In the summer of 2017 I decided to paddle the Eckford Chain of Lakes in the Adirodnacks. We set out one fine August morning from Raquette Lake, crossed the lake, and proceeded up the Marion River, through the carry, putting back in at the Utowana dock, continuing through Utowana Lake into Eagle Lake, and then into Blue Mountain Lake before pulling our boats out at the Blue Mountain beach.
Our conversation (and questions) turned to the name Eckford Chain of Lakes.
What The Historians Say
As it turns out the naming of these lakes changes depending on whom you ask, and what sources they used. Just to show how convoluted this naming business can be, the following are the accounts of three Adirondack historians explaining the early naming of Blue Mountain Lake, Eagle Lake, and Utowana Lake.
The first historian that I consulted was Alfred L. Donaldson. In his book, A History of the Adirondacks, Vol II (1921), Donaldson wrote:
“The water connection between the two lakes [Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake] by way of the Marion River and the two widenings of it known as Utowana and Eagle Lakes . These and Blue Mountain Lake were called the “Eckford Chain” in the early days, after Henry Eckford, a noted engineer and ship builder, who made a survey of the lakes while Robert Fulton was surveying others, under the waterway investigation ordered by the State in 1811. Later Professor Emmons, during his geological survey, named the lakes, beginning with the largest ” Lake Janet” [Blue Mountain Lake]. “Lake Catherine” [Eagle Lake], and “Lake Marion” [Utowana Lake], all for the daughters of Henry Eckford. The last only has survived, as applied to the Marion River. Mr. Durant renamed Utowana, Ned Buntline renamed Eagle, and John. G. Holland renamed Blue Mountain Lake.”
Donaldson went on to say that a very old name for Blue Mountain Lake was Tallow Lake. Apparently man was said to have started across the lake with a load of venison tallow in his canoe, he was over taken by a storm and swamped. Half-heartedly the lake became known as Tallow Lake. Donaldson also wrote that in 1874 the hotel owner and operator John G. Holland noted that some of the guides referred to adjacent mountain Mount Emmons as Blue Mountain (apparently due to it often being tinged with a bluish atmosphere, especially when seen from a distance). Thus, Holland called his hotel The Blue Mountain Hotel on Blue Mountain Lake.
In another historical account of the naming of the Eckford Chain is provided by Ted Aber and Stella King in their book A History of Hamilton County (1965):
“Professor Ebenezer Emmons came to the Eckford Chain in the course of his geological survey in 1836. He suggested the feasibility of a canals for commercial use and gave the bodies of water such canals would connect. Towering Blue Mountain was named Mount Clinch in honor of Charles Powell Clinch, member of the State Assembly and one of the original promoters of the survey. Blue Mountain Lake favored for martin-trapping, was named Lake Janet, in honor of the wife of James Ellsworth DeKay, zoologist of the survey and daughter of Henry Eckford. Eagle Lake was named Lake Eliza. Lake Utowana was Eckford Lake . . . “
But perhaps the most thorough and trusted account of the naming of the Eckford Chain is included in Harold Hochschild “The Emmons Survey and the Eckford Family,” Chapter 6 of his book Township 34: A History of an Adirondack Township in Hamilton County in the State of New York. Hochschild wrote that the first recorded visit to the area was that of Ebenezer Emmons.
Ebenezer Emmons And The Eckford Chain
Ebenezer Emmons was born in 1800 in Middlefield, MA and went to Williams College, graduating in 1818. For his day he was an accomplished scientist – a botanist, geologist, mineralogist, and chemist. He also studied medicine and for a short time had a practice. In 1833 he became the chairman of Natural History at Williams College. In 1836 he was appointed geologist-in- chief of the Second District for the Geological Survey of New York State. It was in that position that he came to the mountains of Hamilton County.
Professor Emmons took five years to make his survey of the Second Geological District, which included the Adirondacks. (Reportedly Ebenezer Emmons was the first to use the term Adirondack Mountains, in his writings.) During the summers of 1836 through 1840 he made extensive trips into the Adirondacks, and each year wrote an extensive report to the New York State Legislature. Emmons did not reach the area of Township 34 (Blue Mountain Lake) until 1840, but he first mentioned the Eckford Chain in his 1838 report. In that report he mentioned the possibility of an extensive system of locks and canals north from the Erie Canal along the Sacandaga River Valley, into the south central Adirondacks, the Eckford Chain (Blue Mountain Lake region), and then into the waterways feeding the St. Lawrence River. He eventually abandoned this idea, due to the number of locks necessary. In 1846 one of his protégées, Farrand N. Benedict would revive the idea of a canal crossing the Adirondacks.
