After achieving his railroad dream and completing his Nehasane wilderness refuge – reachable using his own luxury rail car – William Seward Webb found himself in a major conflict with the State of New York.
Inlet historian Charles Herr tells this part of the story expertly, in his history of the Fulton Chain. My map here highlights that land aquisition by the State in yellow, totaling 74,585 acres of Brown’s Tract and in the Totten & Crossfield Purchase. Webb retained ownership of lakes like Twitchell and Big Moose because he intended those for later cottage and hotel sales.
Herr connects the dots, starting with the growing demand for water needed in canal transportation, for river drives, and logging mill operation. The state’s approval of the dam at Stillwater, built in 1886 and raised in 1892, ruined Webb’s plans to use the Beaver River as a “public highway” to drive his logs to Beaver Falls for milling. Webb’s 1895 lawsuit took a week just to record testimony in Albany, with over $184,000 in damage claims supported and certified.
Faced with Webb’s suit and the Black River industries’ continuing damage claims, the State enacted a solution, Chapter 551 of the laws of 1895, on February 21, 1895. This law authorized the Forest, Fish & Game Commission, upon approval by the Commissioners of the Land Office, to purchase tracts of lands located within the Forest Preserve, not exceeding 80,000 acres, where owners sustained damages.
The flood-damage tour by state officials and hosted by Webb at Nehasane was taken the previous July. By year’s end the state accepted Webb’s land offer, paying him $600,000 for this largest addition to its forestry holdings, conditioned on Webb’s cancelling all Stillwater damage claims.
This historic 1896 NYS deed did more than add to the total acreage of the Adirondack Park, it provided Webb with profits from three time-limited lumbering contracts with companies agreeing to work under his terms and covenant. Historian Bill Marleau in his Big Moose Station accurately weighs in with this comment:
“Webb made sure he controlled not only how the land would be lumbered but who would do it, how the logs and lumber were to be hauled out, where they would be hauled and when all this would take place.”
New York State was on board with the deal because Webb convinced them his lumber contractors would follow the best practices of scientific forestry at the time, or at least putting the “Webb Covenant” which required scientific forestry in that deed and the three contracts made it look like they would do so. The State was agreeable to any proposal that opened the Adirondacks to ordinary New Yorkers and this deal was a way to settle a costly lawsuit.
From smallest to largest, my map here depicts the Moynehan Brothers contract in Totten & Crossfield’s Township 42 (in red), with one year from the January 1896 closing date to complete logging activities. Secondly, Firman Ouderkirk agreed to handle all milling on the northern end of these contracts in his large lumber mill already operating in the hamlet of Beaver River, on the new rail line, with two years to complete lumbering his area (in purple). According to Marleau, Ouderkirk’s output in spruce increased from 5.6 million board feet in 1894 to 6.8 million under his Webb contract.
The third and largest lumbering contract went to political ally John A. Dix and his Moose River Lumber Company (in blue) and granted eight years to complete lumbering Township 8 of Brown’s Tract, with operation of the mill complex at McKeever and a major log-loading area on the sidetrack at Big Moose Station. Spruce, hemlock, and white pine outputs at the McKeever mill for the years just before these contracts began (1894-5) was 21.4 million board-feet, with 5.5 million board-feet for 1896.
Assuming an average home in 1900 of 1,000 square-feet, requiring on average 8,000 board-feet to frame, this huge output of spruce from Webb-sponsored mills could create about 5,250 homes.
The contracts contained in this Webb-NYS deed all stipulated use of lumber mills at Beaver River and McKeever and transportation to markets in Utica and Herkimer via Webb’s Mohawk & Malone Railroad freight service. A version of his covenant gleaned from the Gifford Pinchot forestry experiment was included in each of the three contracts, as these companies proceeded to harvest “all the pine, spruce, balsam, hemlock, tamarack, cedar, cherry, ash, basswood and poplar timber not less than 10 inches in diameter three feet above ground, according to the 2nd Annual Report- Fisheries, Game and Forests in 1897. High quality “sounding-board spruce” for piano manufacture was to be “piled and skidded” separately. All the prime real estate around Township 8 lakes was off-limits to lumbering, reserved for later cottage and hotel sale. “Improving lakes and rivers” by building dams and booms for moving logs to rail-loading-platforms was fair game, providing these lakes were not raised above high-water marks.
