Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In our 1978 selection, writer Mary Fiess visits the isolated community of Beaver River, which at the time was contemplating how a planned revival of the rail line might affect its way of life. That plan never came to pass, though controversy over use of the corridor continues today.
First the waters rose, cutting off the one, tenuous road connection. Decades later; the railroad stopped running. And so Beaver River, once a bustling lumber camp in the western foothills of the Adirondacks, became an isolated island in a sea of trees, the only settlement in New York State today which is accessible by neither road nor trail.
For some communities, the loss of rail service is a major misfortune, and the lack of any road links to the outside world would mean certain death. And, indeed, at first glance Beaver River appears to have borne fortune’s blows poorly. In physical appearance the town is little more than a clearing in the woods, crisscrossed by narrow dirt roads and the rusting railroad tracks, dotted by the homes of its IO permanent residents and the “camps” of nearly a hundred seasonal residents.
But Beaver River is a hamlet that has always existed happily a considerable distance from the hustle of civilization. The loss of rail and road connections, while key events in its short history, have hardly stifled its character. The traveler who makes his way to Beaver River finds a village surprising in its modernity and in its own peculiar bustle.
“Canoeing is the only way to go, if you’ve got time,” Fran Crowel was saying. His motorboat was zipping past dozens of tree-covered islands and sheltered coves on the 15-mile-long Stillwater Reservoir, heading for Beaver River. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for a canoe, and Fran, a longtime Beaver River resident whose job ferrying visitors to and from the isolated village is only one of the many things he does to make his living there, usually. doesn’t, either.
Despite the lack of road access, getting to Beaver River is relatively easy. Two bumpy, dirt roads—one from Big Moose and the other from Number Four—lead to Stillwater, population 20, described by local hotel proprietor Dan Mahoney as “the last outpost of civilization.” From Stillwater’s huge, gravel parking lot at the southwestern edge of the reservoir, you can walk the 10 miles to Beaver River, go in your own boat, or get a ride with Fran. One beautiful morning in late spring we gazed out over the rippled expanse of water stretching far into bud-green forests and rolling hills, and then stepped into Fran’s boat.
As we headed into the chilly breeze, Fran, a spry man in his 50s with a salt-and-pepper crewcut and a shy smile, told us a bit about the area and our destination. But then in the midst of answering our questions, he blurted out what was on his mind. “I was kind of wondering why you’d want to do an article on Beaver River,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too interesting.”
Well, in a way what is interesting about Beaver River is that it isn’t interesting. Despite their isolation, the people there live like many other Americans.
For most outsiders, the idea of a place so cut off that there is no way to get there by car conjures up images of a primitive, pioneering existence. But in truth, the people who have chosen to live in this out-of-the-way place have also chosen to drag into it every basic convenience of modern life, from washers and driers to telephones and power tools. They watch the news on television. They dance to a jukebox. The residents who aren’t on pension or using the place simply as a vacation retreat have to scramble to make a living. And some of them worry that the planned restoration of rail service will make the tracks unusable by the hundreds of snowmobilers who buzz through the area in winter and drop some cash in the local bar and other businesses.
Beaver River folk have access to a sense of solitude and wildness unimagined by urban folk, but they take it only in moderate doses. And when one of their number, octagenarian Bill Hilliker, refuses to install a flush toilet and opts even in bitter winter for the quaint pleasures of the outhouse he calls “Aunt Effie,” why, that is taken simply as a sign that he is a bit eccentric.
Although there are no roads to Beaver River, there are plenty of cars (brought in, like everything else, by raft) as we saw when Fran pulled his boat in to shore at a slight clearing, distinguished only by a small aluminum dock with a few bobbing boats tied up. There was a little cluster of vehicles, all of them old and none of them licensed, parked on a clear patch of land. And Fran, good-humoredly acknowledging his preference for motorized transport, ushered us into his pickup truck for a one-mile drive into the main part of the 180 acres of land known as Beaver River.
Like the other nine permanent residents of Beaver River, Fran does not admit to thinking there is anything particularly unique or noteworthy about his town. Long ago, they adapted to the lack of direct access roads by learning to use rafts and snowmobiles to bring in everything they need, from maple hutches to cement-blocks for house foundations. The Crowell home is just as cozy and filled with modern conveniences as a typical home in a normal-sized city. There is a telephone, a battery-run television, a comfortable couch, a hutch filled with Hilda’s best dishes. It differs from the usual suburban home in only one noticeable respect, the presence of gas lights everywhere. Beaver River is not linked to any electrical system. If a resident wants electricity, he has to generate his own.
