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The Adirondacks, “Sanctuary of Dreams”

by Renée S. Gordon

"If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."  Lyndon B. Johnson


New York’s Adirondacks State Park is a magnificent gem of extremely underrated value. The 6-million acre park, larger than Glacier Park, the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, YellowstoneYosemite all put together, includes 8,000-sq. miles of mountains, 1,500-miles of rivers, 30,000-miles of streams, 2,000-miles of foot trails and more than 2,300 lakes. It is also home to 66 fish species, and greater than 50 animal and 220 bird species. It is an all season destination and visitors can engage in every activity from Olympic level skiing to fall foliage viewing.

In 1885 the NY State Legislature designated the portion of the land that the state owned, 2.3-million acre Adirondack Forest Preserve, in 1892 the park was established and in 1894 the Adirondacks were deemed a wild land preserve. It was the first and sole wild land preserve to be protected by a state constitution. In order to alter the law a change in the State’s Constitution is required. Article VII, Section 7 reads, in part, “….shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold, or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public, or private, nor should the timber thereon be sold, removed, or destroyed."

The Adirondacks is one of the oldest areas on earth, the oldest on this continent and was created about 1-billion years ago. Geologically they are part of the Canadian Shield and not the Appalachian Mountains. When Native Americans entered the region they did not settle in the mountains but passed through while hunting, at war and trading. At the time of the first Europeans, led by Samuel D. Champlain in 1609, the Algonquin and Iroquois were the main tribes in the region and his party included Algonquin guides. Ratirontaks became “Adirondacks,” “those who eat trees,” and is actually an uncomplimentary Iroquois term they used to refer to their enemies the Iroquois.

The New York frontier was settled early in the 1700s and played a significant role in the French and Indian War, a territorial conflict between the British and the French. The British constructed Fort William Henry in 1755 on Lake George. It was besieged in 1757 and after the British surrendered they were killed by the Native American allies of the French as depicted in “Last of the Mohicans.” The French then destroyed it. There are interpretive signs at the battle site and a replica of the fort in Lake George village.

Fort Carillon, renamed Ticonderoga, was France’s response to the British. It was built 1755-59 on Lake Champlain. The fort saw more fighting during the French and Indian War than any other. It was also the location of the first American victory of the Revolution when, on May 10, 1775, Vermont’s Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys joined with Benedict Arnold to seize the fort. The Battle of Fort Ticonderoga gave hope to the Americans and provided supplies for their army. Ticonderoga offers great tours and wonderful programming. Visitors should check in advance for scheduled re-enactments, VIP Tours and special exhibitions.

The preservation of the Adirondacks can largely be traced to one man, Verplanck Colvin, who began his career as a real estate lawyer. Through his real estate business he discovered his love of surveying. Born in Albany, he combined his love of exploration with his admiration of the beauty of the Adirondacks, and began visiting the less traveled areas of the region in the 1860s. In 1869 he ascended the 5343-ft Mt. Marcy, the highest point in the state, followed by Mt. Seward the following year. He is credited with locating the source of the 315-mile Hudson River. He gave it the name Lake Tear in the Clouds. Indigenous tribes knew it as "Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk", "the water that moves both ways".

In 1872 Colvin was appointed the Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey and subsequently State Surveyor. He held this position for twenty-eight years and during that time advanced the goals of surveying, conserving and preserving the Adirondacks region.

Seneca Ray Stoddard published a tourist guide, “Adirondacks: Illustrated,” in 1873 and annually thereafter until 1914. It was invaluable because it contained the first visitors’ map and as a result the latter part of the 19th-century, the Gilded Age, saw a substantial increase in tourism. Stoddard was an artist and his paintings, sketches and photographs document the story of the region.

Many of the wealthiest people, the Astors, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, etc., built Great Camps in the area as getaways from the cities. They designed their retreats to blend into the landscape using local stone and local wood and constructed by local craftsmen with huge fireplaces and decks that took advantage of the views. This form of architecture came to be known as the Adirondacks-style. These “camps” were lavish and luxurious and often far off the beaten path.

Blue Mountain Lake’s Adirondacks Museum presents an outstanding overview of the region’s history. The 32-acre campus houses 24 buildings and features activities, programs, events and special exhibitions. The museum’s collection showcases more than 30,000 objects and 70,000 photographs. A visit to this museum is a must to fully understand the history, people, arts and industry of the area. Plan to spend a minimum of 2.5-hours here just to explore the museum buildings.

The museum site was originally Miles Merwin’s 11,230-acre lumber camp in the 1860s. One day a group of hunters appeared in camp and offered to pay for the experience of lodging there. They enjoyed themselves so much that they told friends and soon the owner of the camp decided that he could make more money from providing accommodations than from logging. In 1880 he built Merwin's Blue Mountain House Hotel. In 1957 the property became the Adirondacks Museum.

