In the nineteenth century Lewis County settlements east of the Black River were just getting established; most of these included at least one saw mill. By 1820 these settlements were beginning to push their way up the rivers into the Adirondacks, and new mills were being built along their courses. A Copenhagen, NY farmer on Tug Hill, viewing the Adirondack panorama spread out to his east, wrote the following in a Journal & Republican article titled “North Woods Wonder:”
“All the wilderness is strewn with lakes as if some great mirror had been shattered by an Almighty hand, and scattered through the forests for Nature to make her toilet by … And how the rivers meander the woods as the veins of a human hand. There are Beaver, Moose, and Indian, Bog, Grass and Racket… And how rough and shaggy the wilderness is with mountains … Let them pass unnamed.”
One of these “shattered” gems was Twitchell Lake.
Lake Ownership Traced Back to the Beginning
When I traced my log cabin’s deed on Twitchell Lake back to our nation’s founding in 1776, I ran into three large and murky land deals – Macomb’s Purchase, John Brown’s Tract, and the Totten & Crossfield Purchase.
For the first two, newly minted New York State was anxious to settle war debts, selling its northern “waste lands” to ambitious land speculators like Irish immigrant Alexander Macomb. Between 1792 to 1798 he purchased six “Great Tracts” totaling almost 4 million acres at the bargain price of 9 pence/acre, partnering with a handful of wealthy New Yorkers, including Aaron Burr.
The records of Macomb’s eventual sales of this land were lost in a fire in Herkimer County, but John Brown of Providence, RI ended up with a 200,000-acre parcel carved out of Great Tracts V and VI tat included Lewis County’s eastern border. The story of how a Rhode Island statesman ended up with a remote Adirondack parcel has been well-told by historians – it’s the sad tale of a son-in-law (John Francis) squandering funds targeted for Brown’s business ventures. After his son-in-law’s untimely death, Brown partitioned the purchase into eight townships. By the time of his death in 1803, Brown was still trying to clear his title, his wife and four children receiving the land. The 33,000 acres of Township 8, on which Twitchell Lake was located, went to son James.
The importance of lumbering is in John Brown’s will, where it notes that the land where Old Forge now stands (Township 7) had “a good sawmill and grist-mill, with a plenty of the best pine timber, so that white pine boards may be procured at the mill for two and one half dollars per thousand feet.” Old Forge was one of several attempts he made at creating a settlement in the forest, his grandson John Brown Francis making the last attempt in Township 4, where the hamlet of Number Four became Lewis County’s “doorway” to the Adirondacks. The next major transfer of this large family parcel would be between Francis and Lyman R. Lyon, a prominent Lewis County businessman with mining and lumbering interests in mind. James passed Township 8 ownership to Francis.
Township 8 shares its eastern border with the Totten & Crossfield Purchase, where in 1772 over a million acres were transferred from Indigenous people to two city of New York shipwrights with the permission of the King of England. Twitchell Lake is less than a mile from this western border, first surveyed by Archibald Campbell accompanied by eight Iroquois guides. Broken into 50 townships, the purchase attracted thirty investors, including lumbermen Edward and Ebenezer Jessup.
As a result of the American Revolution, the Totten & Crossfield Purchase came under New York State control. Following the war, the fifty townships went back up for sale, Township 41 (nearest Twitchell) was purchased in 1787 by Alexander Macomb and Townships 42 and 43 were later conveyed to a railroad company aiming to access its rich “timber gold.” In a purchase agreement signed by Governor DeWitt Clinton, the State made its interests clear, reserving “all Gold and Silver Mines” and binding Macomb to establish no less than eight settlements by 1784, or have his deed voided.
In 1805, Urial A. Twitchell emigrated from Holliston, MA, to help found the hamlet of Copenhagen, 54 miles west of what is now Twitchell Lake. Urial helped survey and build the road connecting Fort Stanwix in Rome with Sackett’s Harbor on Lake Ontario at the time of the War of 1812. Just three years later, John Richards, a prominent judge, re-surveyed parts of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase’s western line, as well as a road from Essex County to the Black River.
The mountain between the Totten & Crossfield Purchase line and the north shore of what is now Twitchell Lake was named Twitchell Mountain on an early survey map. Later, When Frank Tweedy resurveyed this same border for Verplanck Colvin in 1879, he identified what is today called “East Mountain” as “Twitchell Mt” using the older survey journals Colvin had given him.
