Road Scholar

by Richard Figiel | December 2018, History

illustration by Mark Wilson

Tracing an early Adirondack passage

In the early 1800s
, Reuben and Phoebe Davis carved out a homestead deep in the Adirondack wilderness. Their first child, Elisha, died at four years old, in 1819. Then Reuben Jr. died at age three, in 1825; Joseph, a couple of years later, at two; Nathrum in another few years, age one. We know only this about the Davis family from the stones of a tiny cemetery embedded in woods on a dirt section of the Old Northwest Bay Road, the first road to penetrate through the Adirondacks, where life held death in a cold, tight hug.

The road started at Northwest Bay on Lake Champlain, today called Westport. One of its first settlers, Platt Rogers, began a ferry service from Vermont in the 1790s. Rogers was also the area’s pioneer road builder, likely including the road from his ferry landing headed west, starting as modern Westport’s Washington Street, then Main Street/Route 9N, roughly following Hoisington Brook. The original road would have snaked up Ledge Hill from the lake instead of today’s straight hike.

The Northwest Bay Road would eventually expand through the mountains, to the St. Lawrence Valley, largely through the enterprise of a man named Roswell Hopkins. Hopkins, who served as an army surgeon and later as Vermont’s secretary of state and a New York assemblyman, had a tract of land on the edge of the St. Lawrence Valley east of Potsdam. When New England farmers began a mass migration west after the Revolution, Hopkins looked for a way to get them to his land. In 1802, with his son Benjamin, he scouted a route that started on Platt’s road inland from Northwest Bay. It led to a small settlement already established on the Boquet River, Pleasant Valley, later renamed Elizabethtown after the wife of Lake Champlain’s first British patentee, William Gilliland.

After crossing the Boquet, our road, now following 9N, intersects Route 9, another historic path blazed by Platt Rogers in the late 1700s. Like the Northwest Bay Road, it followed a Native-American trail, later codified as the Great Northern Road to Montreal. The crossing of these two seminal roads made Elizabethtown the most important village of the region, soon the county seat of Essex.

Today Route 9N turns briefly through the village center, but the road from Northwest Bay ran straight along what is now Water Street, rejoining 9N above the Cobble Hill Golf Course. There the climb begins to the saddle between Hurricane Mountain and the cluster of hills on the shoulder of Giant, with occasional excised loops like Scrabble Hollow Road. Another pioneer-family burying ground looks up at the mountains from a high, sandy bank along this stretch.

As we ease down into Keene Valley, nearing Route 73, the Old Northwest Bay Road can be seen in the crumbling remains of a concrete roadbed off to the left that arcs across an abandoned iron bridge and links into the Cemetery Road approach to Keene.

Like Elizabethtown, Keene was settled before the turn of the 19th century by homesteaders coming upriver from Lake Champlain, in this case on the East Branch of the Au-sable. The village grew up around an ancient Native-American ford. At that crossing David Graves built an inn on the Northwest Bay Road in 1824, a building now empty but once Purdy’s Elm Tree Inn. The namesake elm, at the inn’s doorstep, was about as old as the building when it was cut down in 1974, a casualty of Dutch elm disease.

Across the Ausable we leave Route 73 to take Church Street. Turning up Alstead Hill Road, it passes the Barkeater Inn, once giving travelers a rest before the long climb through the notch between Pitchoff Mountain and the Sentinel Range. Cars can go no farther than the base of Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service, once a backwoods homestead. Called Old Mountain Road, this six miles of dirt lane preserves the feel of the pioneer’s path through smothering blizzards, spring washouts and summer flooding by hyperactive beavers. The dictum was: “six miles, six hours.” Today we can throw in the legal battles over the designation “abandoned road” and its use by snowmobiles.

Old Mountain Road’s western end gets civilized again as it returns to Route 73 in the high plains, with stunning vistas of Adirondack peaks. Scattered old farmhouses recall how these rare miles of level land were early put to the plow. As Route 73 nears the West Branch of the Au-sable, a right turn onto Boulderwood Way may be part of the old winding route down to the river, depositing us at an abandoned bridge in the shadow of the current crossing.

This remarkable upland valley, where the Ausable funnels from the mountains, was known as the Plains of Abraham. There are tales of Native-American habitation here, along the path through the mountains still called Indian Pass.

Orange stains in the area’s rock brought Archibald McIntyre here by 1810, where he built a forge for his Elba Iron Works. McIntyre was New York’s comptroller. That same year Roswell Hopkins, living at his new settlement Hopkinton, became a New York assemblyman, and the two men persuaded the state legislature to appropriate $1,000 for the improvement of the road connecting both their ventures to Lake Champlain.

