In the 1820s the State of New York encouraged Adirondack exploration and settlement, benefiting from the land sales and taxes (when they were paid). Lewis County newspapers were abuzz with praise for the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal, and in less than a year, the Black River Gazette launched a discussion on “improving” the Black River as a connection between the canal and the St. Lawrence River, anticipating the economic benefit Adirondack timber would bring when this opened a commercial route to the rest of the world:
“The quantity of lumber which might be drawn from those vast forests, now covering a soil which would anticipate the desires of a husbandman are beyond all calculation. For it is a fact admitted by all who have the least acquaintance with this section of country, that a greater quantity of wood, timber, lath, staves, boards, shingles, masts and spars might be drawn from this northern triangle, by means of a Canal, than any other district or county in the state.”
Approval for this feeder canal (the Black River Canal) by the Legislature came several years later, with surveying and construction commencing in 1837 but taking 18 years to complete. At the same time, an Act of the 1828 Legislature appointed Commissioners to open a “Lake Champlain Road” connecting Cedar Point on that lake with the Black River, a 73-mile cut through the Adirondacks.
Their report sharply countered the popular view these lands were “worth nothing,” describing almost every advantage this route would open to settlers at Long Lake and along the Beaver and Raquette Rivers. Those included immense waterpower, rich agricultural potential, and the following list of timber resources:
“The principal timber growing on this land, are beech, soft and hard maple, white and black ash, basswood, yellow birch, spruce and hemlock, with black cherry and some elm; in the swamps, cedar, tamarac, black spruce, and some fir grow.”
Anxious to take advantage of the State’s initiative, the Lewis County Commissioners even boasted of its health benefits with this claim, that “more hardy children can be raised in the north, than can be raised in the west, and at much less expense too.” All these benefits would soon be put to the test. Evidence of the early lumber lobby in Albany is clearly seen in an 1827 act gifting land to settlers who would take the leap to establish sawmills in these rough wilderness regions.
Some of the “lath, staves, boards, shingles, masts, and spars” being produced in the new Lewis County mills was consumed locally. Most of it, however, was transported to Rome, Buffalo, Albany, and points beyond. The horse-drawn “lumber wagons” that moved products south to the Erie Canal on primitive roads were slow and torturous. Hence the push for “improving” the Black River as a canal and later the call for a rail connection to the Mohawk Valley. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad was chartered in 1826, but rail service from the Black River valley to Utica was not running until the 1850s.
Franklin Hough in his History of Lewis County highlighted key founding families for their early farm settlements along the Black River. Four of these families would later become involved in Adirondack exploration and land purchase – the Dayans, Croghans, Constables, and Lyons.
Charles Dayan became the namesake for Dayanville on Crystal Creek, building its first sawmill in 1826 and by 1840 adding a rake factory, grist mill, blacksmith shop, and cheese factory.
Colonel George Croghan, War of 1812 veteran, gave his name to the township where the hamlets of Beaver Falls, Croghan, and Belfort were located, all on the shores of the Beaver River.
William Constable, namesake for Constableville on Sugar River in West Turin, was party to Macomb’s land deals for Great Tracts IV, V, and VI, his heirs making annual treks to Blue Mountain Lake in the coming “sportsman’s era.”
Caleb Lyon gave the family name to Lyons Falls, where the Moose joins the Black River at Lyonsdale. His son Lyman R. Lyon was soon to become owner of almost all of Brown’s Tract, eyeing its rich lumbering potential.
The Lewis County Historical Society makes the interesting point that these early settlers were able to make dairy farming productive in this colder climate because they had first achieved that in the sub-alpine regions of France, Germany, and Switzerland. Cheese and butter thus became Lewis County’s main exportable commodities early on.
American transplants joined these immigrants “because the newly-opened land had been advertised for sale in New England, particularly Connecticut, and New York City and the lower Hudson River valley.” Invited to address the Lewis County Agricultural Fair in 1858, Hough challenged these pioneer farmers with a wider vision:
“Our manufacturing industry must not be limited to the wants of our farming population, or the facility with which the raw material is furnished. For many years to come, articles manufactured from wood, will give profitable employment to industry.”
