Illustration by Mark Wilson
Years ago, when I ran across a place called “Coot Hill” during one of my deep dives into local newspaper archives, I gave a little giggle and stashed the info in the quirky-names file I keep in a half-forgotten part of my brain. (For another example see “Bungtown or Bust,” from our February 2014 issue.)
But then the tiny outpost, which is snuggled in the highlands between Port Henry and Crown Point, kept popping up in my research. Given that the topics I favor tend toward the naughtier side of old-timey Adirondack life, I noticed that a good many members of the Coot Hill community—back in the day, anyway—seemed to attract a good bit of trouble.
Coot Hillers were referred to as “scrappers” in one newspaper writeup, and that designation may have been apt. In the 19th century, the settler that baptized Coot Hill, Robert Gracey—described in Charles Warner’s History of Port Henry as “a giant of a man, with a well-deserved reputation for pugilistic proficiency”—took on about 20 eager gents from Mineville in an exhibition fight at the Town of Moriah fair. Warner wrote that Gracey “gave a good account of himself for some time but was finally overcome by the overwhelming numerical preponderance of the attacking force.”
And, no, Gracey wasn’t an old coot (though he may have become one). He named the neighborhood after his beloved Coote Hill back in Ireland. His new home, which grew to a few dozen houses, was settled in the early 1800s. But even in its youngest days, things had a way of disappearing on Coot Hill. A pioneering newspaper, the Coot Hill Argus, “expired in its infancy,” according to Charles Warner. And an early attempt at mining was dismissed as “an ill-advised enterprise” by Frederick Merrill, in his 1895 Geology of Moriah and Westport Townships. Then there was Cold Spring Park, a popular spot with a viewing tower and dance hall that brought sightseers to the area. That evaporated in 1911, after the proprietor shot his young wife and himself in what the press theorized was a fit of jealous rage.
People could vanish on Coot Hill, too, and often on purpose. In 1908, when a group of men dynamited George D. Sherman’s home in the village of Moriah, tearing up the front of the mining heir’s estate, the suspects made themselves scarce on the Hill.
The insular farming community—tucked along the appropriately named Big Hollow—was an excellent spot for hiding. Except when it wasn’t. To stay under the radar, even deep in the wilderness, it’s best to keep a low profile for a time. One of the Sherman dynamiters didn’t; he was soon arrested for stealing a sheep and the whole story came tumbling out. (The case later stalled due to lack of evidence.)
Robert Lang, another Coot Hiller, did a better job of blending into the landscape. In 1913 the young man was wanted on arson charges, suspected of burning both a neighbor’s barn and the local schoolhouse. He escaped the clutches of authorities for months—the Ticonderoga Sentinel opined that he was hiding near his home and a friend “put him on guard every time a stranger appears in the neighborhood.” (Lang was acquitted of the charges and went on to serve his country in World War I.)
Later that fall a bloodhound took up the scent of some thieves who’d been breaking into shops in Crown Point—one of them had left behind his old boot in his hurry to try out the new merch. The trail led straight to Coot Hill, but the houses the pup sniffed out held no men and no stolen goods.
One of the families in one of those homes already had a son in jail, so the authorities decided to question the lad about the recent rash of thefts (he was behind bars for stealing from his neighbor “Chub” Perkins, after all). But the inmate was not cooperative and the culprits stayed lost.
The family of the boy in the clink had already made a name for themselves. Another son was serving 18 years in Dannemora for killing his romantic rival with a plow point. And by January of 1915 the whole bunch of them were in jail, in what the Essex County Republican called “a unique family reunion”: the father for refusing to get a dog license, his wife for not sending her children to school, one son and a son-in-law for the same offense. The son who’d been questioned over the Crown Point thefts was already in Elmira reformatory and his brother was still doing his stint for manslaughter. And the family’s circumstances didn’t improve later on. In the early 1920s two of the brothers were sent back to the pen for grabbing more goods from around the area.
Most of the cases around Coot Hill were misdemeanor-size shenanigans—game violations (I had no idea raccoons had a season), feuds, adultery, a couple of boys stealing tires off a neighbor’s car—that seemed to be gleefully over-reported in the local press. In 1901 the Elizabethtown Post blamed a “disgraceful riot” on a pack of Coot Hillers. In 1923 the Ticonderoga Sentinel added a swipe at the community in its society notes, with the news that the “overseer of the poor was a caller on official business at Coot Hill.” Another society snippet, from 1943, admitted that “Coot Hill … was the target of all area home-spun jokes.” There was even a 19th-century ballad that mocked the place’s accommodations. “The Coot Hill Bedbugs” told the tale of a man who went looking for farm work and was attacked during the night by ranks of the parasites.
Deanne Dresser, who volunteers at Crown Point’s Penfield Homestead Museum, remembers her grandfather’s stories about how hard life could be up on the Hill. “They didn’t have very much,” she says. “They survived one whole winter on nothing but potatoes.” Her grandfather left when he was old enough (but just barely) and never went back. He wasn’t the only one, as there isn’t much left to the place beyond a memorable name, a few oft-repeated tales of mayhem—a hapless berry picker losing her horse and buggy over the side of Big Hollow, a couple of randy teenagers accidentally releasing the emergency brake and tumbling over the same—and some rather uncharitable news items.
What does remain is Coot Hill’s stunning view of the Champlain Valley, thanks to a short CATS trail (learn more at www.champlainareatrails.com), with some of the best hawk-watching in the area. Raptors traveling the valley can’t seem to resist playing on the updrafts through Big Hollow—for entertainment value, their acrobatic shows might rival watching old Robert Gracey’s 20-to-one rumpus back in the day.