The Adirondacks

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Within three years of the initial Murray invasion, some aspects of this problem were already under consideration by alert individuals here and there who cared about the future of the Adirondacks. One of them was Verplanck Colvin, an independently wealthy young man whose chief passion was the north woods, and who became official surveyor for the Adirondack wilderness in 1872. His mission was to make a topographical survey of state-owned lands and establish their boundaries more precisely.

Colvin worked hard at his task. He climbed every mountain of consequence to his survey, making many of the necessary measurements himself; he drove himself—and his assistants—to the limit in every season and every weather. Colvin also became one of the most eloquent and best-informed spokesmen for preserving the Adirondack wilderness. He saw with painful clarity the effect of the new popularity of the region with “the ubiquitous tourist”:

Where first comes one, the next year there are ten, the year after, fully a hundred. Hotels spring up as though by magic. … The wild trails, once jammed with logs, are cut clear by the axes of the guides and ladies clamber to the summits of those once untrodden peaks. The genius of change has possession of the land. We cannot control it. When we study the necessities of our people, we would not control it if we could.

Nevertheless, as the years went by it became more and more obvious that some sort of control would indeed be required. The decade following Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness saw the building of not scores but hundreds of hotels, many of them lavishly appointed and all of them serving trout and venison to their guests with such prodigal generosity that, before long, anguished cries went up from fishermen and hunters: it was getting harder and harder to find ready objects for their sport. Murray himself observed grumpily in 1877: “I have not put my fly rod together four times in four years.” Field and Stream , an influential outdoors magazine founded in 1873 by Charles Hallock, was more explicit:

Between the fish hog, the night hunter, the pseudo-sportsman and the like, this grand old region is becoming yearly less and less like its old self and in a few more years will witness the entire destruction from a sportsman’s and nature lover’s point of view.

The woods, too, were under attack. The discovery that paper could be made from wood pulp generated a new industry, and whole hillsides of Adirondack spruce were felled to feed the hungry paper mills. Entrepreneurs bought large segments of state land, cut down most of the trees, and then deliberately failed to pay their taxes; the people of New York recovered bare land where a short time before had stood magnificent forests. Nor were all of the woodcutters careful about observing the lines between private and state land, so that hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lumber was, in effect, poached. Forest fires often followed lumbering, sometimes sparked by a locomotive on one of the several railroads that were beginning to push into the region in the 1880’s.

Colvin’s “ubiquitous tourist,” incidentally, made for the Adirondacks both in sickness and in health. The notion that pure mountain air was the cure for tuberculosis had taken a firm hold, and thousands of sufferers came for prolonged sojourns at Adirondack hotels. Many of them, in fact, recovered to a greater or lesser extent—not from the air, marvelous as it was, but from the regimen of good food, good rest, and gentle exercise in pleasant surroundings that was the stock in trade of the resorts. After the communicability of the disease was discovered in the early 1880’s, the resort hotels were not so anxious to attract these particular customers: the notation, in small print, “No Consumptives” began to appear in advertisements and hotel directories. The patients were welcomed, however, by sanatoriums. Some of these became famous—notably the one at Saranac Lake under Dr. Edward L. Trudeau, who himself had recovered from tuberculosis by living the good life of the Adirondacks through several seasons.

Under the combined impact of too many sportsmen, too many lumberers, too many tourists both sick and well, and too many privately built “camps” (that is, summer homes), the New York state legislature began to show concern about the future of the Adirondacks. “Wilderness” was not the issue at this time; the concern had more to do with saving the highland watersheds of the state and thus guaranteeing water supply for downstate canals, for the water table of the state’s innumerable farms, and in some measure for New York City’s future water needs. Nevertheless, in 1883 the legislature withdrew all state land from further sale; in 1885 it established by law a Forest Preserve of state land to be “kept forever as wild forest lands.” In 1892 the Adirondack Park was created by drawing the famous Blue Line; and although at that time the state owned only about one fourth of some three and a half million acres circumscribed by the line, the legal existence of the park served as an earnest of the state’s protective concern. (The Blue Line was subsequently pushed outward; today the park comprises nearly six million acres, of which the state of New York owns over two million.) But the most significant move toward preservation of the wilderness came in 1894, when an amendment to the state constitution declared: