An early 20th century Adirondack lawsuit pitted a small Big Moose Lake sportsman and landowner Aaron Lloyd against a team of powerful opponents, John Adams Dix and his Moose River Lumber Company with Dr. William Seward Webb and his Nehasane Park Association.
A second suit reversed the plaintiff and defendant, Webb vs. Lloyd, and appeared to be linked to the first complaint. Clearly this was a classic David versus Goliath clash. These cases would have been the fodder for conversations around the campfire in the Big Moose area for almost a decade.
On the surface, the complaints concerned the harvest of millions of board feet of virgin timber and flooding Big Moose Lake to get these logs to market, with Webb behind both actions.
Dix was still legally tangled up in lawsuits with William and Julia deCamp over getting his Rondaxe millions of board-feet in logs down the Moose River when 1896 started the clock on an eight-year lumbering contract with Webb. The prize was the valuable virgin timber on upwards of 30,000 acres in the Big Moose area. His McKeever mill lay a 27-mile river-drive downstream on the north branch of the Moose River through the outlet of Big Moose Lake.
Grilled on the witness stand in Herkimer County Supreme Court in this new lawsuit printed up under the accompanying cover – Aaron Lloyd against Lemon Thomson, Edward Thomson, Jr., and John A. Dix, doing business under the firm name of Moose River Lumber Company, and Nehasane Park Association (Lloyd vs. Dix-Webb) – Dix could not recall exactly when his company built the dam, floated rafts of logs across Big Moose Lake, or received the summons:
“I can’t specifically recall being served with a certified copy of Justice McLennan’s injunction order and a big batch of copies of affidavits purporting to be the papers upon which it had been granted, I have been served with so many … I don’t think this dam was used any in the spring of 1896, in connection with the lumbering operations of our company … I simply know that there was a faulty construction of the dam and they were unable to use it on account of that construction. I would not swear that the sluiceway of the dam during the spring of 1896 was shut or that it was not. I am quite certain that logs were put in during the winter of 1896, 1897 and taken out in the spring of 1897, can’t tell how many. There were thousands of pieces, over a thousand anyway.”
Aaron Lloyd held 2,250 acres of this prime timberland with shore access on Big Moose Lake, a deed he purchased in 1883 from a Baker Woodruff who had picked it up cheaply in an 1874 Albany tax-sale. As the map here shows, this was the northwest corner of Totten & Crossfield’s Township 41 known locally as “The Triangle,” bordered on the east by the Herkimer-Hamilton County line. In his summons, Lloyd described this parcel as “wild forest land with a large quantity of marketable timber including valuable pine, spruce, hemlock, balsam, cedar, tamarack, and many hardwood varieties.” When in operation the dam at the outlet would flood Big Moose Lake by at least six feet, raising this crucial issue for Lloyd:
“The result of such flooding will be the killing of large quantities of said timber … will tend to produce noxious exhalations and mephitic odors, destroy the food and feeding places of game on plaintiff’s said land, and seriously impair the value of said land as a resort for health, summer residence, and hunting and fishing.”
The summons Dix received was dated November 6th, 1895. In his answer to the complaint, he admitted building the dam and logging in the Big Moose area per his contract with Webb, a copy of which was submitted as one exhibit in the evidence which the Rome Daily Sentinel described as “a good-sized trunk full of exhibits, including maps, deeds and other documents.” That trunk held 58 exhibits for the plaintiff (Lloyd), 86 for the defendants (Dix & Webb).
Dix conceded the key point that “the division line between Hamilton and Herkimer Counties has never been legally located.” The only way in which the timber thereon can be profitably removed,” he claimed, “is by floating the same down and through said Big Moose Lake.” But he argued in his response to the other nine points in the complaint that the Moose River Lumber Company would in no way cause irreparable damage to Lloyd or other camp owners.
His demand? “That the complaint herein be dismissed with costs.” Judge McLennen granted Lloyd a temporary injunction, stopping all Big Moose Lake logging and dam usage, pending full briefs submitted by both sides, with a trial date announced within eight days of either party’s request. This March 1896 win was the first of three Lloyd would enjoy.
According to upstate New York news accounts, the Nehasane Park Association vs. Aaron Lloyd lawsuit (Webb vs. Lloyd) was filed at about the same time, charging that “The Triangle” was situated in Hamilton, not Herkimer County, and thus belonged to Webb, not Lloyd. Proof in this second case would immediately invalidate any complaint Lloyd had against the lumber company and allow their operations to resume.