Patrick Moynehan, “the rough-and-ready leader of a famous Adirondack lumbering family,” was a fan of Pinchot’s forestry innovations and a go-to business partner for Webb. His brother Dennis became supervisor for the Town of Wilmurt – the huge northern Herkimer County township renamed the Town of Webb in 1896. He was also president of the Webb Telephone Company and a contractor for improving the Stillwater reservoir dam in 1901.
Both brothers headed up the Eagle Bay Hotel Company, situated near Dennis’ summer home on Fulton Chain’s Fourth Lake. Bill Marleau described his bottle-hunting expeditions along “the Mohyehan Road,” with old lumber camps, driving dams, a tanning mill, a hog-scalding kettle, and a fire tower still in evidence in 1987. The Moynehan contract put these brothers on the immediate east side of the Mohawk & Malone, extracting timber on Township 42 of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase, the smallest of the three contracts.
Firman Ouderkirk was also politically active, serving as supervisor and under-sheriff to the town of Ohio just inside the Adirondack Park. The Herkimer Democrat noted that “his business is that of a lumber dealer which he first entered in the employ of Dr. Seward Webb.” Interestingly, he purchased an abandoned Civil War armory, intending to use its lumber to construct his mill at Beaver River, receiving such push-back from locals that he sold the armory to them at his $300 purchase-price.
Ouderkirk’s mill sat beside Webb’s railroad, and it became the hub for this second town that survived this era’s logging boom. Beaver River’s excellent hunting and fishing kept people returning on the Mohawk & Malone year after year. Beaver River began in 1893, according to Marleau, with Ouderkirk’s logging for Webb’s Nehasane Park, and his constructing his new Beaver River mill:
“The town of Beaver River soon blossomed as a typical Adirondack logging town, complete with hotels, saloons, boarding houses, railroad station and section house. There were lumberjacks, railroad men, storekeepers, guides, everything that is but a preacher or priest … It took on a wild west frontier town outlook, complete with law enforcement officers, shoot outs, professional gamblers, home brew, whiskey, and the works.”
The impact of Webb’s lumbering contracts changed the forest character throughout Brown’s Tract, like the trend across the Adirondacks. As stands of white pine and spruce were exhausted and hardwood harvested for paper production, the forest surrounding Twitchell Lake was altered. Ecologists now call this “the edge effect,” where the transition zone between woodland and open spaces fosters plants that favor the white-tail deer, supplanting the older moose population of virgin forest.
Twitchell Lake’s Lumber Camp #2
The rusty object pictured here is a broken double-bit axe from Lumber Camp #2, next to Twitchell’s neighbor to the north, Oswego Pond. This second closest lumber camp to Twitchell was technically in Dix territory, but it lay so close to the logging road Ouderkirk extended from his mill to that stretch of virgin forest, that it is likely they worked out some exchange. Besides, a spring river drive for logs from Oswego Pond through Twitchell Lake and Creek to the Dix collection point at Big Moose Station would have been very challenging to pull off.
There is an entry in my grandfather’s diary for 1921, describing his “tramp” with my father and uncle to view this camp’s remains, still standing after 25 years. A coffee pot and metal tracks for a logging sled still hung on a tree there, along with the remains of a blacksmith’s shack. This lumber camp was operational during the 1896 to 1898 seasons.
This was not the only lumber camp reached in winter by horse-drawn sled on the Ouderkirk tote road along the South Branch of the Beaver River out to East Pond, less than a mile from Twitchell’s north shore. Marleau located several of these camps in his bottle-collecting trips, the largest by far being the Lonis Lumber Camp, its “headquarters” pictured here. Its remains are easily located today near the halfway point on the five-mile trail from Twitchell north to Terror Lake, at what is called “Lonis Falls.”
Bruce Steltzer, chairperson of the Twitchell Lake History Project, describes the site as made up of multiple remains surrounding the two streams that join here at the Falls, on a site of several acres. Curiously, Loomis and Lonis are interchangeable names in the same Herkimer family known to Ouderkirk, one David N. Lonis, a dealer for the Diamond Match Company. Add to this the fact that in 1853 a lumberman from Watertown, NY, Charles K. Loomis, held the deed to this camp’s Lot in Township 42.
One of these men (or a descendant) operated this camp as a sub-contract under Ouderkirk between 1896 and 1906, transporting virgin logs by winter sled drives to the Beaver River mill. From there, Twitchell Lake lumber went to market on a south-bound Mohawk & Malone lumber train. Original Beaver River settler and pioneer guide Monroe “Pop” Bullock later used this Lonis camp as a base for his hunting parties.
