Johnsburg: History

Any discussion of the town of Johnsburg must begin with its physical environment, for few American towns have had their character as thoroughly shaped by the land as this one. Johnsburg offers unique gifts to both its citizens and the world; a rare combination of forests, mountains, rivers and lakes, much of it in spectacularly wild condition. The story of Johnsburg – past, present, and future – is the story of man interacting with that nature.

Johnsburg, in area the largest town in Warren County, was partitioned from the original town of Thurman April 6, 1805. Located in the extreme northwest corner of the county, it encompasses an area of 127,357 acres, 56 percent of which is state-owned. Within its boundaries are located nine hamlets and villages.

The first settlers in this region were immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland and New England, lured by the opportunities offered by the multiple enterprises of John Thurman, from whom the township derived its name. Thurman, with a small band of men, cleared land and built the first dwelling in 1790 on what is known as Elm Hill, two miles south of the present hamlet of Johnsburg. This was the first attempt to settle one of the twelve townships in the patent which Thurman had purchased in 1788. He proceeded to build a saw mill and a grist mill on nearby Mill Creek with its plentiful supply of water power, and following closely, a store and distillery in 1794, a woolen factory in 1795 (later changed to cotton), the first calico printing mill in America in 1797, and in 1800 a mill for making potash. These industries created a large demand for grains, flax, cord-wood and farm products, and resulted in a general influx of settlers, who acquired tracts of land from 50 to 100 acres in size. The area entered into a short-lived era of prosperity, terminated by the death of John Thurman in 1809.

So closely associated with his extensive holdings was Thurman, that without his dynamic administration, all but the saw mill and grist mill closed shortly after his demise. Growth in the township slowed, not to quicken until 1832-33, when two enterprising men from Massachusetts, William Watson and James Wassaw, found an ideal site on Mill Creek at what is now the hamlet of Weavertown and proceeded to erect the first tannery in the township, close to the boundless supply of tanbark in the immense hemlock stands on surrounding mountains. This development again createda demand for labor in the tannery, for crews to work in the hemlock woods, for teamsters to haul the raw hides from Albany (exchanging loads of grain and hay on return trips), and for labor on the produce and livestock farms. Spurred by the success of this project, another tannery, built by Robert Gilchrist, opened on the Hudson at The Glen in the southeast corner of the township. Although it did not prosper and closed after only a few years of operation, it did contribute to the economy of the area by attracting to that part of the town settlers who stayed on after the tannery shut down. Likewise, a grist mill was built an Baker Brook at what is now called Bakers Mills, located almost in the center of the town. It was not extraordinarily productive, but it did attract permanent residents to that area in the decade of 1835-45. At this same time the hamlet of North River in the northeast corner of the township was starting to emerge from the logging and river-driving camps located at the junction of 13th Brook and the Hudson River. Frame buildings went up to replace the crude log and bark shanties of the loggers, and families moved in to carve out farms, whose ancient boundaries are still visible in the hedgegrows and stone walls.

Early Agriculture

The first farmers who settled in the Town of Johnsburg had to clear large tracks of land. They used the method of “slash and burn”, which we now frown upon. They removed the rocks and stumps and plowed the fertile soil with their horses and oxen. The growing season was short and they were limited to the few crops that would mature quickly. Besides hay for their horses and cattle, they grew oats, buckwheat, potatoes, and corn. They also grew beans, squash and other vegetables for their own use and sold the surplus. In late summer and early fall these crops were prepared for winter storage. The beans and corn were dried and the potatoes and squash were taken to a root cellar. The cold temperature and the absence of light kept these vegetables in good condition throughout the winter. Cows were kept for milk and meat. Pigs were raised for meat, and chickens were kept for meat and eggs. Pork was one of the main staples of these early farmers. It could be salted and smoked. Chickens were slaughtered as needed and beef was slaughtered in late fall or early winter. The cold weather froze the meat, and it could be eaten throughout the winter. Eggs were kept in “waterglass” sodium silicate. This solution sealed out the air and the eggs stayed fresh for over a month. These farmers cut logs in the winter, and in the spring they supplemented their incomes by collecting spruce gem and peeling hemlock bark. Every member of a farm family worked. The women worked in the gardens and hayfields. They also tended the cattle while their husbands were away. The children were responsible for much of the work. Their duties varied according to the seasons and their physical strength. Often a large portion of their crops were bartered at the store for cloth, farm implements and household goods. Cash was not as readily available as eggs, butter, or meat. The local doctor and the hired hand were often given a ham or vegetables in payment for their services. Mechanized equipment slowly brought and end to farming. The hillsides were too steep and the rocks to numerous for the use of tractors, combines, and other machinery. Horses and hand tools could not compete. Many of the farmers turned to logging or mining for their main income. They often raised a few cattle and started a garden for their own use or to supplement their income, but the full time farmer could no longer compete with the farms in the Hudson Valley or the mid-west.