The state had begun funding Verplanck Colvin as early as 1874 to accurately locate important Adirondack borders like the dividing line between Hamilton and Herkimer Counties, which anchored all local property lines. In 1890 the NYS Forest Commission hired John B. Koetternitz for the impossible job of reconciling all previous maps of the Adirondacks, correctly rendering all patents, tracts, townships, towns, settlements, and waterways. In the Big Moose Lake area this probably doubled the confusion — with the county line as shown on this 1895 map of the Aaron Lloyd Triangle (above) crossing the east end of the lake, and what became known as “the Koetternitz Line” located almost a half-mile further east, creating a gore of territory under dispute between the “old” and “new” county lines.
A closer examination of the two lawsuits uncovers an unexpected backstory to the seven-year course of litigation, with a close interplay between the two actions – plaintiff and defendant roles reversed in each case. Buried in the two transcripts – 1,027 pages for the Lloyd vs Dix-Webb suit, 997 pages for Webb vs. Lloyd – are several revealing statements which counter the newspaper versions of the trials.
First, we learn that in early 1892 while Webb was organizing the building of a cross-Adirondack railroad, he approached Lloyd personally, offering him $13,000 for his Triangle. In his lengthy 1899 brief, Theodore F. C. Demarest, Lloyd’s attorney, revealed what happened when Webb’s offer was rejected, with a tutorial on deed and tax law:
“A plan was formed for taking this land away from Lloyd without paying him anything; which plan depended on the fact that the same land had been exposed for sale by the State in 1843, 1859 and 1866, successively for non-payment of taxes, and deeds had been given, based on said sales. Webb improved the two years (1893, 1894) before suing Lloyd in buying up the claims of some of the heirs, etc., of the grantees in these ancient (and presumably superseded) tax-deeds, they conveying to his attorney and clerk, who, in June, 1894, conveyed to Webb … and thereupon, in December, 1894, was commenced the action of Nehasane Park Association vs. Aaron Lloyd, said association alleging that it was the owner in fee simple of said land (all of Township 41, T. & C. Purchase, in Herkimer Co.), and praying the Supreme Court, sitting in Equity, to cancel (for alleged irregularities) Lloyd’s two tax-deeds (of 1874 and 1884), in favor of his newly acquired, alleged, title bought up under said ancient tax-deeds, as being clouds on his ancient heritage.”
Webb’s attorney, Charles E. Snyder, never challenged the timeline or facts stated here. It may thus be assumed that for two years, Snyder’s law firm searched the deed books for Township 41 back to Native American ownership, picking out what they deemed defective deeds, and transacting four new deeds for Webb with heirs of those who had owned part or all this township at an earlier time, and had run into tax trouble with the Town of Wilmurt. That is what Demarest meant when he said Webb “improved the two years,” 1893 and 1894.
A search in Herkimer County turns up two of these quit-claim deeds – (a) two members of the Shaw family then residing in London and Paris, heirs to a Gabriel Shaw who had purchased part of this township from Alexander Macomb in 1807, and (b) 11 members of the Mead family living in New York City, Iowa, and California, who traced their ownership to ancestor William Mead who purchased it in 1855 from Farrand Benedict – the engineering professor who had failed to develop the canals sought to extract the timber in the Totten & Crossfield Purchase.
An important footnote here is to notice that lumber company lawyers in this era used a very shady practice to help their clients gain access to state land to strip its valuable timber. A search of registry of deeds often turned up tax defects for parcels on state land, and that invited trespassing. By the time the state found out what was going on, and legally pursued the offender, the logging was done. Judges at this time often sided with attorneys who discovered any defect in a deed, large or small. Apparently, Snyder had mastered this practice.
Webb undoubtedly funded these international and cross-country jaunts to obtain releases of all Township 41 property rights to the Nehasane Park Association – these two tax deeds termed “the Shaw title” and “the Mead title,” and dated January 13th and 19th, 1893, respectively. Snyder called the third one “the Benedict title,” signed and sealed on March 24th, 1894. The last one was transacted on July 29th, 1896, just before the fourth trial in the Webb vs. Lloyd suit and dubbed “the Edgar title” for William Edgar who purchased it from its original owner.
The Edgar title was touted as the “bottom line,” because it was alleged to give Webb title “to the entire land in question, which title goes back to a patent granted by the State to Alexander Macomb, executed by Governor [DeWitt] Clinton Feb’y 28th, 1787.” In other words, the original deed to all of Township 41 (pictured here), could trump Lloyd’s ownership of the Triangle by a more recent tax-deed for only part of that Township, if the judge so ruled.