One of the first exhibits is a guideboat a unique and significant form of regional transportation. Early tourists could only travel so far by rail, stagecoach or foot and then, because you are never more than .25-miles from water, it was necessary to travel by boat. An industry sprang up of boat building and guiding. Passengers would hire a guide to walk along and carry a boat. When they reached water he would row them across and then carry the boat to the next waterway. Adirondack guideboats had to be lightweight and sturdy. During the winter months the guides made twig furniture and the classic Adirondack chairs. Bull Cottage, on the premises, is fully decorated with rustic furniture.

The Roads and Rails exhibit is outstanding. Galleries are filled with vehicles used to transport people to the camps. An ice hearse is on display. This black lacquer sled conveyed bodies in the winter. The lanterns held candles. A highlight is a private rail car, the Oriental, of the type used by the wealthy to travel to the Adirondacks. The car is nearly 70-ft long, has 6,900-ft. of mahogany, oil and electric lighting and one marble and two onyx washstands.

One of the more telling stories concerning the rich and the rails is of the woman who disliked the stagecoach ride so intensely that she asked her husband to do something about it. He built her an opulent railcar to avoid the stagecoach, and a railroad track 2/3 of a mile long (about 6 blocks) for the railcar to ride on.

“Great Wilderness. Great Expectations: Masterworks from the Adirondack Museum” currently displays 120 paintings, prints, drawings and photographs that depict two centuries of regional landscapes. This exhibition augments the museum’s Artist-in-Residence program.

Garnet Hill Ski Lodge and Nordic Ski Center is both an Adironacks destination and a wonderful place to enjoy the views of Thirteenth Lake while dining on exqusite cuisine. Garnet Hill offers first class accommodations and a full menu of year round activities from which to choose. The owners provide exceptional hospitality and service and they will make suggestions and arrangements. Special programs sponsored by the lodge include everything from a tranquil train ride to Yoga, using a stand up paddle board. The lodge also offers 34-miles of cross country ski and snowshoe trails, boating and free beginner ski clinics. Here you can experience all the Adirondacks has to offer.

The Summit at Gore Mountain is for travelors who seek a different type of experience. The Summit’s rental townhouses include a dining area, fireplace, family accommodations with bathrooms, kitchens, large living room with fireplace and Jacuzzi. There is outdoor seating, panoramic mountain views and they are the closest accommodations to Gore Mountain.

New York’s High Peaks Scenic Byway, Route 73, is one of the most picturesque roads in the Northeast. This phenomenal drive is only 30-miles but visitors get views of 46 mountain peaks including both the highest and the lowest. You also pass waterfalls, lakes,  rivers and awesome foliage. Driving straight through you can complete the ride in under an hour but I suggest that you take the day to picnic, hike, take photos and generally soak up the beauty of one of America’s wild land preserves.           

High Peaks Byway is the only route into one of the Adirondacks most recognized destinations, Lake Placid and next week we will visit the closest place America has to Mt. Olympus. Information on visiting the Adirondacks is available online. Remember the region really dresses up for the fall.

 Old John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save; But though he lost his life in struggling for the slave, His truth is marching on.”  Anon.

High Peaks Byway, Route 73, is the Adirondacks scenic route that takes you into the Village of Lake Placid, , the American Olympus, one of only three cities in the world to have hosted the winter Olympics twice. Just as Ancient Greeks made stops at sacred sites to worship those traveling the route today can pause and ponder the natural beauty of the picturesque ravines, valleys, mountains and waterfalls that flank the road. The highway bisects an extremely mountainous region of the Adirondacks and showcases the highest peaks in the region. High Peaks Byway is entirely within Essex County, one of the largest counties in the state and Lake Placid is 1,967-ft. above sea level at its highest elevation.

North Elba is a township four miles southeast of Lake Placid, a village within that township. The area is referred to as Lake Placid/North Elba. It was established in the early days of the 1800s as a result of the discovery of iron ore in the vicinity. Lake Placid was part of the Adirondacks tourist boom in the late 19th-century and by 1900 Lake Placid was experiencing its “Golden Age,” with seven big hotels, numerous other accommodations and activities and private great camps.

Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, opened the Placid Park Club in 1895 and convinced the town to change its name to Lake Placid. In 1905 the club remained open at the end of the summer thus helping the village to become known as a winter destination and the first winter resort in the country. Melvil’s son Godfrey was instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to select Lake Placid to host the 1932 Winter Olympics when he went alone to St. Moritz to convince the committee in 1928.

