The adventure began with an exchange of letters in the spring of 1877 between a sportsman in Syracuse, NY, and Byron P. Graves of Boonville, a town on the western border of the Adirondacks. The purpose of this correspondence was to hire a guide and transportation for a two-week hunting and fishing trip into the Fulton Chain of Lakes for the man and his 11-year-old son Ned.
The sportsman was Ansel Judd Northrup, a 43-year-old attorney who would later write the book, Camps and Tramps in the Adirondacks (1882), where this story was first told. The final communication from Northrup, in the form of a telegraph, simply read, “Engage Brinckerhoff, will reach Boonville, morning train, July 5th.”
Father and son boarded the early train in Syracuse and traveled east to Utica, where they transferred to the Utica and Black River Railroad to complete this first leg of their trip. Stepping down from the passenger car in Boonville, Northrup and his son were greeted by Byron Graves, the man who had arranged the trip for them. A noted woodsman and hunter of Adirondack panthers, Graves immediately took charge, directing them and their 165 pounds of gear to the Hulbert House a few blocks away. Later that morning they would meet up with their guide at this hotel.
Most likely this was the first sporting adventure in the Adirondacks for the youngster Ned. Ansel Northrup, a responsible parent, was very clear about what he was looking for in a guide. His instructions requested a man of good character, who should be “careful, discreet, not profane, [and] temperate.” Father and son soon realized that the guide Graves had chosen, 50-year-old John Lafayette Brinckerhoff, fit the bill perfectly.
Northrup described Brinckerhoff as large, compact, and strong, with a face “which nature intended for that of a general, and [was] as honest as the sun, and [had] a quiet, self-respectful, sensible way of talking which won my heart from the first.” These words of praise became so well-known over time that Brinckerhoff was nicknamed “General John.”
Besides working as a guide for sportsmen, Brinckerhoff was a carpenter and a boat builder. A resident of Boonville, he and his wife Elsa lived in the same house for 40 years and raised three children, two daughters, and a son.
It was twenty-five miles from Boonville to Old Forge and the beginning of the Fulton Chain of Lakes. The route the group followed in the 1870s was a road that only became worse the further one traveled. The first half of the trip was spent in relative comfort, with everyone riding on the buckboard wagon to the little settlement of Moose River, or as it was locally known, Lawrence’s.
In 1859 Abner Lawrence settled in this spot, where travelers had been fording this shallow section on the middle branch of the Moose River for generations. When he first arrived, he planned to work as a guide and a trapper, but the frequent need for food and shelter of those passing through gave him an additional source of income. By the time Northrup, young Ned, and their guide arrived at this settlement, Abner Lawrence had sold the property and moved to Boonville. The destruction of the forest and “disturbing smells” from a large tannery nearby proved to be too much for him. However, the hotel was still in operation, and the group could sit down and enjoy a meal before continuing their journey.
The crossing at Moose River brought an end to the comfort of travel by wagon. The horses were unhitched and driven across the river; the gear and the people were ferried to the far shore. The driver and guide then loaded all but the fishing rods and a rifle onto one horse, leaving the second horse available for father and son to take turns riding. The driver led the horses; father and son took turns carrying gear and riding, and their guide followed with the rifle on his shoulder. It was a slow, tiring trip of twelve miles over what Northrup described as “a mere wagon track full of mud-holes, with rocks, roots, hills and corduroy bridges.”
When there were two miles left to go, the woods opened to reveal what was once an attempt at settlement and industry. Only one crumbling homestead was still standing — the old Herreshoff Manor.
In the late 1790s, John Brown of Rhode Island came into possession of the tract when it was offered as security in a business transaction. He attempted to wrestle wealth out of the wilderness with iron mining and lumbering. When Brown died in 1806, his son-in-law, Charles Herreshoff, took on the task; however, his efforts resulted in his financial ruin and suicide on the property in 1819. In time the Arnold family moved in and offered what was, for many years, the only accommodations in the area. When the Northrup group passed through the area, this building was empty and left to decay.