The Webb strategy for taking Triangle ownership away from Lloyd was two-pronged, first trying to get the Court to acknowledge these four new deeds as valid, Lloyd’s two as null and void. It was believed this could be accomplished using Attorney Snyder’s stealth method for discovering title defects in old deeds and getting the heirs to sign newly minted deeds.
Second, on May 8th, 1894, based on his not-yet cleared and validated titles, Webb leased six acres of Lloyd’s Triangle to Irvin A. Williams, who proceeded to cut timber and erect a summer shanty on the shore of Big Moose Lake. Webb’s audacity here irked Lloyd to no end. Lloyd sued to remove Webb’s tenant from his land, but Williams refused to vacate, claiming his shanty was on Webb land. Williams was defended in this earlier action by Snyder, a suit which Lloyd dropped when Webb’s Nehasane Park Association filed suit against him.
Apparently, historian Bill Marleau’s hunch in Big Moose Station (1986) “Webb was very impressed with Big Moose Lake and badly wanted it for his own private use. I believe this is why he bought Township 41,” was not that wild after all. It is quite possible that Webb’s original vision for his grand Nehasane Park was the larger 115,000-acre version highlighted on a 1894 railroad map, which would have put Twitchell and Big Moose Lakes “inside the fence” Webb had put up to hold exotic game. Webb owned the rest of Township 41 and wanted the Triangle, too.
After introducing the Edgar title, a postponement on the grounds of surprise was granted to Lloyd’s attorney, and another trial was held to examine the new title evidence. The 1898 judgement handed down by Judge Maurice L. Wright reversed the 1895 Bentley decision in the Webb vs. Lloyd suit that had affirmed Lloyd’s title to ownership. An Albany Argus headline announced the surprising news: “Judgement in favor of Webb ordered with costs.” Ownership of the Triangle was now in the possession of William Seward Webb, at least by one of these two lawsuits.
The Herkimer Democrat added several interesting details on this odd but important trial which had to be a bitter blow and reversal for Lloyd and Big Moose Lake camp and hotel owners, their lake again the scene of annual log drives:
“Justice Wright thoroughly investigated the several titles claimed by the plaintiff [Webb], tracing them back to a time when the ownership was vested in the Indians … Many hearings have been held and the case was finally submitted in March last … [Wright] was obliged to wade through a mass of documents, maps and papers, the sight of which was appalling. Many interesting things were discovered during the course of the examination, among them being conveyances signed by Governor DeWitt Clinton. It was also discovered that title to the property was once vested in Caroline Louise Bonaparte, wife of Jerome Bonaparte [Napoleon’s brother].”
With Moose River Lumber plans back in full motion following this legal victory, the Lloyd case against Dix and Webb’s Nehasane Park Association went to trial in Herkimer County Supreme Court on March 2nd, 1899, a court-appointed referee rendering judgement for a Lloyd win in a second major reversal, with another lumbering shut-down order. The tortured question of which county Lloyd’s Triangle was situated in came up again and added days to the trial, with Colvin testifying as one of Lloyd’s thirteen witnesses, Koetternitz countering in the lineup of the Dix sixteen. The Moose River Lumber Company’s logging campaign in the Big Moose region was thus allowed by one suit, illegal per order of the other.
Second, the newspapers by this time picked up on the length these two cases were taking, repeating a phrase coined by more than one of the eight judges and referees involved in the litigation. According to them the Lloyd vs. Dix-Webb lawsuit was “drawing its weary length along,” with seven years almost to the day between the start and finish of both actions. When Demarest learned the source of this phrase, he pushed back, probing the motives and actions on the part of Dix and Webb:
“The order of reference, to Mr. Fuller, was entered March 21st, 1896; yet defendants [Moose River Lumber Company and the Nehasane Park Association] waited until March 2nd, 1899, namely, two years, eleven months and eleven days, before bringing it to trial, the reason being, as the attorney [Snyder] has repeatedly stated, in open Court, that they were waiting to beat Lloyd on the title question, in the Nehasane action, brought to cancel his deeds. Meanwhile they managed to endure the inconvenience of the Injunction Order by willfully and contumeliously violating it – deliberately repairing the dam, closing the sluiceway, getting a head of water in the lake, and making their drive thereby.”
Third, and most revealing, it becomes clear that Webb’s suit was filed a full year before Lloyd’s, and not the other way around. With the Mohawk & Malone railroad running (1892), Webb’s Great Camp completed (1893), and his Nehasane Park Association newly incorporated (1894), the summons on the Webb vs. Lloyd action was served December 14th, 1894. That summons was printed once for six consecutive weeks in the Herkimer Democrat and New York City’s press, referring to Lloyd as a difficult-to-locate “out-of-stater.”