In his Fourth Annual Report (1839), Emmons again referred to the area and named a prominent mountain, Mt Clinch in honor of the Hon. Mr. Clinch of the New York Legislature who was one of the original supporters of the survey. This Mountain is today known as Blue Mountain. (Reportedly the indigenous name for the Mountain was Towarloondah or Towahloondah.) In the following summer (1840) Professor Emmons reached the base of Mt. Clinch (Blue Mountain) and traveled along the three lakes now known as Blue Mountain Lake, Eagle Lake, and Utowana Lake. Emmons and his party approached Mt Clinch (Blue Mountain) from the Cedar River. Traveling up the Connetquet or Canonquet River (today’s Rock River) to Lake Maria (Rock Lake), according to his Fifth Annual Report (1841),
“We soon reached a lake we supposed was the Ragged Lake of one of the hunters, who occasionally came for the purpose of trapping martin, but in as much as it had not been described or noticed on the maps of the region, we named [it] Lake Janet [now Blue Maintain Lake]. The waters of this Lake are very clear and its boarders indented: its general form is quadrangular. It has eighteen islands. Its eastern shore is mostly rocky and broken; while on the southwestern extremity there is some good land . . . It is joined to another lake by a communication of two or three rods, in course of which there is a fall of four or five feet. This is only about half the extent of the preceding, and being also undescribed, we conferred the name Eliza upon it. This communicates with another still, by a short passage, which is five miles in length, and we called Eckford Lake, in honor of the late Henry Eckford, whose fame, as a ship builder is not confined to the Atlantic. These three lakes constitute the Eckford Chain of Lakes, and are truly the upper waters of the Racket [Raquette River]. They lie in a narrow valley, which opens to the south .. .
“Pursing our route from Lake Eckford by its outlet, we soon found it so obstructed with logs and rocks that we were obliged to make a portage of half a mile: this brought to a still and unobstructed passage down a navigable river, but tortuous. This River connects the Eckford Lakes with Racket Lake [Raquette Lake]. We estimate its length about seven miles. We named it the Marion River. It passes through a deep marsh, which in places is a quaking bog of unknown width, and containing an inexhaustible quantity of peat. The most valuable production, however, of this and adjacent bogs is of the larch or tamarack. . . .”
Emmons then reported on his observations of Raquette Lake and the Fulton Chain of Lakes. According to Harold Hochschild, in his final report (1842), Emmons explained that Lake Janet (Blue Mountain Lake) was named for the wife of James Ellsworth DeKay, (one of the surveyors, and naturalists with the Emmons party). Janet was also the daughter of Henry Eckford. Lake Eliza (Eagle Lake) was named for Janet’s younger sister. Eckford Lake (Utowana), was regarded by Emmons as the principal lake of the chain. The Marion River was presumable named for either James DeKay’s daughter or for his mother-in- law.
Also according to Harold Hochschild the motive for the change from Lake Eliza to Lake Catherine (Eagle Lake) may have been the fact that that there was already a Lake Elizabeth nearby, on the way to Long Lake (now known as South Pond). Catherine was the name of James DeKay’s mother and of his favorite niece. In 1842 Professor Emmons was appointed to make an agricultural survey of New York State. This survey took four years to complete and is published in two large volumes. Following this, the North Carolina legislature invited Emmons to undertake a geological survey of that state. He accepted and went south. During his stay in North Carolina the Civil war broke out. His last days are shrouded in mystery, but he died in Brunswick, North Carolina, on October 1, 1863.
Eckford Family Names
The following is Henry Eckford’s family as presented by Ebenezer Emmens in his various legislative reports 1836-1840. The pertinent Eckford names are in bold.
Henry Eckford married Marion Bedell; they had three daughters:
1) Their first daughter Sarah married Joseph Rodman Drake and they had a daughter Janet who married George DeKay. Janet and George DeKay had a daughter Catharine.
2) Henry and Marion’s second daughter Janet married James Ellsworth DeKay and they ha a daughter Marion.
3) Henry and Marion’s third daughter Eliza married Gabriel Irving
Hochschild noted in Township 34:
“As to Donaldson’s statement that Henry Eckford had surveyed these lakes while Fulton was surveying others, I am bound to conclude, after long investigation, that Eckford’s visit never took place. It is more likely that he never heard of the waters that bear his name. It was not until eight years after his death were they visited by his son-in- law James DeKay [a member of the Emmons survey]. Robert Fulton was, indeed appointed in April 1811 to a legislative commission created to study canal navigation between the Great Lakes and the Hudson, the commission whose work resulted fourteen years later [in 1825] in the opening of the Erie Canal.”