And cars are used here, as everywhere, for their convenience. Rather than walk a mile and a half through evergreen forests from the center of town to the reservoir, people hop in their cars, and ride along a network of narrow, rutted dirt roads. By a staunchly defended tradition, none of the vehicles is licensed, since they can only be driven within the confines of the town. Still, you can’t just hop in a car and run to the store when you run out of milk, what with the nearest supermarket 27 miles away by water and road. And life in a place like that has its own peculiar attractions.
People are free of the tyranny of monthly gas and electric bills, and a power blackout is the least of their worries. They can’t find anyone to fix their roads, but there are no traffic cops—in fact, no police around at all—so people can speed around town with impunity.
Far away from shopping centers, bowling alleys and the many other diversions of urban and suburban life, couples and families have more time to devote to good, old-fashioned togetherness. But for some, the lack of diversions can also mean an unrelenting monotony punctured only by the annual arrival of the black flies and by changes in the weather. “My first wife couldn’t take it,” says Fran. “She just got up and left.” He admits that sometimes in the middle of a long winter, with the snow “knee-deep to an Indian,” he himself starts feeling cabin fever.
Beaver River has no school. Pat and Stan Thompson, the only permanent residents with school-age children, have spent the last 12 school years living in a rented house in Old Forge so their children could attend school. On weekends, they return to their Beaver River home and Norridgewock, the hunting lodge-general store-bar-snowmobilers’ stopover they operate.
There is no fire department, and no fire insurance. Once fire strikes a building, there is virtually no chance of saving it. The Thompsons watched helplessly as their original lodge burned to the ground in 1973. Nor are there other municipal services that outsiders take for granted—a water system, or a sewer system. Each resident supplies his own water, either from wells or from springs in the surrounding hills.
But Beaver River residents probably miss such municipal services about as little as they miss, say, indoor tennis courts. Beaver River is in an area of the Adirondacks which has always been sparsely populated and which has therefore attracted rugged, solitary types, people who preferred the isolated life of the woods to the city and its diversions.
Fran Crowell, Stan Thompson and other residents are the modern heirs of that tradition. While they certainly do not disdain whatever conveniences they have acquired, they relish the self-sufficiency their life style requires—even when it is focused on keeping up with the outside world. “You really have to be a mechanic here,” says Fran Crowell, explaining that he himself repairs his pickup truck, his snowmobiles, his boats, his stove. “I’m a jack of all trades,” says Stan Thompson. He, his wife and a few friends rebuilt their fire-leveled hunting lodge in less than two months. Like Fran, he is his own plumber, electrician, snow plower and general handyman.
By most accounts, Beaver River was first settled by white men sometime in the 1860s or 1870s. At that time, the area and most of the rest of the Adirondacks was inaccessible except by guideboat or on foot. But logging, which during the first half of the 19th century had been confined mostly to the edges of the Adirondacks, was spreading deeper into the heart of the mountain region, bringing hearty settlers with it.
Like Eagle Bay, Big Moose, and dozens of other central Adirondack communities, Beaver River began as an assemblage of camps built by hunters, trappers and assorted drifters. By the later 1870s, it had one important drawing card that it doesn’t possess today, a job-producing industry. George Johnson, a longtime Beaver River resident who is now a summer dweller there and a collector of tales about the place, says the earliest written records show there was a sawmill in Beaver River in 1875. Only the foundation of the sawmill remains today, a short distance from the Thompsons’ hunting lodge.
Little else is known about Beaver River’s beginnings, except that its name came from the river of the same name that flowed by it, and that the name paid homage to the busy, toothy creature found in abundance in the area.
In the next 50 years came two major events in Beaver River’s life—the construction of a railroad through the Adirondacks by Dr. William Seward Webb in 1892, and the damming of the Beaver River in the 1920s to create the huge Stillwater Reservoir. The first event held out the possibility of great changes for Beaver River, and a more prosperous future as a stop on the much-heralded Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad. But the second, while it brought hundreds of lumberjacks into Beaver River for a few years to clear the land about to be flooded, virtually insured that Beaver River would remain much the kind of place it is today.