Aaron Lloyd did, in fact, reside in Belleville, New Jersey, commuting into a successful family publishing business in the city of New York. This second career for him came after many productive years as a Pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, where he was known as “The Reverend.” Local historian Roy Crego put another Lloyd at Big Moose Lake twelve years after the 1871 family purchase of the Triangle: “On June 1st, 1883, Jack [Sheppard] guided a sportsman named John C. Lloyd to nearby Constable Pond.”
This was Aaron’s son John Calvin Lloyd, the pond his favorite fishing spot on his father’s Triangle, where family and friends fished and hunted. The picture of the lean-to here offers one possible location where the Lloyds and Colvin first connected, his survey expeditions in the Twitchell and Big Moose area guided by Jack Sheppard, Alvah Dunning, and Mitchell Sabattis.
Interestingly, their family lawyer, Theodore Demarest, was the nephew to Aaron’s wife Maria, publicly regarded as the best tax-law attorney in the state of New York according to the Utica Observer. Unfortunately, the Lloyd side learned of Webb’s true intentions and strategy too late, as these two trials had now removed ownership of the Triangle from Lloyd and put it up for grabs – Demarest’s honest brief, not penned until March 21st, 1900. Despite historian Charles Burnett’s tribute to Webb’s winsome personality and outstanding leadership skills in Conquering the Wilderness, the Lloyds could now testify to something darker: “If you cross Dr. William Seward Webb, be prepared for the consequences!”
The legal logjam of these two lawsuits tried in Boonville, Oswego, and Herkimer featured wins and losses for both sides. When the tax-law issues dominating Webb’s Nehasane case were added to the logging and flooding concerns foremost in Lloyd’s case against the Moose River Lumber Company, the dozen or more trials got longer and longer – growing from days to weeks to almost a month. Lloyd’s wins came at the front end, his ownership by valid tax-deeds affirmed in Webb vs. Lloyd (1895) and then in Lloyd vs. Dix-Webb (1896), the temporary injunction and shut-down orders on the lumber company awarded in 1896 and reaffirmed in 1899.
Lloyd’s witnesses served him well, Verplanck Colvin testifying extensively about his first-hand knowledge of the Township 41 and county lines, which put his friend Lloyd solidly in Herkimer County and not in that part of Webb’s Hamilton County Township 41. Snyder cross-examined Colvin to try to argue the possibility the Triangle was situated partially (or completely) in Hamilton County, to no avail.
A standing enigma for me concerns Colvin’s personal remarks added in 1895 to a map of Frank Tweedy who surveyed the western boundary of Township 41 for Colvin in 1879 (pictured here). I was also perplexed when I read a legal description of that Triangle added as an addendum to Tweedy’s 1879 survey journal, signed by Colvin and dated 1897. The northwest corner of that township is marked by a bronze benchmark Tweedy set in bedrock, discovered in 2021 by this writer. What is clear here is that Colvin went to great lengths to help his friend Aaron Lloyd make his borders, deeds, and land Triangle legally secure, with a detailed legal description that accurately described the Triangle’s borders and total acreage, needed in both lawsuits.
Henry Covey, proprietor of a hotel named “Camp Crag” on Big Moose Lake, testified that the company’s dam caused the water to enter his boathouse, pictured here, “two feet above the highest water mark I have ever known on the lake.” Interestingly, he mentioned working for the Norcross & Saunders Lumber Company at Beaver River, where damming had killed all shore timber, a real concern in this Lloyd lawsuit. Richard Crego also testified for Lloyd, describing his 27-year career guiding hunters and fishermen, his sighting of over a thousand logs in the lake over several seasons, and his detailed description of the Moose River Lumber Company dam, which at one point raised the lake level several feet over the high-water limit specified in the Webb lumbering contract and covenant:
“I was present at Big Moose Lake near the outlet in the early part of 1896, about the 1st of January, along there up to about March 4th. I was employed to look after the dam and see what they were doing there … That dam was about 60 feet long from end to end of the spillways, across the stream, spillways and sluiceways. The sluiceway in the center aperture is about 20 feet wide.”
The Final Reversal in this Lawsuit Logjam
Not being a legal scholar, I have tried to weigh the core issues in both lawsuits as fairly as I can, though my sympathies do lie with Lloyd. The issue that was primary in the Lloyd vs. Dix-Webb suit – damming a lake to raft logs for an annual river drive – makes perfect sense to me (Twitchell Lake faced that same predicament in the 1900 to 1920 era). But the issue that became the lynch pin in all the later trials – who owns the Triangle? – takes me way outside my legal comfort zone. As I slugged my way through the 2,000 pages of transcripts for both cases, I struggled to make sense of the three major reversals in land title ownership. Here I attempt to get to the heart of the legal logjam, by weighing the pros and cons for the four Webb deeds versus the two Lloyd deeds.
