Behind the Blue Line

by | History

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 1992, the centennial of the Adirondack Park, historian Philip Terrie recounted the creation of the park and some of its unintended consequences.


It was the 1890s, the Gay Nineties,
and the country was immersed in characteristically American enthusiasms: in new urban parks men and women exercised on a newfangled device called the safety bicycle; boisterous crowds cheered wildly for their baseball heroes; in Chicago and New York, thirty-story skyscrapers suddenly pierced the horizon; in the countryside, anti-saloon leagues preached the gospel of abstinence; and people everywhere, from every walk of life, seemed to be worrying, and bickering, about the fate of the nation’s forests.

From coast to coast, conservation was a hot topic. America’s first native-born forester, Gifford Pinchot, was appalled by the prodigious wastefulness of American loggers and was frantically promoting the creed of wise use, while the Forest Reserve Act, passed by Congress in 1891, began the process of creating national forests. The states—especially those east of the Mississippi River, where the forests were literally disappearing—joined in. In the South, people were agitating for protection for southern Appalachia. In New England, sentiment to save the White and Green mountains was gathering steam. Conservationists in Pennsylvania pushed their legislature to establish a commission to investigate the need for a state forestry policy.

Right at the forefront of this crusade to save the nation’s forests was the state of New York. A century ago, on May 20, 1892, Governor Roswell P. Flower inscribed his name on a bill passed by the assembly and the senate, and created the Adirondack Park. One of several steps taken in the 1880s and 1890s to protect what remained of the state’s forests, the establishment of the Adirondack Park was part of a complex cultural drama, with local peculiarities layered on to the national conservation enthusiasm. The key players were muckraking journalists, wealthy businessmen, cut-and-run loggers, government officials, aristocratic hunters and anglers trying to protect their sport, and transportation interests worried about water levels in the Hudson River. Just about everyone—except the more ruthless of the loggers—wanted to protect what was left of the North Country, and good intentions were everywhere. But the outcome was less than what many people had hoped for.

The most important—and in many ways the most regrettable—shortcoming of these steps was the division of the Adirondacks into two distinct domains: the publicly owned New York State Forest Preserve, and the surrounding private holdings, which in law and popular perception became almost completely divorced from the forest preserve. The clear original intent of the park law was to demonstrate the state’s interest in what happened to all the land inside the new park’s boundaries. All the land was important to the public welfare, and in 1892 New York indicated its intent to protect a region and its forest, not just that part of the region in public ownership. But almost immediately upon pas­sage of the park law both the state and many owners of private land—knowingly or not—be­gan promoting a picture of the region wherein the forest preserve belonged to the public and was important, but private land slipped out of focus.

Along with this perceptual split between public and private land came another, closely related division, one that has become excruciatingly apparent in recent years: a growing sense of alienation and even enmity between classes of people, between rich and poor, between year-­round and seasonal residents, between locals and outsiders. In the years immediately following the park’s creation, both local residents and outdoor enthusiasts from throughout the eastern United States found themselves increasingly isolated from, if not openly sneered at by, the wealthy owners of the huge private preserves that popped up throughout the region. Class and economic distinctions had certainly always existed in the region, but they had seldom been overtly ac­knowledged. Now they came painfully to the sur­face and have periodically reappeared to thwart reasonable debate ever since. Measures calculated to protect the land ended up dividing both the landscape and the people concerned about it.

It all began during the years after the Civil War, as New Yorkers watched nervously while the state’s once magnificent forests inexorably shrank: tanners cut hemlock for bark; other loggers went after pine and spruce for lumber, and by the 1890s softwoods of all kinds were being harvested to make pulp for the manu­facture of paper. As the steep mountain slopes were stripped of their trees, the spring runoff from melting snow seemed alarmingly out of control; the forest’s capacity to regulate watersheds ap­peared threatened. Downstate, people worried about unpredictable cycles of flood and low water in the Hudson, while transportation interests gloomily predicted the imminent uselessness of the Erie Canal and other commercial arteries.