The arrival of human beings quickly changed the physical appearance of the town. Nineteenth and twentieth century logging, and land-clearing for farms, turned the town from cool, dim forest into light-filled meadow and pasture. The pines were removed first, and then the hemlocks, the bark from which fed the town’s four tanneries. (The poison runoff from these tanneries is probably the worst single episode of pollution in the town’s history, wiping out the fish – and the fishing – downstream from the facilities as long as they were in operation). Often the logs were left where they fell once the bark had been stripped away; a great tangle of branches, many feet high, served as perfect timber for the great fires that raged around the turn of the century.

North Creek, now the focal point of the township and its most populous area, had its beginning on the banks of the stream from whence it derived its name, where the Hudson and North Creek join waters. Lumbermen had selected this site as an ideal point for logging operations, with timber close at hand and the Hudson River to float it to down-river markets. In the years between 1840 and 1850 several logging camps were built, the nucleus of the settlement that followed. An era of growth and development began when, in 1852, a large tannery was built on North Creek by Milton Sawyer and Wheeler Mead. New residents were attracted, one of whom was Dr. Thomas Durant, famous builder of the Union Pacific Railroad, who envisioned the Adirondacks not only as a wilderness from which to wrest further wealth, but also as an immense playground and resort area for people from outside the region. To further this vision, Dr. Durant built a huge saw mill and woodworking plant in North Creek, then followed by completing the Adirondack Railway from Saratoga to North Creek in 1871, giving himself an outlet for his wood products and also a means of making the mountains easily accessible to summer tourists. Durant’s railroad and North Creek grew mutually prosperous, shipping out carload after carload of wood products, leather and iron ore (from the McIntyre Iron Mines at Tahawus), and receiving goods in return to stock the growing number of stores, boarding houses, hotels and mercantile establishments throughout the hamlets of the town. Another tannery was erected in 1875, this one on the Sacandaga River in the western part of the township, which also contributed to the growth of Johnsburg.

Railroad Place – North End Upper Hudson River Railway Hub

Sawdust and Railroad traction sand towers symbolize the continuing influence of lumbering and locomotive transportation on the local economy. Dr. Thomas Durant’s Adirondack Railroad, originating from Saratoga Springs in 1865, reached North Creek in 1871. Successor railway operations ceased altogether by 1989. However, ten years later the wheels of The Upper Hudson River Railroad began rolling between North Creek and Riparius, with a vision of restoring Durant’s line back to where it originated, Saratoga Springs, by 2007. Saw mills have long prospered in the vicinity. North Creek Woodworking, and Adirondack seasoned hardwood finishing mill, has operated here since 1962. The mill is close by the North Creek Railway Depot and parallel to Main Street. At its north end are a pair of sawdust towers uplifting the dust to a level where it can be loaded onto trucks. Sawdust was once used to insulate storage containers for ice blocks harvested from the river and nearby mill ponds. Ice blocks were transported by wagon and rail to where needed for refrigeration. On Main Street in North Creek – North End, East Side sits the splendidly restored Owens House. It is now an integral part of The North Creek Railway Depot Museum, housing meeting and special exhibit space. Dating from 1857, it is one of the oldest structures in North Creek. The grassy knoll and parking area southeast of the Owens House previously contained A&B Oil Company delivery and storage facilities.