Barbara McMartin in her Great Forest of the Adirondacks made the point that government officials in Albany and New York City purchased large timber tracts and lumber companies to increase their political base. John A. Dix, governor of New York for two terms – 1872 to 1874 and again from 1910 to 1912 – is a good example of this. Dix had a hand in half a dozen lumber and paper companies, taking full control of the Moose River Lumber Company after his father-in-law LeMon Thomson’s death in 1897.
Webb’s third contract with Dix and his company was divided into a northern portion draining into the Beaver River watershed and the larger southern portion emptying through the Moose River, with this stipulation included in the contract for the northern part of his area (see the map):
“It is expressly agreed and understood that no lumbering of any kind shall be conducted within a line of twenty rods around Twitchell Lake without the consent in writing of the parties of the first part (Webb and the Nehasane Park Association), and that no lumber camps shall be built within forty rods of said Twitchell Lake.”
Marleau documented several lumber camps he explored in that northern area, describing the timber near Twitchell and Big Moose Lakes as “beautiful ‘first-cut’ timber,” definitely spruce, a huge money-maker for Dix and Webb. The haul and tote roads from Big Moose Station to Twitchell Lake serviced these lumber camps, moving logs in winter by horse-drawn sled.
It’s probable Dix lumberjacks reused Twitchell’s older Lumber Camp #1 (1878) during this 1896 campaign. Moved by train south to McKeever, this new lumber town became home to nearly 200 residents who worked at one of the mills or in the woods harvesting timber for the Moose River Lumber Company or Dix’s Iroquois Pulp & Paper Company. The Dix complex included softwood mills for pine, spruce, and hemlock, hardwood mills for birch and maple, a small veneer mill, and his pulp and paper mills. Marleau related several very real dangers typical of all these mills:
“While running the sawmill in McKeever, he [John Potter, Bill Marleau’s grandfather] got a wood splinter in his eye and lost the sight in it. There were no safety devices in the sawmills in those days. My father later was superintendent in the same mill and he told how one of the big six foot-in-diameter saw blades came loose one day and went right down through the mill. One of the workers on the far side saw it coming and instead of running, he froze with fear. The saw went right through the building about a foot from him. The man walked in the office after he recovered and quit, never to come back.”
While safety was always a problem for lumberjacks and mill workers, outright theft of timber became a significant challenge for New York State in this era, with a legislative committee appointed to hold hearings upstate in 1895 “to investigate the depredations of timber upon State lands.” Lumberman Patrick Moynehan, who brought his logs to the Beaver River mill (pictured here), earned the dubious reputation of being “a persistent trespasser on State lands,” exceeding the time limit on many of his lumbering contracts. Barbara McMartin described a much more insidious method used by lumber companies to take timber off the Forest Preserve, one which Webb’s lawyer would employ in an 1894 lawsuit at Big Moose Lake:
“After 1895 timberland was becoming so valuable and the price of timber was so great that a few very clever lawyers and land speculators, either independently or working for lumber companies, began researching the titles to land claimed by the State as a result of tax sales. By diligently studying the records in county tax offices as well as in the State comptroller’s office, they uncovered many problems with the tax sales. Upon discovering any flaw with a tax sale, these individuals bought presumed title to the questioned lots or made arrangements with the original owner, who had defaulted on taxes, to act on their behalf. Then they claimed the land from the State, which all too often could not prove clear title. Over the years the State was faced with claims on over 172,000 acres it thought were Forest Preserve. Purchases of 112,000 acres by the State between 1895 and 1901 were for land the State had acquired at earlier tax sales, land the State believed it owned.”
Webb’s three lumber contracts contributed significantly to logging production trends in the Adirondacks from 1880 to 1910, which are depicted on this graph. Total lumber production almost doubled in the 1880 to 1904 time-frame, from 400 to a peak of close to 800 million board-feet, before a steep decline. While spruce, hemlock, and white pine lumber production were level or decreasing in this period, pulp and hardwood cutting rose because of the huge demand in the paper and pulp industry, often with a return to areas previously logged to take the hardwood and any spruce under a ten to twelve inch-diameter. “The shift to the use of wood from the region’s forests to make pulp and paper completely altered the Adirondack logging industry,” McMartin wrote.