At the end of the nineteenth century, logging was indeed an uncontrolled, nearly apocalyptic force. Loggers typically cut the marketable soft­woods, lopped off branches and sent their logs down the rivers to mills. The brush left behind soon became tinder for fires, and such fires all too often occurred, leaving bared slopes. State officials took notice, and a special commission set up in 1872 recommended a state park—with no result. In an 1882 address to the New York legislature, an exasperated Governor Alonzo B. Cornell ex­horted lawmakers to take action; if they didn’t, “imminent danger will threaten. The rain-falls will diminish, the springs and streams fail and unac­countable loss ensue.” The editors of the popular sporting journal Forest and Stream chimed in, agree­ing that legislation was needed to stop “the foolish and ruthless destruction of these timber lands which has materially affected the great and im­portant water supplies of the state.” Otherwise, they declared portentously, “the Hudson River will dry up.” To protect the forests of northern New York from the ravages of uncontrolled logging the state needed regional conservation.

In 1885, New York State created the forest preserve, comprised of all public land in designated Adirondack and Catskill counties. Although the legislature was well aware of the potential for these lands for recreation and was also thinking of the need to protect a future timber supply, the primary reason for the establishment of the forest preserve was the intense concern about watershed. Impor­tant as it was in creating what is now the largest publicly owned wilderness in the eastern United States, moreover, the forest-preserve law began the inexorable process of dividing the region into two distinct domains. With its provision that the “the forest preserve shall be forever kept as wild forest lands”—a phrase that has indelibly entered the permanent discourse of Adirondack history—this legislation aimed high; it was seen as but a necessary preliminary toward effecting conserva­tion for the entire region. But at least part of the result was just the opposite: by instituting such a rigorous clamp on state lands, it drew popular scrutiny away from the Adirondack lands that weren’t in the forest preserve.

That the forest-preserve law was also inadequate in other ways was the eloquent point of a series of muckraking articles appearing in the New York Times in the fall of 1889. Whatever the goal of that law had been, wrote an unidentified but diligent reporter, environmentally catastrophic log­ging continued unchecked. The headline for the lead article set the tone: “Despoiling the Forests­—Shameful Work Going on in Adirondacks—Every­thing Being Ruined by the Rapacious Lumberman.” A major aim of this series was to attack the in­competence, or, worse, the dishonesty, of the Forest Commission, the arm of the state conservation bureaucracy then charged with managing Adiron­dack matters, but the overall implication was of the dire threat posed by human avarice to the land­scape of an entire region. The protections afford­ed that small part of the landscape in the forest preserve were absurdly short of accomplishing the desperately needed regional conservation.

Trying to deal with this mess, in 1892 the state created a park like no other park the world had ever seen—a park that was a complex checker­board of private and public property. It had peo­ple living and working in it. It had land owned by individuals, families, clubs and corporations. It had poor people dwelling in shanties, while down the road were millionaires who summered in mansions, where they played and postured like the European aristocracy they slavishly emulated. It had land protected as forests forever and land where cut-and-run loggers savagely exploited the remaining resource in the name of a quick profit.

The debates in the legislature as well as state­ments emanating from the state’s nascent conser­vation bureaucracy during the period leading up to the creation of the park showed unambiguously that the main point of the park law was to define an area, regardless of ownership, in which the state had an interest. The state was trying to think and plan in regional terms, to legislate a status for the Adirondacks that would protect all the forest and its watershed. In 1891, the Forest Commission, perhaps anticipating the notion of a combination of public and private ownership, observed, “It is of less consequence who shall preserve the forests than that they should be preserved.” But different arms of the state government didn’t always operate with the same premises, and when the park was finally established, both legislators and Governor Flower appear to have been assuming that the state would eventually own all the land in the newly defined park. In any case, the state saw a pressing need to protect more forested land than it actually owned, and it drew a blue line on the map to indicate where that land was.