Not surprisingly, tales about the railroad and “the flow” are a big part of almost every Beaver River resident’s story-telling repertoire, passed along by oral tradition like the poems of ancient Greece. Some are more believable than others.
There are, for example, stories about the gangs of black laborers from Tennessee and other Southern states who were hired as cheap labor and brought north to work on the railroad. Many, it is said, arrived shoeless, coatless, and totally unprepared for the deep snows and bitter cold of Adirondack winters (Stillwater holds the New York State record of -52°). As the winter set in and the workers’ enthusiasm waned, many are said to have attempted to make their way back to the familiar, warm climes of their homes. The hardships and flight of some railroad workers produced tales of brutality by construction company owners. One widely-circulated story holds that a black laborer lies buried between every cross-tie from Remsen to Beaver River. But early 20th-century accounts of the
railroad’s building discount such tales, saying that the project produced no more than the “normal” number of fatalities.
No current Beaver River resident, of course, was around when the railroad was built. But several remember it in its heyday, in the early part of this century, and almost everyone remembers with a measure of bitterness the demise of the railroad’s passenger service in 1965.
At age 86, Bill Hilliker has a treasure trove of memories going back to the 1920s, when he first started coming to Beaver River. These days, he is the hamlet’s resident Nestor. His unusual log cabin on the outskirts of town—in other words, a good walk from the railroad tracks—is huddled under evergreens on the edge of an inlet of the reservoir. It is filled with furniture carved and finished by Bill, and decorated with old machine guns and other artifacts from World War I. There is a bearskin, a Navajo rug and a meticulously crafted, three-dimensional topographical map of the region created by Bill, formerly an animated-cartoon artist, to show the many creeks and lakes and hills. Bill is as original as his house.
Bill was a young New York City illustrator and cartoonist when he first arrived in Beaver River about 1920. A friend had a deal on four lots “in the woods.” “I bought two, brought a tent up and started clearing logs,” he recounts. A short time later he had his cabin built and he and his family started commuting by train from New York for weekends and vacations in Beaver River. “You could get a train out of New York at 11 p.m., lay over in Utica to get a connecting train and arrive in Beaver River in the morning.” In those days, as many as 14 trains a day ran through Beaver River. The town had a one-room schoolhouse and a few more permanent residents, most of them employees of the railroad, but Beaver River was basically the sleepy kind of place it is today.
Within two years of Hilliker’s arrival the calm of Beaver River was shattered by the invasion of an army of several hundred lumberjacks. The recently created Black River Regulating Board had decided to make a giant reservoir where water could be stored for the paper mills, electrical plants, factories and farmers in the valley between Boonville and Lowville. Close to 5,000 acres of land had to be cleared before the Board could raise its dam across the Beaver River at Stillwater. From 1922 to 1926, hundreds—some say thousands—of lumberjacks chopped down the spruces, pines and firs that covered the land, and then floated the logs downstream. By most accounts, they were a rough lot, and they transformed Beaver River into a noisy, booming town where bootlegging flourished and good times could be found.
With his well-honed skepticism, Bill describes “the flow” as a “political proposition concocted by the paper companies.” The rising water forced him to move his cabin to high land. In fact, by the time the reservoir was completed, Beaver River’s land area, originally one square mile, had shrunk to 180 acres. But Bill remembers fondly “12-quart bottles of homemade cherry wine” and the liveliness of the place.
After the dam went up and the land slowly flooded, Beaver River returned to normal. But the effects of “the flow” lingered. By flooding so much of Beaver River’s land, the reservoir sharply limited the town’s prospects. And it virtually obliterated any chance of road connections. For one year, around 1906, Beaver River had been connected by road to the rest of the world. A bridge ran between Stillwater and the still existing Loon Lake Road that heads west out of Beaver River. But the bridge washed out and the flow so widened the distance between the two land points that it made construction of a new bridge totally unfeasible.
All of which is fine with Bill, who retired to full-time life at Beaver River in 1969. Though he dearly misses the train, he didn’t come to Beaver River for civilized comforts. He has stubbornly refused, even in the face of entreaties from his children, to get a phone. “On a phone, in one minute I’ve said everything important to say. Then my daughter says, ‘here, talk to Billy,’ then I’ve got to talk to Kathy, Douglas and everybody else.” Bill prefers letter-writing, and Beaver River does have postal service.