After the 1896 Webb vs. Lloyd trial, Judge Wright issued his opinion, concluding with this: “The plaintiff [Webb], being possessed of the above-mentioned Benedict title, the Mead title and the Macomb patent (or Edgar title), is the owner of the lands in question.” Webb’s tax deeds, he stated, predated Lloyd’s, and the Edgar title was the original one to the whole of Township 41, including Lloyd’s Triangle, trumping Lloyd’s more recent tax deeds which he found to be fatally flawed.
The Judge also noted that while Lloyd had never “developed these non-resident wild forest lands,” Webb’s tenant Mr. Williams had gone to the trouble of cutting down trees and erecting a cabin, “improving” the site. Demarest appealed this, stating that Williams’ lease “was a beneficial fiction.”
The Edgar title clearly was a surprise to Attorney Demarest, but in fact this whole line of argument astonished him, “resurrecting” old tax-purchasers’ claims just before a trial commenced and then after it reconvened, obtaining the Edgar title pendente lite, that is, after that action had begun. How can you decide an action if that action has not yet been legally validated, he reasoned. Demarest’s 1899 appeal to the Wright Judgement was described by his opposition as “a learned and exhaustive brief.”
There he cited expert opinion by a Professor Burr and others which alleged that each of Webb’s four tax-titles were fatally flawed by “uncertainty of description.” For example, the Benedict tax-deed claimed its 1900 acres in the NW corner of Township 41 were “in a square form as nearly as may be,” giving rise to Exhibit AA displayed here, and questioning how any square could fit inside this triangle. No civil engineer or surveyor, it was argued, would ever be able to use any one of these recently acquired Webb deeds to locate the land described. They were all ambiguous. Lloyd’s attorney Demarest expressed his disbelief regarding the title claims in these deeds unequivocally:
No case has been discovered by me where the courts of this state have sustained a party who had brought up pretended titles, or shreds of title, to unoccupied land, arising under ancient tax-sales, for the sole purpose of litigation, and come into a Court of Equity, demanding a judgment cancelling the State’s deeds given on recent tax-sales, as clouds on his heritage.
Evaluating the Webb and Snyder attack on Lloyd’s two tax deeds requires a little background, which Demarest amply supplied in his 200-page brief. What I think we have in this case is an expert tax-law attorney from New York City trying to “update” an up-state judge on tax-law reforms passed by the NYS Legislature in 1885 and affirmed by the US Supreme Court in a handful of cases.
Demarest’s historical development and citing of precedents for each of his points certainly speaks to his reputation as the best in the state. Briefly, in his review, Albany passed the “curative” Act of 1885, Chapter 448, to correct a thirty-year hyper-strictness by the Courts on tax titles. Only the foolhardy would consider buying land sold in a tax-sale, these older judges reasoned, especially if purchased at a steep discount. Demarest illustrated the Court’s contempt for such sales with the following quote from one of the old cases:
“This Court will not inquire into the conscience of the man whose morality will allow him to sleep quietly after appropriating to himself 160 acres of valuable land for the pitiful sum of $1.84. It is sufficient to say that he cannot challenge any sympathy of this Court.”
Webb’s lawyer attacked the Lloyd tax-deeds on two grounds, “that the taxing statute [of 1853] did not authorize a tax on the Herkimer County portion of Township 41 … and that the assessment roll of 1864 was signed by only one Commissioner.” This Totten & Crossfield township was in the Town of Wilmurt, where a special Road-Act – Law 1853, Chapter 347 – passed “to construct certain roads from the settlements of Lewis County to Brown’s Tract,” to develop this frontier area.
Two tax commissioners were appointed to calculate land acreage and send it to the Herkimer County Board of Supervisors to calculate the tax, which was then administered by a Town of Wilmurt Assessor and Collector using a tax roll. In the event of a lapse in tax payment the NYS Comptroller was to be notified before advertising and selling that land to the highest bidder. The old-school strict application of the tax statute by the Courts regarded any lapse in this chain of actions to be a fatal defect which could render a tax-deed void, nullifying a buyer’s title, and ending ownership of that parcel of land.
Exhibit EE shown here is the 1864 tax roll Snyder used to begin his attack on Lloyd’s two deeds. It accurately lists his Triangle as 2,250 acres and the tax per 100 acres calculated at $2.25, just as in previous years, but signed by only one commissioner. That tax was paid, but Snyder argued this omission of the second signature was a fatal flaw in the tax-deed Lloyd purchased in 1874, rendering his tax-title null and void. Demarest countered with precedents proving that both signatures were essential for a private action, but one was permissible and sometimes necessary for a public matter.
