In the summertime, the parking lot at the end of Thirteenth Lake Road in the town of Johnsburg, Warren County, will be crowded with the cars and trucks of people there to hike, paddle, and camp.
Few of these visitors realize that sixty years ago when they stood on the shore, they would have seen a large, modern-looking hotel sitting on the hillside overlooking the lake. This is the story of that enterprise and those who kept it up and running for over 100 years.
The 335-acre, three-mile-long Thirteenth Lake was most likely named for the number of the tract of land that surrounds it, Tract 13 of the Totten and Crossfield Tract. One of the earliest accounts of traveling into this section of the Adirondacks was a series of four letters published in The New York Times during the summer of 1855.
The author was Henry Jarvis Raymond, founder of the newspaper, and the letters were reports on his tour with a group studying the proposed route of the ill-fated Sacketts Harbor and Saratoga Railroad Company. From Saratoga to North River the group traveled by wagon, but from there transportation for the members of the party was by horse or on foot, as the road was stated to be “impractical.”
The group ended up also taking two lumber wagons — one for luggage and the other for “the convenience of some in the party who had no experience or taste in riding on horseback.” I would suspect that many in their party, nearly twenty in number, were soon questioning the decision to include wagons because shortly after starting, they encountered the steep and stony North River Hill. Half of the occupants got out and the rest were “shaken out before they had gone half a mile.”
By the 1870s, North River consisted of 30 homes, a house of worship with no regular services, two hotels, and a store. As this was the only settlement between North Creek and Cedar River, small hotels provided accommodations for hunting parties and their guides. Oftentimes sportsmen stopped both ways — going in on their quest for game and going out to head home — and the guides ready to spend their wages and wait for another group heading into the wilderness.
With the completion of the railroad into North Creek in 1871, five miles southwest of North River the opportunity for faster and more comfortable travel brought an increased potential for both sportsmen and tourists into this area. While his 1874 guide does not have any information about Thirteenth Lake, Seneca Ray Stoddard in the 1881 edition of Adirondacks: Illustrated is listed “Thirteenth Lake House, G. S. Bennett, North River, 20, $7 w., $1.50 d., 50 cts. per meal,” and later in the guide “Thirteenth Pond, four miles west of North River, is in a good sporting region. Accommodations may be found at Bennett’s near its outlet.”
The owner was forty-six-year-old George Smith Bennett and his thirty-five-year-old wife, Betsy Lousia. The property had been in the Bennett family since at least 1858 when his father, Leonard, was living on the east side of Thirteenth Lake. Leonard and his family had moved from Pawlet, Vermont into the town of Johnsburg between 1847 and 1850.
During his years in Pawlet, Leonard Bennett was noted as a well-known and respected citizen. In 1884 a Grand Army of the Republic post was established in North Creek in honor of Leonard’s son, Leonard Bennett, Jr, who was called “a gallant soldier in the Union Army.” Leonard Sr. and his wife Erilla also lost another son in the war, Leonard Jr’s younger brother Edgar.
In his 1888 guide Stoddard again mentions the lake:
“Thirteenth Lake, four miles west of North River, is reached over a good road. It is about three miles in length by half-mile wide, and at 1,952 feet above tide. It affords excellent fishing, and the wild country around it is noted hunting ground. The little hotel, that stood near the outlet known as Maple Cottage, burned in 1887, has not been rebuilt.”
Maple Cottage was quickly rebuilt as the next reference to a hotel at Thirteenth Lake is when Henry A. (Hank) Maxam is listed as proprietor in 1890. When Maxam took over the hotel he changed the name to the Thirteenth Lake House. In the closing days in May of 1890, a group of sportsmen left the city of New York for some spring fishing in the north woods. Their destination was Henry Maxam’s hotel at Thirteenth Lake, just a few miles from North Creek where train service ended. Despite the water level in the area being more than a foot above normal, the group was able to land several lake trout, some reaching five pounds in weight.
The Troy Daily Times began running advertisements for H. A. Maxam & Son’s Thirteenth Lake House starting in 1891. They offered their guests “splendid scenery” as well as sport for fishermen and hunters. Their rates were five to ten dollars a week. In the same newspaper, under the heading of Business Notices were several detailed accounts of lodges in the north country. Included was this very glowing story that paints a picture of a sportsman’s paradise:
“If one wished to see the Adirondacks in their primitive simplicity, he should visit Thirteenth Lake. This beautiful sheet of water is deep-set in a circlet of mountains which are not denuded of their timber growth, as is the case with of the summits of that region but are still clothed with green. The hunting and fishing are unsurpassed by anything in the Adirondacks. Last year sixty-eight thousand trout were put into the lake. A trout weighing sixteen and three-quarters pounds has been caught there. It is said that more trout were taken out of that lake last year than at any other place in the Adirondacks. Here H. A. Maxam & Son at the Thirteenth Lake House keep a paradise of sport at moderate rates. Sixty thousand acres in two townships, Nos. 13 & 31, are under the management of Messrs. Maxam. The house can accommodate about twenty-five guests. From a farm of two hundred acres vegetables are raised for the table. From the house Mount Marcy is visible and many other of the highest peaks of the Adirondacks. The elevation is three thousand feet above sea level, and the house is two hundred and fifty feet above the surface of the lake surface, the lake being a five-minute walk from the hotel. Mr. Maxam is an expert in woodcraft and has five of the finest deerhounds in the United States. Conveyances from the house will meet travelers at the Adirondack railway station at North Creek, and those who wish good air, good food, and good sport will find it to their advantage to address H. A. Maxam & Son, North River, Warren county, NY Thirteenth lake lies mainly in Warren county, but a portion of it is on Hamilton county.”