Lumber Developments Prepared the Way for the Commercial Mills in Lewis County
While commercial lumbering clearly was underway along the lower shores of the Beaver River, rapid advance up that watershed toward Twitchell Lake would not proceed until the 1850s. But earlier developments in the logging industry were preparing the way, the first one an innovation that increased sawing output by multiplication. The simple 5-gang mill pictured in the illustration here was powered by an overshot waterwheel with one crank gear driving five saw-blades solidly mounted in a frame, up and down, the log fed along a sliding carriage by feed rollers. Six boards were produced instead of one.
The first gang mill in the Adirondacks is believed to have been built on the Hudson River at Fort Edward about 1840, with as many as 32 upright saws that processed multiple logs. This huge increase in board production, of course, created an enormous demand for logs, which was not a problem on the Hudson, where river drives had already become an annual tradition by 1813. The era of the large lumber mill in Glens Falls had thus arrived very early on the Hudson, the Forestport mill complex on the Black River soon to follow. Bill Gove adds this note about the Adirondack’s early river drives:
“Timber also flowed northward. French Canadian loggers came down to harvest timber along the Raquette River and up as far as the mouth of the Raquette and Oswegatchie Rivers. Rafts of logs were sent down into the St. Lawrence in the mid-1800s. Only coniferous or softwood logs have sufficient flotation for river drives, but hardwood had a very limited market at that time. All the large sawmills around the edges of the Adirondacks were softwood consumers, producing construction and industrial-grade lumber from spruce, pine, and hemlock … The favorable spruce sites had trees 350 years of age and sometimes older. Adirondack loggers cut only the large spruce trees for floating down to the big mills.”
Another push in the timber industry came from leather production, where a key ingredient lay along stream banks and lower hillsides, the eastern hemlock. Processing leather into shoes and boots required several steps, including soaking hides in vats of salt, water, lime, vinegar, and tannic acid – the latter making the leather resistant to decomposition. The preferred source for tannin was hemlock bark, with its harvest depicted in the accompanying lithograph:
“After the bark was removed, it was placed on the ground with the inner, or flesh, side facing up to hasten drying and prevent formation of mold. Bark was then stacked in large piles off the ground for further drying and to await transport to the tannery. Shipping long distance in the 1800s was costly. Bark was heavy and bulky and had to be hand-loaded onto wagons or sleds pulled by horses to the tannery. In contrast, salted hides were lighter and easier to maneuver, so the hides were, in effect, brought to the hemlock, and tanneries were built close to hemlock stands.”
The Adirondack region had 153 tanneries in 1850, according to Barbara McMartin, many of these arising on the shores of rivers like the Beaver, Moose, and West Canada Creek. Large Lewis County tanneries were located at Moose River Settlement, in Port Leyden, and at Beaver Falls. A pioneer of this industry named Cyrus W. Pratt had a tannery on Fish Creek capable of tanning 50,000 sides of sole leather annually, a production feat requiring 5,000 cords of hemlock bark.
Life in a tannery town was tough, where immigrants were housed in crowded boardinghouses next to a mill. 12-hour shifts of manual labor exposed these workers to the constant stench of curing leather. Neighboring rivers were “heavily polluted as tanning liquors, lime solutions, flesh, and hair were discharged directly into them.”
Then there were the “bark peelers” camped in nearby forests during the spring harvest season, peeling trees from dawn to dusk. Sadly, harvesting often stripped the forest of hemlock, the only useful tree part being the bark, the rest of the tree left to rot in the woods. Some of these trees, however, went into Lewis County’s 76 miles of corduroy roads.
Beaver Falls Was to Grow into a Major Mill Center
Beaver Falls was the perfect location for commercial lumbering, leather tanning, and paper production to develop. It was situated on the northern shore of the Beaver River – the boundary to the townships of Croghan and New Bremen. This sketch is titled “Basselin Landing” for the Theodore B. Basselin mill at Beaver Falls.
As son of a French immigrant, Basselin was destined to become one of the most powerful lumbermen in Ne York. Here logs from Twitchell Lake lumber camps would be sorted, milled, and transported by these steamboats to the Black River, the 42 ½ mile navigable waterway connecting northern Carthage’s “Long Falls” with “High Falls” downstream at Lyons Falls. Declared a public highway by the State legislature on March 16, 1821, this “artery of commerce” met the Black River Canal at its southerly terminal. These lumber boats then connected with the Erie Canal in Rome, transporting Twitchell Lake lumber to the world.
