Adirondacks State Park

The placid side of the Adirondacks: The view from the peak of Little Whiteface (Nathan Borchelt)

The Iroquois and the Algonquin were the Adirondacks' first peoples. They ventured into the mountains to hunt, and left for more moderate lower elevations in the winter.

Except for trappers and military posts on Lake George and Champlain, Europeans largely left the area alone until the 1840s, when logging began in earnest. By the 1850s, New York was the leading lumber producing state. Over the course of the next fifty years, the State of New York would acquire a huge chunk of land after loggers had stripped them of timber and then moved on, defaulting on their property taxes.

But early on, there was another sort of interest in the Adirondacks. The first party to survey the mountains, in 1837, included a painter named Charles Cromwell Ingham, who produced paintings that astonished many who never realized that a great wilderness lay at the northeast's doorstep. In 1857 William Stillman of Cambridge, Massachusetts started the Philosophers' Camp, locating it first on Follansby Pond near Long Lake and later moving it to Amperand Pond near Saranac Lake. Notable scientists and philosophers came to the Philosophers' Camp to hike, paddle, fish—and talk and write. Guests included Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American philosopher, and Louis Agassiz, who developed the theory of how glaciers affected the landscape, including that of the Adirondacks.

One of the first outdoor guidebooks—William H.H. Murray's Adventures in the Wilderness—sparked popular interest in the Adirondacks and the rustic life as a way to recreate. Business boomed at rough-hewn lodges such as Paul Smiths. The legendary Adirondack guide was born in this era, combining acute wilderness skills—the ability to find just the right fishing hole or hunting spot—with talent as a rollicking campfire entertainer and the knack for pampering the rich while making them think they were roughing it. Wanting their own castles, the rich of the era started to build opulent private lodges, known as "great camps," which had an architectural style that hybridized Swiss chalets with American log cabins. William West Durant was the great style-setter of the great camp, building properties that were later bought by the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers when Durant went broke.

Even though the Adirondacks were swarming with guides and tourists, no white person had scaled Mt. Marcy until Verplanck Colvin in 1872. Colvin was a surveyor who ventured into the Adirondacks to trace the source of the mighty Hudson River. Colvin would spend the next 30 years surveying the entire Adirondack region, getting to know the mountains better than anyone of the time.

Colvin was a major proponent for protecting the park from overdevelopment and timber harvesting. In 1885, the New York State Legislature created the "Adirondack Forest Preserve." Protecting the Hudson River Watershed—and New York City's water supply—was a major impetus for this legislation. The metropolis was growing, and silt was building up in the harbor. But preserving the Adirondacks as a "pleasuring ground" was also a major reason. The law was strengthened in 1892, and then again 1894, with a law dictating the groundbreaking concept that the forest should remain "forever wild."

The original 681,374 acres of the forest preserve have grown to include more than 2.6 million acres of public land. Most of the park is privately owned, subject to stringent development laws.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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