The last few miles between the abandoned Herreshoff clearing and Old Forge must have given Ansel Northrup time to wonder what was coming next. He declared that it was “a delightful change of scene that met our eyes” as they approached the next stop on their journey. For many of the previous 50 years, this spot along the Moose River just above First Lake was accurately named “Old Forge,” as all that marked the location were the remains of the abandoned Herreshoff forge and the skeletons of large barns slowly crumbling to dust. Only a few years before two businessmen from the region had purchased 1,300 acres of land at the foot of the Fulton Chain of Lakes with plans to create a destination for the sportsmen who were increasingly traveling to the area.
A mill was constructed to supply lumber, then housing for the builders, and finally in 1871 the Forge House was erected. The two-story hotel boasted thirteen guest rooms, a wide porch running the full length in front, and two dining rooms. Overlooking the Middle branch of the Moose River, this area was in every way a country setting in those early days, even down to the main road entering from the rear of the property and through a combination garden and barnyard that required those entering to take down the gate made of fence rails and put them back up after they passed through.
The Northrup group arrived at the hotel around 6 pm, just in time for a rest on the porch before sitting down to a well-deserved dinner. Joel Comstock was the owner during this period of the hotel’s history. He was the fifth proprietor of twenty to run the Forge House during its 53 years in operation. A native of Oneida County and resident of Boonville, Comstock was a Civil War veteran who had held the rank of Major in the 97th Regiment, “the Conklin Rifles” and fought in the battle of Cedar Run, Virginia. After the war, Comstock had owned and operated the Empire Hotel in Boonville until it was destroyed by fire in 1868
Shortly after their evening meal was finished, the Northrups and Brinckerhoff left the wagon and driver behind and prepared to travel by water up the Moose River and across First Lake of the Fulton Chain. Once the gear and supplies were loaded, Brinckerhoff’s handmade boat carried them on a short ride to their accommodations for the night. For the next few days, they would stay in a house built for the use of resident guides at the Stickley Camp property on the north shore.
The time passed peacefully for father and son, although exactly how long they stayed at Stickley Camp is unclear; Northrup stopped reporting the dates of their daily activities after the first three days. Along with their guide, they paddled and portaged to numerous lakes and rivers both north and south of the Fulton Chain, but always returning to the camp by day’s end. They spent one Sunday on the shore of Fourth Lake, climbing St. Louis Mountain to view the area from above. This small peak an open-rock ridgeline running east to west along the north shore of the lake is now called Bald or Rondaxe Mountain. Benjamin Stickley had named the peak St. Louis Mountain, and this name was so common at the time that Verplanck Colvin called the mountain exclusively by that name in the 1876 report on his Adirondack survey. A signal station for the survey stood on the summit, and like typical tourists, both father and son inscribed their names on one of the timbers during their visit that day. Woodsmen in the area had been utilizing this mountain for nearly one hundred years by the time Northrup’s group enjoyed the view that day. The earliest known written record is from the life of trapper Nat Foster, who used it as a lookout when he was in the area. Jeptha Simms, in his 1850 book, Trappers of New York, refers to the peak as “Foster’s Observatory.”
It was tempting for the sportsmen to spend their time in the wilderness surrounded by the comforts of the Stickley Camp, but father and son had planned this as a through-trip across the Fulton Chain to Blue Mountain Lake, so one morning the work of packing and collecting needed provisions began, and the next day they were again on the move. After leaving First Lake they quickly crossed Second and Third Lakes, taking a break on the south shore of Fourth Lake to buy some final provisions. For this, they stopped at Jack Sheppard’s camp, built only three years before to provide a base for Sheppard’s guide business. Here they purchased butter and Bermuda onions and soon were back on the water.
The channel between Fourth and Fifth Lakes was so shallow that the guide had to push the boat through, while Ansel Northrup and Ned walked. At the end of Fifth Lake, they encountered their only carry of the day, nearly three-quarters of a mile. The distribution of gear was described as follows:
“John carried a pack-basket filled with provisions, his boat, oars, and ax — a good load for an ox. The lad carried the ‘batter pail’ (with its germinal possibilities of unlimited pancakes) and a goodly assortment of small articles; while I struggled along under a pack made up of a bundle containing stove, tent, blankets, and the navy-bag full of clothing, etc., and rifle, rods, small bag, and pail containing our cooking utensils and table furniture—in all nearly one hundred pounds. We thus carried everything on one trip.”
