Adirondack Park’s 125th: Where to Explore History

Photograph courtesy of Fort Ticonderoga

Photograph courtesy of Fort Ticonderoga

On May 20, 1892 the Adirondack Park was created by the New York State Legislature, a bold move that set aside more than a million acres of public land that was to be a place where nature would set the rules and people would be only visitors.* A blue line was drawn around this huge area, and now the Blue Line, synonymous with the park itself, encircles six million acres of public and private land.

This is an unusual park: there are more than 100 villages and hamlets and about 130,000 year-round residents. There are more than a dozen true wilderness areas, plus wild forest and primitive areas, where you can hike, pitch a tent, paddle a canoe, cross-country ski, fish, hunt, take pictures and contemplate unparalleled landscapes ranging from mountaintops to whitewater rivers, tranquil ponds to old-growth forest. You can experience nearly three million acres of state land without getting a permit or paying an entrance fee.

In this series of five blogs celebrating the treasures and pleasures of the Adirondack Park we offer a total of 125 things to do and places to go. The first installment is all about history, regional and local, setting the stage for how this park came about and what it means today to humans, animals and plants alike.

The First People

1. The Six Nations Indian Museum, in Onchiota, draws upon rare artifacts, traditional stories and contemporary issues in a compact space to tell the compelling tale of Native American presence here. In the June 2017 issue of Adirondack Life scientist Curt Stager’s “Hidden Heritage” describes the archaeological evidence that shows indigenous inhabitants arrived more than 10,000 years ago.

The Big Picture

2. At the Adirondack Experience, the Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, more than 20 buildings on a beautiful campus dig deeply into regional history. Here visitors can immerse themselves in logging, mining, hunting, fishing, mountain climbing, the two Olympic games plus all the ways people have come to enjoy the park. Opening on July 1, the new “Life in the Adirondacks” building—some 19,000 square feet—introduces the interwoven strands of activity here.

3. In Tupper Lake, the Wild Center tells the park’s sweeping story from nature’s point of view. It’s much more than a natural history museum and includes encounters with native wildlife, guided canoe trips on the Raquette River and the amazing Wild Walk, which takes you high into the forest canopy.

A War Zone

4. This corner of New York State, with Lake Champlain as its eastern border, was a battleground from the 1750s to the War of 1812. At Fort Ticonderoga, painstakingly restored 18th century buildings combine with new spaces to illuminate the key role this ground played in the creation of modern America. If that sounds musty and dusty, take heart: muskets blast, cannons boom and costumed interpreters give a glimpse of army life more than 250 years ago.

5. Nearby on Lake Champlain, the evocative ruins of Crown Point offer wonderful walking on territory that was once a French village surrounding an eight-story octagonal fortress. Stop in the interpretive center for a map and orientation and immerse yourself in a spot that had been held by the French, British and colonials.

6. In Lake George, Fort William Henry Museum today reimagines a stronghold that saw incredible bloodshed during the French and Indian War. The structure and grounds were developed in the 1950s as a family attraction rather than a purist’s historic site, though re-enactors and guides give accurate pictures of life at the fort.

7. Lake George Battlefield Park, an arrow shot away from Fort William Henry, has more than 30 acres to explore and contemplate the beginning of guerrilla warfare in a peaceful setting. It’s more picnic area and park than battleground these days.

Industrial Roots

8. The entire hamlet of Essex is on the National Register of Historic Places, with scores of restored homes and shops dating back to 1790. This was a shipbuilding center, a gathering place for local farm goods, tanned hides and stone. Pick up a copy of the walking tour for the back stories and spend a couple of hours strolling this Lake Champlain town.

9. Historic Saranac Lake, housed in a former tuberculosis laboratory, offers tours, lectures and special events highlighting a village that was known for welcoming TB patients from all over the world. For thousands, fresh air, wholesome food and a calming setting worked magic on a devastating disease.

10. Ticonderoga is more than home to a magnificent fort. In the 19th and until the mid-20th  century it was a booming paper-mill town; in nearby hills graphite was mined. Paper and pencils are celebrated at the Ticonderoga Heritage Museum, right on the cascading LaChute River downtown.