What is believed to have been the first lumbering operation at Twitchell Lake can be placed on the shore of the Beaver River three to four miles before it joins the Black River. The hamlet of Beaver Falls formed around its mill on the north shore of this river where Croghan borders New Bremen. In 1826, the Black River Gazette published an advertisement to lure settlers to John Brown Francis’ “Number Four” colony, today a 16-mile drive east from Beaver Falls. The advertisement was placed by land agent and prominent Lewis County attorney Charles Dayan:
“The timber of this tract is beech, maple, birch, and hemlock. The soil is dark sandy loam, and productive in [a wide variety of] grains and vegetables. There are 13 families on the tract who are much pleased with the land and location. This settlement is commenced upon the bank of Beaver River Lake, which is about 3 miles long and a mile or more broad. The tract is well watered, and has several valuable mill sites, a saw-mill is now building on the tract. This land the subscriber [Dayan] offers for sale at one dollar per acre with five years credit to actual settlers, and a liberal discount will be made to those who pay down. The subscriber is confident that no lands in this section of the state offer greater inducements to the industrious farmer and mechanic than those he now offers for sale. CHAS. DAYAN, Agent, Lowville, January 25th, 1826.”
Dayan built what the believed to have been the first sawmill in New Bremen in 1826 before it was separated from Watson and at a time when that township was known by as “Dayanville.”
Lewis County townships east of the Black River – Diana, Croghan, New Bremen, Watson, and Greig — all began as tiny settlements along the Oswegatchie, Beaver, Independence, Otter, and Moose Rivers, each with enough water to power a lumber and grist mill. Inducements like the one above lured thousands of settlers from New England, New York, and Europe with the promise of good farming and industry.
A grist mill, passable roads, a schoolhouse, and church usually followed the erection of a sawmill. When Jacob and Rodolph Rohr read one of these ads in a German newspaper, they jumped at the opportunity to escape religious persecution, responding to a similar bargain land offer, setting up a sawmill on the north or Croghan side of the Beaver River, and naming their original settlement “Rohr’s Mills.”
The Earliest Lumber Mills in Lewis County
The first mill east of the Black River is believed to have been built in 1798 on this same Beaver River shore for the failed French settlement of Castorland (“Beaver land”). Their mill supplied lumber for settlers across the Black River in Lowville, later to become the county seat. As the century progressed, this Beaver Falls hub would explode with industrial mills for the manufacture of wood products, leather, and paper, driving the competition for timber up the Beaver River, strait across Brown’s Tract, and deep into the wilderness of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase. One of the most influential lumbermen in northern New York, Theodore Basselin, would later establish his mill complex in Beaver Falls where Rohr’s Mill first stood.
The mills in Lewis County’s earliest settlements were simple one-saw operations powered by the river. A wooden pitman (axle) and crude wooden gears transferred power to an up-and-down saw-blade which cut one board at a time. After lumber mills were built, grist mills followed, powered by the same method. Wooden products would multiply after 1820, with the early output of these mills going to meet agricultural and building needs locally. Any surplus was rafted down-stream for sale in wider markets like Lowville and Boonville.
The Beaver River was navigable for the three to four miles from its Black River junction up to Beaver Falls, that being one key factor favoring its strategic location. For their building needs, settlers produced timber for their cabins, boards for walls, partitions, and flooring, shakes and shingles for roofing, and additional stock for construction of tools, fences, wagons, and boats. As William F. Fox, author of History of the Lumber Industry in NYS, so aptly stated: “The first settler was the first lumberman; and his work began when he felled the trees preparatory to making the clearing in the forest where he could build his log cabin and raise his food.” Fox says that clear-cutting was a trait of the farmer, not the logger.
New York State’s Role in Settlement & Logging
As if the economics of supply and demand for Lewis County was not enough, the State of New York passed legal incentives that paved the way for lumber and other industries to exploit resources in the Adirondacks. The earliest of these were the 1784 and 1785 Acts “[to] Facilitate the Settlement of Waste and Unappropriated Lands” passed to encourage settlement and to reward war veterans with land grants.
Governor George Clinton signed these into law, disregarding a Congressional mandate that all transfer of Native American lands be under Federal supervision. Setting aside that thorny legal issue, these acts had the unintended consequence of treating the Adirondack forest, which then seemed inexhaustible, as “waste lands.” In the words of New York conservationist Norman Van Valkenburgh: “The natural resources were there, and the people of the new state, basking in their hard-won freedom, took them.”
One example of this State policy in action was a series of New York laws declaring Adirondack rivers “public highways” for the removal of timber from the interior. The first was a Chapter 139 ruling passed in 1806 for the Salmon River, followed by Raquette River (1810), Black (1821), Grasse (1824), and Moose Rivers (1851). Beginning with the Fox Brothers’ log drive on the upper Hudson in 1813, rivers flowing out from the Adirondack interior floated millions of white pine and red spruce logs to newly built sawmills downstream.