While many mills would later line the Beaver River on the Croghan and New Bremen sides, the deeds for the Basselin lumber complex can be traced right back to Beaver Falls’ first mill around which the town grew. Its original name was “Rohr’s Mills” for German immigrants and settlers Jacob and Rudolf Rohr.
Two prior owners of Basselin’s mill property were lumber barons from Lowell and Haverhill, Massachusetts, early New England centers for the lumber industry. This notice in the Lewis County Democrat informed readers that the firm Norcross & Saunders was purchasing that property from John M. Prince on January 1st, 1869, along with the large tract of timberland he owned in Township 42 of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase.
These names and their lumber companies will highlight our story plot going forward. Twenty to thirty million board feet is a huge output of lumber, requiring an immense supply of logs from the Beaver River watershed and its Twitchell Creek feeder. Thus, it is no exaggeration when the Lewis County Historical Society makes the following claims:
“Tanneries in Port Leyden and Moose River Settlement were amongst the largest anywhere in the United States. The demand for board lumber would follow close behind, and Northern New York, and Lewis County in particular, quickly would develop into a major lumbering capital.”
Newer and larger sawmills increasingly were built by men with entrepreneurial spirit, producing dimension lumber for the growing cities of the Northeast. On the heels of lumber came the demand for paper, and so too did paper mills spring up all around the Black River valley. And with the demand for softwood pulp to feed those mills came increased seasonal logging and harvesting of spruce and other softwoods. Mill towns and lumber camps throughout the County cropped up overnight and thrived.
Twitchell Lake a Remote Island in the Great North Woods
A fascinating 1855 map of Beaver River as it exited the Adirondacks into Lewis County captures John M. Prince’s purchase of 45 Lots located in Township 42 of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase, bordering Brown’s Tract on the east.
This Georgetown, MA entrepreneur purchased 8,591 acres from a Lowville official and businessman named William Easton on May 13th, 1854, his deed recorded in Herkimer County. Prince paid $3221.92 for these 45 Lots. Fifty of those acres were sold by Prince to one Chauncey Smith on the condition “he would erect a house, and while hunting and trapping watch his timber, and prevent it from being destroyed by fire.” H. Perry Smith put the Prince forest holdings at 15,000 acres, with Beaver River dividing the parcel near the middle and Spring river drives the only means for getting softwood logs to his mill in Beaver Falls.
The mass tourism by sports seeking adventure in the Adirondacks began as a tiny trickle of intrepid souls like Chauncey Smith, influenced by news reports about the huge trout and plentiful game throughout the “Great North Woods.”
A transplant from Cromwell, CT, Smith sold his farm in Diana in 1851 and moved his family into a log home in the abandoned settlement of Number Four at Lewis County’s main entrance to the Adirondacks. “Hunting and trapping” had clearly become his passion, with extra income earned through fox, wolf, and panther bounties. He thus joined the emerging craft of wilderness guides with storied names like Thomas Puffer, Orrin Fenton, and Arettus Wetmore – all intimately familiar with what began as an Indian path along the Beaver River and then in the 1840s became the “Carthage to Lake Champlain Road.” That road was surveyed by Lewis County notable Nelson Beach in 1841 and it passed through Number Four. The brief Lewis County Banner clip here announced Smith’s wilderness outpost on that road about halfway from Number Four to Raquette Lake. Smith would go on to found a guiding dynasty which would claim Twitchell Lake as its sanctuary for hosting hundreds of fishing and hunting parties.
The hamlet of Number Four was the last of four attempts by John Brown to create a farming community on his Tract. His grandson John Brown Francis hired Charles Dayan and Nelson Beach as land agents in 1822 to sell this settlement to pioneers – offering 100 acres free to the first ten settlers, the rest of the cleared acreage at a dollar per acre. A road was cut from Lowville across the Black River to the hamlet, with this positive report offered by Copenhagen, NY historian W. Hudson Stephens:
“About 1832-35, there were about seventy-five settlers, and in 1842 a religious revival took place, at which Elder Blodget [local Methodist-Episcopal pastor] and others ministered, with about sixty converts.”