Exhibit 2 in Lloyd’s suit included here shows his Triangle in relation to all the townships surrounding it. Snyder used this same map as his Exhibit 37, claiming an error in the wording that ended the 1853 tax statute further voided Lloyd’s two tax-deeds. That phrase imposed the road tax on all townships depicted on this map “and also all of township 4, 5, 6, 7, and 41 of Totten & Crossfield’s Purchase in the County of Hamilton.”
Demarest argued that this statute should be construed as including Herkimer with Hamilton, due to the unique location of the Triangle, giving the commissioners full authority to levy the tax on the whole of Township 41, thus “curing” the error and affirming Lloyd’s title. Judge Wright did not buy it. “There is no ambiguity in the wording of the statute,” he insisted, “and there is no legal rule of statutory construction which would sustain the defendant’s theory.” Clearly, Demarest suspected he was up against an old school Judge, and Snyder knew it for sure. A child could think its way around this confusion in wording, but that did not matter. To this judge any defect was fatal.
Four retired members of Herkimer County’s Board of Supervisors were called to the stand in the Webb vs. Lloyd case to testify that they had “extended the 1869 tax” after their meeting had adjourned. It was a common practice to delegate to a clerk the task of calculating the tax using the rate decided by that Board in their official meeting and entering it into the tax roll at a later time.
Two of them testified to doing this in their kitchen. Demarest impeached the testimony of all four, highlighting contradictions in their statements in the two trials they were called to testify in. If fatally flawed by this so-called lapse, which did not actually affect the tax, this 1869 tax roll would render the tax deed Lloyd purchased in 1881, “illegal, null and void.” Demarest protested: “If the so-called “extension of taxes” had been proved to have been made by a town supervisor after the Board of Supervisors adjourned, in any of the years concerned in the tax-sale of 1881, such fact would, it is submitted, furnish no ground for cancelling defendant [Lloyd’s] deed of 1884.”
Demarest based his appeal here on the 1885 reform Law which “cured” older practices like “extending the tax,” errors in wording, or alterations in procedure. The tax in each of these cases was paid! That same Law, for Demarest, also provided a statute of limitations on these older defects, clearing and validating his client’s tax-deeds to the Triangle. However, this “extending” practice was no small matter in Judge Wright’s courtroom.
In fact, Demarest remarked that the testimony of these four memory-impaired gentlemen would be “the final straw,” if Judge Wright admitted their testimony. By the old rules, he was bound to, and Snyder knew it. At this point in my reading of the transcripts, I think the strategy in the 1896 and 1898 trials for the Webb vs. Lloyd suit was carefully tailored to the Judge’s bias.
Demarest’s last major victory came in the Lloyd vs. Dix-Webb suit as Referee Truman K. Fuller declared Lloyd’s two tax-deeds to be valid and Webb’s four null and void, following the March 2nd, 1899, trial in Herkimer Supreme Court. Referee H. W. Bentley had similarly awarded Lloyd an early victory after the first Webb vs. Lloyd trial on December 14th, 1894, held in the same courtroom. Both decisions were appealed by Snyder within a matter of days.
The Rome Daily Sentinel headline probably reassured Demarest and his client that they would successfully survive the logjam, and win in the end: “Stops Lumbering on Big Moose Lake,” announced this big 1899 win for Lloyd, and another major reversal in the two suits, adding this interesting point: “By his decision he [Judge Fuller] practically restores to Aaron Lloyd title to 2,250 acres of land on Big Moose Lake, and shuts off the rafting of lumber down the lake and Moose River to mills below from about 30,000 acres of land. The 2,250 acres have been considered a part of the Nehasane preserve.”
An article in the Utica Observer then unpacked Fuller’s “exhaustive opinion,” slamming NYS for dropping its effort to fix the boundary line between the two counties for lack of funds and declaring any claim that the Triangle lies in Hamilton County as “too improbable to believe.” Further, the phrase “in the County of Hamilton” (versus Herkimer) made the 1853 taxing statute for the Triangle 19/20’th part true and 1/20’th in error.
But that slight error in no way proved an exemption from the jurisdiction of the two appointed tax commissioners, who said “The taxes were paid without any question having been raised as to the legality of the assessment for want of jurisdiction of the commissioners … the triangle was legally assessed.” There was no fatal flaw in the proceedings, with one of two signatures accepted in public matters where one official dies, resigns, or is absent by sickness. Demarest repeated in his “untiring research” that Lloyd had paid his taxes religiously from 1875 through 1893.