It is not surprising that Northrup also noted that that much gear in one load was “too much for us and we were wiser afterward.”
Passing quickly through Sixth Lake, they soon entered Seventh, with the far shore four miles away as their day’s destination. Fishing was good that day. Their guide took them to one of the most well-known fishing spots, an area along the south shore between what they called “Big Island” and the mouth of Wheeler Creek. The 1876 E.R. Wallace noted in his travel guide that in this area fishermen could catch salmon trout as heavy as twenty pounds. The name of the island changed over the years and is now known as Goff Island.
By late afternoon, the sportsmen were on the move again, heading east towards the head of the lake and keeping an eye out for an ideal location for another extended stay, although this time they would only have a tent for shelter. They chose an area along the north shore, not far from the small stream that entered Seventh Lake from Bug and Eagle Nest Lakes. This would be the first test of the A-shaped tent made of waterproof cotton that Northrup and his son brought, as well as a test of the custom-made camp stove Northrup designed that folded up “much like an envelope.” Although their guide would never give an opinion of this piece of cooking gear, it was set up at every camping stop, if not actually used.
While Northrup recorded little about their time camping on Seventh Lake, his praise for the scenery along the shore is worth repeating:
The sunsets, viewed from the shore in front of our tent, as we looked down the lake and around upon the mountains and forests, were pictures for the painter and themes for the poet. “Seventh” has been lauded by many an enthusiastic admirer. I should never tire of adding my tribute of praise to its almost peerless beauty if I did not remember that I have seen so much to admire in the lakes and forests of the Adirondacks that I must reserve something of my enthusiasm for other scenes.
The days of camping on Seventh Lake passed with what Northrup called “perfect weather and pleasant sport” until one morning the sportsmen and their gear were again loaded into the boat, and they continued their journey eastward. As the water level on the Fulton Chain was not as high as in modern times, there were two carries — one between Seventh Lake and Eighth Lake of a mile, and then another, longer one from Eighth Lake into Raquette Lake, where they left the Fulton Chain of Lakes behind. Little was said about the first carry, but the second one concerned Northrup as he had heard reports that it was “formidable” and “evil.” He describes their experience in the following way:
The day was very warm, our loads heavy, the way somewhat rough, and there was a deal of hard work under a noon-day sun, but I think the carry bears a worse reputation than it deserves. It is a standing rule of guides on “this side” and on “the other side” — west and east sides of the woods — to abuse the passage across the dividing line between the two sections. A sportsman is never advised that it is easy to go over into the rival guides’ territory. This unhappy carry, therefore, is berated east and west, right, and left, until the traveler in either region is forced to believe that it is not feasible to extend his journey “across the wilderness.”
Fatigue from this carry was quickly forgotten as they entered Raquette Lake, a body of water that Northrup called “as magnificent and beautiful body of water as one may ever hope to see in the wilderness.” They traveled about four miles on Raquette Lake that day, first heading north along the western shore to Constable Point. While passing this point they noted that the trees had been cut down, making it undesirable for summer camping.
In 1885 William Constable sold the land to Charlie Bennett, and a few years later Bennett built the famous Antlers Hotel at that location. It was at this point on the western shore of the lake that their guide turned the boat east and rowed past Osprey Island to their destination, a tent site on Woods Point on the eastern shore. Osprey Island had at one time been the summer home of the famous Adirondack writer, William H. H. “Adirondack” Murray, but by the time Northrup and his son passed by the island had been taken over by the equally famous guide Alvah Dunning.
