The Thin Blue Line

by Barbara McMartin | February 1994, History

The Blue Line that defines the boundaries of the Adirondack Park was first established in 1892; it has been expanded several times since then, between 1912 and 1972. But the plotting of its initial path was no simple task, not merely a matter of drawing an azure circle around some choice wilderness territory.

As you might guess from a boundary that has long inspired both contempt and admiration, the course of the Blue Line was not a smooth one, influenced as it was by candid political disputes and clandestine business pressures, and dictated to some degree by a combination of irregular lot boundaries, vague and unsurveyed county lines, and zigzags steered around farms and settlements.

The definitive tale of how this storied perimeter came to be emerges from the testimony made at a long series of meetings held more than a century ago.

The New York State Assembly hearings in 1891 were ostensibly called to investigate the laws related to the creation, in 1885, of the Forest Preserve, and to recommend changes to those statutes. But looming in the background were hard questions about establishing the Adirondack Park. Consequently, assemblymen at the hearings spent much of their time trying to show the Forest Commission—established in 1885 to oversee the Forest Preserve—in the worst possible light.

The cast for the hearings included a half-dozen assemblymen and the three members of the commission, who were all political appointees. The questioners came from both the Democratic and Republican parties; those being questioned included Townsend Cox, the chairman of the commission, who came from the mid-Hudson Valley and who was primarily concerned with the Catskill region; Sherman W. Knevals, a New York City businessman; and Theodore B. Basselin, from the western Adirondacks, who represented the interests of lumbermen. Among the several employees of the Forest Commission who would testify was Colonel William F. Fox, who later became superintendent of forests and would go on to write The History of the Lumber lndustry in the State of New York.

A general distrust of the commission had been growing after a series of articles began appearing in New York newspapers in 1889. A headline in the New York Times read “Despoiling the Forests—Everything Being Ruined by the Rapacious Lumberman—State Employees Engaged in the Business.”

(Assertions that the commission was conspiring with lumbermen to destroy the northern forests, and concerns that came out of the assembly hearings regarding how problems of timber theft from state land were being handled, would eventually lead, in 1894, to the replacement of the three-member commission with a five-member commission.)

Charges and countercharges were thrown about as the assemblymen attempted to discredit the commission and some of its questionable actions. The commission members were asked why, for instance, they were not spending allocated money to add to the Forest Preserve, why they had been willing to exchange a tract of state land for scattered cutover parcels, who was stealing timber from state lands, and whether they had in fact been acting improperly.

Chairman Cox was one of the first witnesses summoned when the hearings began in January of 1891. He was asked who usually called meetings of the Forest Commission. Apparently the press had already heard about problems in that regard, for he replied: “I saw it in the Herald that there were two or three meetings that I got notice were to be in Albany; I . . . walked into the office to attend the meeting and Mr. Train, the secretary, now dead, said ‘What are you here for ?’ I said, ‘I am here to attend the meeting’; ‘Why,’ he said, ‘the meeting is in New York’; I said, ‘I didn’t hear of it; I had no notice of it.’”

Cox said that it had happened two or three times that meetings were called without his being notified, and apparently he never did get to call any meetings of the commission.

On the question of the boundary for the proposed Adirondack Park, Commissioner Basselin told of half a dozen meetings at which that subject was discussed. He described how the commissioners asked that their ideas for it be shown on the Butler Map. (This 1879 map was the first published that showed the geographic details of the Adirondack region along with the location of the patents, surveys, townships and lots that defined individual properties.) The commission had a blue inner line drawn as a suggested perimeter for the park and a red outer one that showed all of the Adirondack wilderness.

Why, the assemblymen wanted to know, did the commission choose the blue boundary, thus excluding huge tracts of heavily timbered, primeval forest in the northem Adirondacks.

Basselin testified that he and his fellow commissioners had tacitly agreed among themselves “that each individual should question and talk with people in his vicinity throughout the state as to the size of the park, which I think we faithfully carried out. One of the commissioners [Cox] found that the people whom he saw wanted a very large park, something over three million acres; I, on the other hand, gathered the impression from the rural districts and from the people who are acquainted up there, that a much smaller park would be sufficient. “When we came to compare notes with regard to the size of the park there was quite a strong diversity of opinion as to the size of the park, and when we came to finally agree upon this matter, we found that we could agree upon the park as laid out in this blue line, that it should take in about two million acres or so.”

Basselin, it tumed out, was a major target of the hearings, and his testimony dragged on for many days and nights. He said that the preservation of the Hudson watershed was a principal goal in laying out the park boundary, which was true, since the rivers in the regions around the Erie and Black River canals did not have a sufficient regular flow of water to keep those man-made waterways filled.

Members of the legislature “were very anxious to have the park on the southeast come down so as to take in the Sacandaga, and as almost there was a unanimity of opinion that Mount Marcy should be taken in on the east and in order to take in all of the watersheds of all the rivers of the park, we practically agreed upon this here as taking in almost the entire watershed of the Hudson, actually taking in the headquarters of all the streams going out of the Adirondacks, and in order to confine ourselves to two or two million and a quarter acres—we had drew these lines they are here; we could neither go north as far as the red line, nor could we go west as far as the red line, nor could we go east as far as the red line, nor south.”

Assemblyman James Ryan, the chairman of the committee, was very upset that the blue line did not take in thousands of acres of existing state land in the north. He tried to prove that there was a connection between Basselin and the Everton Lumber Company, which was in a position to harvest timber on those northern tracts. ln addition, he elicited the fact that the land in the John Browns Tract that was left out of the park in the western Adirondacks included or was adjacent to Basselin’s Beaver River holdings.