At this time, early settlers in Riparius were headed by Adam Armstrong and David Aldrich, who provided room and board for workers on the Adirondack Railroad construction crews. A toll bridge at this point on the Hudson encouraged the railroad to build a station there, which was in use till abandonment in 1962.

In 1878, Henry Hudson Barton, a mineralogist from Philadelphia, successfully processed garnet ore from Gore Mountain into an industrial abrasive that gave birth to an industry which even today is unique in world commerce. This industry has been a stabilizer of the local economy, demonstrating its value soon after its birth. Dr. Durant died at “The Gables” in North Creek in 1885, and the area lost a vital personality. Simultaneously, the tanneries in the township closed due to a shortage of tanbark resulting from the 53-year drain on the once plentiful hemlock stands, then reduced to isolated clumps high on inaccessible mountaintops. Garnet mining picked up the sagging economic conditions, providing employment and keeping families in the town who otherwise would have left for greener pastures. It attracted other industrialists too. Frank Hooper, who later served as State Assemblyman, opened a garnet mine at North River in 1898. Hooper’s and Barton’s developments made garnet mining the principal commercial activity in Johnsburg in the early 1900’s.

The early settlers in the North River area cleared the land for their homes, an arduous task. Trees had to be felled and fields prepared for farming. The ax had not been replaced by the efficient chain saw that later enabled a man to clear a section in much less time. The felled trees were used to build homes and for fuel.

These early settlers and the loggers, who came into the country in the early 1800s, were the pioneers of the logging industry. The hills and mountains were covered with millions of trees – balsam, pine, hemlock, spruce, cedar, and the hardwoods of birch, maple, beech, oak, ash and elm. The accessibility of this resource and the demand for timber for homes for the growing country brought a dramatic increase in the lumbering industry. Groves of hemlock, whose bark produced tannic acid for tanning leather, resulted in cutting most of this species, with the bark shipped to North Creek and nearby tanneries.

The last drive of the big logs, the 13 footers, was in 1924 and the final pulp long drive was in 1950. The monument to the loggers at a parking area in North River bears the inscription “In memory of the river men and foresters who made the Hudson River Drive from forest to factory – – 1850-1950.” Trucks now take the logs to mills, selective cutting has reduced the amount of timber cut, and skidders and chain saws have replaced horses and many loggers. No longer are the pike pole, the cant hook, and the peavey needed for driving river. An era has ended that will not be repeated.

For a brief period of decades the town looked like the forested enclave known to the Indians and the current residents, and more like a New England landscape of hilled farms and woodlots. Other older residents also find it disturbing to drive out, say, the Garnet Lake Road, which they remember as a series of tidy farms, and which now is basically grown back in; whatever their opinion, few would dispute that the story of Johnsburg in recent decades has been the recovery to a more or less natural landscape.

Despite the short growing season, the town, and indeed the entire region, is blessed with adequate precipitation and so the landscape has recovered quickly from all the burning and cutting. The purchase of vast tracts of state land in the hundred years since the formation of the Adirondack Park, has also ended logging pressure on nearly two-thirds of the town’s land area. The best evidence of the return of wilderness to the town may be the return of wildlife – the animals had disappeared from the area many years before, and were only then able to find the undisturbed denning sites they required. The beaver, too have made a successful return, and in recent years, large flocks of turkey, long extirpated from the area. The newest returnee, the moose, still draws crowds when word of a sighting spreads

Thanks to Durant’s railroad, now owned by the Delaware and Hudson, and the increasing use of the automobile, summer tourists began to make a deep impression on the region. With its wealth of clear flowing streams, wilderness ponds filled with trout, forests populated with wild game, and bountiful Adirondack scenery, Johnsburg attracted its share of visitors. Summer boarding houses sprang up in the hamlets, hotels were built at Garnet Lake and Thirteenth Lake, private camps went up in out-of-the-way spots, all offering year-round employment to people as guides, laborers, servicemen and caretakers.