This March 1899 legal victory for Lloyd in his lawsuit (Lloyd vs. Dix-Webb) was followed in March 1900 by a “reversal on merits” in the Webb vs. Lloyd suit. This last opinion was the final blow in what I count as a nineth trial for Webb and a twelfth for both suits since the actions began in 1894. Justice Wright’s opinion was then adopted in the final or fifth trial for Lloyd vs. Dix-Webb, held in December 1901 in Herkimer Supreme Court. It was presided over by Judge O’Brien with Referee Irving R. Devendorf who both affirmed the Wright judgement which (again) reversed the earlier finding of Lloyd title ownership.
Webb’s tax-titles thus gave him actual possession of the part of the Triangle he leased to Williams, and so Judge Wright concluded Webb “had a right to perfect his title to the whole property before trial.” On old-school tax grounds, Lloyd’s deeds were “illegal, null and void,” because they were based on earlier tax sales “levied thereon without legal authority.” The 1885 curative statute did not apply, in his opinion, because the examples cited above were not just minor irregularities, they were “jurisdiction defects,” or major errors in procedure, and thus fatal. The only “equitable remedy” at Wright’s disposal, he declared, was to grant Webb a full cancellation of Lloyd’s title:
“1. Defendant [Lloyd’s] title is wholly bad; 2. The defendant has not gone into possession, or made any improvements; he is in the same situation, when he is repaid the taxes required by the judgement as he was at the time he made his speculative bid of investing a trifle over a hundred dollars, running his chances of obtaining title to 2250 acres of [valuable] land; 3. The plaintiff [Webb’s] title is the older title. Defects do not exist in it and the plaintiff has under its title gone into possession … 5. The plaintiff is wholly without any remedy unless it is given the remedy of cancellation.”
My Indictment: Grand Larceny!
Attorney Snyder’s clients included one of the wealthiest men in New York State (Webb), his lumbering partners, and a host of other Adirondack entrepreneurs. It is not surprising that his hometown newspaper declared him “the winner” in the Webb vs. Lloyd case, as part of his prosecutorial prowess.
I did find it surprising that this legal logjam has not been mentioned in any source I can find, including Jane Barlow’s Big Moose Lake. I thus felt compelled to write it up in enough detail to be able to agree with Attorney Demarest’s assessment of what really happened here in the central Adirondacks during this era (1890 to 1900):
“The present litigation furnishes a striking contrast of such a one as above described [tax cases cured by the 1885 legislation]; the circumstances, which are manifest before this Court, making it as the offspring of vindictiveness and an engine of oppression against a bona fide purchaser from the State who has been the undisputed owner of this “wild forest land” since 1883, and has paid the annual taxes thereon accruing during nearly a quarter of a century.”
Webb had deep enough pockets to be able to send Snyder associates all over the world to obtain deeds that should not have stood up in Court. Sadly, the reforms of 1885 had not effectively reached up-state New York. Maybe Webb really did want to add Big Moose Lake to his Nehasane Park refuge. But I am inclined now to side with Demarest. Webb’s action was borne out of pure vindictiveness.
Anyone who crosses William Seward Webb will pay a heavy price, seems to be the moral of this story. One of the guarantees the reforms of 1885 was meant to deliver was protection against a rich person using the law to take a property away from a poorer one. Nowhere did I find a statement by Attorney Demarest that Webb used the law to steal his client’s Triangle, but I think the word “oppression” covers that, because Demarest did cite a handful of legal cases in which the old tax-law rules were used to do just that. This is no less than the felony of grand larceny!
In the end, Webb did not just win, he crushed and humiliated Aaron Lloyd. At the close of the last trial, Snyder directed Lloyd to deliver his deed for cancellation to the Herkimer County Clerk and pay Webb $2,035.32 “for the costs of this action.” In the final court-ordered sale of Lloyd’s Triangle to Webb, the Doctor was bound only to pay the sum of Lloyd’s taxes for his years of occupation, with interest, just over $700. For this deep-pocketed doctor turned entrepreneur, I call that spite. In my opinion, it was unnecessary for Webb to make Lloyd’s last days on earth so miserable. Aaron died in 1905.
I cannot even guesstimate the time and money Lloyd and Demarest sunk into this seven-year litigation, between research, court appearances, and New York Central Railroad train tickets. I do think an outstanding tax-law attorney here knew he was up against an old-school judge. I am quite sure Webb’s lawyer skillfully tailored his prosecution to that reality, using his title-defect search practices honed by working with lumber companies to full advantage. And I imagine that Snyder smiled in those moments when this distinguished Justice squirmed in discomfort, as he was being lectured to by a hot-shot NYC lawyer.