The Troy Daily Times Business Notices two years later again gave a plug to Maxam’s hotel, this time reminding readers that though it was “not a show-place, but a comfortable home for the hunter, the fisherman and the seeker for rest.”
As noted earlier, the fishing at Thirteenth Lake during the 1890s was exceptionally good, with hunters also finding success in the surrounding forests. Numerous announcements of success by hunters were posted in newspapers, one example being four bears taken over the course of a week in the summer of 1894. One of these animals weighing over 240 pounds. Henry “Hank” Maxam also added several hunting camps for his guests close to known deer paths, or “runways” as they were called. His son Frank, a well-known hunter and guide, worked alongside his father and was available to lead the hunters to game.
In 1897 Maxam left the Thirteenth Lake House and moved on to his farm in nearby Sodom. Henry died in June of 1911, having been stricken with a stroke at age 78 that had left him feeble and partly paralyzed. In his obituary, he was noted as having been a resident of Johnsburg for over forty years and a man who had done much logging in the north country.
Thirty-nine-year-old Albert Thilo (sometimes spelled Thillo) and his family moved to the hotel in 1897, where he took over as proprietor. In 1899 Reuben Ross moved from Sodom to North River to run the Thirteenth Lake House at the beginning of that summer’s season. In the same newspaper, it was reported that Albert Thillo was moving from North River to Sodom.
Under the proprietorship of Reuben Ross, the Thirteenth Lake continued to be a successful enterprise, with newspapers noting at times in the summer months the lodge was full. With many of the guests seeking peace and quiet, one group requested that the sportsmen use “noiseless” gunpowder so their solitude would no longer be disturbed.
Reuben Ross continued to operate the Thirteenth Lake House until 1909 when it was taken over by John H. Wade. This new manager was not slow in starting as later that year he entertained guests at Thirteenth Lake with dinner, dancing, and music. John Wade was born in the state of Vermont in 1859, he and his wife were living in Horicon, Warren County in 1880.
By 1917 Wade had changed the name of the hotel to the Thirteenth Lake Lodge. At that time, he also replaced the structure with a more up-to-date and modern twenty-room hotel, including a new spacious dining room that offered space for both music and dancing. Also on the property were eleven bungalows for his guests on the hill behind the hotel.
Hunting was an important part of life at the Thirteenth Lake during the years that John Wade operated the lodge. At times he would have upwards of fifty sportsmen staying there while they went after deer in the surrounding forest. The future for hunting big game was improved in 1907 when five elk obtained by the state from a private preserve in New Hampshire were released at Thirteenth Lake. Sadly, disease, poaching, and some simple mis-identification by hunters kept elk from ever taking hold in the region.
With game laws being strictly enforced, at times violators were caught, even those who were associated with the Thirteenth Lake House. In the winter of 1917, a handful of men, including proprietor Wade were charged with running deer with dogs and illegally selling venison. To settle the cases fines were paid by the violators.
In 1922 John H. Wade, longtime owner of the Thirteenth Lake Lodge, resigned as active manager and handed the duties to Benjamin Straight, his assistant since 1911. John H. Wade died in 1930 at his home in North Creek. Seventy-five years old at the time of his death, he was noted as being one of the most prominent residents of the village where he had lived for nearly 45 years.
Born in Dorset, Vermont, Wade had come to North Creek to work in the furniture business, went on to conduct a grocery store, operate a woodworking and lumber mill, and later became the owner of the Thirteenth Lake House. During his years in Johnsburg, he had given employment to many people and had aided in the growth and prosperity of the region. His funeral is said to be one of the largest ever held in that village, with those present representing communities within a 40-mile radius. He was buried in the village cemetery.
In the 1910 Federal Census for the town of Johnsburg, Benjamin Straight is listed as a laborer doing odd jobs. At that time, he is renting a house with his first wife, Johnsburg native Nettie Montgomery. Benjamin’s life changed when he took over proprietorship of the hotel, and in 1930 he was the owner of real estate valued at $40,000.
Though the lodge was far in the wilderness, criminals still took advantage of the open and unwatched property. In October of 1930, while 15 hunters soundly slept on the second floor, thieves boldly backed a truck up to the front door to remove the loot. In an act that defies explanation, they also removed the safe from the office, smashed it on the front lawn, and then placed it back in its original location. The take for their efforts was $900, including the contents of the cigar case and several deer that the hunters had stored in a nearby shed. The perpetrators were never caught.