For the rest of their time in this part of the wilderness, the party encountered other groups traveling through the area daily. Sportsmen and tourists, in large and small groups, would pass by, hailing from New York City, Poughkeepsie, and even Philadelphia. Some were experienced and properly outfitted, while others traveled with enough provisions “for a dozen men.” Father, son, and guide spent time not only sporting and exploring but also visiting the camps along the shore. They even visited Dunning on Osprey Island, as when their time on Raquette Lake was over, they stopped there to return a board they had borrowed to use as a table at their campsite.
They also took time to visit the public camp run by Charlie Hathorn on the shore of South Bay, where Golden Beach State Campground is now located. Donaldson’s A History of the Adirondacks notes that Hathorn was an “eccentric character who had been living the life of a hermit for several years on Blue Mountain Lake.” He had moved to the Utowana Carry originally, but finding that location, not to his liking, he relocated to Raquette Lake. His open-boarding camp at Golden Beach, named “Forest Cottages,” was set in a pleasant grove of pine trees where primitive camping and “forest house-keeping” were the order of the day.
Before leaving Raquette to continue their journey to Blue Mountain Lake, the group had one more area to explore, Forked Lake. The day they chose to make this trip turned out to be one of alternating sunshine and showers, which forced them to seek shelter along the shoreline at times. Traveling from Raquette Lake to Forked Lake required a carry that Northrup described as “short and easy, much like a country road.” They found the scenery to be very attractive, noting only Captain Parker’s camp along the shore. Northrup referred to the structure as a “single hut or hunter’s home.”
The final days of their stay on Raquette Lake were occupied with fishing for bass, a species of fish that their guide had introduced to the lake four years earlier. Northrup’s group caught numerous bass in the two-pound range. As mentioned previously, there were many more parties of sportsmen and tourists on Raquette Lake with what Northup called “gay flotillas” passing by with calls to announce mail deliveries from Blue Mountain Lake. At that time, it was customary for anyone heading in or out of the area to carry mail to be delivered or sent. In fact, two young women approached the group on one of their last days on Raquette Lake, asking that letters be taken to the post office at Blue Mountain Lake. As they encountered more and more groups of people, father and son began to miss the solitude of the chain lakes; young Ned even stated that he would “never go in the woods again where so many people go.”
Their last day on the lake commenced with a strong thunderstorm in the middle of the night that nearly blew their tent down. A loose tent peg had released a door flap and threatened to carry the tent away. With quick work, their guide took care of the matter, although they spent the rest of the night with boots on in anticipation of further problems.
By noon, the rain had ceased, so they began packing up the tent and gear for the final leg of their trip on the water. They were glad to be on the move again, and with their route taking them close to the shore they could see numerous signs that deer had been feeding on the lily pads along the shore. Their journey for the next four miles would be on the Marion River, the end of which would be a half-mile carry they called “much-traveled and easy,” to Utowana Lake and beyond. Northrup describes the experience as follows:
“The journey through Utowana and Eagle lakes is charming. On the northern shore of the latter, is a comfortable farm of forty or fifty acres. We saw a number of cows feeding in a pasture sloping down to the shore—a sight which savored so highly of civilization that I involuntarily attempted to adjust my neckerchief, which had wandered around under my woolen shirt collar from one shoulder to the other at its own free will, all the way from Old Forge.”
The connecting channel between Eagle Lake and Blue Mountain Lake was both narrow and shallow, requiring first rowing and then pushing the boat by the travelers. However, it was not long before they were afloat again on the body of water where their journey through the wilderness would end. Rather than use his own words to describe what greeted them as they viewed the lake, Northrup chose to quote E. R. Wallace’s Adirondack guide:
“Numerous inlets and islands of various forms and aspects, some frowning with adamantine sternness, others smiling in robes of charming green, lie in its waters of translucent purity like agates and emeralds in settings of burnished silver. To traverse the winding water-courses formed by these picturesque groups is to penetrate a labyrinth of intricate and bewildering avenues. The loveliness of the lake is greatly enhanced by the wild and majestic scenery surrounding it. Mountain peaks on three of its sides display their sublime fronts, and preeminent among them is the noble dome from which the lake derives its name.”
