Illustration by Garry Trudeau
You don’t have to trek all the way to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to chill out in a superhero’s lair—just head to the ice palace that volunteers have forged on the shores of Lake Flower, overcoming the colossal heat ray that a diabolical genius has obviously leveled at the North Country. During this year’s “Superheroes and Villains” themed Winter Carnival (February 5-14) the forces of good and evil will duke it out for the heart of Saranac Lake. (Or settle their differences in no-holds-barred broomball tourneys and fry-pan tosses. See a full schedule of events here.) But it won’t be the first time larger-than-life characters have captivated the region’s imagination. Read on for a few of our more memorable champions and scoundrels.
Joe Call, the Lewis Giant
This colossal War of 1812 veteran from tiny Lewis was known far and wide for his unsurpassed wrestling skills and feats of brute strength. In true folk hero style, his deeds ballooned with every telling, from toting around a brimming barrel of hard cider to hoisting an 1,800-pound canon. Call was credited with a jovial disposition, but he could turn into a hulking beast when angered—word is that he once tossed a pack of ferrymen overboard after being reprimanded for spitting.
Milholland was Essex County’s caped crusader, an unstoppable suffragette who arrived at President Wilson’s 1913 inauguration in a flowing cape and starred tiara—looking every inch the heroine as she called the nation to her cause with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue astride a white horse. Milholland didn’t live to see the movement’s victory over injustice. She died—possibly of leukemia—in 1916, four years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.
William H. Osborne
Osborne’s origin story is tragic: his father, hotelier Hiram Osborne was shot and killed by a rival on the streets of Fish House in 1894, when William was in his 20s. Hiram’s murderer went to Dannemora and William went on to become a legendary deputy sheriff of Hamilton County. He brought down Charlie Wadsworth, the meanest of the infamous Windfall Gang from Wells, in an 1899 shootout that earned William a hole in his hat and a reputation as the most fearless man in the county.
This Central Adirondacks scoundrel was so notorious that he nearly blackened the reputation of an entire profession—Adirondack guides. Parker was an ex-con, a bigamist, and a general ne’er-do-well who hunted and fished to stock hotel tables. He wasn’t a guide, but he took on that role in July of 1881 when he led a woman deep into the wilderness and attempted what contemporary newspapers called a “brutal outrage.” Parker took a bullet for his crime, but local woodsmen took a hit too. In the aftermath, regional guides were being slandered to such a degree that George Washington Sears, aka Nessmuk, had to step in to defend their honor in the pages of Forest and Stream magazine.
General James Abercrombie
French and Indian War General James Abercrombie didn’t need a doomsday device to kill thousands. In the summer of 1758—confident in the extravagant numbers of his British troops and ignoring millennia of proven military strategy—he ordered an ill-fated frontal assault on the firmly entrenched French at Fort Carillon (now Ticonderoga). Wave after wave of his men threw themselves against the enemy’s makeshift timber barricade and were struck down. Watching from the rear, Abercrombie allowed the fruitless slaughter to continue until 2,000 of his men were dead.
Throughout history, tuberculosis killed so many that it was dubbed “Captain among these Men of Death.” The disease was no stranger to the Adirondacks—in the late 19th century its victims flocked to Saranac Lake, where Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau was waging war on their foe. But if it weren’t for this particular public enemy, there might not be a beloved winter carnival to celebrate. Since folks “taking the cure” were encouraged to get out and about in the frigid—and health-reviving—North Country air, the tradition of celebrating the season with an outdoor bacchanal was born.