In December of 1930, tragedy struck when the 51-year-old Nettie died only a few hours after taking ill at Thirteenth Lake Lodge. She was laid to rest in North Creek Cemetery. In August of the next year, Benjamin Straight married Celia Alden at a ceremony in New York City.
The next year tragedy of a different kind struck when the Thirteenth Lake Lodge burned, with three people being injured, one fatally. At 2:50 am on June 24th, 1931, Ben Straight’s half-brother Joseph Hopkins was asleep on the first floor of the twenty-room hotel. Pulled from sleep by smoke pouring into his room, he rushed through the building waking the seven guests who were sleeping on the second floor. By the time they were aroused they were surrounded by the flames and attempted to escape through the upstairs windows.
Twelve-year-old Paul Owen and sixty-year-old Dr. Emil Weiss died in the fire. Paul’s father had attempted to lead the boy out through a window in their second-floor room, but lost consciousness and fell to the ground without his son. Dr. Weiss died in his bed with his faithful dog Whitney at his side.
Four other guests escaped with burns and sprains, the worst being Mr. & Mrs. Theodore Nash who fled onto a first-floor roof only to fall unconscious. Heroic efforts by the hotel’s guides and those staying in the surrounding guest cabins got them down just before the gun room they had climbed out onto collapsed. Ben Straight acknowledged the efforts of the firemen from North Creek a few weeks after the fire by presenting them with a check for fifty dollars.
Benjamin Straight responded to the loss with unprecedented speed, as by the end of the day of the fire he had ordered the lumber to rebuild the hotel. Just as quickly the cleanup and construction began, and in two months Straight had the hotel rebuilt. To celebrate the opening, on Saturday, September 5th a dinner dance was held featuring Wilcox’s Orchestra from Glens Falls and attended by 240 people. This new, modern structure was thirty-five feet longer than the earlier building with fire escapes and other safety features added.
Because of the death and injury resulting from the 1931 Thirteenth Lake Lodge fire, a lawsuit was brought against Benjamin Straight by Peter Owen and his wife Myra. They were awarded $20,000 by the Schenectady County Supreme Court in April of 1934.
Sadly, Benjamin faced another loss when Celia, his wife of only two years, passed away in 1933. At the age of 54, Benjamin Straight married again in 1934, his new wife was 37-year-old Helen Hess from Bronx, New York.
Thirteenth Lake Lodge made the national news when a lost airplane was found by a hunter on the south side of nearby Bullhead Mountain. On July 18th of 1945 pilot Raymond Giles, age 30, of Camden, New York an honorably discharged member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his two passengers; Shirley Withey and Jeanne Adams, both 21, from Rome, New York took off from Lake Placid in a black Stinson four-passenger airplane heading towards Boonville in bad weather.
Over the next few months over 300 flying hours and untold hours on foot were spent in search of the plane and occupants. These efforts even included dropping a copy of the newspaper article about the lost airplane to the hermit Noah Rondeau at his camp at Cold River. Amazingly, Noah left his backcountry home and contacted Conservation Department searchers just to let them know that he had not heard or seen anything.
With the lodge as a center of operation, a group made up of local firemen, state police and the conservation department recovered the remains of the three victims. The rough terrain forced the men to carry the bodies three-quarters of a mile down the mountain to a wagon that was brought in as close as the terrain allowed to the scene of the crash.
Benjamin Eugene Straight died at the age of 71 on Sunday, February 26th, 1951, in Glens Falls Hospital after a long illness. The operation of Thirteenth Lake Lodge fell to his thirty-two-year-old nephew William Doyle, the son of his wife Helen’s sister. In June of that same year, Benjamin’s widow, Helen passed away in Glens Falls. Her funeral was held at St. James Church in North River and she was laid to rest next to Benjamin in the Union Cemetery, North Creek.
The Thirteen Lake Lodge was struck by lightning shortly before midnight on August 15th, 1961. The two-story wooden and steel main lodge, empty of guests, was completely consumed in the resulting fire. The fifteen adjacent cabins were able to be saved by the North River Fire Department. The structure might have been saved if the telephone line to the lodge had not been knocked out by the storm. Support from the nearby Barton Fire Company was not able to reach the fire due to a vehicle breakdown. The lodge was never rebuilt.
Illustrations, from above: 1858 map of Warren County New York by Robert Pearsall Smith (Library of Congress); 1888 Map of the Adirondack Wilderness, Seneca Ray Stoddard, from the author’s collection; Thirteenth Lake House Advertisement, Troy Daily Times, August 20, 1891; Advertisement John H. Wade’s 13th Lake House, Troy Times, June 30, 1917; Thirteenth Lake Lodge Fire, Plattsburgh Daily Republican, June 25, 1931; Thirteenth Lake Lodge advertising pamphlet (Johnsburg Historical Society); and article on the recovery of crash victims, Rome Sentinel, November 7, 1945.
A version of this story originally appeared in Pastimes, the Warren County Historical Society‘s newsletter.