When Northrup, his son Ned and their guide stepped out of the boat and onto the shore of Blue Mountain Lake, they left their weeks of wilderness living behind. Just three years earlier, John Holland had built and opened the Blue Mountain Lake House to cater to the increasing tourist and sportsmen’s trade. Additions were completed in 1877 to increase guest capacity from sixty to nearly two hundred. It was at this hotel that the travelers spent their last night together in the Adirondacks.
The next morning, they said goodbye to their guide, as Brinckerhoff was heading back west to continue his work as a guide at the Stickley Camp. Father and son would spend the day climbing Blue Mountain, a peak they had noticed earlier from the summit of Bald Mountain, as well as in the distance from the lakes they had traveled across during their journey. They made the ascent in an hour and a half on a trail described as “uncomfortably steep and becoming near the top of the mountain, a rough stairway of roots and rocks.” Near the top, they noticed a pine tree on which a crude ladder made of “cross-sticks” had been nailed to view the scenery. They even noted that “Kate Field” had used this tree to obtain a lookout.
Kate Field was a well-known author and lecturer at the time who had successfully promoted the State of New York’s purchase of abolitionist John Brown’s North Elba, New York farm as a historic site. Her lecture “In and Out of the Woods” advocated travel into the wilderness for women, a view that brought her much criticism from a small but vocal segment of the predominantly male literary community.
Once on the summit of Blue Mountain, Northrup and his son took advantage of another one of Verplanck Colvin’s recently completed signal stations as a means of viewing the scenes below. Colvin had ordered the trees at the top of the mountain to be cut down to allow unobstructed views in every direction. Northrup offered this rather dark praise of the view, possibly influenced by the storm they had experienced days before:
“The true Adirondacks were before us — the almost impenetrable region of mountain heights and gloomy chasms; the region of terrific storms; where mountain peak bellows defiance to mountain peak in the thunders that rock even the mountains in their supernatural force and fury. As far as the eye can reach, this grand mountain range extends — its gloomy fierceness softened to the eye by the blue haze and the floods of sunshine resting upon the huge backs and shoulders and brows, but made thereby even more shaggy, fierce, and terrible to the imagination which defies the air and sun, as haze and sunshine cast their robes over the sleeping patriarchs to hide their awfulness.”
Early the next morning Northrup and Ned packed their bags and prepared for their trip home. At 6:30 their buckboard stage started on the thirty-mile trip to North Creek and the closest railroad station. Their driver was William Wakely, well known for not only his stagecoach line in that area but also for building Wakely Dam on the nearby Cedar River, which created the Cedar River flow.
The road was muddy, travel was often slow, and sometimes the passengers walked to lessen the load on the hills. The trip lasted eight hours, but the wagon made it to the railway station in time to catch the train back to civilization. Soon they were in the sleeping car heading to Saratoga and by the end of the day, their home in Syracuse
Illustrations: Map of the path Booneville to Forge House is from S. R. Stoddard’s 1885 Map of the Adirondack Wilderness, Map of the Fulton Chain of Lakes is taken from Ely’s 1869 Map of the Adirondack Wilderness, both from the author’s collection.
Bob Meyer says
Thank you Dave for a very interesting narrative & history. Now I know who Wakeley was. 😎
David G Waite says
Thank you for your comment, I enjoyed learning more about the history of that area as I put it together. Dzve
Roy Crego says
Thanks for spotlighting Northrup’s classic Adirondack adventure. Loved the reference to Jack Sheppard.
Dave Waite says
Thank you Roy, Northrup’s accounts of his travels in the Adirondacks and beyond makes fascinating reading. Dave
Michael Cantwell says
I came across your article searching for John Brinckerhoff, or as Mr Northrup penned, Brinckerhoff. I have read “Camps and Tramps in the Adirondacks…” Several times and enjoy following his adventures on old topo maps and random Google searches of names and places.
Mr Northrup writes well about places that don’t exist anymore and it’s amazing to see how the Adirondacks’ character has changed over the course of about 150 years.
Michael Cantwell says
Northrup penned “Brinckerhoof”