From the Archives: Scandal in Long Lake
by Thomas Bissell
In 1933, Long Lake, along with the rest of the country, was in the depths of the Great Depression. Nationally the unemployment rate was about twenty-five percent; many Long Lakers had no prospect of work. Like today, Adirondack jobs were connected directly or indirectly to tourism and the forest industry, which were in dire condition.
Franklin D. Roosevelt had beaten Herbert Hoover in the landslide election of 1932 and promised to lead the country back to prosperity. Beginning with the “Hundred Days” in 1933 he induced Congress to set up federally financed make-work projects such as the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and later the Works Projects Administration.
Communities outdid themselves launching local projects that would be paid for by the government. In Long Lake, much of the present water system was installed with federal dollars. A toboggan slide was built, as was Jennings Memorial Pond and the swimming beach. The town had fifty-eight men on the payroll in 1935. They were not paid princely wages: most worked three days a week for $9.30. These “relief” workers were hired and fired at the whim of the town board, which gave enormous power to political bosses.
Just before Roosevelt took office in March 1933, the Long Lake Town Board, under Supervisor Lewis Jennings, passed the following rambling motion addressed to New York Conservation Department Commissioner Henry Morgenthau: “A highway is contemplated on the east shore of Long Lake, from the hamlet of Long Lake down along the east shore of Long Lake and whereas—an old road has been there and traveled more or less for the past forty years and whereas—said road passes through lots belonging to the State and whereas—the said road would be a most important one for your Department as It would be accessible if a fire should break out among the lands adjacent to the foot of Long Lake where millions of trees have been set out by the Conservation Department and would be a great aid to camp owners along said lake.
“We, the Board of the Town of Long Lake believe that this road would be a great asset for your Department as well as to our town giving employment to our people which is needed so badly now. Resolved—That this road be as is authorized by the Town Board of our town and also by consent of the Conservation Department.”
On February 18 Commissioner Morgenthau replied, “Because of the receipt of numerous objections to this request that permission be granted by this Department for the construction of a road along the east shore of Long Lake crossing State land, I have determined to hold a hearing on the project at which both proponents and objectors may state their views—hearing to be held February 24, 1933.”
On February 21 Supervisor Jennings was authorized by the town board to hire an attorney for the hearing. He might better have saved the money, for at the meeting Morgenthau turned down the request for two reasons: Article XIV of the New York Constitution (the “Forever Wild” clause forbidding the removal of trees from state land in the park); and opposition from property owners on the east shore, including Camp St. Mary and James Dowsie, who owned the oldest camp on Long Lake.
Surprisingly, this refusal of Long Lake’s application didn’t seem to mean much to the Long Lake politicians. On December 26, 1933, the board passed the following motion: “Town Board [is] authorized to employ counsel and make plans for laying out a highway from north of Becker’s Store by way of the Toboggan Slide Road [now called Dock Road] and naming all the land owners (other than the state) all the way to Harper’s Clearing by the foot of Long Lake on the east side completing a road which has been travelled thirty years or more.”
After the scheme became public knowledge, it was clear from newspaper accounts that there was more to the project than met the eye. The ten-mile road along Long Lake’s east shore was only part of a plan to extend this route all the way to Saranac Lake, bypassing Tupper Lake and creating a shorter route to Montreal. In addition to creating jobs, the scheme would provide access to timberlands, waterpower and real-estate projects, and powerful politicians and business interests in Hamilton County would be the beneficiaries.
What began as a political pipe dream became a scandal with statewide press coverage. Shortly after Morgenthau ruled against the road, President Roosevelt tapped him to be Secretary of the Treasury, and there was a break before the state senate appointed Lithgow Osborne as the new Conservation Department commissioner. Taking advantage of this interregnum, some twenty woodsmen, over a two-day period, cut 930 trees on three state-owned tracts through which the proposed road would pass.
This cutting covered about a half-mile, and those trees nearest town were sawn three-fourths of the way through (Conservation Department employees would not hear the trees falling) while those farther away were felled with axes. Apparently the politicians thought that when state officials saw all their trees cut they would say, “All right, build your damned road!”
But that did not happen. When the news reached Commissioner Osborne, he was infuriated and compared this act to the great timber thefts of the nineteenth century. He immediately sent investigators to Long Lake and Hamilton County, which resulted in a two-year probe; by February 1935 he felt he had enough evidence to prosecute the malefactors.
None of this seemed to bother the town board. On December 13, 1934, a motion was passed urging Supervisor Harrison D. Jennings to use “every effort to obtain rights of way from all the east shore landowners from Becker’s Store to Harper’s Clearing as the Town is In great need of a work relief project.”
State investigators had a tough time extracting information from Long Lakers from 1933 to 1935. As one sleuth reported to Osborne, “There was no use of trying to find it out because too many big shots were in it and [I] could do nothing about it.”
This silence was a harbinger of what was to happen during Commissioner Osborne’s official inquiry, which opened in Indian Lake in February 1935. Osborne was aided by an assistant attorney general since there was no real district attorney in Hamilton County. Osborne’s first move was to demand Long Lake pay $54,780 for the cut trees (nearly $1 million in 2004 dollars).
Then he subpoenaed witnesses, beginning with Supervisor Jennings and the other board members. They didn’t crack, so Osborne called in the men suspected of doing the actual cutting. This provided the scandal’s high drama. Many were called to testify, but few beans were spilled. The men were threatened with starvation if they testified; there would be no more relief “if you talk to that Conservation crowd in Indian Lake,” according to a newspaper account. Some received phone calls warning them to “keep their mouths shut or get rode out of the County.”
The most serious threat appeared on a card nailed one night to the door of a suspected stool pigeon, which said, “You shut your mouth or else get this.” Attached to the card was a rifle bullet. The next day, an unidentified witness who apparently had talked was approached and directed to the house of a justice of the peace, where he was told he must recant his testimony or take the consequences. He did so and claimed he had been threatened with jail time by Commissioner Osborne if he didn’t talk. Word got around that the forests might burn if the investigation continued.
The local politicians were playing hardball, and the great investigation by the Conservation Department fizzled.
The whole brouhaha was widely covered by newspapers, including The New York Times. Not all Long Lakers and other Hamilton County citizens were happy with the Great Tree Cutting. In fact, some were indignant over the violation of the “Forever Wild” clause; in particular, Arthur Carey, who ran a grocery store where Hoss’s Country Corner is today and who was president of the Hamilton County Civic League, which backed the Conservation Department.
In the end, this scandal yielded no punishment. But in a sense the state won because the road was never built, and for years afterward the Town of Long Lake got no favors from the Conservation Department. The town still owns two parcels of land bought for the road near Plumley’s Camp and Harper’s Clearing at the foot of the lake. The rest of the would-be shortcut to Montreal is now state land.
Thomas Bissell is a former supervisor of the Town of Long Lake.