After decades of relying on his wood stove for heat, Bill succumbed recently to the temptations of a modern propane gas heater. He also keeps a Volkswagen—no license, of course—in his driveway and a bright yellow snowmobile in an enclosed shed. But he still pumps his water by hand into his kitchen sink, heats the water on his stove, and braves biting cold to use “Aunt Effie.”
Bill’s deeply lined face shows his years. Under the baseball cap he usually wears, his hair is pure white. In his well-worn jacket and heavy pants, he looks both fragile and rugged. Many would hardly find his life idyllic. But Bill, admitting “it gets lonely sometimes,” considers it as close to his personal ideal as he can manage. “For 50 years, I was an artist. Then I figured I’m going to get out and do exactly as I please.”
The cartoons he used to draw by the hundreds for Terry-Toons are buried in boxes in out-of-the-way niches of the cabin. Instead, he indulges his wit in smile-raising touches around the cabin. “I haven’t got a moon on the door,” he says, directing me to the outhouse. But inside, lest any visitor think his plight is difficult, Bill has hung on the wall the directions for “what you have to do when you have to go on a submarine.”
In a little cabinet labelled “library” sits the toilet paper.
When he isn’t crafting a topographical map or carving furniture, reading or listening to his favorite night time radio shows, or occasionally hunting, Bill has plenty else to do.
“I hate to leave here anytime. Especially this time o’ year, there’s so much you can do. Clean-up, raking, a lot of wood to be chopped up.”
For Bill, Beaver River is the perfect escape from the rat race. But for some of the other permanent residents that is not the case.
Fran and Hilda Crowell and Stan and Pat Thompson are so busy trying to make a living that much of the year they seem to have little time to enjoy the forests, the isolation, the absence of time-clocks. In fact, sometimes the need to make a living leads to strains in relationships, like those among business competitors everywhere.
In the tiny Beaver River market, Fran and Stan are both in the business of distributing bottled propane gas. Both supply boat rides to and from Beaver River. And both hire out their services as general handymen—Stan less than Fran, since he has the additional responsibility of helping Pat run Norridgewock.
Compounding Stan’s economic worries is the planned revival of the abandoned rail line of the New York Central’s Adirondack Division between Remsen and Lake Placid. He recently invested several thousand dollars in equipment to groom the track for snowmobiles—equipment he could not legally use if the trains were running. Return of the trains could mean a sharp drop in the trade snowmobilers bring to the Norridgewock.
Paul Seaman, who worked as a mechanic for 28 years before moving to Beaver River four years ago, is another enterprising worker. Across from his house, he has built a huge red garage equipped with chain saw, snow blowers, electric welders and other tools. He calls the garage “Holiday Buck” because
“from the money I earned working Christmasses and dozens of other holidays, I built this place.” Paul says he is not in the market for any business. “I came here to retire. The minute I charged one dollar, I’d be back in business. I don’t want it.” But others in the town worry that if Paul does work for outsiders for free, he will hurt the repair business others already offer for pay.
“It’s a small, small town,” says Fran, with probably unavoidable rivalries.
Just before we left, we stopped in at the Norridgewock. It was late afternoon. The jukebox was playing, and a small group was amiably chatting around the bar. Bill Connelly, a Syracuse native who spends his summers in Beaver River, was demonstrating the latest tricks he had learned from a book entitled The Mysteries and Secrets of Magic. He was also bemoaning the fact that his “potty wouldn’t ignite,” a common problem with gas toilets. Pat Thompson was tending bar and keeping an eye on the general store she runs in the lodge. Like her husband, Pat wears many hats.
Carrying on a long family tradition, the Norridgewock—formally known as Norridgewock II—is the central gathering place in Beaver River. Besides the bar, another obvious attraction is the seasonal post office operated by Pat from May 15 to Nov. 15. The Thompsons also operate a small restaurant. And in their store, residents can purchase such items as soups, canned vegetables, flannel underwear, and— when Pat has been able to get out to do some recent shopping—milk and bread.
Stan’s grandfather, Clinton Thompson, operated Norridgewock I in the first half of the century, and for years it was the scene of lively square dances attracting folks from all around. Pat and Stan continued the tradition for a few years, but it died out after it was ruled that they could no longer transport large numbers of people to Beaver river by raft.
A group of kids wandered into the lodge. Outsiders, they looked at the menu hanging on the wall and ordered hamburgers. There were none. It had been a while since Pat’s last trip to the supermarket.