But the park law was really just a dream, and not a plan. How the state was to acquire that land, what its status would be as privately owned but nonetheless inside the new park, what would be­come of the people living inside the Blue Line, what would happen if the state was in fact unable to acquire all that land—these questions were not even raised, let alone answered. (And as anyone who has been even remotely awake in the Adiron­dacks during the last twenty years knows only too well, the unanswered questions of the 1890s have returned to haunt us. The 1892 park legislation—­with the minor exception of the sign law of 1924, passed to protect roadside aesthetics—was the last effort of the state before the 1970s to realize the dream of region-wide conservation.)

Collectively, New Yorkers were unsure about what to do with private land in the Adirondacks in the 1890s and they remain so a century later. While most people agreed in 1892 that the goal was to keep the Adirondacks forested, no one ap­pears to have thought constructively about how this was to be accomplished. Despite the widely shared interest in what the character of the land­scape should be, sharp divisions over who should be effecting the protection and who should be using these forests quickly surfaced.

For while New York as a collective polity may have been uncertain about what the best plan for the region was, there were nonetheless plenty of individuals and small groups who knew precisely what they wanted to do with the Adirondack land­scape: they wanted to own it. And in the absence of a clearly conceived and forcefully implemented mandate by the state to consolidate its Adiron­dack holdings, these people seized the opportunity to do just that. The same era that saw the passage of conservation legislation for the Adirondacks witnessed the creation of most of the huge clubs and private preserves that make up much of the contemporary park. Indeed, the establishment of these preserves undoubtedly was encouraged, though hardly intended, by the state’s halting steps toward creating and protecting a public domain. Wealthy hunters and anglers, acutely alert to the state’s inchoate hope for consolidation of a public park, wanted their own private playgrounds where they would not be forced to rub shoulders and share their game with the hoi polloi. They decid­ed that their only chance to protect their genteel notions of how deer should be shot and trout hooked was on their own property. Without meaning to, the laws of 1885 and 1892 created a sort of real-estate vacuum, into which the astute and opportunistic quickly rushed.

The first great private preserve, incorporated way back in 1876 and thus predating the conserva­tion era, was the Adirondack Club, occupying the huge holdings of the McIntyre Iron Company and thus enjoying some of the most imposing scenery and valuable land in the region—Lakes Hender­son, Colden, and Sanford, the Preston Ponds, and the southern slopes of Mount Marcy, among other bits of prime real estate. According to club historian Arthur H. Masten, the charter members were “well known men,” including a couple of Roosevelts and other well-heeled, blue-blooded scions of the New York aristocracy. (In 1897, the Adirondack Club was reorganized as the Tahawus Club.) Other large preserves followed, especially as the state began actually to pass its conserva­tion laws: the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, which purchased the Ausable lakes and most of the Great Range, in 1887, and the Adirondack League Club, near Old Forge, in 1890—to name a couple of the largest and best known.

The motives for creating these preserves varied; in the case of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, the urge to control a spectacular private domain was coupled with a legitimate fear that if the land wasn’t quickly bought from loggers it would be disastrously cut over and some of the region’s finest mountain scenery would be destroyed for genera­tions. The founders of the Adirondack League Club began with a multiple-use philosophy, con­vinced that they could log their lands profitably though conservatively while nonetheless enjoy­ing field sports and isolation from the commer­cial world of city and factory. (As it turned out, the returns from logging seldom matched ex­penses.) By the turn of the century, such preserves had bought and posted enormous chunks of the Adirondack landscape.