Religious experience notwithstanding, life at No. 4 was not favorable for farming, and the only route to get farm produce to market was the rough and winding No. 4 Road, 18 miles downhill to Lowville. By 1850 the agricultural experiment had failed. The Lowville map here shows a schoolhouse, a sawmill, and four settlers left on site, three of them veteran wilderness guides: Arettus Wetmore, Orrin Fenton, and Chauncey Smith.
In anticipation of the flood of sportsmen (and women) to come, Fenton’s Hotel, as it would soon be called, became “a forest hostelry, open for the entertainment of the hunters and pleasure seekers who so often visited the region.” Sylvester includes the Constable family in the early “trickle” of sports with their ownership of a shanty at No. 4, the “Point” on Raquette Lake, and names of their “sportswomen” carved on a “Notched Tree” atop Mount Emmons, the earlier name for Blue Mountain.
One of the earliest incursions into the Adirondacks from Lewis County was termed “The Racket Lake Expedition,” and it vividly captured the public imagination. The party visited an extensive chain of lakes (probably the Fulton Chain), tracked a herd of moose crossing one of the lakes, landed trout weighing up to 30 pounds, ascended “a very high and lofty Mountain” (probably Blue Mountain), discovered several deposits of lead and iron, and found the scenery and woodland to be exceptionally beautiful. Characteristically, they reported the land about the lakes they visited to be “good for cultivation.” This widely reported event, and others like it, attracted the interest not only of farmers, fishermen, and hunters, but of lumber and mining companies too.
After Number Four, the earliest year-round settlers along the Beaver River were two hermits, a Charles Smith and James O’Kane. According to Beaver River historian Edward Pitts, much mystery surrounds the life of David Smith, but he arrived where Twitchell Creek flows into the Beaver River sometime in the early 1820’s, living off his hunting and trapping activities:
Smith preferred the life of a hermit and did not welcome visitors. To avoid having his solitude interrupted by the infrequent hunter or trapper, sometime around 1830 Smith moved further upstream where he cleared a few acres and built a shanty on the bank of the beautiful lake that forms the headwaters of the Beaver River. For many years thereafter that lake (now known as Lake Lila) was called Smith’s Lake. David Smith lived there for the next 20 years pretty much undisturbed until around 1850. He then disappeared.
“Jimmy” O’Kane also lived off his fishing and trapping, supplemented by what passing sportsmen gave him. He added to this food supply from a small vegetable garden. O’Kane took up residence in 1844 in a log cabin left by the Carthage-Champlain Road crew, near where Smith’s shanty had stood. O’Kane was found dead in his cabin by hunters in January of 1858.
The junction of Twitchell Creek and Beaver River became an important stopping point enroute to Albany, Smith, and Raquette Lakes, with Chauncey Smith’s forest station added in 1859. Not far beyond the O’Kane cabin, a rugged trail laid out by one of the early trappers or guides, broke off in a southeasterly direction for Twitchell Lake, six long miles from Prince’s 15,000 acres, lumber camps, and river drives. Twitchell Lake – still owned by the heirs of John Brown – would stay well beyond the lumberman’s reach for more than four decades, a remote island in the Great North Woods.
Adirondack Preservation Was Beginning to Emerge
The conservation movement that was birthed in the Adirondacks had very significant roots in Lewis County, resulting largely from the dedicated work of one of its leading citizens. Franklin Benjamin Hough (1822-1885) was destined to become a leader of that movement on the local and state front, and then on a national and even worldwide stage. One of his Union College professors gave this tribute:
“As Doctor Hough studied the botany and geology of Northern New York … he became impressed with the importance of recording the local history. This led him to prepare and publish, from 1853 to 1860, histories of St. Lawrence, Franklin, Jefferson and Lewis counties.”
Franklin followed in the footsteps of his father Horatio, Lewis County’s first doctor, setting up a medical practice in Lowville and serving as a surgeon during the Civil War. This, however, was not what earned for him the title “Father of American Forestry.” The following dates represent just some of his major contributions to that field:
“1872 – joined a seven-member commission to study the Adirondack forest; 1876 – appointed as the first federal forestry agent; 1878 – publication of the landmark four-volume Report on Forestry for the US Congress; 1880 – toured European forests to research scientific forestry; 1882 – co-founded the American Forestry Congress and published The American Journal of Forestry; 1885 – published the first textbook on forestry; and 1885 – drafted memoranda for New York’s original conservation law.”