11. A few miles to the west of Crown Point, Ironville is like stepping back in time to the heydays of iron mining. Prim white homes and a church line the quiet street, and a walking tour leads you through the industrial heart of this once-bustling spot.

12. Today it’s hard to imagine that the remote village called Adirondac, amid the wild High Peaks, was also a busy mining town. En route to the Upper Works trailhead you can’t miss the 40-foot-tall blast furnace built in 1854; scramble around the ruins to see diagrams and signs interpreting just how this stone monolith turned water power, hot air, ore and charcoal into iron.

13. Port Henry and the surrounding area were iron-mining powerhouses into the 20th century, and outside Mineville you can see towering tailings piles. A former carriage house next to Port Henry’s town hall is devoted to the days of ore, the Iron Center Museum, with plenty of artifacts, photos and stories.

14. Garnets were discovered in the mountains of North River in the 1870s, and a half-mile hike leads to the remnants of the Hooper Mine. You can fill your pockets with the blood-red stones and also spot a boulder where workers chiseled their initials on the mine’s last workday nearly a century ago.

15. There were more than 100 tanneries across the Adirondacks in the 19th century because hemlock bark, a critical component for processing hides, was so abundant. Skins came from all over the country to be turned into shoe leather in the region, from North Creek to the southernmost reaches of the Adirondack Park. Tannery ruins are difficult to find in the deep woods, but the Caroga Museum explains local tanneries along with a landmark amusement park.

16. Tannery tales and an ancient tavern are part of the Piseco Lake Historical Museum.

17. Old Forge was home to famous guideboat builders, and the Goodsell Museum includes several examples of this native watercraft plus changing exhibits. The historical society also owns Hemmer Cottage, a well-preserved rustic cabin near the town waterfront.

18. In Lake Placid, winter sports became a driving economic force in the early 20th century, and in 1932 the town hosted the third Winter Olympic Games. In 1980 the Olympics returned—forever remembered for the “Miracle on Ice.” In the same complex as that historic moment the Lake Placid Olympic Museum shares the rich legacy launched by skis, skates, snow and ice.

Great Camps

19. Twigs, logs, bark and stone defined a signature regional architecture, with Great Camp Sagamore the most accessible example of a grand, self-sufficient wilderness enclave of the robber barons. Tours of this historic site near Raquette Lake  describe the daily round for not just the Vanderbilt family but all the staff who made their life in the woods possible.

20. Though it’s five miles from any highway and accessible only by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn wagon, Great Camp Santanoni, in Newcomb, is truly worth the effort. Set in the midst of a 12,000-acre preserve (now all state land) there is a farmstead, massive lodge with 5,000 square feet of porches, a boathouse, artist studio and other rustic outbuildings to explore on the shore of remote Newcomb Lake.

21. If hiking to a Great Camp sounds too difficult, the William West Durant tour boat offers glimpses of numerous Great Camps on Raquette Lake, including Pine Knot (built in 1876), Bluff Point and North Point.

Personal Effects

22. John Brown’s body truly lies a-mouldering in the grave just outside Lake Placid. The farmstead where his family lived—and he visited in between rousing the rabble—is a state historic site with exhibits, including “Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” about the African-American settlers in the Adirondacks 150 years ago. There are nice walking trails through the old farm too.

23. Bolton Landing in the 19th century attracted all kinds of artists and musicians, including world-renowned soprano Marcella Sembrich. Her lovely home and studio on Lake George are now a museum with residencies and performances this summer.

24. In Northville the Paul Bradt Museum’s taxidermy collection includes scores of native and exotic animals.

25. Along the same lines, inside the Saranac Lake Free Library, the Charles Dickert Memorial Wildlife Museum includes everything from great blue herons and eagles to beavers and bears; some of the mounts show the local taxidermist’s artistic flair.

Watch for lists of great hikes, wonderful paddling trips, farms and flavors and other special Adirondack destinations collected by Adirondack Life for the park’s 125th anniversary.

*Correction: Thanks to Adirondack historian and author Philip G. Terrie  for noting, “The 1892 Park law didn’t set aside anything, especially any public land, which was already protected by the Forest Preserve law of 1885. The status of state land did not undergo any change whatever with the Park law.” 


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