In 1904, the New York State Forest, Fish and Game Commission listed the major preserves and estimated their acreage. The Tahawus Club con­trolled nearly sixty thousand acres, the Adiron­dack League Club (whose trustees proudly pro­claimed ownership of an “Adirondack empire”), nearly eighty thousand, the Adirondack Moun­tain Reserve almost twenty-five thousand. Other major private parks included the Ampersand Pre­serve, carved out of the vast holdings of the Santa Clara Lumber Company; Brandreth Park, whose owners had been rusticating contentedly in the Adirondacks since before the Civil War; Whitney Park, in northern Hamilton County; railroad mag­nate Dr. William Seward Webb’s Nehasane Park, in Hamilton and Herkimer counties; and the more than fifty thousand acres owned by William Rockefeller in Franklin County. In all, fifty-five private preserves occupied nearly three quarters of a million acres of the Adirondack Park. Put an­other way, these preserves alone constituted a third of all the private land in the park, and there were many other prime parcels in private hands not quite big enough to make the Forest, Fish and Game Commission’s list, not to mention the un­developed lands of lumber and pulp companies.

Nearly all of these private preserves came into existence in direct response to the possibility that the state would put together a public domain in the Adirondacks. And their proprietors knew that they had a good thing going, whether they kept their land or eventually sold it to the state. The 1891 yearbook of the Adirondack League Club, for example, noted the renewal of legislative dis­cussions of a park and smugly observed that no matter what happened the club couldn’t lose: “Whatever may be the action of the State in regard to the establishment of a State Park in the Adirondacks, the Club may view the situation with entire complacency. We have an absolute and indefeasible title to the most valuable tract in the Adirondacks, whether regarded as a productive forest or as a magnificent sporting preserve. It will become still more valuable if the State acquires title to the lands surrounding it.” Even if the state moved to institute eminent-domain proceedings, the very existence of the park would guarantee the club a handsome profit over the price original­ly paid for its land in 1889.

The exclusivity of the Adirondack League Club is well illustrated in the same yearbook, where the officers invite nominations—to be sent to an of­fice on Wall Street—of new members, promising “that the present high character of the member­ship [will] be maintained:’ Once nominated, a pro­spective member had to pass “practically unani­mous election by the Board of Trustees, so carefully is the membership guarded against undesirable or uncongenial associates.” The following year the club’s officers repeated their commitment to “ex­clude every candidate whose character, reputation, or habits might tend to make him uncongenial in the slightest degree to any other member.” In the racially charged atmosphere of the late nine­teenth century, these were thinly coded warnings against all non-Anglo Saxons, especially Jews. They emphasized the snobbish sense of elitism that surrounded the great private preserves at the turn of the century.

In discussing the significance of private preserves in the region, the Forest, Fish and Game Com­missioners of 1904 noted that they “with a slight exception have been established within the last sixteen years”—in other words, since the brief period between the creation of the forest preserve in 1885 and the park law of 1892. The commis­sioners went on to observe that these preserves stirred up enmity between owners and those left out: “the comparatively sudden exclusion of the public from its old camping-grounds has provoked a bitter hostility on the part of the hunters, fisher­men and guides who formerly ranged over this territory. The sportsman who returns to some favorite haunt only to find himself confronted with the words, ‘No Thoroughfare,’ turns back with a resentful feeling, while the guides, who were wont to conduct their patrons wherever game was plentiful, view with threatening looks the hired game-keepers that guard the forbidden lands.”

Before the 1880s and 1890s, people in the Adirondacks—both locals and visitors—thought of the region as one big forest. Some of the land belonged to the state, some to lumber companies, some to individuals and families; in the case of some parcels, no one knew who owned them (and this uncertainty kept Verplanck Colvin and his crews busy trying to fix the precise locations of occasionally century-old survey lines). People hunted and fished wherever they pleased. Work­ing his way up a trout stream, an angler would fish from pool to pool, oblivious of the likely pos­sibility of crossing a property line; hunters chased deer, hikers climbed mountains, and locals cut firewood equally indifferent to the niceties of boundaries and ownership. The creation of the Adirondack Park and the concurrent establish­ment of private preserves changed all this forever; no-trespassing signs appeared throughout a region where they had never been seen before. Property lines and notions of exclusivity assumed an ominous significance.