Seventeen sites are featured in Lake Placid’s “Main Street Walking Tour”. The first structures were built in the 1870s along Mirror Lake. The lake was once known as Bennet’s Pond but was renamed in 1870. Elijah and Rebecca Bennet were the first documented white settlers in the area. Elijah was crippled at Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War and was given a pension with which he purchased two 200-acre lots from the state.

Pioneer Monument, located on the lake, pays homage to the Benjamin Brewster and Joseph Nash, early settlers of the area. The land upon which Main Street stands once belonged to Nash. The memorial is a small boulder with interpretive information etched on it.

     St. Eustace Episcopal Church was originally constructed on Lake Street, and was known as St. Eustace-by-the-Lakes, in 1900. Twenty-six years later the decision was made to move the church to its current location on Main St. The church was dismantled, the windows were removed and the timbers numbered. The church was reassembled with a stone tower replacing the original wooden one. This Gothic-Revival structure is situated atop a hill with panoramic views of the lake and the town. Beautiful stained-glass windows grace the interior with the most arresting being the 3-paneled St. Eustace Window. Eustace is the saint of hunters and it is believed he is memorialized in an unsigned Tiffany creation.  

Lake Placid Olympic Center was constructed in stages with the earliest, Neo-Classical section, designed by William Distin as the Olympic Arena in 1932. The Visitor Center is to the right of the arena with the 1980 arena, to the left. A popular belief is that Lake Placid is where "miracles are made" and you can feel its special aura as you near the Olympic complex. Visitors can experience the thrill of winter sports year round through public skating, and national and international competitions. Athletes continue to train here and one should not be surprised to encounter Olympic level competitors in casual settings.

The 1932 Winter Games were held February 4-15 and, because of international economic conditions, were attended by only 17 countries but were exciting nonetheless. These games were only the 3rd Winter Games of the modern era. American Eddie Eagan earned the distinction of being the first person to win a gold medal at both the Winter and Summer Olympics in boxing and bobsledding. Two-man bobsled competition was introduced at the games and was won by American brothers. They heated the runners of their sled prior to the race, a practice that has since been banned. In 1980 Winter Games were the setting for “The Miracle on Ice,” the US men’s hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union. Daily 15-minute tours are offered.

The historic Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort has the best location in Lake Placid, on Mirror Lake and Main Street. The resort was the first in the nation to receive Audubon International’s Platinum Eco Rating for Hotels and has vigorously instituted a sustainable green program that includes everything from eco-friendly light bulbs to a 3,400-sq. ft. green roof and a crushed limestone beach.

                Resort guests can take advantage of the private beach, , night club, Sauna and Fitness Center. There are a wide selection of accommodations from deluxe rooms to family suites and pet friendly rooms. Generations, the resort’s restaurant, is open three meals a day and uses locally produced food. A number of specialty packages are offered with additions such as a Gondola Cruise on the lake, Adirondack Scenic Flight and he Total Olympic Experience. The Golden Arrow is celebrating its 40th anniversary of ownership by the Holdereid Family. During that time the resort has hosted many renowned guests including the Austrian National Ski Team.

A glass-enclosed elevator at the Olympic Jumping Complex whisks you to the observation deck of the K-120 (393.7-ft.) meter jump for outstanding views of the entire region. Visitors also tour the ski jumpers preparation room.

The Olympic Bobsled Experience is one for your bucket list. Visitors can join a professional driver aboard a bobsled and zip along the famous 1980 bobsled track. Reservations are required and must be made a minimum of 48-hours in advance.

Lake Placid Toboggan Slide has been one of the village’s most popular sites since it opened in the 1960s. Toboggans take turns going down a 50-ft. high converted ski jump trestle and out, as far as 1,000-ft. depending on the ice, onto Mirror Lake. The chute operates from December to February depending on the weather.

Lake Placid Olympic Museum explores the history of the resort and the Winter Olympic Games of 1932 and 1980. It presents a brief but thorough overview that adds considerably to your understanding of the region and its significance of winter sports.

As you enter the museum the first exhibit provides the history of the games.  The original Olympic Games were held in Ancient Greece every 4-years in Olympia and can be documented to 776 BC. They continued until outlawed in 393 by Emperor Theodosius for being pagan rites. The games were dedicated to Zeus, their supreme god, and the final award ceremony took place in the vestibule of Zeus’ temple. All free Greek males were eligible to participate and the first recorded winner was Koroibos, an unassuming baker. Unmarried women could be spectators but married women could not, probably because all entrants competed in the nude. Any married woman caught attending the games was to be thrown off a cliff to her death. The games were revived in 1896 and held in Athens with 13 nations in attendance.     