Perhaps the former Reverend, Lloyd should have seen the writing on the wall in 1896 when his Triangle of land listed in his name under the Town of Wilmurt, was now located in “The Town of Webb.” And when the final judgement was handed down, he probably remembered the teaching of Jesus in Matthew chapter 23, verse 24, where the Rabbi addressed the religious teachers who opposed him: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
That proverb referred to their hypocrisy for strict adherence to the minor points of the law while they “neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” In this case Lloyd lost his land because Judge Wright put more weight on minor procedural mistakes than on the defendant’s years of loyal adherence to his land contract.
What adds a telling postscript to this whole sordid affair is that Webb turned around on December 10th, 1902, and sold this Township 41 Triangle to his railroad administrator, William Thistlethwaite, for $46,000. A nice profit on ill-gotten gain. By the time the dust settled, the Dix lumbering contract was about to run out, but this final lawsuit reversal opened the way for major logging operations on and around Big Moose Lake to proceed. The next era (1900-1920) would see Big Moose Lake filled in the spring with logs as far as the eye could see.
Illustrations, from above: “A Legal Logjam” (6c 1-12); Aaron Lloyd v. Moose River Lumber Co; cover to Transcript of “Aaron Lloyd vs. Moose River Lumber Company” Lawsuit commenced on November 11th, 1893; Aaron Lloyd’s Triangle shown on a 1895 Julius Bien & Co. map of Hamilton & Herkimer Counties (Atlas of the State of NY); cover to Transcript of “Nehasane Park Assoc vs. Aaron Lloyd Lawsuit” commenced December 14th, 1894; Macomb’s Deed to Township 41 on the Totten &Crossfield Line, 1772 (NYSA_12943-78_V19_p170-173); photo of Jack Sheppard Lean-to on Fourth Lake, 1869 (Adirondack Experience); Frank Tweedy Sketch of Corner of Townships 42 & 41 in Totten & Crossfield Purchase (NYSA_B1405-96_307); photo of Camp Crag, Office & Boathouse, on Big Moose Lake (Adirondack Experience); Lloyd Exhibit AA from Webb vs. Lloyd Lawsuit, Uncertainty regarding Webb’s Benedict Tax-Deed; Lloyd Exhibit EE from Webb vs. Lloyd Lawsuit, Tax Roll for 1864; exhibit 2 & 37 in Both Suits, Lloyd’s Triangle on a NYS Forest Commission Map; “Attorney Snyder Wins,” Webb vs. Lloyd Case, in Herkimer Democrat (June 19th, 1901); and summary of Deed by Webb to Thistlethwaite, for Triangle of Land in Township 41 (December 10th, 1901).
Sources: Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division in Herkimer County, Lawsuit Transcript for Aaron Lloyd vs. Lemon Thomson, Edward Thomson, Jr., and John Dix as the Moose River Lumber Company, and Nehasane Park Association (Herkimer, NY, 1900); Jane A. Barlow’s Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks: The Story of the Lake, the Land, and the People (Syracuse University Press, 2004); “Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division in Herkimer County,” Nehasane Park Association vs. Aaron Lloyd (1900); Bill Marleau’s Big Moose Station: A Story from 1893 to 1983 (1986); and Roy Crego’s “Jack Sheppard: Civil War Vet, Panther Hunter, Adirondack Guide & Steamboat Operator,” in Adirondack Almanack (November 7th, 2021).
Roy Crego says
Hi Noel, Thank you for wading through these cases to tell a great and forgotten story. Dr. Webb did behave badly. And nice to see my ancestor Richard Crego’s testimony. Do you know if Crego and Verplanck Colvin were at the courthouse on the same day? I’ve always wondered if Richard Crego knew Colvin.
NOEL A SHERRY says
Hey Roy, hard to tell. Their testimony is not dated, although they both testified for Aaron Lloyd, Colvin showing that he was a loyal friend of Lloyd, and coming all the way from Albany to Herkimer to try to support his case. Pp. 74 to 87 of the transcript gives Richard Crego’s testimony, so it wss pretty extensive. Have you read it? Be glad to send you the transcript.
Roy Crego says
Thanks Noel, Earlier, when you discovered Richard’s testimony, you kindly sent it to me so I’m set. Richard Crego would have traveled to Herkimer from Boonville.
Bob Meyer says
In the end of this long and twisted case the predominance of the evidence leads me to agree with your conclusion. Thank you Noel for wading through all this to enrich our understanding of yet another fascinating aspect of Adirondack history!