On September 14, 1901, the North Creek station became the focus of national attention. Five days earlier, while in Buffalo, President McKinley had been struck down by an assassin’s bullet, but was believed to be recovering. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had detrained at North Creek and from there he traveled more than forty miles deep into the Adirondack wilderness, setting up camp at Lake Colden. On September 13th the Vice President was informed that McKinley had taken a turn for the worse and Roosevelt left his camp and prepared to return to North Creek. Since no further word awaited when he arrived at the Tahawus Clubhouse, Roosevelt decided to spend the night and leave for North Creek station in the morning.

At ten o’clock that evening, the sounder clattered to life in the small North Creek depot with the message “The President is dying!” The message was sent to the Vice President at once and the lantern-lit, three-leg relay began, racing him toward the station where a special train was waiting under the charge of Superintendent C.D. Hammond. Somewhere this side of the Boreas River, clinging to a careening wagon, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States.

Seventy-five years later, on September 4, 1976, the event was reenacted at the dedication of the D & H station at North Creek as a state historic site and inclusion in the registry of National Historic places.

On March 4, 1934, another piece of history occurred when the first ski train unloaded its passengers at the North Creek depot. By 1936, as many as 3,000 skiers were arriving each weekend to try out the revolutionary ‘ride up-slide down’ system that had originated here. World War II ended the ski trains in to North Creek.

The recreation industry has become a primary generator of economic activity in North Creek and the Town of Johnsburg, with winter snow sports, fall and spring whitewater rafting, summer hiking, canoeing, fishing, hunting and skiing.

In 1933 interest in skiing, generated by the 1932 Winter Olympic Games at Lake Placid, caused a local group to establish the first commercial ski area on the East Coast by clearing out old lagging roads on Gore, Peter Gay and Burnt Mountains. A lodge was built at the terminus of the trails in the natural bowl west of North Creek village. Facilities were provided to transport trainloads of ski enthusiasts from the Capital District and New York City to the top of Gore Mountain at Barton’s Mines, where the “ride-up-slide-down” trail system originated. This development reached the peak of its popularity in the late 30’s and early 40’s, contributing greatly to the overall economic picture, not only in Johnsburg, but in the entire county. Following World War II, a rash of competing ski areas sprang up in the northeast, and though the first electric ski-lift was installed in North Creek in 1947, this innovation could not stave off the inroads the newer modern ski areas were making in the ranks of New York State skiers. North Creek as a ski center became popular again, and today continues to be as Gore Mountain brings in droves of skiers waiting for a chance to ride the white peaks.

In the Good Ole School Days

As the population increased or decreased, school districts were created or discontinued, with a final centralization started on May 21, 1946 and completed by 1956. Teaching conditions were very rudimentary. In 1844, Lemon Thomson, county Superintendent of Schools, reports that out of 105 schools, 70 have no blackboards and only 70 have outdoor privies. Traditionally men taught the winter terms and were paid more than the women. By the 1880’s most teachers year round were women. In her accounts starting in 1918 nineteen year old new teacher, Veronica Stewart recalls her first class of 15 students, ages 5-16, in eight different grades. She describes the lack of equipment (no textbooks, reference or supplies of any kind, except a small bookcase containing a few library books, ink bottles and lunch boxes placed on the floor in hope they would be thawed by noon on winter days) and the simple furniture (a long box stove, a long recitation bench facing the teacher’s desk where a class was held while the other grades studied, a large water pail, dipper, and washbasin.) Later, teacher conditions improved.

The Glen

Traffic crossing the Hudson River on route 28 enters the Town of Johnsburg at the Glen. The hamlet is aptly named, for the Scottish word means a narrow valley or depression between mountains or hills.