River driving became the preferred method for moving logs to mill, the bulk of the harvesting done within a sled-haul to a river’s shore and targeting only softwood, which floated easily. Large mills would spring up in the next era (1820-40) at Glens Falls on the Hudson River and Forestport on the Black River to process what became annual log drives.
A good portion of timber milled by this industrial logging was shipped to England and Ireland, where centuries of tree-cutting had exhausted supplies, hence the premium prices commanded. In 1811 an act of the NYS Legislature prompted steamboat entrepreneur Robert Fulton to explore a water route using what became known as “the Fulton Chain of Lakes” which stretched right across Brown’s Tract, and would have connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. That scheme never materialized, but if it had, it would have commercialized the Central Adirondacks very early and put its timber within easy reach.
An Early Voice of Preservation
Even as early as the 1820s the voice of conservation was beginning to be heard. Copenhagen lawyer W. Hudson Stephens touted the virtues of wilderness in his description of the first fishing trip up the Beaver River in 1819 (Charles Dayan was one of his seven-member party). This group of prominent sportsmen, guided by Thomas Puffer, netted more than big trout. They were also there, according to Stephens, to “seek and find repose…from the treadmill of labor, the anxieties of politics, the perplexities of traffic, and the chain-like task of a weary and overtaxed brain.” Another early sportsman who expressed conservation minded concerns was Albany journalist Samuel H. Hammond, whose annual trek down the Raquette River led to the following widely read proposal:
“Civilization is pushing its way even toward this wild and, for all agricultural purposes, sterile region, and before many years even the Rackett will be within its ever-extending circle. When that time shall have arrived, where shall we go to find the woods, the wild things, the old forests, and hear the sounds which belong to nature in its primeval state? … Had I my way, I would mark out a circle of a hundred miles in diameter, and throw around it the protecting aegis of the constitution. I would make it a forest forever. It should be a misdemeanor to chop down a tree, and a felony to clear one acre within its boundaries.”
One of the first influential American texts on ecology, George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography As Modified by Human Action, would not be published until 1864, but his work traced the roots for the conservation movement to Europe where “scientific forestry” first developed in the 1700s with each country’s call to cultivate, maintain, and manage its forests. As early as 1770 Adolphus Benzel was put in charge of His Majesty’s Woods and Forests around Lake Champlain, charged with planting five young trees for each one cut down- Europe’s scientific forestry in action in the New World.
A Vermont news editor, Marsh argued that the once lush Mediterranean basin was largely deforested by Roman clear-cutting. Such human folly, he asserted, “changed millions of square miles, in the fairest and most fertile regions of the Old World, into the barrenest deserts.” Marsh warned of a similar ecological disaster for the Adirondacks without strict State limits on industry.
From 1820 through 1840, when commercial lumbering really took off, larger mills began to dot the lower watershed of all the rivers on the western border of the Adirondacks. The hamlet of Beaver Falls would grow and begin to push lumbering operations up the Beaver River toward Number Four. White pine stands up the river valleys then lay largely out of reach, and so red spruce became the timber of choice, with hemlock beginning to attract a new entry – the tanning industry.
The Beaver River would eventually be declared a “public highway” for lumbering, the result of lobbying by lumberman Theodore Basselin. That decision was undoubtedly the reason logging reached Twitchell Lake toward the end of the nineteenth century.
Just a few souls in this early era came to the realization that the Adirondacks were not an inexhaustible resource. While the call of the moose, wolf, and mountain lion were fading – Lewis County offering bounties on all these animals – the human call for preservation of the wilderness was just beginning to rise.
This is the second in a series of essays about logging and conservation in the Adirondacks around Twitchell Lake in Northern Herkimer County. You can read the entire series here.
Illustrations, from above: Townships east of the Black River in 1875 Atlas of Lewis County held in the Library of Congress; Brown’s Tract & Twitchell Lake highlighted on 1893 William F. Fox “Map of Tracts, Patents, & Land Grants of Northern New York;” “Twitchell Mountain” identified in a 1879 Frank Tweedy Survey Journal; Google Map showing mileage from Beaver Falls in Lewis County to Number Four Hamlet on Brown’s Tract; Lithograph of Charles Dayan, Esq., as used on Lewis County website; Reproduced Lumber Mill with Waterwheel from 1795 housed in Old Sturbridge Village, MA; picture of Raquette River Log Drive in Colton, NY, used in 6th Annual Report of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission of the State of New York; “Raquette River” [Improved as Public Highway for Logging] in April 17, 1850 Watertown’s Northern Journal; Ink Portrait of George Perkins Marsh (source unknown); and Cover of George Perkins Marsh’s seminal book Man & Nature (London, 1864).