lake Lila. From this 2080+ foot peak, stripped by forest fire, Colvin was able to obtain bearings for Mt. St. Louis, Blue and Stillwater Mountains, and even Tug Hill to the west of Lowville. And he was able to give Tweedy further instructions for the last weeks of the season while his guides made an essential repair to survey equipment.
By 4:25 pm on October 19th, Colvin’s journal informs us the crew was overnighting in “Twitchell Lake Camp,” the shanty built by guide Hiram Burke in 1870. Sunday the 20th became “Survey day,” a time to measure and sketch the reconnaissance map of Twitchell reproduced here. A study of the map reveals five measurements – three widths (in rods) and two for the Lake’s length (in yards), compass bearings noted with the latter two. In his journal, Colvin said he used “stadia signals, micrometer telescope & pris[matic] compass” to obtain these readings (he noted in his annual report that the telescope imported from Germany was “a fine theodolite by Würdeman”).
Two illustrations from the report show us what happened that Sunday, as Sheppard or Dunning held the stadia pole at the three points on the east shore while Colvin sighted in from the west and did the stadia calculations for distance indicated by the pole markings in his eyepiece. (Interestingly, the most southerly reading on the west side looks like it was taken from where my own cabin stands today).
For the east side of that measurement, Colvin obtained his two longer yard readings from that same spot. Where exactly did he set up that theodolite? He tells us exactly when and where he stationed the two stadia rods for the distance measurement – the northerly one near the inlet when he arrived on October 15th, the southerly one on the morning of the 20th.
The more I studied his map the more fascinated I became. It was not long before I decided I had to check Colvin’s calculations against an up-to-date topographical map, to see how accurate he was. I plotted all of Colvin’s points (A to I) and measured all distances in feet, using a protractor to get accurate bearings for lines AB and BC. It turns out on distances Colvin was quite accurate – near exact on several measurements (EF & GH) and at variance by only 8 to 14% on two (AB & BD). My analysis of the two bearings (lines AB & BC) took a bit of a twist or turn. I struggled to understand the compass readings- 39° for AB, 238° for BC. Magnetic and true north was significantly different for NY in 1876 versus today, but that fact did not reconcile the two readings. On the other hand, his AB reading does seem skewed W of N instead of E of N, which might account for the Lake’s odd kidney bean shape in his sketch. My hunch is that if Colvin had simply marked that 39° as NE instead of NW, he would have arrived at an accurate shape for Twitchell Lake.
Again, I came back to my earlier question of where Colvin stood at point B with his theodolite? Suddenly it dawned on me: Of course, he stood on “The Big Rock” which five generations in my family have been photographed on top of, and have picnicked and played on. The picture included here dates to about 1923 and shows my father Norm, aunts Esther and Betty, dog Bess, and friend Betsy on this sizable flat-topped rock 15 feet from shore.
Colvin’s Journal, a bit cryptic when I first read it, spelled it out very clearly: “March 1/5th way up E. shore of the lake & set up another a-stadium signal & observe to N. & S. signals [see map] — find ab? station is a flat rock of hornblende in syenite — also a peculiar feldspathic rock [rock containing feldspar] – with flakes of black hornblende of which I keep a piece.”
So my Big Rock was one of his Twitchell observation stations! Colvin’s training in law, surveying, astronomy, geology, and art are all evident in his reports and journals, with the quote here capturing his habit of rock-collecting- syenite being “a coarse-grained intrusive igneous rock with a general composition similar to that of granite.” Incidentally, iron content in the hornblende could have affected compass readings.
Colvin’s reputation as a nature writer rings true in this journal as the crew departed for Big Moose Lake to finish survey work there before a return to their 4th Lake headquarters and winding up the season:
“Passed westward to the outlet — which proves to be a most beautiful spot – for here the lake pours from its very edge out over a fall of 8 or 10 feet to form a picturesque stream margined with bright green moors — from dead timber &c &c.”
The beauty of the Lake’s outlet into Twitchell Creek, with its trout pools, is famous for Camp owners and Lake visitors. But, as William Marleau pointed out in his book Big Moose Station (1986), Colvin missed the most beautiful spot not too many yards below, where a glacial erratic the size of a two-story house sits atop a 40 to 50-foot sheer drop of falls, boulders, and trout pools.
Verplanck Colvin is no longer a shadowy figure to me. If anything, his status as an Adirondack legend has only grown through my deep dive into his journals and reports, and the fact that he stood on my shoreline to survey Twitchell Lake. One result of my discoveries is that I have taken out a lifetime membership in the Colvin Crew, a group dedicated to protecting benchmarks and monuments and memorializing his Adirondack survey.
Colvin Crew’s founder Kermit Remele in put into words the wide-ranging impact of this man’s legacy in his essay “Verplanck Colvin, American Wilderness Surveyor and Savior”:
“Verplanck Colvin was a man of many talents and boundless energy which he lavished on his beloved Adirondacks with barely believable and hazardous treks, very believable maps, lithographs and monuments and a legacy of detailed Reports to the Legislature… He could have been a famous artist or author, but instead he threw himself and his fortune into surveying and trying to save this remote region from those who were depleting it. And he was successful at both ().
Illustrations, from above: Verplanck Colvin plaque on rock in Beaver River, NY, taken by Noel Sherry; Verplanck Colvin sketch of “Camp of Beaver River Party” on p. 20 of his Adirondack Survey Book No. 2, 1876, Albany, courtesy New York State Archives & Department of Environmental Conservation; “Triangulation on Mt. St. Louis, View Westward” (Plate 15 Lithograph) in Verplanck Colvin’s 2nd Report on the Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness of New York for the Year 1873; Sketch of Twitchell Lake on p. 109 of Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack Survey Book No. 2, 1876; “Rod, Level & Tripod” (Plate 8) & “Survey Crew on Mt. Marcy” (Plate 27) in Verplanck Colvin’s Seventh Annual Report on the Progress of the Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Region of New York, to the Year 1879, Containing Condensed Reports for the Years 1874-75-76-77 & 78 (1880); Google Topographical Map of Twitchell Lake showing 5 Colvin measurements from his 1876 Twitchell sketch; Table comparing Verplanck Colvin’s Twitchell survey distances with equivalent measurements plotted on an accurate topographical map of the Lake, prepared by Noel Sherry; and 1923 Sherry photo of family members on “The Big Rock” opposite the Sherry cabin, “Little Beaver”.