Today the structure most prominent at The Glen is the bed and breakfast and “W.I.L.D. Waters” business opened in 1986 by Doug Azaert. The acronym stands for Wilderness Institute for Leadership Development. “Waters”, too, is an acronym for Wilderness Adventure Training Education and River School. Doug offers clinics in canoeing and kayaking and counts Boy Scouts troops among his many clients. The rafting business from his location sees close to a thousand rafters in the spring, while skiers in the winter season add to his year-round bed and breakfast business. Doug carries on the 19th century boarding house tradition offering renewal of life and health with wilderness and outdoor adventure in the Adirondacks – at The Glen.

As the railroad advanced to North Creek bringing railroad workers and businessmen and travelers, John McInerny erected what is said to be North Creek’s first hotel in 1871 doing business as “The American” in 1872 and located on the site of today’s Copperfield Inn, there was also a large barn where guests would be able to keep their horses. When the hotel burned to the ground in 1903 it was rebuilt on the same site in 1920. Later George Gregory opened the hotel for years. The hotel catered to skiers in the later thirties. In the forties, Michael and Alice McPhillips bought the hotel and their active family were a special asset to community life. Mike died in the prime of life, but Alice continued for a few years. She sold to the Zack family of Glens Falls who operated it until Eliot Monter bought and replaced the building with the Copperfield Inn.

The present North Creek News – Enterprise was started by Warren T. Ratcliff in March 1924 and sold to Richard H. Sawyer and his wife, Myrtle, in 1925. It was tabloid size and five columns wide. Mrs. Sawyer continued the publication after her husband’s death in 1957, with the help of her two sons, Lawrence and Howard Sawyer. The publication stopped in April 1970 and was bought by George L. Gardner who continued the newspaper and printed his first copy by Christmas of that year. In 1990 the business was taken over by George’s son, Jerry, who is the present owner and editor.

Whitewater

There are no logs in the river now, but in early April large rubber rafts full of exhilarant tourists and registered raft guides come paddling out of the Hudson River gorge. Numerous rafting companies run the river from below the Indian Lake dam to North River. They take out at several places along NY 28 and colorful wet-suited tourists can be seen enjoying this popular sport. Whitewater Challengers works out of Perry Ehlers former shop. Some dories, with western –trained guides, take overnight trips from Newcomb to a take-out just above Perry Ehlers rapids. But the main event in the quarter-mile stretch of water in North River comes the first Saturday in May when the Whitewater Derby holds its Novice and Giant Slaloms. The 36th Annual Slalom was held at a perfect high water level in warm sunlight in 1993; sometimes it snows. But there is always a good crowd watching canoeists and kayakers try their skills in this early, challenging event.

The Hamlet of Riparius

Riparius is a small hamlet lying along the Hudson River between Loon Lake and Weavertown. Originally called Riverside, the name was changed by the Post Office Department in 1886 to avoid confusion with a Riverside in another part of the state. Riparius in Latin means “belonging to a river bank.”

In 1863 the Adirondack Railway Company was formed with the plan to extend the line north of Saratoga. In 1865 tracks had been laid north to Hadley, extended to Thurman in 1869, and reached Riverside in 1870. The present station was built in 1919.

 

The original Riverside Hotel was located where Osterhout’s house now stands. After it burned the new hotel was built closer to the railroad station. The hotel provided lodging for transients and served as a ‘watering hole’ for locals. During prohibition the hotel made an excellent hiding place for rum runners on their way from Canada to places south. The deteriorating building was taken down in the 1960’s; one more piece of Riverside history to add to memories of how it used to be.

 

The Tanning Industry

By 1840 there were 270 tanneries in the Adirondacks and 1,414 in the entire state of New York. By the 1870s there were four in the Town of Johnsburg.

As the industry grew and larger tanneries were built – some as long as 400 feet and 45 feet wide – hides were shipped in from the west and South America to New York’s harbor. Transported up the Hudson on barges to the Champlain canal and the Feeder canal at Glens Falls, horse drawn wagons brought the hides to their destination. When the railroad was brought north from Saratoga, business expanded.

Different tasks occurred at different seasons. The men who went into the woods as bark contractors peeled the hemlock bark in the spring and summer months when the sap is high and the bark parts freely from the trunk. They camped out, living in hemlock shanties quickly slapped together.

