Exploitation of the natural resources of the wilderness is a significant part of Adirondack history and present reality, though modern conservation efforts try to offset the damaging effects of development, logging and mining. When white Europeans “discovered” this northern wilderness in the 18th century, Native Americans had inhabited the land, rivers, lakes and forests for countless generations. For colonial America, the wild north was a mysterious place. However, the great waterways of Lake Champlain and Lake George, and the Hudson River (above, flowing out of Tahawus) proved to be significant parts of military strategy for the new world, opening the region to exploration, exploitation and environmental catastrophes.
Tahawus is a name that legend says the original Native Americans gave to the highest mountain in New York State — the name means “Cloudsplitter.” The mountain was renamed Mt. Marcy in the 19th Century in honor of the governor of New York who authorized the first survey of the Adirondack region. The Tahawus name was later attached to an iron ore mining village in the middle of the Adirondacks, along the young stream that grows into the Hudson River.
Here’s a view of the iron ore quarry still visible from the back roads along the Hudson:
Today, Tahawus is a ghost town, the remnants of a time in the 19th century when mining was one of the major industries in the Adirondack region. Here’s one of the abandoned shacks:
Logging was the chief industry in the 19th century, an industry so vast that the mountains were virtually stripped of their old growth forests. Massive tracts of land continue to be owned by major logging companies, but today logging techniques seek to preserve and restore the forest to ensure its future.
By the middle of the 19th century, tourism became the third great industry of the north country as Americans fled to the cool lakes and forests of the Adirondacks to escape the heat of the cities. Wealthy families built “great camps” that were anything but camps… more like grand estates staffed by legions of servants. Famous names of 19th century wealth and influence — Vanderbilt, Whitney, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, and others called great camps “home” in the summer months.
Environmental catastrophe loomed large by the end of the 19th century as the combined effects of logging, mining and tourism — and the railroads that were essential to all three — caused devastating forest fires and destablization of the watershed. Logging used the Hudson River to float the logs to mills downstream, resulting in tremendous damage to the river and its tributaries.
In one of the most enlightened environmental actions ever taken by a legislature — Congress, take note! — in 1892 New York State enacted the law establishing the Adirondack Park and declaring the state-owned lands “forever wild.” More than 100 years later the Forever Wild provision still stands as one of the boldest and most significant policies ever created to preserve the wilderness.
Thanks goodness! I’m writing this at a platform overlooking the great marsh at Tupper Lake… a good example of a place that conservation has helped to keep healthy in spite of many efforts to despoil the wild places here.