Highlights of the displays are a gallery of Sonja Henie’s costumes and photographs. The “Norwegian Doll” was the first winter athlete to capture the world’s attention and go on to a lucrative film career. The largest collection of Olympic torches outside of Switzerland is also on view. Interestingly this was originally a ritual and torchbearers carried the sacred flame to the altar of Zeus, running a distance of 2,500-meters, 1.55-miles. The 1936 first torch of the modern games, candle-lit, is displayed.

Gerrit Smith purchased a large amount of land in Upstate NY and in 1846 he began selling farmland to African Americans in hopes that they could gain self-sufficiency. Plots were sold to 2,000 blacks, approximately 140,000-acres, for $1.00 per plot. Four hundred settled in the Lake Placid/ North Elba area in a settlement known as the "Freed Slave Utopian Experiment," or Timbucto on 17,000-acres. John Brown heard about the venture and, being a farmer, came to North Elba in 1849 to volunteer his skills. He purchased 244-acres of land and moved into a small wooden cabin. The land was mountainous and the African Americans largely lacked the skills to be farmers and by 1855 only ten families remained on the land.

Brown used the farm as a base but did not spend large amounts of time there. His wife and family resided there as he fought in Kansas and planned his infamous raid on Harpers Ferry.

On October 16, 1859 Brown and followers attacked the US Arsenal. The goal was to obtain weapons to arm slaves in the South so they would have the means to rise up against their masters. On October 17th word reached the citizens of Harpers Ferry and Washington, DC. US Government troops under the command of Robert E. Lee arrived and found Brown and his men pinned down inside the armory.

On the 18th a wounded Brown and six of his men were captured and two of his sons and eight other men were killed. The captives were taken to Charlestown, Virginia for imprisonment and trial. Nine days later he went on trial for murder, conspiracy and treason. On November 2nd the jury deliberated 45-minutes before finding him guilty on all counts and sentencing him to hanged in public on December 2nd.  He was pronounced dead at 11:50 AM on the 2nd.

The John Brown Farm State Historic Site is located a few miles from Main Street in Lake Placid. The farm’s tranquil setting belies the significance of the man who lived there. The 4-room farmhouse, built in 1955 by Brown’s son-in-law Henry Thompson, is the second on-site., replacing a log house. Furnishings date from the era but only a bootjack is known to have belonged to Brown. Guided tours of the house are regularly scheduled.

A short distance away is the barn. It features interpretive information on regional Adirondacks, African American history. An excellent 15-minute video is shown on request, “Northward to Freedom.” The film relates first person narratives of fugitives who arrived in the area. Most escaped along Blackman’s Road, now known as North Star Road. The most poignant tale is that of a woman who gave birth to twins while fleeing. She ran away several times, was caught, returned and severely punished. Finally her owner beat her, slit her ears, branded her on her stomach and hand and cut off her finger. This time the punishment was so horrifying that the owner’s wife helped her escape. This film is intense but it is a must-see.

The family cemetery is located adjacent to the farmhouse. It contains the graves of John Brown, his two sons and some of his followers whose graves were relocated to this cemetery in 1899. A large boulder and iron fence denote the location. After Brown’s execution his wife brought his body here for internment. His son Watson’s body was originally given to a medical college in Winchester where it was used as an anatomical specimen until the Union Army took possession of it. Interpretive plaques have been placed around the farm and in the cemetery that interpret the site, the events and the individuals.

On May 9, 1935 a 6-ton commemorative sculpture by Joseph Pollia was unveiled on the farm. The bronze sculpture is more than 8-ft. tall, on a granite base and depicts Brown and an African American boy. The John Brown Memorial Association, an African American group, provided the funding. Lyman Epps Jr., a Lake Placid resident sang at the 1935 event. Mr. Epps had been a soloist in 1859 at John Brown’s funeral.

The 1824 Colonial Essex County Courthouse in Elizabethtown, NY housed Brown’s body on the evening of December 6, 1859. His wife stayed in the Mansion House Hotel, directly across the street, as a four-man honor guard, Henry Adams, Richard Hand, Orlando Kellogg and A. C. Livingston stood watch over the body. The funeral cortege set out again on the 7th and reached North Elba in the early evening.

John Brown's Trial at Charlestown, Virginia” by David Lithgow hangs in the courtroom. This massive, 6 x 9-ft. painting features a courtroom scene from the trial including both the defense and prosecuting attorneys. It debuted on December 11, 1923. Visitors are allowed into the courtroom and it is much as it was in 1859.

Lake Placid has it all and you can experience it year round. Information on all the sites and attractions is available online so you can craft a very special experience. Tour like an Olympian.


*This song was originally written about a Scotsman of the same name. Julia Ward Howe used the tune for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.



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