Brawny men labored long days in the heated air of a closed-in-forest, fighting mosquitoes and black flies. Sweating as they ringed the bark in four foot cylinders, stripping it and leaving the smooth side out to the sun so the oozy cambium could dry, they piled it into cords. Measured like wood, a cord would bring from $3.50 to $8.00, and as much as $10.00. About eight market logs, yielding 1,600 feet of lumber, would yield one cord of bark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hudson River Trading Company

“Discover the Areas most exciting Adirondack store”

292 Main Street, North Creek, NY 12853

518-251-4461 or 518-251-4154

www.HudsonRiverTradingCo.com

The building that now contains the Hudson River Trading Company was built in 1898 as a livery for wagons and horses. Where shelves are lined with Adirondack goods of every fashion and make, once held a small office off to the left, and a livery for the wagons that would come in. The horses were taken around to the lower floor where they were unsaddled, brushed, fed, and watered, and then put into a stall. The windows of the stall doors can still be seen from the lower floor where now antique furniture and homemade Adirondack tables and chairs can be found. A Mr. Frank Kelly owned and ran the livery. Then it became Sullivan’s general store where you could purchase or barter for quality clothing and apparel, Agway feeding grain. The Trading Company has used all the original doors and wood to refurbish the building to it’s original form as much as possible. If you lift your nose up, you can still smell the sweat of the horses, the sawdust, grain, saddles, and tack.

“The history of the Town of Johnsburg has been one of great pride, demanding exceptional people, willing to endure and conquer the harsh forces of nature in a land where the awesome beauty of the Adirondack Mountains and the mighty Hudson River made the struggle to co-exist worth the challenge. My own ancestry in Johnsburg dates back to 1797, making this project a doubly important undertaking for me. Those who have gone before us have had a profound effect on all of us; the establishment of the hamlets, utilizing the Hudson, ingenious use of the lakes and streams, progression of the railroad, and the pioneer spirit that developed industry and recreation unique to New York State and perhaps the whole east coast Residing in Johnsburg, in the small villages among the lakes and mountains, affords us the opportunity to enjoy close, caring relationships with family and friends, and also the chance to be alone with nature whenever time allows. This is indeed, very special to me.” William H. Thomas, Supervisor, Town of Johnsburg

Sources:

Warren County Centennial Publication 1813-1913 

www.HudsonRiverTradingCo.com 

History of Warren County, New York – Published by the Board of Supervisors of Warren County 

Printed by the Printing Department of the Glens Falls Post Company – 1963 

Notes from Town Historian, Robin Crossiant 

Johnsburg Historical Society “Main Street, USA” Historic North Creek, NY – A Johnsburg Historical Society Publication 

River, Rails and Ski Trails “The history of the town of Johnsburg and Adirondack Town Founded in 1805 – Copyright 1994 

The Johnsburg Historical Society – Typeset by Sawyers Press, North Creek, New York – Printed by Coneco Litho Graphics, Glens Falls, New York 

Other Places of Interest Regarding the Heritage and Historical Background of The Town of Johnsburg:

John Thurman Historical Society 
PO Box 7 Athol, NY 12810 
Phone: (518) 623-9305 or (518) 623-2018 
President: Perky Granger – (518) 623-9305 
Email: perkinny@capital.net


Town of Johnsburg Historical Society PO Box 144 
Wevertown, NY 12886 
Co-President: Barbara Gardineer – (518) 251-5816 
Email: nocrgar@aol.com


Johnsburg Town Historian 
Doris H. Patton 
PO Box 126, 26 Sodom Road 
Baker Mills, NY 12811 
Phone: (518) 251-2097 
Email: RDPATT@Juno.com


Town of Johnsburg Library 
219 Main Street 
North Creek, NY 12853 
Phone: (518) 251-4343 
Fax: (518) 251-4343 
Librarian: Russell Puschak 
Hours: Wed 11-5; Th 1-7; Fr 1-5; Sat 10-4

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