It is also doubtful that Robert Fulton ever visited the chain of lakes that bears his name. The Historian of the Town of Webb said there is no proof that Fulton ever visited the eight lakes that comprise the Fulton Chain. Robert Fulton did however, serve on the Canal Commission from its inception in 1811 until his untimely death in 1815. At the time of his supposed Fulton Chain survey it is documented that Robert Fulton was busy elsewhere, with other activities, which may be what Donaldson was referring.
Robert Fulton and Henry Eckford were indeed friends. Fulton painted two portraits of the Eckford family, one of Henry Eckford and another of Eckford’s wife Marion, holding one of their daughters. In 1831, Henry Eckford went to Turkey as a representative of the U.S. government to build and sell naval ships to the Sultan. He died in Turkey in 1832, at age 57. His body was returned to the United States for burial in New York City.
Of the three historical accounts of the naming of the Eckford Chain of Lakes, it is Harold Hochschild’s account that was the most extensively researched, and thus the most believable. Hochschild went to great pains to accurately research the reports and journals of Ebenezer Emmons. These reports are part of the Adirondack Museum’s library collection (now the Adirondack Experience) as well as The State of New York Library (Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York).
Having researched this question raised by my paddling companion on our journey through the Eckford Chain, I was fortunate to have been able to share a draft of this piece with him. To my great sadness however, we never had the opportunity to discuss the details as he passed away suddenly while hiking in the Adirondacks in early November. I will miss sharing the lakes, the mountains, and their history with him.
One of the other questions that arose in writing this piece was the meaning of Utowana and Towarloondah (or Towahloondah). With limited research Utowana is said to be an indigenous word meaning “Big Waves” and if you have paddled Utowana Lake it can become very rough, and Towarloondah (Hochschild’s preferred spelling) is also identified as an indigenous word meaning “Hill of Storms”.
Notes About Henry Eckford
Henry Eckford was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada in 1791 at the age of 16. He became apprenticed to his uncle who had a shipyard on the Lake Ontario near the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. He completed his apprenticeship in 1796, and then emigrated to the United States.
In 1799 or 1800 Eckford moved to Long Island and opened his own shipyard, designing and building three-masted vessels. Eckford began building ships for the United States Navy beginning in 1806. In 1808, he worked with other shipbuilders at Oswego on Lake Ontario constructing the USS Oneida and returned to New York City in 1809.
Eckford continued to build ships in the New York City area until 1812. He offered his services to the infant United States after the outbreak of the War of 1812. He was sent to Lake Ontario to begin building a fleet at Sackets Harbor, where he worked until the end of the war in 1815. After the War of 1812, Eckford returned to New York City to resume military and commercial shipbuilding. I could find no record of Henry Eckford ever being a surveyor.
Henry Eckford traveled through New York State several times to get from New York City to Lake Ontario. The most probable route was by way of the Mohawk River to Oneida Lake, then to Lake Ontario and on to Oswego.
A less like route and much more difficult route, chartered in 1807 by the New York State Legislature, took the traveler up the Hudson River Valley to Glens Falls, Lake George, and across the Adirondacks to Canton. This was the Chester-to-Canton Road, which connected to other roads at the Hudson River near the Glen, then went to the north end of what is now Loon Lake in Chestertown, and turned west straight through Igerna, Olmsteadville, Minerva and on to Newcomb, passing north of Long Lake, south of Tupper Lake and on to Russell. It was partially completed in 1818, and finally completed in 1834 to Canton. (You can see an 1836 map of it here).
Photos from above: Ebenezer Emmons, Lake Janet, and Blue Mountain Lake, by Mike Prescott.
Phil Brown says
Thanks for researching these names. Very interesting, but especially to paddlers
Noel A. Sherry says
Hey Mike, you are my kind of historian, starting out with a paddling trek through this series of lakes and rivers, and then delving deep into the history of that region, which is fascinating. I have some the same, but further north and west, along the Carthage to Champlain Road, and with the survey work done by Frank Tweedy for Verplanck Colvin. How exciting it is exploring the terrain and then reading the old histories and journals from the early to late 1800’s, and “putting two and two” together. Fascinating history you have written, and valuable, as we piece together how the guides, sports, and prominent families and tourists explored the Adirondacks in their day. The naming of the Eckford chain is a challenge all by itself, and you covered it well. I will be taking a look at Professor Emmons material, which I had only heard about. Thanks for this contribution which could have been a series.
Thatcher Hogan says
Thanks Mike. It is interesting to read how Adirondack place names could remain so fluid before USGS mapping began to solidify things in the 1900s.