February 2013

Portage Politics

A new path for the Marion River Carry

As Adirondack portages go, this one is smooth, level and short. It continues an important northbound waterway where one lake dwindles into a pretty stream bounded by cardinal flower and cedars, then swells into a gorgeous river with rocky landings. The first people to walk between Raquette Lake’s tributary and Utowana Lake didn’t shoulder their boats but dragged them; an ancient dugout canoe lies deep in the mud of the narrow lake.

But the Marion River Carry has more to its back story than a simple walkway. From 1900 to 1929 it was the route of the shortest standard-gauge railroad in the world, a project of such monumental hubris it could only have happened in the heady days of robber barons and Great Camps rising. Wil­liam West Dur­ant—heir to the fortune of his father, Thomas Clark Durant—saw the path between the lakes as an integral piece of a transportation empire, serving thousands of tourists traveling to Ra­quette Lake, Utowana Lake, Eagle Lake and Blue Mountain Lake on steamboats to palatial hotels, sport­smen’s inns, sumptuous homes and even a golf course. The schedule of the 75-foot-long Tuscarora, now beached in a Blue Mountain Lake cove, shows eight round trips daily to the eastern dock of the carry. In the 1940s a railroad magazine estimated passengers at 8,000 to 10,000 every summer.

The train was not exactly posh: the three open cars—two for passengers and one for baggage—were hand-me-down horse-drawn cars purchased from the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company for $25 each. One-way fare was a dollar. The first locomotive chugged up the Adirondack line of the New York Central to Raquette Lake and was transferred to a barge for its last six miles. It proved to be the little engine that couldn’t. Then a larger locomotive was leased from the New York Central for five bucks a day. It was too heavy for the roadbed. Finally a small steam engine from Pittsburgh was put into service, the 1,300-yard run so brief there was no need for a coal tender.

By 1901, 25 years after starting Camp Pine Knot on Raquette Lake, W. W. Dur­ant was marketing rustic re­treats to the captains of industry. He had built dams to control water levels, and owned six steamboats, a derrick and a dredge to keep their channels clear along with the tiny train. But by 1902 he was financially embarrassed, partly due to his unsustainable business practice of spending high and selling low when it came to developing properties. The rail and steam line continued, though, into the summer of the great stock market crash; macadam roads and automobiles were vectors of its demise.

As the American vacation evolved into family affairs with car camping and canoeing, the Marion River Carry continued its vital role of linking Raquette River waterways. Rails and ties were re­cycled, though today an errant tie or two can be spotted in the dirt, plus, high in a tree, a crossbar and a glass insulator from the old telephone line. The route is so well known that its ownership is rarely questioned. Many paddlers as­sume this is state land.

But it’s not. There has been no binding agreement about passage over this private land: no easement, no handshake, just a simple understanding that the portage is for walking but not camping. Since 1929 its owners have been comfortable with the status quo.

Dean Pohl, who built the William West Durant cruise-and-dine boat in 1991 on Raquette Lake, acquired the 600-acre tract with the carry at its heart more than a decade ago. For a few years he considered reviving the railroad experience on the trail, with an interpretive center and even a tourist train. Moving rolling stock to a remote location, the logistical challenges of the early 20th century remained, compounded by regulatory hurdles. The plan was shelved.

More recently, Pohl proposed a lake­shore subdivision on Utowana Lake near the carry. When the plan was un­veiled in late 2010, paddlers, adjacent property owners and armchair historians went ballistic; the Indian Lake planning board was inundated with impassioned letters opposing changes that might impact the use and appearance of the portage.

As winter 2013 looms, another chapter in the saga of Marion River Carry is un­folding. Pohl appears poised to sell 295 acres, including Utowana Lake shoreline and the Marion River Carry, to the Albany-based Open Space Institute (OSI) for $2 million. This would secure the rights of passage for hikers and paddlers and preserve the wild character of the eastern approach to the trail. It may even put to rest a thorny issue that has plagued Raquette Lake since the heydays of steamers and guides.

In 1907, when Durant was reduced to freelance hotel management and odd jobs, he was hired by a prominent Raquette Lake family to do a title search on their island. It’s unlikely he succeeded; most titles in Township 40 are murky, with New York claiming ownership over miles of inhabited shore. Recently, an agreement was reached that would solve the problem, with landowners paying an average of $2,200 to attain clear titles.

When the state gives up land in the Adi­rondack Park a constitutional amend­­ment is required and property of similar value—recreational and monetary—is typically exchanged. The process goes through two successive legislative sessions and then a public referendum before it’s all in and all done. As the 2012 legislative session was ending the Ra­quette Lake property owners’ deal was passed. But the other part of the equation—finding the ac­ceptable land to add to the Forest Preserve—had not been identified.

Early in 2013, when the Department of Environmental Conservation de­cides on the value of the historic carry and surroundings, the Township 40 quan­dary may be closer to resolution. The legislature needs to vote again, as soon as this fall, with the public referendum before voters following that action if it is approved. The OSI has a good track record in the Adirondacks, working out a complex deal for the Tahawus tract near Newcomb, and the group plans to install interpretive panels at Marion River Carry, reminding visitors of the steamboats and railroad that once defined this walk in the woods.

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