What had been the generic Adirondacks, or North Country, or Northern Wilderness was now broken up into places you could go and places where you trod (or fished or hunted) at the risk of arrest and a lawsuit. Bad feelings inevitably resulted, and they hardened along lines that re­main painfully extant. (Current antagonism to the Adirondack Park Agency and the Private Land Use and Development Plan can trace its lineage to the first years of the park. ) In 1903, William Rockefeller, who was bullying the locals around his Bay Pond preserve, received threats on his life. Back then, most of the hostility was directed at the wealthy owners of the private preserves; to­day it’s aimed at the state and its efforts to have a say in what happens to those very preserves. In either case, it reveals antagonisms generated along lines of class and power.

That American society at the end of the nine­teenth century was divided into classes according to wealth and birth was a subject on which most people had profoundly ambivalent feelings, par­ticularly at a time when rapid developments in industry, transportation and commerce were creating both an insular cadre of millionaires and a sprawling, grindingly poor, barely employed working class. Americans had always liked to dis­tinguish their ostensibly fluid, mobile society from what they repeatedly told one another were the rigid, blood-bound classes of Europe. As Adiron­dack enthusiast and president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt once insisted, “There are no classes on this side of the water.”

But Roosevelt’s own blue blood, Harvard educa­tion and more than comfortable wealth made this an obviously disingenuous claim. A well-worn anecdote in Adirondack history is the story about Roosevelt’s being high on the slopes of Mount Marcy when William McKinley died, making the young Roosevelt the twenty-third president of the United States. But he wasn’t there as an ordinary New Yorker, climbing the state’s highest peak, which at the time was not even publicly owned, but was instead part of a private preserve: he was staying for a month at the Tahawus Club, socializing with wealthy, aristocratic chums. Roosevelt was not a member of the Tahawus Club, but with his credentials of family, wealth and power he could stay there whenever he wished—something neither a shop­keeper from Brooklyn nor a Newcomb lumberjack could ever do.

The nation was divided into classes of rich and poor just as surely as the Adirondack Park was divided into the forest preserve and vast private hold­ings. And these were not unrelated divisions. The dilemma facing the state of New York, as it pondered what to do with its newly established Adiron­dack Park, concerned how to overcome its division into two distinct domains and how to reconcile the resulting com­promise of the goal of regional conser­vation. The solution was to not ask these questions in the first place, to let economics and inertia take over: the private land was too expensive to buy, and there didn’t seem to be much rea­son to interfere with the way its wealthy owners cared for it. This meant aban­doning the original plan for one contiguous, consolidated and public park—what the forest commissioners of 1890 referred to as their hope for “the State to acquire and hold the ter­ritory” in one grand, unbroken domain.” Whether the state was moved to ignore the private preserves because they were owned by the wealthy and powerful is impossible to say.

In any event, it did ignore the pri­vate lands, and the dream of a genuine Adirondack Park quickly receded. The same Forest, Fish and Game commis­sioners who lamented the bad feeling stirred up by no-trespassing signs and privately hired game wardens declared with no apparent regret that the lands in the private preserves were just as well off there as they would be if some­how acquired by the state. For one thing, they argued, private land ap­peared better protected from fire than was the forest preserve: in 1899, a bad fire year, “it was noticed that there were no fires on the private preserves.”

The commissioners, themselves rep­resentatives of the affluent, profes­sional class, possessed limitless faith in their class’s commitment to steward­ship and the public good: “It is not necessary that the State should pur­chase these private holdings in order that the tree growth may be protected, for the owners can be relied upon to preserve the forest conditions that are so essential to the enjoyment of their property.” But they were at least far­sighted enough to acknowledge that the good intentions of one owner of a tract did not guarantee that the next owner would be equally benevolent, noting that “these properties change hands frequently.” The solution to this problem seemed clear enough. “It would be well if the State kept a fund on hand, available at all times, for the purchase of such tracts whenever any portion is thrown upon the market.”

Of course, the state never managed to do that. The question of what to do with a park that remained mostly in private hands was simply dropped, and the state bureaucracy began increasingly to think of the Adiron­dacks solely in terms of the forest preserve.


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