My thesis for this series proposed that the twin influences of logging and mass tourism created the pressure that ushered in the conservation movement. In the Adirondacks that led to the formation of a Forest Preserve in 1885. By 1840, commercial logging was expanding up Adirondack rivers and early settlements like Number Four were hosting guides and sportsmen (and women) attracted to the spectacular fishing and hunting broadcast in early news accounts. If Adirondack conservation is thought of as a continuum between reckless exploitation on one extreme and forest preservation – summed up in the slogan “forever wild” – on the other, Hough represents what might be called a golden mean. Professor Hosmer of Union College puts this notion into words:
“Dr. Hough stood for a plan that recognized the place of the lumberman in forest management. He was opposed by Verplanck Colvin (famous for surveying the Adirondacks) who held that a great state park was the right solution.”
Hough and Colvin were to become staunch allies in the creation of the Forest Preserve, but they took different positions on how conservation could best be implemented in the Adirondacks, given its abundant natural resources. This important debate continues right up to the present time, with substantial implications for the future. The coming decades would see this conflict reach a climax.
A Family Story
The illustration here shows a toolbox made by my Uncle West Hodges while on his honeymoon in our Twitchell cabin with bride Betty (Sherry) in 1936. The initials in the lower left were carved by my father on his honeymoon in 1941. On my “To Do List” for this summer is the restoration of the yellow birch saplings West used to trace his love. Aunt Betty tells the story of how a double-bit axe became a fixture in our cabin.
One evening on their return from dinner, probably Covewood Lodge on Big Moose Lake, they passed a woodsman stumbling along the side of the road. They stopped and offered him a ride, feeding him, and putting him up for the night. In the morning he felt so embarrassed about his behavior that he offered to cut them a week’s worth of wood, which he did, leaving his double-bit axe in further gratitude for their hospitality. West may have used that axe to trim and decorate our camp toolbox.
By mid-century New England lumbermen were beginning to exhaust their timber reserves and were searching for new territory. Lewis County news reports obviously caught John Prince’s attention, prompting the purchase of a home on Artz Road in Croghan, the mill property at Beaver Falls, and the parcel of timberland on the upper Beaver River where Chauncey Smith became his fire warden.
The lumberman’s tools would change very little by the time Twitchell Lake had its first lumber camp. The central role was still played by the axe, with a second “bit” added in the 1840s to increase the tool’s weight and give it double edges – one kept “keen” for chopping down a tree, the other a “stunt” bit for clearing off harder branches. Hence, the “double-bit axe” in our cabin.
By 1840, a keen observer in Northern New York could read the signs of what was to come. Lewis County timber had largely been replaced by farmland. The largest Adirondack rivers had gang mills increasing demand for logs by the number of saw-blades mounted in the frames, as well as the number of new mills that went into operation.
The surviving residents at Number Four had shifted their focus from farming to serving the needs of the new sportsmen passing through their hamlet. While conservation was in its infancy, a few visionaries saw where the twin pressures of logging and tourism were headed. The next article for the decades between 1840 and 1860 will track how the trickle became a flood.
This is the third 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: Illustration showing our cabin’s double-bladed axe fitted with a new handle (Noel Sherry); “Map of the County of Lewis” by David Burr, Surveyor General (David Rumsey Map Collection, 1829); 5- gang sawmill illustration titled “Working of Sawmill on Quequechan River,” Fall River, MA (Eric Sloane’s A Reverence for Wood, 2004); “Harvesting Hemlock” lithograph on the tanning industry, Zadock Pratt Museum; “Basselin Landing” in Beaver Falls, pencil sketch by C.A. Marshall of Canandaigua, NY (1881); Lewis County Democrat notice of Beaver Falls mill & forest land sale (January 1, 1869); John M. Prince parcel in Township 42 of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase, from “Map of Area East of Lyons Falls & Lowville (New York Heritage Digital Collection, 1855); Lewis County Banner news clip about Chauncey Smith wood shanty on Beaver River (July 20, 1859); Hamlet of Number Four on Ligowsky & Taintor’s “Topographical Map of Lewis County, N.Y., from Actual Surveys” (Library of Congress Collection, 1857); Lithograph of Franklin B. Hough from his History of Lewis County (Albany, 1860); US Forest Service Emblem from US Department of Agriculture Forest Service website; and Illustration of the tool box in the Sherry log cabin (Noel Sherry).