Lawsuits in the Central Adirondacks
One trigger for lawsuits that racked the Central Adirondacks in this 1880 to 1900 era, was water-related damage with its impact on logging and property. Publicity of these incidents, directly or indirectly related to logging, became a decisive factor in the formation of the Forest Preserve in 1885 and the Adirondack Park in 1892. The iconic photo shown here was taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard around 1888 after a logging dam on the lower Raquette River broke, resulting in a ghostly landscape and photo titled “Drowned Lands” published in multiple news accounts.
Another disaster that was described repeatedly in legal testimony was the tangle of rotten and decaying trees that accompanied each major dam project completed by the state. Here is one sample, in the words of Forest & Stream sportswriter George Washington Sears under his pen name “Nessmuk,” describing the desolation at the scene of a 10-foot dam on Fulton Chain’s Sixth Lake:
“The shoreline of trees stood dead and dying, while the smell of decaying vegetable matter was sickening … The water at and above the dam was clogged with rotting vegetation, slimy tree-tops and decayed, half-sunken logs.”
New York state’s 1886 project to dam the Beaver River at Stillwater for canal and logging interests – raising it again in 1893 – precipitated the first of two major lawsuits for landowners on that watershed, Mary Fisher and William Seward Webb. Mary was one of three daughters of Lyman R. Lyons inheriting equal thirds of his Brown’s Tract holdings, her 9,500 acres in Townships 4 and 5 along the Beaver River. She alleged that the first nine-foot-high dam cut her off from 80% of her land, rich in hemlock, spruce, white pine, cedar, and tamarack. A Journal & Republican article stated her $24,175 damage claim succinctly:
“The plaintiff … claims that by reason of the construction of said dam the overflow of water has cut off and rendered inaccessible 7,500 acres of heavily timbered land and has greatly injured if not altogether destroyed the highways, to wit: the streams whereby the timber not overflowed could have been conveyed to market, in addition to ruining the road leading from Carthage to Lake Champlain, as well as other roadways.”
Inlet historian Charles Herr reported the outcome for this major lawsuit – New York state’s awarding Fisher $9,970 in damages for flooding 17% or 1,594 acres of her land holdings. The five-foot raising of the dam by Governor Roswell Pettibone Flower in 1893 – downriver mills still short on needed river flow for power – increased the flooded area from 275 to 1,327 acres, extending 10.5 miles up Beaver River into Webb’s Nehasane Park. Forty-two witnesses participated in Webb’s 1895 threatened lawsuit, including lumbermen, local guides, hotel owners, prominent sportsmen, and even medical doctors. The transcript of depositions for damages calculated at $184,350.60 ran up to 1,547 pages.
Besides disappointing setbacks to his plans for lumbering, log driving, pulp and paper harvesting, and mill siting, medically trained Webb invited five doctors to verify negative impacts on health from Stillwater’s mass of decaying vegetation. Dr. Paul Von Zierolshofen made the case for a large increase in malaria, espiratory illnesses, and inflammation of the stomach and intestines, resulting from dam damage. The state’s summary of his testimony marshaled the following points in the 1895 report:
“At one time he was the nearest practicing physician at Stillwater; and during the years 1981, 1892, 1893, and 1894, was frequently called to Stillwater, where he treated from twenty-six to twenty-seven cases, where patients were suffering from miasmatic poisonings, dumb ague and catarrhal enteritis; that decaying vegetation, together with heat and moisture, would produce the poison, and would extend from one to one and one-half miles outside the reservoir; and that it would be apt to be carried up to great heights.”
The accompanying photo titled “On the Beaver River” was included in this same 1895 Report. It gives just one glimpse of the mass of dead trees making transportation on Stillwater reservoir near to impossible for passenger traffic, let alone for log rafting and driving. The state’s largest purchase of forestry land in the Adirondacks, already discussed, came in 1896 and settled this threatened 1895 lawsuit with its long list of damage claims.
A Second Wave of Lawsuits
The second wave of lawsuits for this era shifted south to the Moose River, where Webb in 1892 pursued a right-of-way to complete the route for his Mohawk & Malone through the private preserve of William and Julia deCamp. Located in Townships 1 and 7 of Brown’s Tract, this was the last piece of real estate needed to link Herkimer (and later Utica) by rail with Malone and Montreal. Webb had negotiated with the state for numerous rights-of-way through Forest Preserve land by a ruling allowing exchanges for his own private lands, thus side-stepping the sale-of-Preserve-land violation.
The state supported wilderness access for the public, and that policy impacted the lawsuit’s outcome, a win for Webb according to Charles Herr: “In 1892, the courts compelled her to settle with Dr. Webb and provide his railroad a right of way through her Township 7 lands. Julia deCamp established a Wilderness Park preserve that divided her remaining Township 7 and Township 1 lands into North, South and East Parks.”
