Adirondack Council Celebrates the 125th Birthday Of the Adirondack Park
By Kyle Plaske
Adirondack Council Clarence Petty Intern - Albany Office
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Adirondack Park! On May 20, 1892, the New York State Legislature and Governor Roswell P. Flower created the Adirondack Park Enabling Act which essentially created the Park’s Blue Line boundary.
Sadly, after the Europeans arrived, a short history of the Adirondack region is a story of natural resource exploitation. But these events compelled forward-thinking conservationists to work to protect those resources and led to the Adirondack Park we know and love today. A place with breathtaking landscapes, rare ecosystems, pure waters, magnificent and adorable wildlife, expansive Wilderness areas, and unique communities.
Come along as I tell the story of our Adirondack Park to celebrate its 125th Birthday!
The first users of the Adirondack landscape were two Native American tribes, the Mohawks and the Algonquins. However, it is up for debate whether either tribe actually settled in the Adirondack mountains due to their harsh climate and rugged landscape. Nevertheless, the tribes did use the lands for hunting and fishing, and as a thoroughfare to other areas of the state. In fact, it has been said that the word "Adirondack" means “Barkeater” or "those who eat trees" in the language of the Mohawks. It is assumed by many to be a pejorative term used to describe the Algonquins that settled to the North.
Beginning in the early 1600s, European explorers struggled for control over the region’s waterways, valuable fur trade and plentiful timber. This also marked the beginning of nearly three centuries of relentless deforestation in the Adirondacks. Great white pines along the region’s lakeshores were taken for shipbuilding, and other softwoods were cut to construct major French and British forts. While the Europeans fought over the region’s water routes – essential for navigation and commerce – the Adirondack wilderness was generally viewed as a wasteland. Its winters were long and cold, and its rough mountainous terrain rendered travel difficult.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, soon after reclaiming all the lands once held in the hands of the British Crown, the state began auctioning off tracts of Adirondack forestland for next to nothing per acre. The state also established “military tracts,” which it offered up as bounty lands to soldiers who fought in the Revolution. But because of the remoteness of the Adirondacks – and likely because of the day’s attitudes toward wilderness, in general – few people took up the offer. Until the early 1800s, the Adirondacks remained little explored and largely uninhabited.
By the early 19th century, as the gears of the Industrial Revolution began to turn, wealthy industrialists began to view the Adirondack wilderness as a money making opportunity. Huge swaths of forestland near the region’s eastern fringes were bought up by the timber industry and promptly decimated. And while the timber companies removed only softwoods, the iron industry did not discriminate: they cut down any and all kinds of trees they could find and used the wood to make charcoal used to fire its iron smelting operations.
In the early to mid-1800s, lumbering was difficult and dangerous work. Using crude axes and handsaws, lumbermen worked round-the-clock through the cold winter months, clear cutting entire conifer, spruce, pine, and fir forests. The logs, cut into thirteen-foot lengths, would then be floated down the region’s major rivers to the sawmills during the springtime flood. The lumbermen’s hard work earned the timber industry enormous profits, and by mid-century, New York State was producing one fifth of the nation’s timber.
Unrestrained by regulations, the Adirondack region quickly became a stomping ground for wealthy industrialists hungry for profit. Advances in the paper pulp industry began to exacerbate the region’s widespread deforestation, and the advent of railroads brought even the most remote corners of the Adirondacks within industry’s reach.
Also in the 1830s, wealthy travelers began seeking refuge from New York City’s industrial-driven noise and pollution and started visiting the Adirondacks by rail. These vacationers traveled north, and for the first time, the destruction wrought by deforestation was laid bare to public view.
The Adirondack region was (and still is) a major watershed for most of the state, including New York City. By the early 1860s, it was evident that unrestricted clear-cutting was beginning to have serious effects on downstate water supplies. The denuding of large areas of forest canopy, which protected the region’s soils and waterways from the sun, caused major rivers to muddy and evaporate in the summer months, and to flood in the springtime.
Most notably, the Adirondacks supplied much of the water that filled the Erie Canal – which was, and still is, the only easily navigable water route from the Great Lakes to the eastern seaboard, and which transformed New York City into a major hub for import and export traffic in North America.
The urgency of environmental protection in the Adirondacks quickly evolved into an economic and political issue. Verplanck Colvin, surveyor of the Adirondacks, first proposed in 1871 the creation of an “Adirondack Park or timber preserve, under charge of a forest warden with deputies,” adding: “The interests of commerce and navigation demand that these forests should be preserved; and for posterity should be set aside, this Adirondack region, as park for New York, as is the Yosemite for California and the Pacific States.” One of the loudest proponents of Adirondack environmental protection, Colvin, too, saw the economic peril poised by unregulated deforestation for private economic gain. Two years later, in 1873, Colvin was appointed by the state to lead a committee to study the protection of New York’s watershed. He would later write to the State Legislature recommending “the simple preservation of timber as a measure of political economy.”
By this time, the Adirondack wilderness movement had also taken hold. Following the 1858 Philosopher’s Camp at Follensby Pond, the need to protect the region’s natural landscape and resources was evolving into a widely held view. The advent of cameras and photography began bringing images of the Adirondacks’ stunning beauty – and denuded landscapes – to the wider public’s eye for the first time. Seneca Ray Stoddard and other photographers held photo exhibits and published guidebooks, leading to even greater interest in the Adirondacks as a tourist destination, and raised important questions about industry’s rampant clear-cutting practices.
By the 1880s, the New York Legislature had finally begun to enact serious preservation measures in the Adirondacks. The sale of state-owned Adirondack lands was banned outright in 1883, and a Forestry Commission was appointed one year later to study and provide recommendations on best preservation practices. These marginal efforts led to the creation of the Forest Preserve in 1885, which declared that the lands within eleven Adirondack counties “be forever kept as wild forest lands.” A Forestry Commission was set up to look after the Forest Preserve and to manage its timber, but corruption quickly seeped in. It was soon revealed that the Commissioners had close ties to the timber industry and had gone on permitting the removal of timber on the newly established Forest Preserve. Railroads also continued pre ssing for new rights-of-way.
Governor Roswell P. Flower
Public outcry had reached its peak by 1890. After the completion of a report filed by the Forest Commission in 1891, which roughly sketched the Park’s original Blue Line boundary, New York Governor Roswell Flower and the Legislature finally established an Adirondack Park on May 20, 1892.
However, this legislation that created the Adirondack Park also repealed the ban on the sale of Adirondack Forest Preserve lands, which was enacted by the Legislature in 1885. This stirred further outrage among voters, as well as a deep fear among members of the NYC Board of Trade and Transportation, whose business dealings on the Erie Canal and Hudson River provoked a deep interest in protecting the state’s watershed.
In our next blog, we will explore how what occurred to create the protections we have on the Adirondack Forest Preserve today. Stay tuned!
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