McIntyre’s Elba operation failed, and Hopkins’s town never did become much of a destination. But their road found other reasons to flourish. In 1846 the abolitionist Gerrit Smith began giving away 40-acre parcels on the Plains of Abraham, helping African-American men fulfill New York’s landowning requirement for voting. Within a few years, a handful of families would travel the Northwest Bay Road to settle the backwoods community they called Timbuctoo. John Brown joined them in 1849, coming home 10 years later from Harpers Ferry through Westport in a coffin. His farmhouse is now a state historic site, a short distance from where Old Military Road turns off Route 73. The military reference comes from probable use of the Northwest Bay Road during the War of 1812.

Along Old Military Road, North Elba Cemetery has stones dating from 1816. Farther on, what would become the Stagecoach Inn opened to travelers around 1833. Stagecoaches began trundling through by the mid-1800s; when Hopkins arrived here in 1802 he left civilization to follow blazed trees and animal paths.

The Old Military Road merges into Route 86 west of Lake Placid, bordering the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness. A few loops of the roadbed skip off and back through Ray Brook before the old route breaks away again onto McKenzie Pond Road. It meanders to Pine Street, on the backside of Helen Hill, near Moody Pond. Jacob Moody brought his family here in 1819, considered the first settlers of Saranac Lake.

Pine Street passes along the settlement’s original cemetery, where Moody and other homesteaders re-pose. At the Saranac River, the old track reached a ford more challenging than those across the Ausable and Boquet. Hopkins put the road’s first bridge here, a rudimentary affair carried away in spring floods of 1809. That incident set in motion the collaboration between Hopkins and McIntyre to mine state highway funds for an official Northwest Bay Road. 

Early settler Milote Baker established a tavern by the new bridge, on the site now occupied by a stone house. Later, he added a cottage on the hill in back, rented during the winter of 1887 by Robert Louis Stevenson.

From the Baker Bridge our road once hitched up the wooded bank straight ahead, linking into another piece of the route now called Old Military Road. After a few residential blocks there’s a small gap before the route resumes on Park Avenue into the campus of the American Management Association, once Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitorium.

The Old Northwest Bay Road made a wide swing around the eastern shoulder of Mount Pisgah, coming downhill on what is now Trudeau Road, crossing Route 86 and following the curve of Pecks Corners Road to merge into 86 headed north. The modern road cuts across many old meanderings, occasionally discernible, gradually rising to another of the Adirondacks’ high-meadow patches of farmland. Donnelly’s ice-cream stand, on the former Crystal Spring Dairy Farm, has been drawing crowds of fans here for nearly 70 years.

Near the junction of our road with Route 30, a dirt remnant of the old road bends right, cutting off the corner. Straight ahead ran the driveway to a 20-room inn opened in 1859 by an ambitious guide named Apollos Smith. By the turn of the century, “Paul” Smith’s inn had swelled into a 255-room grand hotel.

Route 30 follows the old road north, weaving between ponds and feeling increasingly remote. A dirt loop of the old roadbed skirts the edge of pristine Mountain Pond. A clearing with a tiny cemetery in the woods along Route 30 is all that’s left of McCollom’s Hotel, a contemporary of Paul Smith’s.

At Meacham Corners (before the intersection of Routes 30 and 458), the old road to Hopkinton turns left, winding for a mile-and-a-half until it joins 458, a modern highway. For most of its dozen miles to the hamlet of Santa Clara, it runs north of the original road, still glimpsed a hundred yards off in boreal woods. This was the last section of the Northwest Bay Road to be completed; from here to Hopkinton was known as “the 50-mile woods.” This stretch was mostly abandoned during the late 1800s, eclipsed by the Port Kent Turnpike to the north. The shadowy roadbed just visible today was a revival paved in 1922 for automobiles.

Just before Route 458 crosses the St. Regis River, a dirt lane angles right to the abutment of a vanished bridge to Santa Clara. From here the old road partnered with the windings of the St. Regis, as River Road does today, a beautiful drive to St. Regis Falls.

The last leg of the trek to Hopkinton is unclear, probably erased in favor of the nearby turnpike. Roswell Hopkins built a gristmill in 1803, but his plan for a bustling farming community didn’t materialize.

Hopkins was buried in his village’s cemetery. He died from an accident on a road trip, thrown from his carriage.

Richard Figiel is author of A Road Through Time: Manhattan to the Adirondacks on New York State’s First Road (North Country Books).

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