Bungtown or Bust

by Niki Kourofsky | February 2014

Illustration by Mark Wilson

In search of a lost Adirondack community

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 2014, senior editor Niki Kourofsky indulged her loves of history and juvenile humor in search of a lost Adirondack community with a curious name.

I’m a nerd for history.
I like the hard-won view from a mountaintop as much as the next guy, or a good wander through a winter wil­derness. But for me the clean smell of frost or the crunch of snow un­der my boots can’t compete with the musty per­fume of a library and the scritchity flip of a yellowed page.

In my work here at Adirondack Life, I generally have to choose between rec­reation and research, though sometimes I can have both. At least that’s what I thought when I stumbled across a listing for a snowshoe bushwhack hosted by the Mohawk Valley Alpiners Hiking Club. It was the destination that caught my eye: Bungtown, an abandoned settlement in the southernmost recesses of the park.

I’d like to say it was purely my love of a time-tattered mystery that made me want to trek out to a backcountry ghost town. But—since I have the re­fined sensibilities of a teenage boy—I’ll have to admit that it was the place’s unfortunate name that really captured my attention.

Sophomoric humor aside, I do un­derstand that a bung is a stopper for a bunghole, which is, at least to the serious minded, drainage for a barrel. It follows that, like nearby Glovers­ville, Bungtown was named for its chief in­dustry, in this case the making of bungs and the barrels around them. But who were these bungmakers? Where did they come from and where did they go? I rolled out the history books to get some answers. There were no volumes on Bungtown, or even much re­corded about its township, Salisbury. May­be there was a clue in the huge History of Herkimer County, edited by George Hard­in in 1893? Nope.

Next I scanned historical newspapers and came away with a few hits. The Bungtown sector was a logging hub, and Alfred Dolge (Dolgeville’s namesake) ran a sawmill there around the turn of the 20th century. When the mill burned in 1906, the local press chattered about a cause or culprit. There was never a verdict—and no word about barrels, either. I unearthed notices for the famous Bungtown clam­bake and re­ports of a few poor souls lost in the wilds of Bungtown. In the 1940s, the Amsterdam Daily Democrat and Recorder blew a Bungtown deer-poaching scandal wide open, de­tailing­ which perps were caught with which cuts of the carcass. But still no trace of bungs.

Since written sources were a bust, I asked the experts: the historian for the town of Salisbury and the director of the Herkimer County Historical Society. Neither had in­formation on Bungtown. But at least one of them giggled.

Are residents so embarrassed of Bung­town’s name that they’re willing to let the memory of it drain away? Well, ac­tually, they tried. A few decades ago, some folks living on Bungtown Road must have grown tired of being the butt of jokes, because they petitioned the town to change the route to Oak Mountain Drive. The anti-bung coalition man­aged to have Lower Bungtown Road wiped from the map, but the tenants of Upper Bungtown Road fought back, sav­ing the last shreds of their identity.

Without any actual historical record of the place’s founders, I turned to speculation. One viable theory came from a forest ranger who worked the Bungtown beat. He’d found an old map with the spot labeled “Bunktown,” leading him to wonder if the original name referred to all the logging bunk­houses in the area. Another guess came from a coworker, who thought the title could have simply been a generic slur for a neighborhood on the lower rungs of the social scale.

I took a wild stab at an origin story myself, after discovering bungtown in the dictionary. Bungtowns were copper coins circulated in 18th- and 19th-century America. They were manufactured in Bungtown, Massachusetts, aka Barneysville. In 1804, Jonathan Barney, founder of the Barney Shipbuilding Com­pany, of Barneysville, aka Bungtown, moved to Newport, in Herkimer County, about 20 miles away from our own Bungtown. Painting Jonathan Barney as the father of the settlement—a benefactor sowing his bungtown coppers across the backcountry—is a serious leap in historical logic. Still, it’s the kind of juicy coincidence that can make a library-locked re­searcher’s day.

Before my imagination completely ran away with my journalistic integrity, I spoke to David Barnes, a lifelong resident of Upper Bungtown Road. Barnes says that there most definitely was bungmaking in his backyard—a German clan settled into the area around the dawn of the 19th century and churned out ash bungs and staves. Barnes claims that the goods were sent to Germany, where barrels were filled with spirits, and that some of the wine-laden casks came back to Bungtown in payment. The woods, he says, are littered with barrel-based artifacts from the outpost.

I can buy the idea of a German settlement, even at that early date, since Her­k­imer County was awash with Germans well before the American Revolution. And, thanks to both physical and nomenclatural evidence, there’s no reason to doubt that a lively bung trade went down there. I’m less convinced about the wine-for-barrels ex­­change program, but it makes for a fine story—the lost tale of the Bungtown boozers.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see Bung­town’s remains for myself, since my late-winter expedition to the spot ended short of that goal. With a jovial crew of about a dozen, I made it to Upper Bungtown Road, but from there the group veered away from the elusive community—the old Bungtown bait and switch. In­stead of traveling north, we tromped over Trammel Creek and followed a couple of logging roads, with a short side­trip to a pretty vly. When we came to a likely stopping place, somewhere to the south­west of Bungtown proper, we raised whiskey sours to our misguided quest, toasting, “To Bungtown, wherever you are.”

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