Basselin testified that he had between seventeen thousand and twenty-five thousand acres in Moose River Tract towns 3, 4 and 5 and Totten and Crossfield Township 42. All that land straddled the Beaver River and was heavily forested, and its timber could be floated to his mill via the Beaver.

When asked why most of his lands were to be omitted from the park, he ducked the question. His responses were also vague when he was asked why the Forest Commission had recommended exchanging private lands for public lands accessible to the Everton Lumber Company. (The Hadley Act of 1887 had permitted such exchanges, none of which were ever carried out until the Everton proposal was made.)

The hearings uncovered the fact that Basselin’s interests and those of Everton were tied together in the same tangled way that many businessmen, lumbermen and landowners of the day were related through a number of companies whose origins were nigh impossible to trace. In talking all around those connections, Basselin managed to convince at least one assemblyman that there was a genuine difference between his, Basselin’s, lack of knowledge of lumbering and of the Adirondack region and the information in the very elaborate report prepared for the Forest Commission.

In addition to hinting that Basselin profited from his role as a commissioner, the hearings investigated Sherman Knevals’s connections to the Peg-Leg Railroad, a short-lived narrow-gauge wooden-track line that carried people from Moose River Settlement to steamboats on the Moose.

(The assemblymen’s suspicions müde, the commissioners, in fact, were not the only ones to blame for problems with the Forest Preserve. Timber theft from state lands was rampant; one man in the northeastern Adirondacks was a notorious thief, and so clever at it that he nearly got the legislature to pay him for lands he falsely claimed he owned, and from which he had taken all the merchantable timber. In another case, one of the commissions agents was fired for not prosecuting timber theft strongly enough, and he turned around and threatened the commission with exposure of their misdeeds if he did not get his job back.)

Despite the commission’s being grilled on a host of issues other than the drawing of the blue line, planning the proposed park’s boundary was the commission’s principal task. Colonel Fox actually drew the projected red and blue boundary lines on the map at the direction of the commissioners. Nevertheless, his description of the Blue Line’s origin is perplexing.

At one of the hearings he recalled that the first line he drew for the commissioners encompassed only 2,110,000 acres, so, “after looking it over and looking at the lines, the Commissioners thought they would push it over a little further into Herkimer County.”

As he understood his instructions, the blue line was to include all of the Hudson headwaters but to go only as far east as the Schroon River, thus eliminating half of the Schroon watershed, a major tributary of the Hudson, from the park.

People assumed that the state would acquire all the land within the blue line, and there were advocates for effecting this by purchase as well as by condemnation. An 1890 law exempted the land in villages from the Forest Preserve, which solved the problem of what to do with some settled areas like Lake Placid, but not others. lt was probably apprehension about including settlements that prompted Fox to testify that “It was also decided that it wouldn’t be advisable [for the blue line] to cross the Keene valley, because that it is a large summer resort, filled with hotels and a large amount of private property and buildings, a village there that wasn’t considered desirable to embrace within the lines of the park, and as it laid so near the edge of the wilderness the blue line was drawn just to the west of the Keene valley.”

From there the line was drawn to include Lake Placid and the Saranac lakes, and then extended as far west “as a park of 2,250,000 acres would carry it; those instructions limited a park, outlined the park; the only thing left to my discretion were details regarding lot lines and the exclusion of denuded and burned territory that might be contiguous to the general outline,” Fox said.

Completing the line, though, was still something of a problem, he continued, for “in Herkimer County there is a great deal of difficulty in getting what would be a fair-looking line from the fact that all the lot lines in that part of the forest run northwest and southeast; they run diagonally, and only in one place could I run the line out north or south to correspond with the general north and south line …. The line running contrary to the north and south line was caused by the direction of the lots in Nobleborough Patent; the sharp angle in the town of Morehouse was made so as to exclude the village of Morehouseville. [There is] a large piece of valuable land in Nobleborough Patent; I put the blue line south so as to include the last lot,”

Fox was asked if the lines had been surveyed. He replied that “these lines are all well marked; the line of Herkimer county, however, is not surveyed, and to have gone much further we would have had no survey line to run on.”

Fox picked the zigzag lines on the eastem border because “the whole idea was to run lines on well-known surveyed lines, first so as to save the cost of a survey; secondly, and what is more important, there could be no computation whatever of the acreage of the park unless it ran on the lines of lots whose acreage was known.”

Land on the east in Warren County was omitted because the acreage targeted by the commissioners “was all used up,” and Fox wanted to include land on the western border surrounding the Fulton Chain of Lakes, which he thought was the “finest piece of lake property in the whole forest, with the exception of Raquette Lake.”

However, the existence or lack of surveyed lines was not the real reason the blue line was recommended as the final boundary instead of the red line. As Fox understood it, the idea was to lay out a park “where whenever the state was for- tunate enough to get the money appropriated to buy that much the rest could easily be added to it, but [the commission] did not want to imperil the whole scheme by calling for the whole territory shown within the red line.”

And so, haphazard as the process was, the state adopted, or compromised on, the blue boundary that contained about a quarter-million fewer acres than the red. A few years later, the state decided to sell off sixty thousand acres of state land outside the blue line, which included timberlands in Lewis, Herkimer, Fulton, Franklin and Clinton counties. That land was a boon for the lumbermen even though those counties were the locus of the worst of the timber thefts noted at the hearings.

lronically, when the Blue Line was later extended, the state bought a good portion of that land back after it had been extensively logged. And at a price many times greater than what the cost would have been for a survey of the red line.

The late Barbara McMartin (1931–2005) was the author of numerous books on the Adirondacks. She adapted this article from Testimony taken before the Assembly Committee on Public Lands and Forestry, 1891.

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