Then in 1894 John Dix began to drive logs down the Moose River through the middle of this deCamp parkland. He assumed he had legal right to do so based on that river’s 1851 “public highway” law. As the first of an estimated nine million board feet of spruce and white pine softwood banked at Lake Rondaxe moved downstream toward his company’s McKeever mills, deCamp employees stretched out a log boom to block the drive in a bold north wood’s confrontation! Julia deCamp claimed the Moose River Lumber Company drive “injured her bridges, flooded her land, scared her fish, and otherwise infringed on her rights.” The conflict continued.
Julia deCamp subsequently decided to charge a toll per log, which Dix protested and took to court, a lawsuit that stretched out nearly a decade, involving four judges, several injunctions imposed then vacated, and a final decision by a referee after Julia had died and her husband continued the fight. The 1896 Dix contract with Webb for logging Township 8 added millions of board feet to the Dix banking grounds and fuel to the conflict, Webb pressing every legal button he could to ensure his logging profits before that contract ran out in 1902.
The clever “workaround” of a Raquette Lake Rail line with a spur to the Dix stockpile of logs, had Webb’s name written all over it. In the end, Julia won a huge precedent-setting victory posthumously. The 1851 Moose River right-of-way law was declared unconstitutional, with all logging tolls plus damages awarded in deCamp vs. Dix et al: The Court declared that the initial 1851 law and similar laws misused the meaning of “highway.”
It held that the word applied “for roads opened through the country for the travel of persons with their animal and vehicle.” It “did not include streams of water or water highways.” The decision required lumber companies to use more costly land transportation for moving their cut product. The Court determined that those public highway declarations did not benefit the public, but only private lumber interests.
It can probably be said that the last decade in the 1800s was the most litigious in Adirondack history. Ordinary people who came to this region for health reasons, recreation, fishing, and hunting were expecting this wilderness area to be a kind of idyllic retreat from the pressures of civilization. Not so for these Adirondackers, whose campfire companionship would have been broken by tangled tales of litigation. And with much bigger lawsuits to come.
Photos, from above: Webb Land Sold to NYS in 1896 shown on a Julius Bien Map, highlighting by Noel Sherry; Webb’s Three Lumber Contracts in 1895, highlighted by Noel Sherry on a Julius Bien Map of Herkimer & Hamilton Counties; Broken Double-bit Axe found with metal-detector at Lumber Camp No. 2, Oswego Pond; Lonis Lumber Camp on Terror Lake Trail (from Bill Marleau’s Big Moose Station, p. 38); Lumber Mill by Webb Railroad in Beaver River, ca. 1895, courtesy of Goodsell Museum, Old Forge; Graph showing total Adirondack production of sawlogs and pulp, by species, for 1890 to 1910, p. 127 in Barbara McMartin’s Great Forest; Library of Congress image titled “Drowned Lands of the Lower Raquette, Adirondacks,” ca 1888, by Seneca Ray Stoddard; and Photo taken by F. J. Severance of Beaver River flood damage in 1895, included in Annual Report of Commissioners of Fishery, Game & Forests of NYS (p. 448).
Sources Cited: Charles Herr’s Chapter 10 titled “The Erie Canal and the Largest Adirondack Land Purchase” in The Fulton Chain: Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels (2017); Article about lumber required to build a house in the 1900 era, in Chicago Tribune (June 18, 2000); Frank Graham’s Adirondack Park: A Political History (1978); Barbara McMartin’s Great Forest of the Adirondacks (Utica, N.Y., 1994); William Seward Webb’s sale of land to NYS, including three lumberring contracts (pp. 376ff) in 2 nd Annual Report of the Commissioners of Fisheries, Game and Forests of the State of New York (Albany, NY, January 20, 1897); “McKeever Early History” on Old Forge’s Goodsell Museum website, https://www.webbhistory.org/McKeever_Early_History.htm; “The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears,” Dan Brenan, Editor, The Adirondack Museum (1962); Report of the Committee appointed by the NYS Legislature to Investigate Certain Depredations on Adirondack Timber Lands, Feb 27, 1896; NYS legislative Committee tasked to investigate lumber company trespass and logging theft (1895); Chapter 35 in Charles E. Herr’s The Fulton Chain: Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels (Utica, NY, 2017); and Land Office Records for 1894, Real Property Office, Department of Environmental Conservation).